On Site: Rolling on the Ohio River With American Countess

In late August 2023, Travel Agent completed a 10-day American Queen Voyages (AQV) journey on the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers, traveling from Louisville, KY, to Alton, IL, aboard the 245-passenger American CountessIn total, our trip spanned 13 nights, though, as we opted for our own three-night, independent, pre-cruise stay in Louisville. Then, we began the AQV itinerary, which included a one-night, pre-cruise hotel stay. 

Our 580-mile river journey on American Countess offered port calls along the Ohio River at Brandenburg, Owensboro, Henderson and the famed "quilt capital" of Paducah, KY. The paddlewheeler then entered the central Mississippi River for calls at Cape Girardeau and St. Louis, MO.

In this Part 1 of a two-part series, we'll look at our Louisville pre-cruise stay; the check-in and boarding process for American Countess; several major public spaces and accommodations on the vessel; and recent fare enhancements on the inclusivity side. Stay tuned for more about American Countess' dining, entertainment and shore excursions in part two of this series later this week. 

Pre-Cruise in Louisville, KY

Established in 1778, Louisville is a popular river cruise embarkation port along the Ohio River. We opted to spend three nights here prior to the start of our AQV experience. We'd highly recommend river cruisers do the same if they're able.

What are some of the city's top draws? . 

Louisville is the centerpiece of U.S. bourbon culture with a slew of distilleries and spirits experiences for visitors. It's also home to several, world-class, sports-related attractions—most notably, the Kentucky Derby Museum, Mohammed Ali Center and the Louisville Slugger Museum and Factory. The latter is easily spotted by the 120-foot-high Louisville Slugger baseball bat fronting the museum.

Travelers will find nearby state parks and other natural eco-areas. Hiking, biking, kayaking and other outdoor activities abound. Families and theme park fans can additionally head to the Kentucky Kingdom theme park and Hurricane Bay water park.

Plus, Louisville has a cornucopia of art, architectural and cultural attractions such as the excellent Frazier History Museum.

Kentucky Derby Museum

Kentucky Derby Museum in Louisville, KY.
During a pre- or post-cruise stay in Louisville, KY, cruisers might take time to view exhibits and the 360-degree "Greatest Race" multimedia presentation at the Kentucky Derby Museum. (Photo by Susan J. Young)

We headed for the Kentucky Derby Museumlocated adjacent to the Churchill Downs racetrack. It was a hoot to check out excellent examples of those iconic ladies’ hats worn on Derby race day. Plus, visitors can peruse horseracing trophies, thoroughbred photos, collectible Kentucky Derby glasses, vividly colored jockey silks, and many other historic artifacts.

After purchasing your tickets, be sure to enter the museum by walking through an actual race "starting gate." In addition, this year, the museum is offering a special 50th anniversary exhibit looking back at Secretariat. That superstar horse won the Triple Crown of racing—the Kentucky Derby, Preakness Stakes and Belmont Stakes—in 1973. 

Plus, visitors will peruse sections focused on acclaimed jockey Bill Shoemaker, other jockey stories and the Horseshoe Hall of Fame

Visitors can hop aboard a "horse" for a virtual reality race around the track at Churchill Downs.
Hop aboard a "horse" to ride in the virtual reality Kentucky Derby. This activity at the Kentucky Derby Museum is fun for kids and adults alike.  (Photo by Susan J. Young)

One totally fun highlight? Check out the museum's new interactive, high-tech area consisting of several large "pseudo racehorses." Visitors hop aboard one, and then watch a huge forward video screen as they urge their mount forward and “virtually race around the Churchill Downs track." Adults and kids alike seemed to love this.

But the top reason to visit the Kentucky Derby Museum is the Great Hall's new, immersive 360-degree presentation entitled, "The Greatest Race." Guests simply grab a ground-level stool, look upward, and swivel around. Above, they'll view colorful Kentucky Derby horseracing action on huge screens that encircle the entire space (see photo below). During the museum's open hours, this multimedia presentation is offered 10 minutes after every hour. 

This massive screen loops 360 degrees within the Kentucky Derby Museum; the space is the site of a complex, multimedia presentation about the famous race.
Large screens wrap around the Kentucky Derby Museum. Guests grab a swivel stool on the ground level and look up to watch 360-degree racing scenes unfold. (Photo by Susan J. Young)

Frazier History Museum 

On another pre-cruise day, we decided to delve into Louisville's heritage. So, we ventured downtown to the Frazier History Museum. Definitely, we'd suggest popping into the Brown Forman Theater on the museum’s first floor. Among other programming, we liked the excellent, multimedia “Kentucky Show" that showcases the people, culture, history, music and spirit of Kentucky and its residents.  

Louisville's Frazier HIstory Museum offers many exhibits outlining events and historic chapters of the city's life.
The Frazier History Museum in Louisville is an excellent way to learn about the city's history.  (Photo by Susan J. Young)

Did you know that Lewis and Clark started their expedition westward from Louisville? It’s true. So, not surprisingly, one of Frazier's robust exhibits is the multi-room “Lewis and Clark Experience.” The exhibit allows visitors to delve into the explorers' departure from Louisville and their many stops along the North American journey.

Authentic? We rounded one corner and came face to face with an American bison. Well, no, it wasn't live, but it was quite impressive (see photo below). Other museum highlights include hands-on interactive experiences and intricate model boats.

At Louisville's Frazier History Museum, a bison is among the exhibits representing the territory of the Lewis & Clark Expedition, which began in Louisville, KY.
Rounding a corner at the Frazier History Museum's Lewis & Clark Expedition, we encountered this critter.  (Photo by Susan J. Young)

The museum is also the official starting point of the Kentucky Bourbon Trail, so visitors can book a “Craft Your Own Cocktail Experience” or the “Ready, Set, Go! Bourbon Experience.”

Of course, beyond the museum, the city has a dozen or so different bourbon distilleries with visitor experiences. For details on those and other pre- or post-cruise activity options, check out the Louisville Convention & Visitors Bureau's website at www.gotolouisville.com

Cruise Check-In and Pre-Cruise Excursions

Guests of American Queen Voyages departing from Louisville, KY, receive one complimentary pre-cruise hotel night at The Brown Hotel.
Guests of American Queen Voyages who are embarking in Louisville, KY, will receive one pre-cruise hotel night. Our room at The Brown Hotel is shown above. (Photo by Susan J. Young)

All AQV guests embarking a cruise at Louisville will receive an “included” one-night, pre-cruise stay. Ours was at The Brown Hotel. Built in 1923 by J. Graham Brown, millionaire, lumberman and capitalist—it's a cultural gem. Our accommodations were very nice and fit our expectation of an updated yet classic historical hotel with rich period design.

Tip: Be sure to head for the hotel’s restaurant to taste a famous "Hot Brown." Created at this hotel, the tasty, open-face turkey sandwich (see photo below) is prepared with bacon, tomatoes and delicate mornay sauce. Bring your appetite, for sure!

The classic "Hot Brown," a famous turkey sandwich concocted by The Brown Hotel.
The Brown Hotel invented this tasty open-face turkey sandwich dish—The Hot Brown! (Photo by Susan J. Young)

As guests enter The Brown Hotel, they'll head up a short flight of stairs (or a ramp) to a meeting room area. There, we encountered AQV’s guest hospitality desk and cruise check-in area. Friendly AQV staffers checked us in, provided us with our cruise room key card and bag tags for our luggage. That luggage is then tagged by guests and placed outside their hotel room. AQV then picks up the bags overnight and delivers them to the ship the following morning.

At the pre-cruise check-in desk, we were also given assigned times for meeting the transfer coach to the ship. Guests with Commodore Services, those staying in suite-level accommodations and Steamboat Society of America elite members (Ruby level and higher) typically receive boarding an hour earlier than general boarding.

Pre-Cruise Louisville Touring Options

On boarding day, AQV also offered several optional premium tours. The first was a “Private Churchill Downs Backstretch Pre-Cruise Experience,” priced at $129 per person.

Some of AQV's journeys are themed, offering topical programming aboard and ashore. For instance, on our bourbon-themed voyage, we mixed and mingled with guest hosts Regina Charboneau, the line's culinary ambassador; Dickie Brennan, famed New Orleans restauranteur; and Michael Veach, a notable bourbon expert. In addition, a second bourbon-themed AQV shore excursion was offered prior to guest boarding of the ship. Entitled, “Legends of Bourbon: Crafting History at Castle and Key," which was offered at $149 per person.

(It should be noted that AQV has many complimentary shore options, but the specialty, premium tours such as this one with bourbon tastings carry an added charge.)

After both pre-cruise AQV tours, guests were automatically transported by motorcoach to American Countess for boarding. 

Bourbon is the only true original American spirit. From displays in Louisville's airport to this exhibit at the Frazier History Museum and a dozen or more local distilleries in Louisville, guests are likely to encounter it, whether or not the cruise is bourbon-themed.
Whether at the Frazier History Museum (here), more than a dozen local Louisville distilleries or onboard American Countess, river cruise guests will find plenty of opportunities to explore bourbon heritage and tastings.  (Photo by Susan J. Young)

Boarding Is a Breeze 

Since we had checked in for our river cruise at The Brown Hotel the previous day and weren't on an optional tour, we simply showed up at the hotel at the appointed time for our AQV motorcoach transfer to the ship. It was just a five-minute ride. Best of all, we didn’t need to transit any terminal. Instead, the motorcoach made a U-turn from the main road onto the riverside access road. Within a minute or so, the coach pulled up directly to the ship's gangway. We were just steps from American Countess. Boarding was "easy peasy."

Walking up the gangway onto the ship, we couldn’t help “flashing back” to our 2018 memories at a Houma, LA, shipyard. Back then, we'd been present as the former gaming boat Kanesville Queen, originally launched in 1996, was getting a complete drydock revitalization. The vessel was also being "stretched." That means that it had been split in half, lengthened with the addition of a mid-section, stripped down to the hull, and was being totally rebuilt. In addition, the new owner, AQV, was adding a bright red paddlewheel.

The result, of course, was American Countess, which has become one of AQV’s most popular vessels. Up to 245 guests are served by an onboard crew of 98 people.

American Countess, an American Queen Voyages paddlewheeler.
The  American Countess, the former Kanesville Queen, was totally revitalized and "stretched" in 2020 when it entered the AQV fleet. A new mid-section and paddlewheel were added. Travel Agent has watched the evolution of the vessel from that earlier period and has sailed multiple times on the paddlwheeler.  (Photo by Susan J. Young)

It's worth noting that we're familiar with the vessel from two other regular sailings on the ship—first on the ship's inaugural cruise for AQV, plus earlier this year on a separate Mississippi River itinerary. So, on this sailing, we were eager to see what, if anything, had changed. The answer is that much of the ship looks just as we found it earlier this year, but we've pointed out a few changes below and in Part 2 of this story coming soon. 

The Look and Style of American Countess

Design-wise, clients will find that the interior of American Countess has some "steamboating style" touches. Among them are many paintings of famous steamboats in guest accommodation corridors. But guests shouldn’t expect the hefty Victorian-era furnishings and “Mark Twain look and feel” that’s common to AQV's more traditional American QueenInstead, American Countess exudes a more contemporary style. (That said, the interior styling doesn’t go as far along the modernity scale as AQV's smallest ship, American Duchess.)

From our perspective, American Countess settles into a nice, middle spot design-wise within AQV's portfolio of ships. The fleet also includes another paddlewheeler, American Empresson the Columbia and Snake Rivers. Clients traveling on American Countess will find well-appointed public spaces with comfortable, modern furnishings. Accommodations have a contemporary feel, yet also a relaxed, welcoming aura. Simply put, we've always felt it easy to "sink into" this ship and enjoy the voyage.

An Elegant Grand Lobby

Entering American Countess, guests will find themselves on Deck 1, the heart of the ship. It’s home to multiple public venues including an impressive, elongated Grand Lobby. That space along the port side is a cut-above (the photo below doesn't even show the entire length of this lobby space). 

Grand Lobby and Bar, American Countess, American Queen Steamboat Company
American Countess' Grand Lobby is an elegant, elongated space with a high ceiling, wall of floor-to-ceiling windows, comfortable seating areas, a guest services' reception desk, shore desk, boutique and Grand Lobby Bar. (Photo by Susan J. Young)

Sunlight streams into the space through multiple, two-deck-high, floor-to-ceiling windows. That "wall of natural light" continues for a full 80 feet, and along the windows are comfortable seating areas of couches and upholstered chairs. As for the Grand Lobby's design, guests will encounter a color palette of soothing shades—cream, gray, tan and other light hues—as well as dark contrasting woods.

Most evenings and often during the daytime, too, the Grand Lobby is "the place to see and be seen." We're happy to find that this hasn't changed from our previous sailings on this vessel. Guests love to come here to relax, socialize and have cocktails, spirits, beer or wine. 

One portion of the Grand Lobby on American Countess is home to a small boutique.
A small boutique in American Countess' Grand Lobby offers local products, clothing, souvenirs and lovely holiday ornaments. The lobby also has comfortable seating areas, a few chess tables and a large bar.  (Photo by Susan J. Young)

The Grand Lobby space has many other facets, too. Here, guests will find the guest services' reception desk, shore excursion desk, and a small boutique selling tee-shirts, jackets, holiday ornaments, souvenirs and AQV logo items. Entry to the ship’s theater also is located within this space. That makes it easy to meet friends in the Grand Lobby pre-dinner, order drinks and then head into the theater for a shore excursion talk (about the next day's plans) or a show.

Fully forward and not far from the Grand Lobby are two smaller public venues. At Perks, guests can help themselves to coffee, tea, ice cream, fresh popcorn, or freshly baked cookies. To work off those consumed calories, guests can head to the small Fitness Center nearby. 

Elongated Grand Lobby Bar

Opposite the Grand Lobby's massive windows is the elongated Grand Lobby Bar. It's far bigger than most bars on other river ships we've seen during our recent travels. Across from one end of that bar is a small entertainment area for live music and dancing. A talented trio or quartet play here nightly both pre- and post-dinner.

Tip for travelers? While it’s easy to settle into a seating area across from the bar, which makes it convenient for ordering drinks, we learned that sometimes we just wanted to chat with friends without trying to hear over the live music being played nearby. That's particularly true if you have a group of people spread out across a couch and multiple chair areas. So, we liked that this Grand Lobby space provided a good deal of seating flexibility. Plenty of seating areas were farther away from the musicians and near the guest services' reception desk. We still had comfortable seating and could enjoy the music, but we found it easier to converse and share our tales about the day's port call.  

During our cruise, on many late afternoons and evenings, we did not see servers circulating to take drink orders from people seated on the couches or chairs. Instead, guests headed to the bar to order from the bartenders. That's one "could be improved" element from our personal perspective. 

Only Four Stateroom Categories

Balcony stateroom on American Queen Voyages' American Countess
A "Deluxe Stateroom with Private Veranda" on American Queen Voyages' American Countess. (Photo by Michel Verdure for American Queen Voyages)

American Countess has only four categories of accommodations, fewer than what's available on AQV's other ships. It also has no suites, unlike American Duchess, for example, which offers spacious, two-level Loft Suites. Instead, this ship's staterooms range from 170 square feet to 245 square feet. With so many accommodations that are similarly sized, we felt that's it’s a great ship for advisors to consider for groups. 

Here are the categories:

  • Deluxe Stateroom with Private Veranda on Deck 2
  • Outside Stateroom with Open Veranda on Deck 3
  • Inside Stateroom accommodations on Decks 2 and 3
  • ·One Single Outside Stateroom with Open Veranda, No. 367, on Deck 3

Our Outside Stateroom with Open Veranda, No. 364, was located on Deck 3 fully aft. The veranda delivered good river and riverbank views and easy access to the deck's walking track "loop." From that loop, just steps away, we could watch the spinning red paddlewheel below.

Our veranda was furnished with two outdoor chairs and a small table. White picket fencing extended across much of it, creating the space’s partially enclosed exterior footprint. But since part of the space was also open to that walking track, AQV provided an added privacy option—a chain that could be pulled across the open area of the veranda. In essence, guests could "rope off" the space.

An "Outdoor Stateroom with Veranda" is partially enclosed and partially open to the walking track, with a chain that can be pulled for privacy.
This stateroom has a veranda with partial fence privacy, and a chain that can be pulled to further enclose the space. But it's nicely accessible to the walking track, a plus for those who like to put in their steps daily.  (Photo by American Queen Voyages)

Guests will likely appreciate the stateroom's oversized, sliding glass doors, which let in much natural light. Inside, a small, comfortable couch and coffee table hug one side of the stateroom. On the other side is a decent sized desk area with a mini-fridge, glassware, two complimentary water bottle containers for guests to use and take home (they can be filled at water stations around the ship), welcome sweet treats and more.

A sizable flat-screen HDTV graces the wall opposite the king bed, which also converts to two twin beds. Bedding includes a premium mattress (we slept very well, coincidentally) with deluxe Egyptian cotton bedding. 

Toward the entry door, a closet opens to a small amount of hanging space, many drawers and a safe. The bathroom offers one elongated vanity sink. Overall, the bathroom is well-sized with a large shower. However, let’s just say that we made an unwanted statement early in the cruise for not fully closing the bathroom door to the inside of our stateroom while showering. Presto, the fire alarm blared, the phone rang repeatedly and two cabin stewards began assertively banging on our stateroom door. 

Note to self and tip for clients: Be sure to totally shut the door to the bathroom before taking a steamy shower that triggers the stateroom's smoke alarms. That said, multiple AQV crew members’ responded quickly and with professionalism to the alarms, which we appreciated. 

Bathroom on American Queen Voyages' American Countess.
Bathrooms in all categories of American Countess' accommodations are fairly spacious for a river cruise product.  (Photo by Michel Verdure for American Queen Voyages.)

Two stateroom features that we truly liked included the provided coffeemaker with coffee pods and twice daily housekeeping to keep the room fresh and neat. Overall, we also liked the location, interior appointments, bathroom and exterior views from our Outside Stateroom with Open Veranda.

That said, this specific location did have some propulsion system vibration when the ship was sailing, particularly when the vessel was speeding along at a good clip. So, for a bit quieter journey throughout the cruise, we'd suggest reserving a stateroom that's more mid-ship or forward.

Newly Enhanced Fares with More Inclusions

What's new on American Countess? One enhancement involves fares, which now provide much more inclusivity. So, within their river cruise fare, guests will now receive the following:

  • Prepaid gratuities (new)
  • Port taxes and fees (new)
  • One night pre-cruise hotel stay
  • Ground transfers between that pre-cruise hotel and the vessel
  • Unlimited guided tours (except optional touring)
  • Unlimited beverages
  • Open bars and lounges
  • Cuisine in multiple venues, plus in-room dining
  • Unlimited Wi-Fi
  • Use of bicycles and hiking sticks

Coming Soon 

Stay tuned later this week for Part 2 of this two-part series about AQV's American Countess. In that update, we'll cover the ship's Grand Dining Room, other public spaces on Decks 2 and 3, including The River Grill; entertainment in the theater, Riverlorian programming and other enrichment; as well as the line's complimentary "Hop-On, Hop-Off" motorcoach tours and other shore excursions.

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