Seattle-based Un-Cruise Adventures is known for its authentic cruise tours through some of the most scenic and historic destinations in the U.S. We can certainly vouch for the great job the line does on its Legacy of Discovery itinerary.
One of the line’s “Heritage Adventures,” the trip travels in the wake of Lewis and Clark on the Columbia River through Washington and Oregon. It’s a journey into the indigenous peoples and traditions, as well as the explorers, traders and settlers who populated what would become the 33rd state in the union.
Our cruise was a living history lesson in a number of ways. First and foremost, the richness and significance of the Pacific Northwest unfolded before our eyes. The Columbia River was the life’s blood for indigenous peoples along its banks for generations. Wildlife, salmon and other species of fish were known to thrive in the river’s diverse ecosystem. Settlement — followed by industrialization— changed that. Sometimes, overnight.
Columbia River Dams and Ecology
One of the aspects of the journey we especially appreciated was the frank explication of local environmental issues. The most striking is the near-decimation of the salmon population by the dams on the Columbia. Once the home of five species, two are extinct. And incredibly, a mere one percent of the salmon that used to migrate down the river make the journey now. The dams, it seems, block their instinctive ability to find the exact spot where they were born (and later return to spawn). Some $400 million yearly is spent on salmon rehabilitation by the federal government. It’s a price we’re paying for dams that generate more hydroelectric power than any other river on the continent.
Columbia River Landscape
In addition to the eye-opening facts about the environment, the cruise also offered a surprisingly diverse topography. In fact, one of the most popular events on board was a series of geology lectures by the chief mate, Kevin Martin. Volcanos, dramatic gorges, mountains and waterfalls surround the Columbia. Oregon’s highest peak, Mount Hood, towered over much of the route.
Passengers sat transfixed listening to Martin's exuberant tales of earthquakes, basalt formations and other earthly phenomena. Later in the week, when Martin's musical prowess shone through in the crew talent show, his status as favorite crew member was firmly established.
Christened by the company in August 2013, the S.S. Legacy is a replica coastal steamer. The 192-foot ship accommodates up to 88 passengers in 45 staterooms. The latter are comfortable, though not luxurious. Bathrooms feature either a Jacuzzi tub/shower or a shower. Note: they can be a bit of a tight squeeze, and have very little counter space. So, pack the toiletries sparingly.
One of the interesting features that weparticularly liked was the key-free custom on board. That is, no one used room keys. Though we had doubts at first, it was a surprisingly liberating detail. The rooms could of course be locked from the inside. And they do have safes for valuables. But it was quite nice to run back and forth without having the search pockets or purses for a key card.
Aboard the S.S. Legacy
Guests arriving the day of departure have use of a hospitality room in the Portland Downtown Waterfront Marriott. The convenient hotel location is an easy walk to restaurants for a quick lunch. It’s also a tram ride away from some of the key highlights of the "the City of Roses.” A number of passengers on our sailing made an excursion to Powell’s – the world’s largest independent new and used bookstore.
Before leaving the hotel to board the ship, we met the Heritage Team that would accompany us. Essentially an onboard theater troupe, the group arrived in 1890’s costumes. They went around the hospitality room snapping photos of every guest. In no time, they’d memorized everyone’s name. The various members of the Heritage Team soon became friendly fixtures on board.
Upon arriving at the dock, we also met the rest of the ship's complement. It included the ebullient Captain Jill Russell. Her warmth and enthusiasm for the river and the Un-Cruise Adventures way of doing things are a secret weapon for the company. Or perhaps not so secret. She's now vice president nautical operations for Un-Cruise Adventures.
S.S. Legacy Public Spaces
The Main Salon and Bar is the ship’s central gathering spot. It helps that all drinks are included in the cruise fare and the crew is eager to serve up passenger favorites. Each evening, pre-dinner cocktails and appetizers are laid out enticingly. And each morning, early risers gather around an ample breakfast bar laden with hot dishes and cold yogurts, cereals and juices. The deluxe espresso machine was a favorite for the latte-lovers at all hours.
Comfortable furnishings and panoramic views made the lounge an ideal place to relax with a good book or simply enjoy the views. The only downside was the lack of Wi-Fi on board. The ship did, however, offer complimentary yoga and stretch classes, as well as a complimentary massage.
Dining Aboard the S.S. Legacy
The elegant but cozy dining room was the backdrop for some memorable meals during our journey. Open seating provided the chance to meet fellow passengers, most of whom were quite impressed with the cuisine. The daily fresh fish entrees such as Brown Butter Sherry Roasted Black Cod, Dijon Dill Cream Cojo Salmon and Manchego au Gratin Sturgeon garnered particularly high marks. A nice selection of free-flowing wines accompanied meals, with an emphasis on local vintages. And the chef excelled at fresh breads, pastries and deserts.
Columbia River Gorge
The Columbia River Gorge is an 80-mile expanse that the river has cut through the Cascade Mountains. In places, it's 4,000 feet deep. It's known for its extensive system of locks and dams. Of these, Bonneville Dam is the most imposing.
The historic landmark has supplied hydroelectric power to the region since the late 1930’s. The Legacy of Discovery itinerary usually includes a private tour of the massive turbines and fish ladders at the dam's Visitor Center. Unfortunately, our visit coincided with a government shutdown and the Visitor’s Center was closed.
We enjoyed instead a visit to the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area. From our overlook vantage point, we could see the river wind past the Dam. Brilliant blue skies and a chilly wind gave the vista an autumnal touch.
Waterfalls abound in the Columbia River Gorge. The most iconic is Multnomah Falls. The tallest in Oregon, Multnomah Falls is also the second-tallest year-round waterfall in the country. A walk up the misty path to the bridge provides a gorgeous view of the top of the falls. Some passengers ventured higher up the path beyond the bridge. Others strayed instead into the gift shop for items such as huckleberry preserves, a local specialty.
Onboard Activities on the S.S. Legacy
After crossing the Mc Nary Dam Locks we arrived at the confluence of the Columbia and Snake Rivers. The area is dotted with hillside vineyards as well as the wheat fields of the Palouse region. Another impressive sight: massive wind farm turbines atop rolling hills.
We visited the area on a relaxing cruise-only day. Onboard activities kept passengers busy, Selections included a geology lecture, a popular craft beading session, poker tournament in the Pesky Barnacle Saloon, galley tour and a yoga class.
Throughout the cruise, we also enjoyed frequent vignettes by the Heritage Team. They told stories of lives intertwined with the river, from cannery workers to loggers to Native Americans. The pieces were at times poignant or funny, but always thought-provoking.
Jet Boat Through Snake River's Hells Canyon
After traversing the locks at the Lower Granite Dam, we docked in Clarkston, Washington. It’s a locale steeped in history and culture. A number of sites linked to the Lewis and Clark Expedition frame the area. This is Nez Perce country, marking the place where the explorers first met the indigenous people in 1805.
At Clarkson, we boarded a covered jet boat for an excursion through Hells Canyon. Not exactly a thrill ride, we rode comfortably at speeds up to 40 mph through the deepest river gorge on the continent. A protected National Recreation Area, it touches three different states: Oregon, Washington and Idaho. Hells Canyon is marked by sheer cliffs and captivating geologic formations. It’s a wildlife habitat as well.
Hells Canyon Sights
During our jet boat ride, we spotted wild turkeys prancing along groves of mountain mahogany. Bald eagles encircled sky-high tree-top nests. And Rocky Mountain big horn sheep clung to steep cliffs, seeming to stand still long enough for us to snap photos.
Our guide/driver pointed out Nez Perce hunting and fishing trails on the mountain sides. At one point, he pulled over to the edge of the canyon and let us walk across the bow of the boat. On the boulders before us, still-visible stark white petroglyphs communicated a mysterious message.
They’ve been there for 7,000 years.
Fishing on the Snake River
During the early autumn, fishing boats bob up and down the river of Hells Canyon. It’s prime fishing season for giant white sturgeon, steelhead trout and Chinook salmon. All around us, fishermen excitedly scooped up their catch in nets, showing them off proudly as we passed by. A stop at the Hells Canyon Visitor’s Center brought a welcomed opportunity to stretch our legs. Closed by the government shutdown, we could still admire the view. And a grove of wild apple and walnut trees provided snacks for the picking.
On the return trip, we stopped for lunch at Garden Creek Ranch. Part of the Nature Conservancy, the property is surrounded by scenic orchards and trails. We ate comfort food in a rustic barn-like structure. And a herd of mule deer stopped by to visit during desert. Though we spend just a few hours there, a B&B on site can accommodate those interested in a longer stay.
Walla Walla, Washington
In the 19th century, Fort Walla Walla in Washington was a crossroads for settlers heading west. Today it's a museum that brings a unique slice of the American experience to life. On display are cramped Oregon Trail wagons that held entire families and their earthly possessions as well as stagecoaches that were the region’s first public transportation.
An enchanting display of bridal dresses and ladies' millinery show that life’s celebrations continued, despite the hardships of the frontier. Mule team wagons, crude farm equipment and other tools show what it took to survive. On the grounds, an authentic pioneer village provides even more insights into life in those times. There’s even a blacksmith’s shop and blacksmith. He's eager to demonstrate the art of horseshoeing and wagon-wheel tire making.
Walla Walla Wineries
In addition to its pioneer heritage, the Walla Walla region is renowned for its wineries. A visit to two prominent venues provides a taste of the region. Passengers divided into two groups for the excursion. Half traveled to Dunham Cellars, the other to Three Rivers Winery. Lunch and wine tastings, followed by some shopping ensued. Later we had free time in Walla Walla to explore the historic Marcus Whitman Hotel and nearby city blocks.
The Eastern Columbia River Gorge
The Maryhill Museum and Columbia Gorge Discovery Center await passengers in the eastern Columbia River Gorge. The former is a bluff-side chateau overlooking the river. It’s filled with Old World paintings and native artifacts. The latter includes interactive exhibits on the geologic history of the region, as well as life along the Oregon Trail.
The quaint city of Astoria, Oregon on the mouth of the Columbia River was named for John Jacob Astor, whose fur trading company founded Fort Astoria in the early 19th century. The S.S. Legacy docks directly in front of the sleek glass walls of the Columbia River Maritime Museum. Inside, a treasure trove of interactive exhibits highlight the hazards of maritime life in the "Graveyard of the Pacific."
The Columbia River bar here is treacherous where the river meets the crashing sea. Yet, it’s a vital lifeline to this day, a key passage for cargo ships laden with goods. Among the most interesting exhibits is the Saishomaru. The small Japanese abalone and sea urchin fishing boat swept ashore at Cape Disappointment after the great earthquake and tsunami of 2011.
Historic Downtown Astoria
The S.S. Legacy docks within easy reach of downtown Astoria. During the day, there’s ample time to stroll through its Victorian streets. The downtown area and a number of its landmarks are on the National Register of Historic Places. Galleries, cafes and funky boutiques dot city blocks. And the waterfront holds sad vestiges of the 100 canneries that once operated here.
Lewis and Clark Interpretive Center
On this our last day on the cruise, we also ventured across the Astoria-Megler bridge to Washington. Our motor coach took a scenic coastal drive past small towns and dense forests to the Lewis and Clark Interpretive Center. Set atop the stunning cliffs above Cape Disappointment, it marks a spot that changed US history. It’s here that Lewis and Clark first glimpsed the Pacific Ocean. Emblazoned on the museum’s exterior is the command to the explorers from President Thomas Jefferson: “Your mission, the Pacific Ocean.”
Inside, museum exhibits include murals, dioramas and an excellent short film on the sweeping discoveries of the Lewis and Clark expedition. But, it’s the simple things that are most poignant. Pages from journals and good-luck trinkets that belonged to the Corps of Discovery. A hand-written entry tells of one memorable feast of salmon, bear oil and melted snow.
On Un-Cruise Adventures Heritage Adventures the cruise fare includes roundtrip airport transfers, shore excursions, fine wine, microbrews and spirits. Shore excursions; a massage; yoga on deck; all meals; taxes, port charges and fees are also included.