Exploring the Columbia and Snake Rivers on an Un-Typical Ship

by Wallace Immen

UCA_SS LegacyCOurtesy of Un-Cruise Adventures

On a lazy afternoon of sailing, it’s difficult to imagine the Columbia was once considered the wildest river in America.

When ships like the S.S. Legend made their way through the rapids of the mighty river that divides Washington and Oregon a century ago, it was a perilous journey. These days, the river has been tamed by a series of dams and the water is as clear as a mirror. But it’s no less an adventure to sail to places straight out of the history books.

I’ve been on more than a hundred cruises, but this was my first Un-Cruise and it lived up to its billing. Things were familiar, yet very different, from start to finish.

UCA_CostumesCourtesy of Un-Cruise Adventures

The Legend’s Captain Dan Quinn and his crew dress in frock coats, vests and caps that look like they came from the 1890s. The ship appears vintage as well - a modern reproduction of the kind of steamers that brought pioneers along the Columbia and Snake Rivers to the Pacific coast.

Un-cruising means un-stuffy, with no jackets or ties required - ever. Informal activities include poker tourneys, knot-tying classes and beaded necklace-making bees. Happy hours and open mic nights are designed to get folks socializing and one way or the other, every one of the 88 guests ends up getting to know each other and all the crew by the end of the cruise.

Being so neighborly can take a bit of getting used to. Even guests I hadn’t actually introduced myself to started to address me by name. That’s relatively easy to do, because there’s an album of guest photos in the lounge.

UCA_Pesky BarnaclesCourtesy of Un-Cruise Adventures

This is the first ship I’ve ever been on that not only has an open bar but also lets you help yourself. The rustic Saloon in the front of the ship has a shelf of bourbons and ryes and Scotches and taps where you can fill a mug with tasty Alaskan ale or lager on draft. It’s an amenity that isn’t used frequently, however, as the bar in the main lounge is stocked with premium liquors and is staffed by two very animated, amiable bartenders eager to concoct unusual drinks of the day, like chocolatey mudslides or Harvey Wallbangers.

Though casual, Un-Cruise takes food seriously and the tiny kitchen turns out consistently inventive and palate-pleasing meals. I was expecting classic Americana like burgers and fries and buffets so it was a pleasant surprise to find that daily meals are sit-down affairs featuring choices like apricot- glazed Cornish game hen, or Alaskan cod topped with Dungeness crab.

While there are only two entrée choices at lunch and dinner, I often found both options so intriguing that I joined fellow guests in asking for what seems to be an un-cruise thing: ordering a “half and half” to try both.

UCA_FoodCourtesy of Un-Cruise Adventures

Warning: expect to gain a couple of pounds in a week on board. Breakfast offerings include coffee cakes and biscuits along with bacon and eggs. Happy hour always features a plate of irresistible fresh cookies to nibble while under the influence of an open bar.

The ship is U.S. flagged and the crew is all-American as well, clearly chosen for their enthusiasm. They’re knowledgeable entertainers and guides, well-versed in the history of the Oregon Trail and the explorations of Lewis and Clark, the theme of this cruise.

Being such a close family made it possible to step back to an earlier era on board. We were told we didn’t need to lock our suites and the crew advised us not to ask for a key because it was liberating not to have to remember to check for your key when heading out on tour.

UCA_deckCourtesy of Un-Cruise Adventures

The open concept did present a challenge, because all the accommodations are surrounded by public decks. We wanted to leave our suite’s drapes open for the view but there are no sheer curtains to block the view in. My wife finally solved the problem by finding some sheer tissue paper and taping it to the top of the window to block the eye-level view from outside. 

Un-Cruising certainly doesn’t mean unstructured. On all but one of the days in our week on board, we were out at 9 a.m. for excursions that included visits to sites ranging from the Bonneville power dam to a restored pioneer village and an early mission set up to convert the local tribes to Christianity. There are also talks by park rangers, wildlife experts and native tribal leaders and recreations of events in history.

There’s a fitness instructor who offers Pilates and stretch classes and the added treat of a complimentary massage, though you have to be up early to grab an appointment because the signup sheet is posted at 6 a.m. and by 6:30 a.m all the available spots are invariably filled.

UCA_locksCourtesy of Un-Cruise Adventures

The shores of the river are mostly treeless, but the rugged landscape of colorful rock canyons has a constantly enticing beauty. Over the hills, we’re told are lush valleys whose fertile farm land is enriched by minerals from volcanos that dot the horizon, including the famous Mt. St. Helens that blew its top in 1980.

The region is known for its vineyards and I came away from the trip impressed by the wines we tasted on the ship and in the tasting rooms ashore in Walla Walla and The Dalles. There will be more visits and tastings to the up-and-coming Oregon and Washington vineyards on a new series of wine-themed cruises in 2015.

If the Columbia is not your first choice for a cruise, there are a growing number of options for taking an Un-Cruise. In business since 1996, Un-Cruise Adventures has expanded from operating yachts in Alaska to operating a fleet of eight vessels carrying between 22 and 88 guests in a number of locations around the Pacific Ocean. 

You’ve been on many a cruise. Could this be the year to experience an Un-Cruise?

 If You Go

In addition to the Columbia and Snake Rivers, there are Un-Cruises in Alaska, British Columbia, the Hawaiian Islands and Mexico’s Sea of Cortés. In 2016, eight departures will be offered in the Galápagos Islands and there will be new adventure cruises in Costa Rica and Panama as well. For more information, visit www.un-cruise.com

 Published in Cruise & Lifestyles, Spring 2015 issue.

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