AMERICAN EMPRESS: PORTS ON THE SNAKE AND COLUMBIA RIVERS, PART 1

Since high water levels made it impossible for us to visit The Dalles in Oregon, the revised itinerary had the American Empress visiting just Richland, Stevenson, and Astoria, before ending up in Vancouver, Washington.  The following (in two parts) are the highlights of those cities as well as our river cruising in between.

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 At the confluence of the Columbia and Yakima rivers, the American Empress stopped in Richland, one of the tri-cities in the southeastern part of Washington.  Richland is home of the Hanford nuclear site, the once-secret plant that was part of the Manhattan Project.  During World War II, the U.S. Army had bought up 640 miles of land along the river, evicted Richland’s 300 residents as well as residents from nearby White Bluffs and Hanford, and then built a community for the workers they had hired to build and run this top-secret plant.  It was so secret that the workers there didn’t even know what they were building.  The town swelled from 300 to over 25,000 between 1943 and the end of the war in 1945, when the workers finally learned they had built the nation’s first nuclear reactor.

In Richland, the highlight on the hop on-hop off bus route was The Reach Museum, where we saw a fascinating exhibit about the Manhattan Project and what life was like for the workers and families in this government-built town where it was forbidden to speculate with others about the nature of their work.

 After leaving Richland, we went through the locks of McNary Dam, which is 1.4 miles long and spans the Columbia River.  It was interesting to see the fish ladders that were built on each side of the dam for salmon and steelhead passage, allowing the fish to follow their natural migration as babies to the Pacific Ocean and back as adults.  The flow of water is regulated, so that the velocity flowing over the steps is fast enough to attract the fish to the ladder, but not too fast to exhaust the fish and wash them back downstream.

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Osprey

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 As we headed west during our scheduled day of cruising the Columbia River Gorge, the topography became much more lush and green.  The gorge stretches for over 80 miles and is up to 4,000 feet deep with a wide range of elevation and precipitation.  In the westernmost region of the gorge, temperate rainforests get up to 100 inches of rainfall each year!  Compare that to the 6-7 inches of rain in the desert of Richland, and it’s understandable why it is so much prettier on the western parts of the Columbia River.

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 Upon our arrival to Stevenson, the hop on-hop off buses drove American Empress’s passengers out to the Western Antique Aeroplane & Automobile Museum.  Originally, it was scheduled to be a premium tour out of The Dalles; however, the cancellation of that port meant having to get bused there an hour each way from Stevenson.  As a nice concession by American Queen Steamboat Company, they refunded the tour fee to the passengers booked for that tour and made it available to everybody for free.

Along the way, we could see evidence of the horrible Eagle Creek fire from last fall.  Taking three months to extinguish, the fire scorched 76 square miles of forest and destroyed eight buildings. The area was still beautiful, though, thanks to the tremendous amount of rain and regrowth since the fire.

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A view of Mt. Adams from the museum, which was behind me.

When we arrived at the museum, which has the largest collection (325) of still-flying antique planes, cars, motorcycles, and tractors in the country; we were treated to a beautiful view of Mt. Hood behind the exhibits.  There, visitors had the opportunity to catch a ride in a vintage auto,

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Inside the huge hangars, there were rows of beautiful antiques, everything from a 1909 Franklin Model D to a WWII glider.  Check out their website for details, and you will be amazed at what they have displayed in their huge museum!

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The first car is a 1917 Willy’s Overland

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1931 Chrysler Imperial

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In the afternoon, for a belated birthday celebration, we treated Adam (the bartender/cocktail waiter we had met on the American Duchess) to a beer at Walking Man Brewing, a nice place to hang out and relax.

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 Next up:  AMERICAN EMPRESS:  PORTS ON THE SNAKE AND COLUMBIA RIVERS, PART 2

 

 

AMERICAN EMPRESS PRE-CRUISE: SPECTACULAR SPOKANE

One year ago, before taking the American Queen on the three-week “Mighty Mississippi” cruise and American Queen Steamboat Company’s newest paddle wheeler, American Duchess (again, on the Mississippi), we had booked a cruise on the American Empress.  After having such great experiences last summer and in January on the other two paddlewheelers, we were looking forward with great anticipation to cruising the Snake and Columbia rivers aboard the company’s second boat in their three-boat fleet.

We chose an east to west itinerary rather than the reverse, which was a good call.  The eastern part of Washington is barren desert with an annual rainfall averaging about ten inches.  As you travel west, the scenery becomes much more lush and green, thanks to the 70+ inches of rain falling closer to the coast.  During our cruise, it got prettier each day as we made our way from Clarkston to Richland, and then to Stevenson and Astoria, before disembarkation.  (The Dalles, Oregon, was also on the itinerary; however, the water level was too high to stop there.)

Prior to boarding the river boat, we spent one night on our own in Spokane at the Ruby 2 and then stayed another night with the other American Empress passengers at the Historic Davenport Hotel, just a short walk away.

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The Ruby 2 was in a great location and quite a bit more budget-friendly than the Davenport.  We figured being totally spoiled for one night would be more than enough for us, since we were perfectly happy in our clean, comfortable, and quiet room at the Ruby 2.

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The view from our room at night.  The old steam plant across the street has been renovated and now has a restaurant, shops, and offices.

As luck would have it, we arrived in town on the morning of Spokane’s annual Lilac Festival, and the evening parade was routed just a block away from our hotel.  This was such a big deal in this city of 208,000 residents that people started staking out their viewing spot the night before by leaving lawn chairs on the curb.  By the time we arrived, there were colorful rows of canvas-backed chairs covering the entire parade route in the downtown city center!

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Lilac Festival Parade

It was a gorgeous day, so we took advantage of the beautiful weather by seeing the downtown area on foot.  Spokane Falls is the main attraction, and it borders one edge of the city center.  Pictures don’t do it justice, because it’s not just about seeing the falls; you need to hear and feel the power created by the tremendous rush of water.  According to www.visitspokane.com, “Flows can reach upwards of 31,000 cubic feet per second—that’s the equivalent of nearly 232,000 thousand gallons of water racing through a single square foot of the Spokane River in the blink of an eye.”

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Between Spokane Falls and the downtown city center is Riverside Park, a nice place to walk through while checking out the various views of the falls.  Along the way, we saw plenty of geese enjoying the pond (and bread being tossed to them), and children enjoying the gigantic red Radio Flyer and beautiful carousel.

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 The following day, we checked in to the Davenport, left our bags, and took the bus to Manito Park, because it was too hilly and non-pedestrian friendly to get to on foot.  What a beautiful place!  I was envious of the homeowners that bordered that wonderful park—until I remembered how cold it gets there in Winter!

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After returning to the hotel, we took the hotel’s interesting self-guided tour.  What a beauty!  As for our room, we lucked out with a corner room, which was huge—and, the nicest hotel room we had ever stayed in.

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The following day, American Queen Steamboat Company bused us to Clarkston, Washington to board the American Empress.  For a tour of the boat, check out my next blog post coming soon!

Coming up next:  AMERICAN QUEEN STEAMBOAT COMPANY’S AMERICAN EMPRESS

 

 

 

 

 

Monuments and Memorials: A Walk Through History

The nice thing about arriving in D.C. by train is that Union Station is in the heart of the city; all accessible on foot.  So, we set out with the idea of walking the Washington Mall to the furthest destination first, then working our way back, as the day wore on and we wore out; a good strategy, considering the lack of sleep we got on the train.  Our other strategy was to see what we most wanted to see first and prioritizing the sights in that order.  Fortunately, as far as monuments and memorials went, we most wanted to see the Lincoln Memorial, as well as the new Martin Luther King Memorial; both located a fair distance away (on foot) from Union Station.

The Washington Mall itself was disappointing, because it was all torn up for refurbishment.  The reflecting pools, instead, were mounds of dirt and concrete; not exactly picturesque.  But, refurbishment is necessary to keep our capitol looking as spiffy as it should be, so we understood.  Besides, it gives us an excuse to go back someday, so we can see it in all its beauty- as well as visit all the Smithsonians we missed this time around!

We have seen plenty of photos of Lincoln Memorial, but no photo does it justice; including the ones I shot:

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 Not until you see it in person do you realize what a magnificent masterpiece this memorial is.  We were in awe.

Before heading over to see the new Martin Luther King Memorial, we visited the World War II Memorial, as well as the Korean War Memorial and the Vietnam War Memorial.  The last one was especially difficult and emotional to view; especially when we saw the thousands of names of soldiers engraved in the granite wall; all lives lost in a war our country had no business being a part of in the first place. 

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We almost missed the Martin Luther King Memorial, because most of it can’t be viewed from the street.  But, once we entered, we were quite impressed with what had been created to honor that great man.  Martin Luther King would have been proud.

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There was a huge curved wall on each side of the entrance with engraved quotes; all inspiring and memorable. This truly was a fabulous memorial.

After a long day and many miles walked, we headed back to Union Station to collect our suitcases and board a VRE (Virginia Railway Express) train to Rolling Road Station, Virginia, where Melody met us and took us back to their lovely home.

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As you can see, Melody is quite the gardener!  Their backyard was a beautiful and serene place to relax, complete with hot tub (located to the right of where I was standing) and numerous feeders to attract an array of beautiful birds.  Between the birds, chipmunks, and squirrels, there was plenty of wildlife to watch; a sharp contrast to the hustle and bustle of the concrete jungle of Washington, D.C.

The following day, David took us in with him to work, so we could catch our 7:30 AM (!!!) tour of the White House.  David is the C.F.O. of the Nationals Institute of Standards and Technology; part of the Department of Commerce, located very close to the White House.

Security at the White House is extremely tight, as you can imagine.  We first had to be put through a background check, before we even received confirmation of our tour date.  For the tour, we could only take in our wallets; no purses or bags allowed.  And, DEFINITELY, no cameras.  Since there is no place at (or near) the White House to lock them up, David had us lock up our belongings in his car while we went on tour, and gave us a key to return for them later.

The tour was self-guided, however, there were security personnel available to ask questions.  The tour led us through a hallway where we could peek into the Library, Vermeil Room, and China Room, before walking through the East Room (used for receptions, ceremonies, press conferences, and other events), Green Room (used for receptions), Blue Room (often used by the President to receive guests), and Red Room (used for small receptions).  Of those rooms, the Blue Room was most unique; oval in shape and a beautiful shade of blue.

The State Dining Room was the last of rooms we viewed.  It can seat 130 guests at dinners and luncheons.  Carved into the fireplace mantel is a quotation from a letter by John Adams:  “I pray Heaven to Bestow the Best of Blessings on THIS HOUSE and All that shall hereafter inhabit it.  May none but Honest and Wise Men ever rule under this Roof.”  His prayers were answered during some presidencies, however, definitely not by others (Think: NIXON).

Since the second and third floors are used only by the Obamas and their guests, it was off-limits on our tour.  But, just getting to see any of the White House was a special experience!  And, after visiting the White House Visitors Center (excellent and highly recommended), I insisted on returning later with my camera, so I could photograph the front and back of that majestic mansion; the oldest public building in the District of Columbia:

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“TOURISTS!!!”  Yeah, I know.  Shamelss.  But, there is something special about visiting the presidential home in your native country that makes you want to join in on the spectacle.  All hopes of blending in as you would hope to do while traveling in a foreign country are tossed aside.  All bets are off.  So, we took a gazillion photos of each other with the White House in the background.  And, when we weren’t photographing each other, we were being asked by the other tourists to shoot photos of them with their cameras.  We were just two of thousands of people doing the exact same thing- that day alone.  And, after double and triple-checking that I really did get some decent photos, I mentally crossed the White House off my bucket list of must-see, must-do places to visit.  MISSION ACCOMPLISHED!

Next up:  Smithsonian Renwick Gallery

Riding the Railway to Washington, D.C.

Although I haven’t traveled internationally, since my European river cruise, I had every intention of checking in and posting about a few short domestic getaways.  In January, Bruce and I headed back home to Long Beach, California, to see family and friends, for my 50th birthday.  Mom flew us out and big sis, Gail, threw me a wonderful birthday party!  Check it out on my photo-sharing website; I have included photos of downtown Long Beach, at the waterfront:  www.ExquisiteCards.Fototime.com .

In late April, we drove to Greensboro, North Carolina, so I could compete in United States Masters Swimming Spring Nationals.  After the four-day competition concluded, we finally took the time to drive downtown and check it out, before settling in at the Mellow Mushroom, for a celebratory beer and pizza.  Photos are posted of that trip, as well.

After Nationals, we recovered for a few days, after a very busy and intense April, and then headed up to Washington, D.C.; a destination that had long been on our list of places to visit.  “You have NEVER been to Washington, D.C.?”, you ask, incredulously.  You must be thinking it (right?), because we got asked that question numerous times over the months we planned this trip.  Nobody could believe I had been to 64 countries and 19 states, but had never visited our nation’s capitol!

Yes, it was time to see American history; not just read it in school text books…

So, what better way to travel to D.C. than by rail; the old-fashioned American way.  It had been a long time since we had traveled by train; 1987, to be exact. We rode the Starlight up the entire west coast, disembarking to visit the highlights along the way, and then picking up the train, again, on another day, to continue our journey.  What a fantastic trip that was!  I would recommend it to everybody.

This time, we traveled on the Crescent, from Atlanta to Union Station, in the heart of Washington, D.C.  We had been invited to stay in nearby Burke, Virginia, with our neighbor’s son, David, and his wife, Melody.  Funny how that all came about.  We met them at our neighbor’s party, instantly hitting it off and having more things in common than could possibly be discussed at an afternoon party.  It was uncanny how the four of us just clicked.  By the time we said goodbye, invitations to visit were sincerely delivered- and repeated, almost every time e-mails were sent back and forth between us.  With an offer like that, how would we refuse?  Besides, the timing was right.  We had moved to the east coast, we were closer than ever to the capitol, and I was insistant we go there while Barack Obama was President.  Of course, I knew there was no possible way we would actually see the President or First Lady, while touring the White House; I just had this thing about wanting to be there while the Obama family called it home.  And, there was no way we were going to go to Washington, D.C., without touring the White House!  So, I checked my calendar (twice!) and counted back from our arrival date exactly six months (to the day!), to make sure I contacted our congressman about applying for tickets, as soon as I was eligible.  And, I called that day, as soon as the office opened.  Stephanie told me it was “first come first served”, when she reviewed the ticket policy with me.  I assured her I must have qualified as “first come”.  When she asked the desired date for our tour, she busted out laughing, and, indeed, assured me I was the first to come asking for tickets for that… MONTH.  As a bonus, she also offered tickets for three other tours; the Capitol being the only other tour we actually ended up taking.

So, our journey began on the evening of May 8, aboard Amtrak’s Crescent.

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Since it was an overnight journey, we opted for a “roomette” in the sleeper car; emphasis on “ette”.  Our our micro-mini room was 3’6″ x 6’x6″.  Really.  And, somehow, in that little space, they included two bunk beds, a sink, and a toilet!

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 After settling in and getting briefed by our friendly room attendant (in the first photo, on left), we made our way to the dining car for the first of our two meals included in the cost of our overnight journey.  Due to space limitations, tables were shared, cruise ship style.  And, also like on a cruise ship, we could choose whatever we wanted from the selections on the menu, dessert included.  But, that is where the similarity ended.  Rather than having chefs prepare dinners to order, as they do on cruise ships, as well as on Canadian VIA trains, the food is reheated after being prepared in an offsite kitchen.  The portions were large, though, and the food tasted surprisingly good, considering the circumstances.  I ordered the crabcakes and Bruce had chicken (a very large half of chicken at that).  It was a pleasant experience, actually, dining with a nice elderly couple who frequently travel by train, the old fashioned American Way.

As we watched northeast Atlanta pass by our window, we enjoyed the sunset, followed by the cobalt blue sky turning pitch black.  We exchanged travel stories and compared our train experiences, relaxing to the vibration of the train and the clickety-clack sound it made on the rails.  Nice not having anywhere to rush off to; we just sat back in our booth and relished the experience.

After wandering back to our little roomette, we procrastinated asking our attendant to turn down our beds, knowing it was going to be a bit of a choreographed operation to get us both ready for sleep.  Somehow, we managed, but not without plenty of giggles- and a few bumps (and, later, bruises).

Sleep, as we expected, was often interrupted by the train’s whislte, sounding at every intersection, mandatory by law.  But, we somehow got through the night- and, our preparation for breakfast, the following morning.  That humorous routine involved getting the bottom bunk converted back into seats, so one of us could sit while the other washed up at the sink. Like I said, you have to have a good sense of humor when attempting a feat like that!

You also have to have a good sense of humor when grits arrive with your omelette, instead of the potatoes, as was ordered by Bruce.  Our waitress was way too busy to trouble her for a switch, so I braved a taste of those pasty-looking grits, with the idea of trading them with Bruce for my potatoes.  No can do; they were… AWFUL!  Bruce got half of my potatoes, instead.

Before we knew it, it was time to gather our belongings, tip our room attendent, bid farewell, and disembark in Union Station.  Our plan was to spend the day seeing the sights, before boarding a VRE (Virginia Railway Express) train for the Rolling Road station, close to David and Melody’s house.

Stay tuned for our D.C. adventures; another post will be written shortly…