On a Thursday afternoon last October, I flew to Portland, a couple days before embarking on a seven night wine and history themed cruise operated by Un-Cruise Adventures. The short flight was very bumpy due to heavy rain and wind, to the point the “minimal” in-flight service had to be cancelled.
From the airport, I took the MAX red line to Pioneer Square, the closest stop to my hotel. The trip took about 38 minutes at a low cost of $2.50 for an adult and $1.00 for “honored” seniors. Tickets are sold inside the terminal, by credit card or in cash, and if you don’t have the right amount the machines will give change back.
A visit to Portland can’t be complete without a visit to the Pearl district with its multitude of shops, trendy bars and eateries. Like many Pacific Northwest cities, the trend in food is “farm to plate” using locally grown and organic produce. And there are multitude of fine restaurants to choose from – which can be challenging when you are a visitor. On recommendation from friends, we settled for Andina’s, a Peruvian fusion restaurant in the Pearl District. Proving too busy to get a table for lunch and for dinner, we opted for the Happy Hour version. The reasonable prices gave us the opportunity to sample some amazing dishes, especially the ceviche. I will never forget the combination of green and yellow mangoes, marinated in lime and cilantro for an unusual Asian flavor that lingered sweetly on the taste buds. Paired with a crisp Oregon Chardonnay, it was a perfect ending of a wet and cold Portland day.
On the following Saturday afternoon, we met with the Un-Cruise Representative and the cruise guests at the World Trade Centre hospitality room. And at 5pm sharp, a small contingent of period-clad staff members walked us to our vessel which was docked a couple blocks away. Shortly after settling in our stateroom, a champagne reception and safety drill were held in the Saloon where we met the captain and the rest of the crew. We soon discovered that the Saloon would be our headquarters for continental breakfast, wine tasting and nightly lectures, as well as a cozy and warm environment for conversation with other guests.
The SS Legacy was built in 1983 as a replica of an 1898 coastal gold rush steamer. Powered by a diesel engine, it can be a bit noisy especially when you try to sleep. It houses 43 cabins with twin or fixed queen beds, and one owner suite, for a maximum capacity of 88 guests and between 31 to 35 crew members depending on the sailing. The overall feel is that of an expedition vessel, with a vintage décor in great need of an update. Not elegant by any means, it was surprisingly friendly and unpretentious. Our stateroom was very small and with an undesirable location by the engine room, the noise at night was a bit of a nuisance.
The main meals were served at very specific times. Continental breakfast for the early risers, and those who brave the frigid 7am yoga classes held on deck. Between 8am and 9am,a full breakfast is served in the formal dining room on deck 1, during which we were briefed on the activities of the day, as well as what meal options to expect for dinner.
Depending on the day, lunch was served on board or at a winery. The lunches taken in wineries were usually boxed meals carried from the ship, with the exception of lunch at Red Mountain and at Serene Winery.
At 5:30pm each night, wine tasting was held in the Saloon and everyone on board participated. We learned about champagne, Pinot Gris, Pinot Noir, Cabernet Sauvignon and a much of the grape varieties grown in the Washington and Oregon regions. Erika, our sommelier extraordinaire (a Kate Winslet dead- ringer) shared her passion at every opportunity. Together with Christine Havens, a fine artist, wine writer and former Washington winery owner, they made the daily wine tasting on board a special event!
Dinner time was always between 6:30pm and 8:00pm in the dining room. Tables set for two, four or six gave guests the opportunity to meet new dinner companions each night, should they wish. The food was amazing. A choice of meat, fish or vegetarian entrees were served in half or full portion, to ensure that dietary requests were met. Upon noticing some guests were ordering half meat or fish and half vegetarian meals, I started doing the same for great satisfaction when a decision was difficult to make.
The young crew members came from many parts of the continental USA, with the exception of Julio, our head server, from Puerto Rico. They all assumed different functions, on a rotation basis as security guards, cabin cleaners, dining room servers, lecturers, yoga instructors, guides and even massage therapists.
Crossing the Bonneville Lock and Dam was an adventure in itself. Built in the late 1930’s, its primary function was to generate hydroelectric power to the region, as well as river navigation. Originally the dam prohibited the migration of fish during spawning season, but today with the construction of fish ladders, salmon and steelhead can make their way safely upstream.
Our first stop was at the Multnomah Falls, the tallest waterfalls in Oregon, for a short hike and picture taking. We then made our way to Hood River, to visit two local wineries in the Columbia Gorge AVA.
I particularly enjoyed Springhouse Cellars, a rustic former pear cannery in Hood River. Only ten years in operation, it mostly serves the local clientele with reusable glass bottles filled from the kegs right in the winery. I loved their Tempranillo Rose the best. Back on board, we cruised up-river the Columbia River Gorge, a spectacular 80 mile long canyon and 4000 feet deep that cuts through the Cascade Mountains, with basalt cliffs, more than usual waterfalls due to heavy rains, and the sad site of the recent Eagle Crest fire.
Back to Washington State and a stop at Walla Walla wine region on Monday. Our first stop was a visit to Basel Cellars Estate winery, where we met Dirk, a South African ex-pat, now winemaker, to witness the whole wine making process. It was a lovely sunny day for a stroll in the vineyard, and we enjoyed sampling some of the pinot grapes still on the vines.
The best moment of the day was a stop at Dunham Cellars. Set in an old WWII airplane hangar, we had our “boxed lunch” during which we tasted some very fine Washington wines. My favourite was the “3-Legged Red at $19.00 a bottle, a blend of cab, merlot and Syrah grapes. I loved the artwork there, especially the Christmas tree built with empty bottles.
A stroll through Walla Walla was perfect to walk off the lunch and wine, but an hour and half was too long in this very small town. I tried very hard to find a produce store to buy the famous Walla Walla onion, but to no avail.
On day four of our cruise the sun was out in full force and the temperature warmed up nicely. We cruised through basalt cliffs, created by volcanic eruption some fifteen million years ago.
We tendered at Lyon’s Bay Marina and drove for about one hour to reach the Palouse Falls State Park for one of the rare hikes of this trip. A spectacular ride through a landscape of dry grasses swaying in the wind, dark volcanic rocks for added contrast, and was a feast for the eyes. Easy to imagine that Native American used to roam free on this land, looking very much like a Western movie set!
The Legend of the Palouse Tribe has it that the canyon was carved by a mythical creature called Big Beaver who was pursued by four giant brothers and was speared until he tore out a huge canyon. The majestic falls are about 200 feet to the bottom of a churning foaming bowl before turning into the Palouse River. We stayed out of the wild grasses after reading the sign about rattlesnakes.
Due to mechanic problems with one of the anchors, we didn’t leave until late in the afternoon.
Above us, freight trains passing by on the elevated Josso Bridge, spectacular cliffs in the distance, birds chirping, it was a lovely afternoon. Upon departure Mother Nature treated us to a stunning sunset.
The next day, we visited the famous Walter Clore Wine and Culinary Institute for in-depth lessons about the virtues of wine making and wine consumption. He was known as the Father of Washington wine, and today the State is the 2nd largest producer of wines in the USA.
Super food grapes are full of natural sugars, and anti-oxidants, such as resveratrol, extracted from grape skins and said to have extension benefits.
Lunch was hosted by Terra Blanca Winery Estate. It produces natural wines only in this smallest growing region of Washington, to make sure that all the residues from the vineyard flowing to the Yakima River below are “salmon safe”. Terra Blanca is also famous for the yummy potato chips they bake in-house.
One of my fondest memory of my trip was on our stop at Les Dalles, Oregon. Named after the French word for “stones”, Les Dalles is steeped in history thanks to Sam Hill and his vision for the area.
In the early 1900’s, he bought land in Klickitat County and built the first asphalt paved roads in the Pacific Northwest. He also built a castle for his wife and daughter both named Mary, and named it Maryhill. But his wife refused to live there and moved back to Minneapolis where she was born.
Today, Maryhill is a museum. Perched high above the Columbia River, it has an impressive collection of native artifacts and miniature French costumes wax figurines. The view from the grounds is breathtaking: rolling hills of orchards, vineyards with snow-capped Mount Hood in the distance on this very sunny, clear and warm day.
The last day of our wine cruise was spent in the Williamette Valley, largest Oregon AVA wine region.
A visit and lunch at the Domaine Serene was the perfect ending to a week-long wine discovery cruise. The drive through the Dundee Hills, was quite spectacular, featuring a patchwork of blazing fall colours, in the mid-day sun. Opulent and classy the winery specializes in Pinot wines, cultivated in the French growing methods. Lunch was served buffet style, while tasting generously some of the best Pinot noir to date, such at the Evenstad Reserve 2014.
To know wine requires acute sense of smell and taste. I tried very hard to recognize the smell of tobacco, mushrooms, red fruit, even rocks! I suppose I don’t possess such keen senses to identify such elements, but I had fun trying. My taste buds are my best guide in liking a good wine versus a great wine.
Some of my newly acquired knowledge includes learning that “cuvee” means a wine made with several grape varieties, and “reserve” means that it took a labour of love and hard work to produce one particular wine.
Cruising the Columbia River reminds us of the 2 year Lewis and Clark Expedition, from 1804 to 1806 and the perils that came with it. Thomas Jefferson commissioned this expedition to find a waterway passage from Louisiana to the Pacific Ocean Along the way, they encountered Native Peoples previously unknown. They met a young Shoshone tribe woman by the name of Sacagawea and her son, seen as a friendly link between them and the Indians.
Un-Cruise Adventures Rivers of Wines will appeal to history buffs and wine enthusiasts.
It is a slow paced cruise, with numerous visits to wineries and very little physical activities.
However the atmosphere on board is casual, friendly and unpretentious.