With its many micro climates, the Columbia River Gorge beckons travelers from all over the U.S. and beyond each year. Lush foliage around such scenic wonders as Multnomah Falls gives way to desert rock formations chiseled out of towering basalt cliffs.
Its geologic diversity, coupled with unique weather conditions, translates into a cornucopia of grape growing conditions, producing a broad array of wine profiles for vintners to draw from.
While many locals have driven the byways of the Gorge, from the Columbia River’s channel, the landscape takes on a whole new perspective. Even as acres of charred forest in the western Gorge begin the slow process of rebirth and renewal, a few miles away the Gorge is teeming with life and discovery.
They say sipping Bordeaux wine along the Garonne River is divine, imbibing in Riesling on the Rhine is inspired, and savoring an aged Port on the Douro incredible. Can a wine cruise closer to home compete with such treasures? Absolutely, and UnCruise Adventures delivers the experience with enthusiasm, a shorter flight and one of the highest crew-to-passenger ratios in the industry.
Guests board the Rivers of Wine cruise near the Glass House of the World Trade Center in Portland, Ore. For the next seven nights, the S.S. Legacy, a replica coastal steamship, becomes home, and it doesn’t take long to settle in. With a maximum 88 passengers, shipmates swiftly become dinner companions and close friends.
For those who have never experienced small ship cruising, guests are typically some of the most well-traveled folks you’ll ever meet. If you think you’re proud of your backyard now, listening to people from Virginia, Ohio, Florida, Michigan and Texas ooh and ahh at the rugged and majestic Columbia Gorge National Scenic Area will make you swell.
As the ship cuts through the Columbia’s waters on its way to the Snake River, the best seat in the house is wherever you are. Every stateroom has a river view; the Lounge, Dining Room and Pesky Barnacle Saloon are set off with ample windows; and the Bow Viewing Deck is a perfect spot to photograph passage through seven locks (14 in total).
Given all that, one of the two hot tubs on the Sun Deck might win the prize for top viewing spot, particularly with an attentive staff that provides Jacuzzi-side cocktail service. After all, this is a wine cruise.
During the seven-night excursion, guests are treated to the distinct characteristics of five different American Viticultural Areas (AVAs) from Walla Walla to the Willamette Valley through a combination of 10 tasting room and vineyard visits. Some of the stops include a catered lunch just when the energy from the made-to-order breakfast begins to wear off.
With so much world-class wine to revel in, one of the best stops of the week really is waking up in the middle of the picturesque and serene Lyons Ferry Marina in tiny Starbuck, Wash., and shuttling to Palouse Falls State Park.
Predictably, photo taking ensues, but passengers also pause for their own quiet moment of reflection. The falls and its surrounding terrain are stunning and a reminder of how rich in natural beauty the area truly is.
On this tour especially, the on-board Heritage Team is in their element. In addition to wine cruises, the Legacy recounts the rich past of the Columbia and Snake Rivers via its Rivers of Adventure itinerary.
Knowledgeable guides accompany wine enthusiasts on their exploration of terroir and flavor profiles to add a layer of relevant history regarding the role the Columbia River played in World War II, Lewis and Clark’s expedition and how the Ice Age Missoula floods are largely responsible for the diversity of grapes grown across the region.
Life aboard the Legacy feels like a world away. Every morning provides the opportunity to attend gentle yoga on the sun deck led by one of the two Wellness Team members followed by a casual, continental breakfast in the lounge or a cooked-to-order in the dining room. The lounge is the hub of social gathering on the ship, but the Pesky Barnacle Saloon draws people for poker with the captain as well as their whiskey honor bar and beer taps.
You read that right. Alcoholic beverages are offered from the moment guests awaken in the form of liqueurs to pair with morning coffee, sparkling wines to toast a new day or an eye-opening bloody Mary. Premium wines, spirits and microbrews are poured throughout the day at the whim of guests and there’s a nightcap before bed.
Captain Lyman is at the helm and luxury motor coaches whisk passengers off for all tours, so take advantage of the UnCruise hospitality. All adult beverages are included in cruising rates.
Food and wine make excellent bedfellows, and the galley of the Legacy is brimming with gastronomic tourism at its finest. Chef Aletha and her team draw from the bounty of the entire Columbia Gorge to deliver inspired cuisine. Complementing the in-season, multi-course dinners is a pastry chef who puts out tantalizing delicacies that harmonize with Chef Aletha’s nightly menus.
Whereas many European river cruises offer a couple wine tours mixed into their weekly itinerary, UnCruise delivers exceptional quantity as well as quality. Every sailing includes an on-board sommelier and guest expert that lead nightly tastings in the lounge during cocktail hour and accompany passengers into the dining room for an evening of wine pairing recommendations from the entrée to dessert.
With all the attention to detail, UnCruise really is a premier wine-focused cruise poised to rival the great rivers and wine-growing regions of Europe.
VIKI EIERDAM is a freelance writer based in Vancouver, Wash. She produces a wine and travel blog. Savorsipandsojourn.com
This story was originally published March 19, 2018 12:00 AM.