Meriwether Lewis and William Clark never had it this good when they made their nation-building history navigating the Columbia River. At the end of the day, they had to make do without outdoor hot tubs to lounge in with a glass of excellent Washington state wine in hand.
Retracing history on the rivers
The week-long UnCruise Adventures Rivers of Adventure & Wine excursion is a modern retracing of the famed explorers’ westward push to the Pacific Ocean aboard the 192-foot replica gold rush-era coastal steamship Wilderness Legacy. It takes a more indulgent path of discovery on a small-ship cruise that highlights Washington and Oregon wines and the best of local food.
Along with about 70 fellow wine enthusiasts and food lovers, I sailed from Portland, Oregon, to Richland, Washington, and back along the Columbia and Snake Rivers in late 2019. The 45-cabin ship moved slowly along a scenic route accented by history and discovery.
Most passengers aboard were 55-plus and global travelers. Some really knew their wines. Others wanted to learn more as we sampled and compared, meeting winemakers in tasting rooms and cool cellars amid resting barrels for private wine tasting sessions.
Not everybody on board was a wine fan, but the passenger with a passion for Stella Artois was cared for a just as well as the wine connoisseur. Capt. Tim Voss headed into town from the berthed ship one afternoon to pick a case of beer, just to be sure the one person drinking it on board wouldn’t run out.
Breathtaking vistas on the UnCruise Adventures Rivers of Wine
As the river reached eastward, we cruised past dramatically changing, diverse geography from the green landscape of the Northwest Pacific Coast’s tall trees to the dun-colored desert and rusty-red rock formations.
I bundled up for the November chill and winds to watch the display from wraparound decks and other viewpoints on board of highlights, including Columbia Gorge, spectacular Wallula Gap and towering Bridge of the Gods near the Cascade Locks. Occasionally, I popped in to say hello to the Captain and get a wheelhouse view. UnCruise has a welcoming “open-bridge policy.”
Warm ambiance showcasing regional wines and cuisine
The Wilderness Legacy’s cozy bow lounge was always a good bet for sunsets. It was also a popular spot to relax with a book, board game or to scan the shore with binoculars for wildlife. And nobody missed “cookie o’clock,” when the just-baked cookie of the day emerged at 3 p.m.
We got into a groove of meeting fellow travelers for happy hour over the cocktail of the day. I often had a glass of wine from curated regional selections that included hot and dry Red Mountain in eastern Washington or Oregon’s Willamette Valley, the paradise-like goal of pioneers at the end of the grueling Oregon Trail.
They make such impressive wines here, I wanted to try them all. There were days when I felt I’d made a dent in production.
On-board sommelier Courtney Smith spent months sourcing the 42 wines for the UnCruise Adventures Rivers of Wine cruise, picking producers in both states with a focus on small vintners. Washington has 1,000 wineries and Oregon isn’t far behind with 725. They make such impressive wines here, I wanted to try them all. There were days when I felt I’d made a dent in production.
After breakfast on most mornings, we’d board a coach waiting at the dock and visit medal-winning winery tasting rooms, breweries and local sites.
There was also the occasional touch of quirk. Who knew there’s a replica Stonehenge overlooking the Columbia River Gorge? It’s near the delightful Maryhill Museum of Art, which — another surprise — houses an impressive Auguste Rodin sculpture gallery. The 5,300-acre site is also home to an outdoor sculpture park featuring works by Pacific Northwest artists. We had plenty of time to explore the galleries and grounds and enjoy the gorge views.
We wandered around the Stonehenge Memorial, a replica monument to fallen First World War II veterans from Klickitat County, Washington, built by American railroad executive and lawyer Sam Hill.
I especially enjoyed exploring historic downtown Astoria, Oregon, after a cooking demonstration by Baked Alaska chef-restaurant owner Chris Holen.
Fresh, local and seasonal building blocks were at the heart of our meals: foraged golden chanterelles, Columbia River sturgeon and caviar and shaved Oregon truffles on top of cream of celeriac soup. We ate Dungeness crab cakes, produce from Hood River County’s famed Fruit Loop, fresh steelhead trout, locally made charcuterie and cheeses, lamb, oysters and snow-white halibut poached in premium olive oil from Walla Walla.
Pastry chef Catriona Kalmanovitch made magic daily, turning out different breads, pastries and cookies, often linked to our latest stop by a story or ingredients. Her dessert, Windfall, was the show-stopping finale to the parting captain’s dinner on board. Inspired by Washington and Oregon apples, it had all the elements of a classic apple strudel. Crispy layers of dough and whipped cream were made into an apple and enrobed with colored mirror glaze.
A voyage with stories to tell
The rivers had endless tales to tell, which we learned during day tours or at evening presentations by on-board experts. We learned about Indigenous peoples who thrived in the Columbia basin in complex societies for thousands of years, the Lewis and Clark Corps of Discovery expedition to the Pacific Ocean, and the pioneers who persevered along the Oregon Trail while braving the Columbia’s rapids.
The winemakers shared great stories, too. So did the on-board history, wine and culture experts. We’d gather after dinner in the lounge for talks that ranged from Oregon winemaking to the history of salmon fishing on the Columbia River.
The Columbia revealed her place in American history as we sailed through massive locks and past changing views formed by ancient volcanoes, glaciers and floods, the cataclysms that created what became ideal soil for crops and vines.
My favorite stop was a freewheeling tasting and winery tour at Archer Vineyard in the Chehalem Mountains, near Portland, with hospitable owner Saj Jivanjee. His passion for making wine and his love of storytelling were intertwined. He wanted us to taste everything and kept opening special bottles for us to try.
Wine may even be the secret to building a better world, he said. “The more we can talk, the more stories we tell, the better understanding we have. And what better way than over a glass of wine?”
COVID-19 Update: What You Need to Know
- UnCruise trips are scheduled to start again this year in April 2021, with COVID health and safety protocols in place. These include a required negative COVID-19 testing certificate prior to boarding. UnCruise Rivers of Wine will depart from August to November, 2021.
- Check the UnCruise Adventures website for COVID-19 updates for the UnCruise Rivers of Wine and other itineraries.
What’s appealing to the over-50 luxury traveler?
- Fewer passengers make for relaxed travel, and the lack of casinos, showrooms and buffets of large ships fosters a sense of a floating community.
- Meals are full service. We often sat at a table for four with people we had gotten to know that day.
- Onboard guides and experts really know their stuff, a real plus for lifelong learners.
- Choose-your-own adventure itineraries are ideal for multi-generational travelers, a growing trend for 50-plus travelers.
- Traveling responsibly matters to mature travelers. UnCruise works with small communities and local businesses and follows a “leave no trace policy.”
- The Wilderness Legacy, which has a small elevator, is the most accessible ship in the UnCruise fleet; stairways are narrow.
- Accommodations are comfortable but not high-end. There is the option of booking the spacious Owner’s Suite.
- UnCruise has retooled its itineraries since I sailed, adding the option of choose-your-own adventure activities to work off some of that indulgence (many of them socially-distanced), including kayaking, paddleboarding, hiking and river rafting. It’s all included in the fare, along with food, all drinks and airport transfers.
Disclosure: Linda Barnard was a guest of UnCruise Adventures, which did not preview this article. Any opinions expressed in this post are her own.
All photo credits: Linda Barnard
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