First look: The cool new paddlewheeler that will take you from New Orleans to Memphis

Mar 26, 2021

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It’s been a big week for the comeback of cruising in North America — and not just because two of the world’s biggest big-ship cruise lines, Royal Caribbean and Celebrity Cruises, opened bookings for their first sailings on the continent since the coronavirus pandemic forced the industry to a halt.

This week also saw some of the first sailings by small cruise vessels on U.S. waterways in more than a year, including the first voyage of a new riverboat on the Mississippi River.

The new riverboat, the 245-passenger American Countess, is the latest Mississippi River paddlewheeler from American Queen Steamboat Company — the company behind the iconic American Queen steamboat. And its arrival is something of a big deal in the world of cruising.

Christened on Sunday in New Orleans, American Countess is the first new cruise vessel of any kind to be christened and go into service in North America since the coronavirus-related cruising shutdown began in early 2020.

The American Countess tied up along the Mississippi River on Monday. (Photo by Gean Sloan/The Points Guy)

TPG is one of just a handful of travel outlets getting exclusive access this week to the first sailing of American Countess — a nonrevenue “preview” cruise from New Orleans to Memphis with company executives, their friends and family, and local dignitaries.

As I’m seeing this week, American Countess offers an alluring mix of both traditional and contemporary riverboat design. From the outside, it resembles a classic paddlewheeler of old — the sort of thing you’d expect to see on the cover of a Mark Twain novel. But on the inside, it’s as modern as any newly built hotel on land, with a stylish, contemporary vibe.

Here’s a first look at some of the most notable features of the vessel, which will begin its first sailings with paying passengers on Sunday:

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A classic steamboat exterior

American Countess tied up at Natchez, Mississippi. (Photo by Gene Sloan/The Points Guy)

If you’ve always dreamed of cruising the Mississippi on a riverboat that (on the outside, at least) evokes the golden age of steamboats, American Countess could be your vessel.

The exterior of the four-deck-high paddlewheeler is a red-and-white, gingerbread trim-festooned confection that would look right at home in an 1800s period piece.

Among the old-timey touches that make the exterior of American Countess a delight for the eyes is its classic (and fully functional) giant red paddlewheel, which churns through the water with a mesmerizing, bump-bump-bump-bump rhythm.

The exterior of the American Countess also is embellished with two large white “booms” at its bow that project forward like giant antennae — a classic touch of riverboats of old. The booms, which swing from side to side, support long mobile walkways known as stages, which in turn swing down onto land to let passengers off onto the shore.

The big red paddlewheel at the back of American Countess isn’t just for show. It helps propel the vessel forward. (Photo by Gene Sloan/The Points Guy)
Long walkways known as “stages” are suspended from booms at the front of American Countess. (Photo by Gene Sloan/The Points Guy)

The stages are an old-style way of getting passengers off riverboats that are, notably, not just evocative of a bygone era but also practical for Mississippi River cruising even today. The flexible nature of the stages means American Queen can “dock” just about anywhere it wants along the river. It just needs to find a relatively open area along the shore to tie up.

We saw this sort of flexible docking in action during a stop near White Castle, Louisiana. The American Countess just pulled up the side of the river, in a place where there was no formal dock, to let passengers off.

Modern interiors

The Grand Lobby is the main gathering point for passengers on American Countess. (Photo courtesy of American Queen Steamboat Company)

Despite its exterior, the inside of American Countess is as stylish and modern as anything you’ll find in a just-built city hotel.

The main gathering space on the vessel is the Grand Lobby, a soaring bar and lounge area with a classy, contemporary feel. Running for 80 feet along the port side of American Countess, its standout feature is what is essentially a wall of glass offering lounge-goers stunning panoramic views of the passing scenery. Few American river cruise vessels can boast such a spectacular interior space for river-gazing while underway.

The Grand Lobby on American Countess is lined with floor-to-ceiling windows. (Photo by Gene Sloan/The Points Guy)

The Grand Lobby is located at the center of American Countess’ main public deck, appropriately called the Main Deck, which also is home to an elegant and contemporary dining space. Called the Grand Dining Room, it’s where passengers eat most of their meals.

Also located just off the Grand Lobby is a full-blown theater (called, simply, The Theater) and a small lounge called Perks that offers self-serve coffee beverages, tea, cookies and soft-serve ice cream. Both spaces also are designed in a contemporary style.

Passengers can also enjoy a small library, card room, fitness center and a deck-top lounge area.

Contemporary cabins

A cabin on the riverboat American Countess. (Photo courtesy of American Queen Steamboat Company)

The American Queen Steamboat Company’s best-known vessel, American Queen, is famous for the 19th-century-style opulence of its cabins (think: Victorian-style wooden armoires, four-poster beds and red patterned wallpaper). Staying in a cabin on the vessel is a little like going back in time.

Not so for the American Countess.

Like American Queen Steamboat’s last new vessel, American Duchess (unveiled in 2017), American Countess has unmistakably contemporary cabins that match the aforementioned public spaces. You can expect clean-lined sofas and desk areas; queen beds topped with crisp white-on-white duvets; and large, flat-panel televisions mounted on the wall.

Bathrooms in American Countess cabins feature glass-walled showers with sleek chrome Grohe fixtures, white-tile floors and minimalist toilets and sinks. They’re also unusually large for cabins on a cruise vessel.

Cabin bathrooms on American Countess have a clean-lined, modern look. (Photo by Gene Sloan/The Points Guy)

In a “keep-things-simple” strategy that was aimed, in part, at making it easy to sell the ship to groups, the line has essentially just put two types of cabins on the vessel. Most of the rooms are balcony cabins that measure either 192 or 226 square feet. Then there are some windowless “inside” cabins that mostly measure 153 square feet.

That’s a notable change from American Queen Steamboat’s last vessel, American Duchess, which offers a broader array of cabins including some very large suites.

Overall, the rooms are comfortable and inviting — and they have a lot of wonderful little modern touches. I’m particularly smitten with the electric outlets that are built right into the side tables on each side of the bed. There are three U.S.-style electric outlets and two USB outlets at the top of each side table, which is a dream for people like me who travel with all sorts of gadgets. Four more outlets and two USB outlets are built into the desk across the room.

Each side of the bed also features a perfectly placed light fixture with both a lamp to provide ambient light and a small spotlight that can be directed any-which-way for reading in bed. The latter allows you to lay in bed reading without wayward light bothering someone who is trying to sleep right next to you.

Go ahead: Bring five phones on your American Countess cruise. There’s no shortage of electrical outlets near the beds in cabins. (Photo by Gene Sloan/The Points Guy)

The cabins do have one noticeable flaw that could leave someone a bit flustered upon arrival, depending on his or her packing habits: There’s relatively limited storage space. There is just one modest-sized closet with a single row for hanging clothes, two drawers and nowhere logical to put your shoes.

If you’re thinking about booking a trip on American Countess, be strategic about what you pack — or assume you’ll keep some of your clothes and other items in your suitcase, which you can slide under the bed.

Lively entertainment

Steve Spracklen plays ragtime tunes on American Countess. (Photo by Gene Sloan/The Points Guy)

American Countess is notably smaller and more intimate than American Queen Steamboat’s 436-passenger American Queen, which is the world’s largest river steamboat. It has just 123 cabins vs. 222 on American Queen. But despite its relatively small size, it offers a lot of entertainment.

A small theater group that includes four performers and a four-person house band sails with American Countess and performs most nights in its theater, with musical medley-type productions that offer everything from classic songs of the South to 1970s music.

In addition, the house band entertains passengers most nights in the Grand Lobby.

The vessel’s theater also welcomes special guest performers such as Steve Spracklen, a pianist who often entertains passengers on American Queen Steamboat vessels with ragtime music, weaving in some of the history of the genre as he goes.

Passengers also will find lots of daily activities such as bourbon tastings and talks from the vessel’s “riverlorian” — an onboard river expert who recounts local river lore and history.

On this sailing, well-known Natchez-based chef Regina Charboneau also was on board to host cooking demonstrations.

Comfortable river views

Rows of rocking chairs await passengers at the bow of American Countess. (Photo by Gene Sloan/The Points Guy)

One of the great things about American Countess is that it’s filled with spaces that use the main attraction of a Mississippi River cruise — the river itself — as a focal point.

In addition to having interior spaces such as the Grand Lobby that are built around panoramic views of the river through huge glass windows, the vessel also offers lots of outdoor areas where you can sit and watch the river roll by.

Covered lounges areas are located at the top of American Countess. (Photo by Gene Sloan/The Points Guy)

The bow of the vessel features particularly wonderful outdoor deck spaces that are lined with rocking chairs where passengers can lounge for hours, watching the activity of the river.

There’s also a large deck-top lounge area with comfortable outdoor furniture that can be covered or uncovered, depending on the weather.

Included tours

An American Queen Steamboat Company motorcoach awaits passengers in White Castle, Louisiana. (Photo by Gene Sloan/The Points Guy)

As is typical for all American Queen Steamboat vessels, American Countess offers tours to passengers in every destination it visits.

On this sailing, that included a tour of Nottoway. Due to high water levels on the Mississippi River this week, American Countess wasn’t able to tie up right there, but it was able to get close. Passengers were then taken to the site in custom-built American Queen Steamboat motorcoaches.

A signature feature of the line is that its motorcoaches — each specially designed with extra glass up top for viewing — follow its vessels up and down the Mississippi and other rivers for daily use during touring.

American Queen Steamboat is particularly known for included-in-the-fare “hop-on, hop-off” tours in the river towns its vessels visit that allow passengers to explore at their own pace while stopping at multiple attractions. For now, as part of the anti-coronavirus measures American Queen Steamboat is implementing, such touring has been scaled back in the interest of safety. But the line is offering alternative included-in-price tours that are more closely managed.

During these new tours, passengers travel together as a group by motorcoach for sightseeing with a more limited number of stops.

American Queen Steamboat executives have said the new touring system is likely just a temporary measure until it implements a new COVID-19 vaccine requirement for passengers in July.

American Countess this year initially will sail week-long voyages between New Orleans and Memphis with stops in places such as Natchez and Vicksburg, Mississippi, and St. Francisville, Louisiana. But the vessel also will operate on the upper part of the Mississippi River and also on the Ohio and Cumberland rivers later in the year.

The itineraries will take the vessel as far north as Red Wing, Minnesota, and as far east as Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and Chattanooga, Tennessee.

All American Countess itineraries include a pre-cruise overnight stay at a hotel in the departure port.

Bottom line

American Countess is an enticing option for travelers hoping to cruise on the Mississippi River or one of its tributaries. While it has a classic Mississippi paddlewheeler look on its outside — something that, to many people, just seems right for Mississippi River cruise vessels — its interior isn’t a throwback to the 19th century.

If you cruise on American Countess, you’ll find interior public rooms including lounges and dining venues that are as modern and stylish as any new-build boutique hotel, with cabins to match.

Just keep in mind that American Countess, like most river cruise vessels, is a relatively small vessel when compared to the typical ocean cruise ship. You’ll find fewer restaurants, lounges and other venues on American Countess than you’ll find on the typical ocean ship. You’ll also find far fewer crowds. As is typical for small cruise vessels, American Countess has much more of the feel of a boutique hotel than a large resort.

The Points Guy cruise writer Gene Sloan is traveling on American Countess this week as a guest of the cruise line. 

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Featured image by Gene Sloan/The Points Guy.

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