— by Bobbie Hasselbring, RFT Editor —
Those who live in or who have visited Portland, Oregon, know it’s a beautiful river city. And a way to get a really different perspective — and taste — of this Northwest gem is a leisurely dinner cruise on the Portland Spirit.
We boarded the Portland Spirit, a 150′ yacht with three public decks, two of which are enclosed and climate controlled, at the Willamette River’s edge near city’s Salmon Street Fountain. (Several years ago, the city of Portland had the foresight to move a busy road and reclaim their riverfront by building one long park.)
After posing for the obligatory boarding photo, we were escorted to our window-side table.
During the cruise, dinner guests, who may wander the ship at will, including the upper, open-air observation deck, retain their table.
The menu consists of four entrée choices – a vegetarian pasta dish, salmon, beef tenderloin, and chicken.
Throughout the sailing season, the menu pretty much stays the same, with the pasta and the seasonings and sauces on the meats and fish changing weekly. The meal also includes a cheesecake dessert (other desserts may be purchased for $3) and coffee or tea. There’s an extra charge for appetizers.
The Portland Spirit pulled away from the dock and began sailing south toward Oregon City. The movement was so gentle, we barely noticed we were moving until we looked out the large windows and noticed the land slipping by. (While the cruise is very smooth, if you’re prone to motion sickness at all, ask for a table on the second story deck. The first-deck diners sit closer to the water and the movement is much more noticeable.)
In the background, a pianist played some soft jazz tunes and our server brought bread and our salads. We passed under the Fremont Bridge, the tallest of Portland’s eight bridges. For those of us who drive over these bridges everyday, there’s something magical about being on the water and slipping past the massive bridge supports and looking up at the underside of the superstructures.
Our ship passed motorboats, wake boarders, and paddlers navigating the river in kayaks and canoes. On shore, people fished or played on the beaches. Everyone we passed stopped to gaze and wave at our big boat.
Both RFT editor Anne Weaver and I ordered the beef tenderloin with roasted red potatoes and sautéed vegetables. We were surprised when our plates arrived at the generous quantity of sliced beef. While we’d both ordered medium rare, Anne’s arrived well-done. The waitress quickly exchanged her dish for meat that was juicy and perfectly cooked. The menu says the beef comes with a “mushroom demi-glace.” Unfortunately, the chef used canned mushrooms, which gave the sauce a slightly tinny taste. But the meat had a nice beefy flavor, the roast potatoes were well-cooked, and the mixture of broccoli, carrots, zucchini, and cauliflower were flavorful and served al dente. And the quantity was certainly enough to satisfy the hungriest diner.
We passed under more bridges and watched Canada geese and blue herons (Portland’s official city bird) glide on the water as we enjoyed our meal.
Our waitress and a second server surprised us with their musical talents and sang some musical standards, including “Over the Rainbow.” They also announced diners’ birthdays and anniversaries the applause of an appreciative crowd.
By the time we reached the turn around spot, a little more than an hour into the cruise, we’d been lulled into an easy, relaxed state. We took the stairs to the upper deck where the captain was offering tidbits about the river’s history and his observations of the sights we passed as passengers eagerly snapped photos. The upper deck also offers a gift shop with some interesting jewelry and vintage reproduction posters.
As the sun set, it got a little cool and breezy upstairs. (You can opt for a cruise only ticket, but you’re relegated to staying on the open upper deck. Most of the cruise-only folks, but this time, were huddled in jackets and sweatshirts.) We headed down for cheesecake and hot tea and more entertainment from our singing waitresses.
Portland city lights burned brightly as we passed under the Hawthorne Bridge where the 100th birthday party for this venerable icon was in full swing. Multi-colored lights and video images flashed on thin sheets of fabric stretched across the bridge’s uprights and music pulsed out across the water as hundreds of people milled above on the bridge’s deck.
As we left the ship and moved up the gangplank, the captain and first mate thanked us for coming. We walked into the summer night, relaxed, well-supped, and glad to have taken this opportunity to see this river city in a whole new way.
www.portlandspirit.com This company operates lunch, brunch, dinner, sightseeing and excursion cruises on the Willamette River. They also operate other vessels, including the wild JetBoats, and the historic Columbia Gorge Sternwheeler (on the Columbia River ).