The newly christened American Countess, the fourth paddle-wheeler in the American Queen Steamboat Company fleet, will set sail this coming Sunday on its first scheduled cruise with guests – a seven-night sailing from Memphis to New Orleans.
Throughout this year, the riverboat will operate cruises on the Lower and Upper Mississippi, as well as the Tennessee, Ohio and Cumberland rivers.
We were fortunate to grab "a sneak peek" at American Countess this week on a five-night "preview cruise" between New Orleans and Memphis. Sailing were AQSC executives including John Waggoner, founder and CEO; Angie Hack, his daughter and the riverboat's godmother; other family members, invited VIP guests, government officials and media.
This "shakedown" cruise was designed to allow the line to operate the vessel, finetune the operation and make any needed changes before regular cruises begin in a few days. So, with that in mind, this isn't designed as a full review, but just a few gleanings for readers.
American Countess has been created from a former casino boat, the Kanesville Queen, built in 1995. Frankly, looking at her now, you'd never know it. Simply put, this river vessel — after AQSC's work — appears totally new.
In 2019, American Countess was completely overhauled, "stretched" and renovated at Gulf Island Shipyard in Houma, LA. Most notably, a new 60-foot section – allowing for more cabins – was inserted into the middle.
In addition, the riverboat was renovated top to bottom with new interior décor, furnishings and fittings, plus a new red paddlewheel was added. She's gorgeous inside and outside.
AQSC is experienced at creating this type of conversion, as it similarly converted a former gaming boat into what became American Duchess a few years ago. That river vessel, along with American Countess, both now sail the Mississippi River in AQSC's "restart" of American riving cruising.
Outside, American Countess is a paddlewheel vessel that reflects the Mark-Twain era look of a former storied time in America's history. But inside, America Countess has a bit different personality.
I've sailed on both American Queen (traditional furnishings, Mark Twain-like décor and a strong "steamboating" look and aura) as well as American Duchess (reflecting a modern, boutique feel with two-level loft suites, among other accommodations).
So, where does American Countess fit? AQSC prides itself that all vessels are a bit different – not cookie-cutter, sister vessels. I'd have to say that American Countess' interior is definitely not akin to American Queen's traditional, Mark Twain-era décor, look and furnishings.
But, that said, it's also not quite as modern as American Duchess and doesn't have those big suites. Instead, American Countess' interior design is contemporary, elegant, comfortable, yet at times opulent (such as with impressive Grand Dining Room and Grand Lobby chandeliers) and welcoming in feel.
One can easily "sink into" this riverboat. It's a charmer on many levels. Guests can head to the front of the boat and find white rocking chairs, so they can rock away while viewing the river scenery ahead. More modern, top-deck cabanas with blue cushioned seating also await.
The vessel also has a Chart Room for maritime buffs to peruse the river charts, and a cozy Library with books and games. A small exercise room has state-of-the-art machines for those seeking to work out.
Hands down, most impressive? It's the riverboat's hub, the massive Grand Lobby and Bar area. This elongated space is home to the purser's desk, shore excursion desk, small gift shop and a large bar, as well as many comfortable seating areas.
What's special is that those seating areas are adjacent to 80-foot-high windows – a wall of glass – that deliver stellar river views.
At one end of the Grand Lobby and Bar, is space for a "live" band with a baby grand piano. AQSC offers "live" cocktail hour entertainment nightly in the Grand Lobby and Bar, and if the preview cruise performers were any indication of musician talent, I'd say the quality is excellent.
On our sailing this week, those musicians with the American Countess Show Band began playing at 5 p.m. or so on most nights, then again from 7:45 p.m. to 8:15 p.m. after dinner.
Overall, I easily "sank into" this Grand Lobby space with its high ceiling, sense of elegance and relaxing color palette of gray, tan, cream and other light hues. It's a comfortable place to relax, meet up with friends, read a good book and enjoy a glass of wine, craft beer or cocktail. Small bites are served here at happy hour too.
In the large Theater, nightly "Showtime" presentations included the "Rag, Jazz and Razzamatazz" performance by talented piano man and steamboat veteran Steve Spracklen. He related fun tales about ragtime music and how it was presented back in the day. In one segment, he showed humorous "silent video" of screwball chase scenes of the ragtime era as he played.
Other Showtime presentations included:
Late night entertainment by Will Wagner and the American Countess Show band was lively jazz (not elevator music) on the one night I attended.
One traditional element from AQSC on all its vessels is the "Riverlorian" talk. Riverlorian Kelli Rae Tubs offered river chats in the theater and a Q&A chat in with guests in the Chart Room.
Other onboard activities included Bourbon Tasting; the Match Game; a workout with Lindy Keever for a fun mixture of Zumba, Pilates and strength training; and cooking demonstrations. Of course, it's easy to entertain yourself onboard too by visiting the Card Room with friends for a game of chess or bridge, or to peruse books in the lovely Library.
The Grand Dining Room serves three meals a day. On a "normal" cruise, the River Grill, an alternative venue, would also be operating, although it did not on our preview cruise.
Hand-washing stations with two sinks and soap and sanitizer are found outside both dining venues.
The line also offers small bites at certain times in the Grand Lobby and Bar area, plus guests can order room service 24 hours a day.
In the Grand Dining Room, at breakfast, lunch and dinner, guests can order from the table and have all food delivered.
Alternatively, at breakfast and lunch, they can head to a buffet-like bar that features plexiglass if they simply desire to take a look at certain Express options, such as lunchtime soups, salads and small plates, and then order those items after perusing them.
Today, I ventured there to order a freshly prepared lunch dish with a choice of pasta, shrimp, chicken, veggies and choice of sauce. But I must stress, this isn't a buffet experience in the typical sense. In this pandemic era, guests don't serve themselves. Guests go up to the buffet area simply to peruse what's available if that's of interest. Some people like to look.
Guests don't touch the food. They order and it's handed to them or delivered to the table. And guests can also sit at the table and ask the server to order and deliver the food.
Examples? For lunch one day, the Express Lunch consisted of Cream of Mushroom soup, Kentucky Burgo (a hearty broth with meats), Steamboat Salad, Caprese, Chef Salad, Sliced Port Bahn Mi on Baguette, Veggie Hummus Wrap and Carved Smoked Pork Loin. Sides included braised cabbage, scalloped potato and a tarragon vegetable medley.
Lunch Specials, in turn, are ordered at the table at all times. Yesterday, they included Nashville Hot Chicken, Double Cheese (Smash) Burger and a Carrot "Chili Dog."
Anything that's fried chicken is fabulous on this boat, per the recommendations of numerous people in my party and others. For example, the Nashville Hot Chicken that I had today for lunch was spicy, crispy and fried to perfection (so juicy).
That said, I also had USDA Prime Beef Tips one night and they were excellent too. At dinner, food is ordered off the menu and delivered to the table. One night our Classic Starters included Crispy Fried Chicken Livers, Fresh Fruit Salad or Spinach, Kale and Artichoke Dip.
Soups and Salads that same evening were Minnesota Wild Rice Soup, Chicken Soup with Diced Vegetables, Miso Soup with Tofu and Spinach, Wilted Greens with Warm Bacon Dressing or Hand-Tossed Caesar Salad.
Dinner entrees that evening consisted of Blackened Redfish with Crawfish Monica (an excellent choice for many at my table who loved it and the portion was generous), USDA Prime Steak Frites, Duck Breast with Currant-Orange Gastrique, Louisiana Shrimp Creole and Chili Relleno.
At lunch and dinner, dining room staffers circulated to pour red and white wines; those house wine pours are included in the cruise fare.
American Countess offers 123 accommodations – both inside and outside cabins that range from 170 square feet to 255 square feet. Many have private balconies with two chairs and a small table.
Alternatively, some accommodations have a private balcony-like deck space with a railing and gate, which opens to a 'round the deck walking corridor.
Awaiting all guests upon entering their cabin for the first time are two small grey pouches on the bed; both contain a mask and hand sanitizer, a nice touch for the era.
My stateroom, #251, a Deluxe Outside Staterooms with Balcony, is an "accessible" accommodation. I'm finding it spacious, comfortable, with pleasing-to-the-eye décor.
This cabin's living area offers a comfortable, upholstered chair (which also folds out into a single bed as a third berth), as well as a second, bit smaller chair. A large flat-screen TV is wall mounted and has a remote control for viewing from either the living area or bed.
The living room's desk has its own chair, offers a Keurig coffeemaker with complimentary tea and coffee packets, telephone and has cabinetry hiding a mini-refrigerator. A large mirror is above the desk. On a shelf adjacent to the desk is an ice bucket, glasses and two metal water bottles. Since the line has eliminated plastics, guests fill their water bottles at stations around the riverboat.
From my perspective, the new bedding was extremely comfortable; I and others in my group slept well. The mattress seemed supportive but also soft, and the beds have crisp sheets, a duvet and four fluffy pillows. The bed could be configured as a queen bed or, alternatively two twins, and has two end tables on either side; each has one drawer, and there is one clock.
This stateroom's accessible bathroom has a single sink with small shelves on each side above, tile flooring, toilet and a shower that wheelchairs can roll into. That shower also offers a shower seat and adjustable shower head that moves up and down.
White towels are fluffy, and a hair dryer hangs from a high wall hook; the hook needs to be lower for anyone in a wheelchair to access, something I'll alert them to in feedback.
In the wide entry corridor between the entry door and the bed is a full length mirror and the closet. Storage space in #251 is modest. The closet's two doors open to reveal one hanging bar, two fluffy robes, two sets of slippers for guests use, an in-room personal safe, an iron and ironing board and two large, pull-out drawers.
The balcony has two chairs and a small table. This stateroom is far aft near the engine area, so there is some noise, particularly when the vessel is sailing.
Health/safety protocols to board the riverboat included a pre-cruise heath questionnaire. Then, on the day prior to sailing – as AQSC provides guests with a pre-cruise, one-night hotel stay – all guests were tested for COVID-19.
These PCR tests were conducted by the line's health partner at a meeting room in the hotel. Results were available to view online within 12 hours. Any guest who tested positive was denied boarding (although I'm not sure any did), but that is exactly how it works on regular sailings.
I received an email noting that test results were available, then visited an online site to pull up the result, which thankfully was "negative." It's important to show your phone with that result to crew members at the dock. They'll ask to see that result when you board.
AQSC also checks temperatures of guests when they come on the riverboat and after they've been ashore during the cruise. Those with a temperature won't be able to board/reboard, but the line has arrangements in ports to assist guests not able to reboard.
Inside American Countess, guests will find "social distancing" signage on seats or tables in lounges, the Main Lobby Bar, theater and other public spaces. Plexiglas divides rows of seats in the theater.
Masks are required to be worn in public spaces and at any time when social distancing isn't possible. Social distancing is provided when filling tables in the dining room.
In addition, a licensed nurse will sail on every cruise. Another positive is that the vessel's air conditioning system has been fitted with a disinfecting ultraviolet lighting system.
Starting July 1, 2021, AQSC will require all guests and crew to provide proof of vaccination prior to boarding. On our cruise the bulk of guests were already vaccinated, based on anecdotal feedback of people we polled.
Guests should talk with the line before booking and again pre-cruise about any specific questions, details about policies or required health/safety elements. For information, check https://www.americanqueensteamboatcompany.com/health-and-safety/.
Normally, this vessel would be capable of sailing with 245 passengers, but the line has modified the vessel and it's been recertified by the U.S. Coast Guard – allowing it to sail during this pandemic era with CDC approval – to operate with 166 guests (or fewer people). About 100 are sailing on our cruise.
Important Note: On this short cruise, I did not take any shore excursions and only went ashore one night for a special dinner, so I'm not able to report back as I normally would on the shoreside product and the bus operations.
Overall, though, this riverboat looks totally new, is elegant yet comfortable, and the crew are welcoming to guests. Most notably, it has a fabulous Grand Lobby and Bar. Staterooms are well-appointed and comfortable, and the dining and entertainment are quite good.
While more crew members are being added in the next day or so at Memphis, prior to the first revenue cruise, those crew members we met onboard are overjoyed to be back working again on the river.
I was happy to be back sailing too!
Your Travel Specialist
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