For the first time in more than a year, a new cruise vessel is setting sail

Mar 20, 2021

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Looking for another sign that the comeback of cruising in North America really has begun? You’ll be getting one this weekend, courtesy of the American Queen Steamboat Company.

The Indiana-based riverboat operator will do something no other cruise company in North America has done in more than a year: Christen a brand-new vessel and then put it into operation.

The company behind the famed American Queen steamboat will officially name its fourth riverboat, American Countess, on Sunday at a ceremony along the waterfront of New Orleans. The vessel then will sail up the Mississippi River to Memphis on its very first trip with passengers.

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The four-deck-high paddlewheeler, which will operate voyages on not just the Mississippi River but the Tennessee, Ohio and Cumberland rivers, has been ready to go since early last year. But an original unveiling and christening scheduled for early last year was postponed after the coronavirus outbreak was declared a pandemic.

Like hundreds of ocean and river cruise vessels around the world, American Countess has spent the past year sitting idle due to the coronavirus-related halt to cruising.

American Countess is just one of several dozen brand-new cruise vessels from a wide range of ocean and river cruise lines that have been completed over the past year but have yet to be christened or start sailing.

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An artist’s drawing of American Countess, which will debut this weekend. (Image courtesy of American Queen Steamboat Company)

The vessels include everything from giant ocean ships such as Carnival Cruise Line‘s Mardi Gras, which is designed to carry 5,282 passengers at double occupancy, to little river vessels such as American Countess and expedition ships such as Lindblad Expedition’s National Geographic Endurance.

Princess Cruises, Celebrity Cruises, Silversea, Virgin Voyages, Viking and AmaWaterways are among other brands that have new ships waiting to be officially unveiled.

The last major cruise vessel to be unveiled and christened in North America was Regent Seven Seas Cruises’ Seven Seas Splendor. Billed as the most luxurious cruise vessel ever built, the 750-passenger luxury ship was named by Christie Brinkley at a gala ceremony in Miami on Feb. 21, 2020, that included a live performance by the singer Seal.

Taking place just as the coronavirus was beginning to spread in North America, the Seven Seas Splendor christening ceremony was the last big cruise event where cruise industry leaders assembled in close quarters without masks or worries about social distancing. Seven Seas Splendor sailed with passengers for just a few days after the christening before the entire cruise industry around the world shut down.

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The christening of the American Countess is set to be a much more modest affair, with mask-wearing and social distancing. All attendees will receive a PCR test for COVID-19 in advance of attending.

Built using the existing hull of a former gaming vessel (the Kanesville Queen), American Countess is designed to offer both the feel of an authentic paddlewheeler and innovative, modern design.

The four-deck-high vessel has forward-facing windows to allow for sightseeing as it rolls along the river. It also has a portside bar with an 80-foot-wide wall of windows looking out over the water.

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The Grand Lobby on American Countess. (Photo courtesy of American Queen Steamboat Company)

Four options for dining on American Countess include a Grand Dining Room outfitted with custom Italian fabrics and rich walnut accents that also has floor-to-ceiling windows with panoramic views. There’s also the small bite-serving Grand Bar & Lobby, the casual River Grill and 24-hour room service.

Other features of American Countess include a theater that will offer performances by an onboard theater group and a house band; a library; a card room; a chart room; and a gym. The vessel has 123 cabins ranging in size from 170 to 255 square feet — some with balconies. Like other American Queen Steamboat riverboats, it travels with “riverlorians” who will recount local river lore and history.

The American Countess was initially designed to cruise with up to 245 passengers. But American Queen Steamboat has made temporary modifications to the vessel (and has had it recertified by the U.S. Coast Guard) to sail with just 166 or fewer passengers.

The library on the riverboat American Countess. (Photo courtesy of American Queen Steamboat Company)

With the modifications, American Countess will operate with too few passengers and crew to be subject to the current cruising restrictions imposed by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Citing the continuing coronavirus outbreak, the CDC has been blocking cruise vessels that operate with more than 250 passengers and crew from sailing in U.S. waters since March of 2020.

American Queen Steamboat is implementing a long list of new health protocols on American Countess that are aimed at reducing the chances that COVID-19 could spread on vessels.

The new measures include testing all passengers for COVID-19 using a PCR test in advance of sailing and pre-board health screenings. There also will be a mask-wearing requirement on board the vessel in situations where social distancing is not possible.

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

In addition, all the air conditioning systems on the company’s vessels have been refitted with disinfecting ultraviolet lighting systems, and the vessels will sail with a licensed nurse on board. The company has formed new partnerships with entities in every port it visits to ensure that anyone who becomes sick can get quick care.

The debut of American Countess comes as cruising on U.S. waterways is just beginning to restart after a year without any cruising in North America. Another American Queen Steamboat vessel, the 166-passenger American Duchess, just restarted sailings on the Mississippi River on Monday. A single American Cruise Lines vessel also has resumed sailings this week along the intracoastal waterways of Georgia and South Carolina.

The first cruise of the American Countess that begins on Sunday will be a non-revenue sailing with company employees, their families and friends, and local officials. The vessel’s first voyage with paying passengers will kick off March 28.

American Countess initially will sail between New Orleans and Memphis, Tennessee, but eventually will operate across the entire Mississippi River complex.

Fares for cruises on the American Countess start at $1,999 per person, including shore tours and onboard internet access.

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Featured image courtesy of American Queen Steamboat Company

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