Dining, Entertainment and Shore Excursions on American Countess

Travel Agent is just back from an Ohio and Mississippi Rivers sailing with American Queen Voyages aboard American Countess. Prior to the sailing, we opted for our own three-night, independent, pre-cruise stay in Louisville, KY, where the cruise departed. Following are our first-hand gleanings from our time onboard, including the dining, entertainment and shore excursions.

An Enhanced Culinary Offering

Regina Charboneau
AQV's Culinary Ambassador Regina Charboneau. (Photo by American Queen Voyages)

Overall, the biggest enhancement we discovered on this past summer's cruise on American Countess is an elevated dining product. Yes, the food and beverage options were certainly fine in the past. But in 2023, Chef Regina Charboneau, the line's culinary ambassador, assumed more robust F&B responsibilities. Best known as the "Biscuit Queen of Natchez," Chef Charboneau is a well-known cookbook author, former San Francisco and Natchez, MS, restauranteur, and currently the owner of a cooking school in Natchez. In her role as culinary ambassador, she has hosted culinary cruises and provided onboard culinary demonstrations for guests. In addition, she often hosts AQV guests for a shore excursion that's a culinary lesson at her cooking school.

That all continues, but this year AQV also tapped Chef Charboneau for new responsibilities that directly impact the onboard F&B product aboard all its river vessels. She's now working much more closely with the onboard chefs and individual galley team members, as well as AQV's corporate F&B personnel. She's providing direct input to help craft the menus with new recipes, inventive culinary presentations and more favorite local dishes and beverages from destinations along a ship's specific sailing route.

After more than a week aboard, we felt the enhancements "truly showed." For instance, we noticed more robust breakfast and lunch buffets with new, creative choices in the Grand Dining Room.

Grand Dining Room 

The elegant Grand Dining Room of American Queen Voyages' American Countess.
The elegant Grand Dining Room of American Countess.  (Photo by American Queen Voyages)

Extending fully across the ship's beam, the lovely Grand Dining Room serves as the ship's inviting main restaurant. Decor touches include custom Italian fabrics and rich walnut accents. Many tables offer fabulous river and riverbank views through floor-to-ceiling windows on both sides of the restaurant. 

What's for lunch? On one day, the menu's starters included beef and barley soup, cream of mushroom soup, Green Goddess wedge salad, and West Indies crab salad. Entrees included Cobb salad, pasta pomodoro, brie B.L.T., and a grilled-mozzarella and sun-dried tomato pesto cheeseburger. 

Dinner Enhancements 

In a nod to more destination "storytelling" throughout the entire AQV product this year, one new menu feature initiated by Charboneau and the F&B team is a "lead-in paragraph" at the top of each evening's dinner menu. During one evening, that descriptor outlined the immigrant story on the Ohio River—mentioning the influences of English, German and Ulster settlers from the U.S. northeast states, others from the Carolinas and Virginia and second-generation Chinese immigrants, too. 

Essentially, the goal is to give guests a bit deeper dive into the heritage and culinary traditions along their river route. So, reflecting that immigrant story, the starter dishes included vegetable spring rolls, Cantonese dumplings, oxtail soup with barley, and Asian pear and spinach salad. Entrees included crispy duck confit, Miso-glazed cod, roast rack of lamb and black pepper tofu.

Regina Charboneau's salt and peppered oysters, served in American Countess' Grand Dining Room.
Guests dining in the Grand Dining Room on American Countess can order such dishes as  Chef Regina Carboneau's salt-and-pepper oysters. (Photo by Susan J. Young)

While that menu was more international in nature, on another evening, the Grand Dining Room's dinner menu instead focused on many of Chef Charboneau's favorite dishes. Some had a decidedly southern flair. For starters, guests could order salt-and-pepper oysters (shown above), a port-wine-poached pear, artichoke crab salad, and roasted beet and orange salad. Dinner entrees that evening also included: Southern fried quail, Lobster Rockefeller, bacon-wrapped port loin and beef Bourguignon.

Of course, main dining room dinner menus still have "always available classics" such as Caesar salad, AQV seasonal salad, chicken broth with julienned carrots, sauteed chicken breast, grilled fish, the vegetable of the season, baked potato, crisp fries and so on.

Typically, the Grand Dining Room is open for breakfast and lunch with robust buffets, while select dishes can be ordered at the table. At dinner, the dining room offers two assigned seatings for dinner. It's worth noting that during our sailing, Chef Charboneau and AQV officials were mulling over the possibility of offering open seating for dinner within that Grand Dining Room. Travel Agent rechecked with the line this week and no decision has yet been made about any potential change.

The River Grill and Room Service

The casual River Grill is an alternative dining option for guests of American Queen Voyages sailing on American Countess.
Guests sailing on American Countess can enjoy a casual meal in the ship's River Grill. (Photo by Susan J. Young)

With both indoor and al fresco seating, the River Grill is where guests head for casual dining aboard American Countess. Nestled fully aft, it's open from 6:30 to 9 a.m. for breakfast; 11 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. for lunch; and 5 to 7 p.m. for dinner. We sauntered up to this eatery on several occasions and found a savory buffet with carving station, hot dishes, vegetables, fruits, salads and desserts.

Plus, guests will find a small printed menu of select items that can be ordered at the table. The River Grill also has a full-service bar with crew members circulating to take drink orders.

Grilled Romaine Salad was just one of many options for a casual lunch at American Countess' River Grill.
In addition to a meat carving station on many occasions, the River Grill's buffet offers cooked dishes, vegetables, fruits, cheeses, and these tasty grilled Romaine salads shown above. (Photo by Susan J. Young)

Upgraded Room Service 

This year, AQV upgraded its room service menu, too. Now, guests can choose from such dishes as a cheese plate with fruit, charcuterie board, a three-egg omelet, pan-seared crab cake, grilled chicken sandwich, certified Black Angus hamburger or cheeseburger, class BLT, steak and cheese quesadilla, plant-based burger, avocado toast and more. Fresh fruit, crisp fries and potato chips are also offered, along with desserts.

A separate room service menu is available for breakfast (including a door hang that guests can put out the night before.) One nice perk? For lunch and dinner, guests can also order room service dishes from the Grand Dining Room's menu.

Additional Public Spaces 

The Library on board American Queen Voyages' American Countess.
American Countess' Library is a welcoming, relaxing spot for reading and contemplation. (Photo by American Queen Voyages.)

As for other public spaces, we like the Library on Deck 2. With comfortable sofas and chairs, it's a great spot to curl up with a good book. Nearby, there's a separate Card Room with games, chairs and tables. 

On Deck 3, guests will discover the Chart Room. Yep, as expected, it offers charts and other navigational tools, so guests can track their voyage progress. And for fitness buffs, besides an exercise room on Deck 1 forward, there's a walking track on Deck 3. It makes a full loop around the ship. If you enjoy walking every morning, consider booking an accommodation with a veranda that opens to that walking deck. 

Of course, guests will also find cozy outside spaces aboard American Countess, most notably the cushioned furniture on the top Sun Deck, as well as rocking chairs in certain areas. 

That's Entertainment 

The cruise directors do double duty as entertainers in American Countess' theater.
Cruise Director Emma Harper and Michael Nicholas (left) and Nick McCarthy (right), both assistant cruise directors, performed in American Countess' theater as song-and-dance entertainers. (Photo by Susan J. Young)

Almost every night in the large, well-equipped onboard theater, guests can attend “Showtime” presentations. Overall, we were highly impressed with the quality of the entertainment aboard American Countess. On our cruise, the cruise directors did double duty as the American Countess Ensemble, a group of talented song-and-dance performers. All three were excellent at both their jobs, frankly.

Emma Harper, the cruise director, served as show captain in the theater. Her husband Nick McCarthy, an assistant cruise director, also was the ship’s Riverlorian, providing enrichment talks both in the theater and Chart Room. Another assistant cruise director, Michael Nicholas, was also an entertainer, and had his own "one-man blues show" in the theater on one night.

Collectively, though, they performed in what we'd describe as "excellent original shows"—far more robust and professional than what one might expect for a small ship. During our cruise, those original shows included: “Riversong,” “Just Go to The Movies,” “Country in Concert,” and “Anything Goes Tonight.” One hint? If, "Just Go to the Movies" is offered during a client's cruise and McCarthy is one of the performers, tell the guest not to miss it. His "Singing in the Rain" solo rendition and dance with the umbrella would surely do Gene Kelly proud.

Singing in the Rain performance by Nick McCarthy on AQV's American Countess.
Singing in the Rain was one of the solo performances by Nick McCarthy, assistant cruise director. (Photo by Susan J. Young)

Those shows also featured the American Countess Show Band, a group of four talented musicians. Manny Chester was the pianist/band leader, while Frank Smith (bass), Tim Whalen (woodwinds) and Wyatt Gardner (drums), rounded out the band. One night they took over the theater for their own full show. And, they also performed nightly in the Grand Lobby Bar or around the ship as needed. 

Onboard Activities and the Riverlorian

In addition to the theater performances, guests can attend fact-filled, immersive Riverlorian talks in the theater or Chart Room. For example, McCarthy's Riverlorian talks focused on such topics as "Floods and Flood Control" and "Tales from the Rivers."

Cooking demonstrations are also conducted for guests in the theater. There's a nifty overhead camera that allows guests in the audience to view the culinary action from above on a theater screen. On our themed cruise, Charboneau, as well as guest host Dickie Brennan, a famous New Orleans restauranteur, offered a cooking demonstration and Q&A session with guests in the theater.

Movies are also shown, and choices during our sailing included "Elvis," "Where the Crawdads Sing," and "Linda Ronstadt: The Sound of My Voice." River cruise guests also can participate in Pictionary, trivia and photo contests. On one day, we walked into the midst of a "Name that Tune" interactive game at the Grand Lobby Bar. Sudoku and crossword puzzle "paper games" can also be picked up by individual guests in the Card Room. 

During our cruise, a spa specialist was aboard. Guests could dial "0" on their stateroom phone to schedule a facial, massage or other spa service.

Shore Excursions: Hop-On, Hop-Off 

American Queen Voyages provides complimentary "Hop-On, Hop-Off" motorcoach tours for guests arriving in U.S. ports of call.
"Hop-On, Hop-Off" motorcoach tours are provided free of charge in U.S. port destinations for American Queen Voyages guests heading ashore.  (Photo by American Queen Voyages.)

One of our favorite parts of any AQV voyage is destination touring on one of the river line’s modern, comfortable "Hop-On, Hop-Off" motorcoaches. These coaches with dedicated AQV drivers are also used for transfers to/from the ship.

During any cruise on heartland or Pacific Northwest rivers, these modern coaches "follow" the ship via local roads—always catching up with American Countess or another AQV vessel at the next port call. There, they provide "Hop-On, Hop-Off" tours, which are complimentary for guests. Maps are available on the ship, so guests board the coach with their own individual route map, which has numbered stops and basic information about top attractions near those stops.

Then, as the coach makes a loop around the route for the day, it pulls over at sandwich-board, sidewalk signage marking those designated stops. So, guests can hop off to explore or visit an attraction, if they so choose. Or, they can stay on until a later stop. After guests are finished touring a particular attraction or shopping district, they then can simply wait at the sandwich-board sign for another motorcoach to pick them up—usually within 20 to 30 minutes. Coaches make continuous loops throughout the day.

One plus? Some attractions offer free entry to AQV's guests who just show their key card. And during most mornings, guided expert commentary is provided for the full loop around a city/town. 

Among the port calls for American Countess is St. Louis, MO, its downtown shown above with its Gateway Arch.
Guests sailing on American Countess and making a St. Louis port visit can take one of American Queen Voyages' "Hop-On, Hop-Off" motorcoach tours to see many sites around the city. The famed Gateway Arch is shown above. (Photo by Susan J. Young)

Assigned Coach Times

The night prior to any port call, AQV's shore excursion manager will offer a presentation with slides in the ship's theater. Guests will learn about the full lineup of what they can experience ashore the following day. Typically, in the afternoon or evening prior to a port call, guests can head to an electronic panel adjacent to the guest services/shore excursion desk within Deck 2’s Grand Lobby. 

There, they can choose an assigned time for the next day’s "Hop-On, Hop-Off" tour and then print out that ticket. At that shore desk nearby, they can also pick up the printed map of the coach’s route with the designated stops. Separately, cabin stewards also leave the maps on the guest's bed during nightly turn-down service.

​ Edit media  Each evening the theater, the AQV shore excursion manager talks to guests in the ship's theater about the next day's shore options.  ​
Nightly in the ship's theater, AQV's shore excursion manager explains the next day's shore options for guests. For example, here's one slide shown to guests heading to Port Girardeau, MO. (Photo by Susan J. Young)

At the appointed time for their tour, guests then head off the ship, after being signed out via their key card. Sometimes guests may have a short uphill climb to reach the coach. Guests on our cruise appreciated that American Countess had a golf cart to drive any guests who needed a ride to the coach. .

Example of a Shore Day: Paducah, KY

In Paducah, KY, at the confluence of the Ohio and Tennessee Rivers, Travel Agent hopped aboard the "Hop-On, Hop-Off" motorcoach tour. Having been a frequent visitor here, we opted for the complete 45-minute loop with five designated stops around the city. 

First up was Paducah's stellar National Quilt Museum. Advise clients not to miss this museum. Reflecting amazing design and artistry, the quilts on display are definitely more akin to works of art than handicrafts. Plus, tourgoers might see either up-and-coming quilt artists and highly experienced quilters in action. Be sure to pop into the museum's gift shop for unique gifts and souvenirs. Fellow AQV guests who hadn't been to the museum previously later returned to the ship raving about this attraction. 

Other stops along the Paducah "Hop-On, Hop-Off" tour route included:

  • A Greek Revival mansion, the 1852-era Lloyd Tilghman House
  • The Silent Brigade Distillery, offering everything from Apple Pie Moonshine to the signature Kentucky straight bourbon whiskey
  • Downtown's Paducah Railroad Museum, imparting heritage tales and artifacts on display the Nashville, Chattanooga and St. Louis Railroad
  • The River Discovery Center with interactive exhibits and displays about the river region and its marine life

An added bonus for any guests taking the Paducah "Hop-On, Hop-Off" tour is a chance to briefly view three blocks of colorful, painted murals gracing the city's floodwalls. They were painted 20 years or so ago by Robert Dafford and his team. 

Optional Chitlin Trail Excursion

In addition to the complimentary coach tour in Paducah, AQV offered a premium, optional tour, "Check-In Along the Chitlin Trail." The cost was $99. The premium, 90-minute tour transported guests to a historic Colonial-era building.

Once a haven for traveling African American musicians in the 20th century, the structure's simple porch lettering reads "Hotel Metropolitan." Guests taking this tour will meet "Miss Maggie," exuding southern energy and hospitality. As guests follow her through the rooms, she shares the rich history of the hotel, which once attracted B.B. King, Billie Holiday, Ike and Tina Turner and other notables.  

Other Ports of Call

A riverside welcome mural on the flood wall awaits American Queen Voyages' guests arriving for a port day in Cape Girardeau, MO
River cruisers arriving in Cape Girardeau, MO, are greeted by this sign along the city's flood wall.  (Photo by Susan J. Young)

During our voyage along the Ohio and Mississippi rivers between Louisville and Alton, IL, other river ports of call include Brandenburg, Owensboro and Henderson, KY, as well as Cape Girardeau and St. Louis, MO. "Hop-On, Hop-Off" coach tours were available for guests in all those ports. In St. Louis, we took that tour which included stops at the Old Cathedral & Gateway Arch Park, the Economy Museum, National Blues Museum, Cathedral Basilica of St. Louis and Missouri History Museum

Plus, in certain ports, AQV offered other tours, at times on a complimentary basis. Among those, in Brandenburg, guests could opt for "An American Leader: The Life and Presidency of Abraham Lincoln." That tour took guests to the Lincoln Museum with three-dimensional wax figures, life-size dioramas, exhibits and campaign posters. Tour goers also visited Lincoln Square and viewed its six-foot-high, brass Lincoln statue, before heading to the Abraham Lincoln Birthplace National Historical Park. 

Premium Shore Trips

AQV also offers separate premium shore excursions at an added fee. Per person pricing during our summer 2023 cruise is shown below: 

  • "Hands-On Creative Pottery Presentation" ($99) in Brandenburg
  • "Hometown Flavor in Henderson" ($129)
  • "Corvettes and Fighter Jets" ($199) at Owensboro
  • "Triumph over Tragedy on the Trail of Tears" ($89) in Cape Girardeau

In addition, on disembarkation day in St. Louis, AQV offered guests on our voyage a post-cruise city tour, "The Lewis and Clark Gateway to the West," for $129 per person. Guests could choose to end that tour with a drop-off either at St. Louis International Airport or AQV's preferred hotel.

Parting Thoughts

American Countess in 2023
American Countess is a lovely paddlewheeler with a historic look outside, but a contemporary, modern interior with a few "steamboating" touches inside. It plies heartland rivers for American Queen Voyages. (Photo by Susan J. Young)

Overall, AQV delivers a very good American river cruise experience. We enjoyed our American Countess voyage, and in particular exploring the Ohio River once again. It's a lesser known region for many American travelers. As a result, if clients have "been there, done that" in the main Mississippi River routing from New Orleans to Memphis or even on to St. Paul, MN, or on the Columbia and Snake Rivers of the Pacific Northwest, then an Ohio River journey may be a good option.

In particular, we loved exploring Louisville and two of its top attractions—the Kentucky Derby Museum and the Frazier History Museum

As for American Countess, we liked the comfortable look and feel of this ship, its modern, contemporary styling and a few steamboating touches. Thanks to greater involvement by Chef Charboneau, we also noticed sizable enhancements in onboard dining. Many guests told us they liked the new premium shore trips, which often have special interest draws such as food, art, heritage or bourbon. Onboard service was stellar, too, and we enjoyed nightly high-quality entertainment including original production shows with talented musicians, singers and dancers.

From the trade side, we also see good group potential for advisors with American Countess. With just four cabin categories, travel advisors are able to book their group travelers into a slew of same category accommodations. Advisors booking groups also have the potential to earn 10 percent enhanced commission on premium shore excursions, pre- or post-stay city stays and travel insurance. 

For more information, visit www.aqvoyages.com.

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