UnCruise Adventures uses the tag line, “UnRushed, UnCrowded, UnBelievable.” During a recent cruise through the Columbia River Gorge, staff did an impressive job of keeping passengers UnConcerned as well. It was a week of intense natural disasters. Some passengers had lost homes in Hurricane Harvey, others were staring down Irma, and everybody was trying hard to breathe as wildfire smoke filled the gorge. Despite these setbacks, we had a good time with UnCruise Adventures.
Cruising with UnCruise Adventures
The seven-day cruise aboard the 88-passenger SS Legacy began and finished in Portland, Oregon. After a short journey on the Willamette River, we reached the Columbia, where we would spend the bulk of our voyage. We cruised east to the Snake River, which runs through Washington and Idaho, then west all the way to Astoria, Oregon, where the Columbia meets the Pacific Ocean.
Unlike most of UnCruise’s offerings, this trip focused on history rather than outdoor activities as we traced part of Lewis and Clark’s water journey. Shore excursions were mostly educational, including visits to museums, the Bonneville Dam and Multnomah Falls.
The Legacy is a beautiful 192-foot ship modeled after an 1898 coastal Gold Rush steamer. While it has all the modern conveniences, the décor is faux Victorian, all dark wood moldings and old-fashioned brass fixtures. I felt very much at home on the ship since it resembled the living room of my 1913 house.
As a small ship on a history mission, the Legacy didn’t offer glitzy entertainment or a casino. Instead, guests were invited to nightly presentations given by the three on-board heritage guides. Jenny Wolf, David Diaz and Taylor Wilson-Prim were a key ingredient on the trip, tirelessly offering insights into area geology, history and culture. Topics of their talks included Lewis and Clark, the Oregon Trail, Nez Perce history and wine appreciation.
During one nearly 48-hour stretch of cruising the staff offered extra entertainment, such as teaching us a Nez Perce gambling game or playing poker with the captain in the Pesky Barnacle Saloon, which is also a self-service whisky bar.
I asked many of my fellow passengers what their favorite parts of the cruise were, and most agreed with me that our visit to Hells Canyon was the best day. Though the smoke followed us all the way to Idaho, that didn’t keep the wildlife from showing themselves.
In Clarkston, Washington, we left the Legacy for smaller jet boats and ventured into Hells Canyon. The geology was impressive—some of the world’s best examples of columnar basalt, according to our guides—and the animal sightings even better. We saw lots of Rocky Mountain bighorn sheep, mule deer, wild turkeys and herons, and even a bald eagle catching a fish.
Another highlight was the morning that J.R. Spencer, aka White Bull, boarded our ship in full Nez Perce regalia. “Our people approach things in a childlike manner,” he said, then told us jokes until we relaxed into a similar state and could absorb his stories.
Nez Perce knowledge is all contained in stories full of animal characters, especially the tricky Coyote. These tales are told to children from the time they’re tiny. When they get older, they tell them to their children. “No matter how many times you heard or told the stories, you learned something new,” he said. His songs and stories had us riveted.
In addition to heritage guides, the Legacy employs two full-time wellness personnel. Shela McAnally and Julia Moore took turns teaching gentle yoga every morning at 6:45, and giving each passenger a 20-minute massage sometime during the trip. I especially liked the novelty of doing yoga on a ship. Most of our classes occurred on the top deck—which gave me my first experience of doing yoga while going through a lock. But a couple of mornings it was too smoky, so we did yoga inside the Pesky Barnacle—which was my first time doing yoga in a whisky saloon.
I also appreciated the small selection of exercise equipment—five cardio machines and a few free weights—aboard, as it’s hard to stay fit as a cruise ship passenger. Some of us also walked laps on the third deck, but the boat was comically small for that purpose. Sixteen times around equals one mile.
The lounge had an excellent library full of books on Columbia Gorge geology, Lewis and Clark, Hanford, Native Americans and Oregon lore.
Sit-down shipboard meals happened three times a day, at approximately 7:30, 12:30 and 6:30, depending on the itinerary. As somebody with a limited ability to chat with strangers that early, I was happy UnCruise offered a continental breakfast in the lounge as an alternative. Those of us who’d rather sit and read the paper or look out the window showed up there anytime between 6:15 and 8:15 for oatmeal, pastries, fruit, toast and granola bars. There was even a self-serve espresso machine.
As chief steward Julio Valle Puerto told me, any given cruise includes an assortment of food allergies and special diets. As a vegan, I was the problem child on our cruise. But the staff never made me feel that way. UnCruise offers a vegetarian option at every meal, and Chef Ian Charles was expert at veganizing these by excluding bits of egg or dairy. The portions were filling without being overwhelming, and the plating extra pretty. They even made me creative vegan desserts, like chocolate/avocado mousse, and little pastries surrounded by coconut yogurt.
UnCruise has been offering this history-focused cruise for a few years. But next year they’re changing things up by making the cruise a one-way voyage from Portland to Lewiston and incorporating more adventure options. The Legacy will be outfitted to launch kayaks, and will also carry stand up paddleboards. Captain Lyman Louis assured me there will still be plenty of history, even if he has to interpret it himself.
The passenger mix will probably change with the new itinerary. Most of the passengers on my trip were seniors and retirees. After all, the Legacy is the fleet’s only ship with an elevator. Hotel manager Kirsty Blackburn said they’ll offer excursions for a variety of abilities. For example, those who don’t want to balance on a SUP can explore in a Zodiac.
Keep Calm and Cruise On
Looking back on my recent cruise, I’m especially impressed by the crew. While we were on the Snake River, the Eagle Creek Fire jumped the Columbia so that both sides were burning. Authorities closed a 20-mile stretch of the Columbia River between us and Portland. How would we get back? The crew calmly assured us to carry on and not worry about it. Obviously, they were scrambling for Plans B and C of how the heck to get us off the river. But their calm was contagious. Nobody freaked out. And sure enough, the captain managed to talk the Coast Guard into letting us pass through the dangerous stretch of river. He promised all passengers would be confined to inside spaces for about 90 minutes during the passage.
The fiery stretch coincided with the ship’s trivia night in the lounge. Our three young UnCruise Adventures heritage guides emceed the event and created the clues. I was the only person who’d gone on this cruise alone, so I joined a ragtag team of people whose spouses or friends didn’t want to play. As we answered questions about Lewis and Clark, the Oregon Trail and nautical terms, and tried to guess which Facebook status updates would have been written by which historical characters we’d learned about on the trip, competition heated up. We forgot all about forest fires. Later on, when friends asked what the fire looked like as we passed through it, I realized I’d been so absorbed in winning that I forgot to look out the window. But our team slaughtered the competition.
To experience UnCruise Adventures for yourself, check out their upcoming cruises.
Note: As is common in the travel industry, the writer was provided with accommodations, meals, tours and other compensation for the purpose of review. While it has not influenced this review, the writer believes in full disclosure of all potential conflicts of interest.