River cruising from Portland to Washington

By Shandelle Battersby

Shandelle Battersby discovers the winemakers and their tipple alongside the Columbia and Snake Rivers.

The S.S. Legacy on Snake River, Washington.
The S.S. Legacy on Snake River, Washington.

"Ocian in view! O the joy!"

With these six (misspelled) words, explorer William Clark recorded his first sighting of the Pacific Ocean on November 7, 1805, 18 months after beginning an epic and dangerous voyage of discovery of the lands beyond the Missouri River at the behest of President Thomas Jefferson.

More than 200 years later, my own sighting of the same stretch of the Pacific is also joyful — I haven't seen the sea in a couple of months and have missed it — but has been achieved in complete luxury and comfort, on board replica steamship S.S. Legacy for Un-Cruise Adventures' Four Rivers of Wine and History cruise.

Our seven-day journey through Oregon and Washington, traces just a small portion of Clark's journey with co-captain Meriweather Lewis and their party of 30-odd men who left St Louis, Missouri in May, 1804.

The Corps of Discovery battled adversity at every turn: hunger, wild animals, tribes of Native Americans who had never seen white men before, plagues of mosquitoes, ill health and disease, extreme weather, huge waterfalls and, early on, naughty colleagues who received lashes for crimes like sleeping on the job while on patrol.

The majority of our trip takes place on the Columbia River, which cuts through the Cascade Mountain Range and splits the two states, though we spend a couple of days on Washington's Snake River too — and even get to jump in for a surprisingly chilly dip off the side of the Legacy on one blazing hot afternoon when the temperature is nudging 40C.

An Astoria sunset, Oregon.
An Astoria sunset, Oregon.

Thanks to extensively detailed journals the pair kept, it's possible to track their voyage almost every step of the way, including what they ate (dogs, beavers and squirrels where necessary), where they camped, when they got sick, what indigenous tribes they smoked the pipe of peace with, and what animal and plant species they discovered.

The language is wonderful, and the imaginative and inconsistent grammar and spelling all adds to the storytelling, even if the subject is less than savoury: "A fat dog was presented [to a local tribe] as a mark of their great respect for the party of which they partook hartily [sic] and thought it good and well flavoured," Clark wrote on August 29, 1804.

SHIP LIFE

Our voyage, of course, is a lot more pleasant than Lewis and Clark's — the Legacy might look authentically historic inside and out but she was actually built in the 1980s and has modern amenities including a diesel engine, lifts, hot tubs, gym equipment, and luxurious staterooms with comfortable bathrooms and TVs — but no Wi-Fi or cable.

Best of all we don't have to worry about where our next meal is coming from, and it certainly won't be dog or squirrel. Executive chef Tim Baker and his team deliver three meals a day, plus canapes and snacks, which includes an excellent three-course dinner each night. The food is seasonal and locally sourced, sticking to an 800km radius rule wherever possible.

Meals and alcohol are all inclusive, and on the wine cruises Un-Cruise sommelier Chris Arora is present whenever it is served, to give advice or information on what we're drinking. And because we're on a specific wine cruise, Baker's menus are designed slightly differently.

"I found the wines I wanted to feature each day to highlight that region, sat down with the chef and looked at his menus, then paired the food around the wine," Arora explains.

There are a selection of DVDs, books and games in the lounge, and every morning there is complimentary yoga. You're also treated to a free half-hour massage, and each night there are presentations, movie screenings and other entertainment, if you can drag yourself away from the poker table and the dress-up box in the Pesky Barnacle Saloon or off the stool at Mason Roberts' bar. With its specially designed cocktail list split into three eras — pre-, post- and during prohibition — it's fun to sit and chat to Roberts, who's decked out in snappy historical clobber, as you experiment your way through his creations made with authentic liquor from the time.

With a maximum of 88 passengers, the crew do a remarkable job of learning everyone's names very quickly, and the captain, Scott Clendenin, greets everyone as they step on the gangway. The heritage guides really know their stuff, and bring the story of Lewis and Clark's mission to life as you're sailing through the very same waters as they did more than 200 years before.

The ship creaks and groans, especially when the anchor is in action, but it all adds to the ambience.

Un-Cruise chef Tim Baker.
Un-Cruise chef Tim Baker.

THE WINE

On this itinerary there are constant winery stops, usually two a day, at boutique and medium-sized operations. All up, we visit eight wineries over five different American Viticultural Areas (AVAs), and enjoy almost daily wine presentations on board from Arora and our wine host, Wes Parker, the owner and winemaker of Koi Pond Cellars, an award-winning boutique winery in Ridgefield, Washington.

We learn a lot about the geology and climate of the areas we sail through and how it affects the multiple varietals of wine we try (predominantly whites in the west, the dominance switches to heavier reds as we make our way east).

It turns out a little something called the Missoula Floods, which swept the area at the end of the last ice age 15,000 years ago, forever changed the terroir. This has resulted in some pretty interesting soil to grow grapes in. Add this to hot days, cool nights, and decreasing rainfall the further east you go, and voila! Amazing wine.

The diversity of the tasting rooms we visit is always a pleasant surprise. At Springhouse Cellar in Walla Walla, Washington, we sit outside in the sun in the ruins of a 1920s fruit packing plant decorated with pretty parasols and fairy lights; later we go to a century-old family farm that houses Mt Hood Winery (Oregon's Winery of the Year 2016) and has fabulous views of its permanently snowy namesake from the patio dining area.

Dunham Cellars is based in a former aircraft hangar at Walla Walla Regional Airport; while Sunshine Mill Winery is run out of a historic mill at The Dalles that once milled the wheat used in Cheeze-It crackers. Its tasting room has an eclectic vibe, with much of the original machinery sat alongside retro furniture.

We're lucky to strike a blazing hot, calm day at Maryhill Winery in Washington — the enormous wind turbines that sit above it are unusually still as we eat lunch outside, overlooking the amphitheatre it uses for big concerts (Bob Dylan and Willie Nelson have played here) after sampling the drops made by their New Zealand winemaker Richard Batchelor.

Dunham Cellars, Washington.
Dunham Cellars, Washington.

At each winery we meet the makers, who are often also the owners, and they all have an interesting story. After all, this is still, like New Zealand, a very young wine region, only kicking off in the 1970s, so many are pioneers.

Keith Pilgrim from Terra Blanca, a successful winery set on 120ha in the small, but hugely respected, Washington AVA of Red Mountain, entertains us for an hour as we taste his excellent reds, telling stories of a love for wine that began at the age of 5. At The Wine Shack in Cannon Beach, Oregon, we meet Steve Sinkler who regales us with hilarious yarns while we sample his Puffin Wines. The personalities all add to the experience.

"You get to go to each place and hear about why the wine tastes the way it does, from the people who made it," Arora says.

THE LOCKS AND THE SCENERY

"As we passed on it seemed as if those scenes of visionary inchantment [sic] would never have and [an] end," Lewis gushed on May 31, 1805.

I hear you Lewis. The scenery from the moment we sail down Portland's Willamette River, crossing under its famous lifting bridges, and meet the Columbia River, to the moment six days later when we reach the Pacific Ocean at Astoria, is dramatic and ever-changing.

Almost every sunset is a postcard moment, and the moon is full and bright. Enormous basalt walls with ripple marks from the floods line the gorge, and hundreds of wind turbines dot the ridges of the hillsides. In just 130km the landscape changes from temperate lush forest to dry rolling grasslands. Pine trees and conifers give way to deciduous trees and the landscape becomes browner, rockier, and more sparse. In fact, every mile we travel east, the annual rainfall drops 2.5cm, until it's almost non-existent.

On the second afternoon as we headed west through the gorge, swerving around windsurfers and daredevil kiteboarders (the area is known for its consistently high winds), I was glad I wasn't driving. Most of the seven-day journey is glassy smooth but through here there are small, white-capped waves.

River enthusiasts will appreciate the lock system down the formerly wild rivers of the region. It takes roughly 30 minutes to get through a lock; the Legacy sinks or rises at an impressive speed as the narrow concrete vat is either emptied or filled. It is a remarkable thing and we get to do it a total of 12 times — sometimes in the dead of night, sometimes during dinner.

Lewis and Clark returned, triumphant, to St Louis in September 1806, 28 months and nearly 13,000km after they'd set off. Incredibly the Corps of Discovery only lost one member of its party, and it wasn't because he was mauled by a bear or drowned in the river — most likely he died of appendicitis.

We too return triumphant, to Portland, having lost no member of our party. The only damage we've incurred is to our waistlines, and possibly our livers.

Sunshine Mill Winery, Oregon.
Sunshine Mill Winery, Oregon.

Winemaker Wes Parker picks his top spots

Eastern Oregon

Domaine Serene
Archery Summit
Van Duzer Vineyards
King Estate Winery
Rex Hill Vineyards

Western Washington

Gramercy Cellars
Kiona Vineyards
Charles Smith (great value)
Burnt Bridge Cellars
Pepper Bridge

CHECKLIST

Getting there: Un-Cruise Adventures' journeys along the Columbia and Snake Rivers in the Pacific Northwest run from April to November. It also offers a Legacy of Discovery cruise, a more history-focused option that goes a little further east on the Snake River.

Further information: See visittheusa.com.

- NZ Herald

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