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Planning a cruise but want to go somewhere different? Forget Antarctica, Libya, or the island of St Helena, how about booking a cruise to Idaho?

Yes, Idaho, as in the landlocked state of Idaho. Having sailed 500 miles along the Washington/Oregon border, I found myself smack-dab in the middle of nowhere in Hells Canyon, Idaho. Exactly 200 years earlier, explorers Lewis and Clark had done the very same thing, sailing east on the Columbia and Snake Rivers on the return leg of their voyage of discovery. As I ventured further inland, passing rugged, sculpted canyon walls and leaving civilization behind, I fancied myself a modern day cruising explorer, going where no megaship has gone before . . . or ever will.

I was sailing with Cruise West (tel. 800/426-7702; www.cruisewest.com), a family-owned small-ship line with deep roots in Alaska and a headquarters just one state to the north, in Seattle, WA. Like most of the line's vessels, my ship, the 96-passenger Spirit of '98, was an American-flagged vessel under 200 feet long -- a mere lifeboat compared to the gargantuan ships sailing deep-ocean itineraries. Forget 24-hour buffets, ice-skating rinks, or ten restaurants; this is cruising stripped down to its basics, with the forced togetherness of having only one lounge and one dining room encouraging old-fashioned mingling. With ships this small, you choose the cruise for the destination and the overall experience, and with the Columbia River's diversity of history and commerce, geology and scenery, Cruise West aimed to give us a broad, overall perspective of the river and its past. From going inside Bonneville Dam to exploring a fruit factory, all our excursions were included, so we traveled en masse, all for one and one for all.

Embracing the River

River travel is its own beast entirely, embracing the simple delight of watching the landscape go by to either side, with neither the high-altitude distance of air travel nor the psychological distance of watching it all blur by from a car window. It's different, too, from ocean travel. Unlike days at sea on an oceangoing ship, where the ship's wake often presents the only real notion of miles going by, voyaging along a river provides a tangible sense of distance gained. Embarking right from the city center in Portland, Oregon, we initially headed east, watching temperate rainforests turn into dry plains with sagebrush scattered among basalt buttes and scablands. Commerce and industry faded into the barren landscape, with imposing plateaus supporting deer and mountain goats. A series of eight dams and massive locks lifted the ship almost 800 feet in total -- almost ten times the vertical lift of the Panama Canal -- taming the river for shipping and power generation while trying to maintain a delicate balance, sustaining both the salmon industry and the river's recreational uses.

Being near the land but not of the land produced its own effects, as well. Stepping outside my cabin each night, I watched trains and cars passing on the shore and enjoyed the utter peacefulness of life on the river -- a totally different kind of peace than you get at sea, with the churning ocean all around. A vast waterborne highway whose fingers extend far beyond the riverbank, the Columbia seemed as far removed from my New York apartment as just about any other cruise I've done, no matter how distant.

Day Trips, Road Trips, and a Float Through Hell

Day on the Spirit of '98 followed a regular pattern, with a wake-up call broadcast throughout the ship around 7am, breakfast, then the all-aboard for visits to museums, cultural centers, and low-activity excursions, traveling in the relative comfort of two busses that met us each morning. When underway, two "exploration leaders" and an onboard lecturer/geologist kept us informed on passing sites both natural and historical.

In Oregon we visited Ft. Clatsop (www.nps.gov/lewi), where Lewis and Clark spent a cold, rainy winter before returning east. On another morning, a Native American of the Nez Perce, a tribe with whom the Corps of Discovery had many dealings, came aboard to give a presentation on her language and culture. Other museums, including Fort Walla Walla (www.fortwallawallamuseum.org), told the story of the Oregon Trail and the opening up of the West that came about because of the Lewis and Clark expedition. Others, like the lonely Maryhill Museum of Art (www.maryhillmuseum.org), perched dramatically above the river gorge, provided a dose of art and culture.

Following dinner each night, a short presentation highlighted topics ranging from Lewis and Clark to the change in the river following construction of the hydroelectric dams.

A highlight for many was the day spent in jet boats along the Snake River in the Hells Canyon Recreation Area (www.fs.fed.us/hellscanyon). Traveling over 70 miles inland into the preserve, we skipped, swerved, and sped our way over and next to rapids and river walls at speeds up to 40 mph. We stopped for lunch at a remote lodge while marveling at the scarred red-brown canyon walls that, only a few miles downriver, eclipsed the Grand Canyon in height.

Our Home Away from Home

The classic-looking Spirit of '98 was a perfect conveyance along the river. Designed to resemble an early-20th-century coastal steamer, she's among the most attractive and comfortable of small American ships and has gained a reputation as a happy ship that attracts many repeat passengers. As is typical on these cruises, her crew was young, friendly, and eager, and dress was always casual. Four entree options at dinner, including a seafood choice and a usually limited vegetarian option, were available each night, with the food being fine if occasionally bland. For a small ship, cabins are surprisingly comfortable, and unlike some competitors, her bathrooms are sizeable enough so you can actually turn.

Perhaps the Spirit of '98's most popular feature, however -- and an indicator of the average passenger age -- was its elevator, which is a great rarity among small ships. Without a doubt, river cruising attracts an older crowd, which also explains the bus excursions favored in every port. Opportunities for personal, independent exploring are limited.

Unlike most other small ship companies, whose passengers typically shun the big cruise lines, Cruise West tends to attract passengers who have sailed several times on ships both large and small. Lacking distinctions like the stellar enrichment program offered by competitor Lindblad Expeditions, Cruise West's defining characteristic is simply that it offers small ships that are friendly, comfortable, and familiar.

Cruise West operates ten ships, all carrying fewer than 120 passengers, sailing in Alaska, British Columbia, the Pacific Northwest, the California Wine Country, Baja, Central America, New England, the Bering Sea, and Asia. Its 7-night sailings along the Columbia and Snake Rivers are available each spring and fall. For 2007, rates start at $2,599 per person, double occupancy. The line's competitors on the river are Lindblad Expeditions, a more adventurous and academically focused line, and America West Steamboat Company, which operates the modern sternwheeler Columbia Queen.

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