Photo: American Queen Voyages /

This Bourbon-Focused River Cruise Combines Whiskey With Paddleboat Charm

Kentucky Missouri Luxe Travel Cruises
by Adrienne Cohen Dec 31, 2023

A traditional sternwheeler cruise along the meandering Ohio and Mississippi Rivers offers a glimpse into the era when the Mississippi River was the western frontier of the United States. The small towns that sprung up along the rivers were far removed from the urban cities of the east, and the great rivers were the main means of transportation.

Those peak years of transport and life along the river are long past. Still, there is something immensely appealing about traveling the rivers on slow-moving, flat-bottom boats with traditional Victorian gingerbread trim.

american countess

Photo: American Queen Voyages /

My husband and I recently did just that on a nine-day, bourbon-themed cruise aboard American Countess, a classic riverboat with twin red paddlewheels gracing the stern. Along the way, we paid day-long visits to four small cities in Kentucky, as well as at one of Mark Twain’s favorite river towns, Cape Girardeau in Missouri, and docked just steps away from Gateway Arch National Park in St. Louis.

The American Countess is the newest boat among the fleet operated by American Queen Voyages, and the itinerary shows just how great an experience an all-American river cruise can be.

The pre-cruise adventure in Louisville

Each of the itineraries with American Queen Voyages begins with a complimentary pre-cruise night at a distinctive hotel in the departure city. We flew into Louisville mid-afternoon and made our way to The Brown Hotel, which was built in the early 1900s by J. Graham Brown, a flamboyant millionaire lumberman and capitalist.

2023 marks The Brown’s 100th anniversary. It’s the home of the hot brown, a distinctive breakfast offered piping hot in a mini-skillet. Now served throughout the day, a hot brown is an open-face turkey sandwich loaded with bacon, tomatoes, and mornay sauce, and has been a Louisville tradition since it was created in 1926 by hotel chef Fred Schmidt. When we arrived at the hotel, we were promptly welcomed by cruise staff, assigned a room, and briefed on the following day’s embarkation procedures. Luggage transfers to our cabin and bus transportation to the American Countess were scheduled by the cruise line. Until the following afternoon, passengers were free to explore Louisville any way they chose.

The city is filled with Southern charm and hospitality, and there is much to see — from breweries and bourbon tastings to Churchill Downs and the Louisville Slugger baseball bat factory, Museum Row, 4th Street Live, charming shops, distinctive restaurants, the Muhammed Ali Center, and the wonderful Church of the Assumption.

The cruise line offers two Louisville excursions for an additional fee: a private backstretch tour of Churchill Downs, and a bourbon tour at the legendary Castle and Key Distillery and gardens.

The real cruise begins

AQSC Christening of American Countess

Photo: American Queen Voyages /

Stepping aboard the classic riverboat with its twin paddlewheels gracing the stern, we were greeted by crew members who directed us to our cabin and encouraged us to join other passengers in the spacious lounge for a welcome cocktail – bourbon was a spotlight, of course, with other options like Champagne also readily available.

The boat left the dock at 4:30 PM, following the official “All Aboard” whistle. Although the view of the bow was exciting as the lines were hauled and the gangplank hoisted back into position, I couldn’t resist drifting toward the stern, drawn by the turning of the immense paddlewheels. The vessel has four diesel-electric generators that operate the rudder propellers and bow thrusters. Even though this vessel isn’t fueled by steam like paddle boats were in the past, the wheels provide part of the propulsion, and the rhythmic lap of the paddles against the water is mesmerizing.

american countess

Photo: American Queen Voyages / www.AQVoyages.com0.9.142

Take note: this vessel is a boat and not a ship. The exterior is in the style of a traditional American riverboat, with a gleaming white exterior, arches, and railings, adorned by classic red horizontal stripes and red paddlewheels. The main floor deck, also red, denotes a no-go zone for passengers while underway. Decks 2 and 3 are home to passenger cabins as well as public spaces both inside and out. Cabin balconies on Deck 2 are private, with two chairs and a small table, and semi-private verandas on Deck 3 have gated seating areas, open to a public walking/jogging path that encircles the boat.

Sun Deck Sun Deck - American Countess.American Queen Steamboat Company

Photo: American Queen Voyages /

On both Decks 2 and 3, comfortable white rocking chairs afford passengers a view of the passing shoreline when the weather is clear and the winds are light. Additional seating is available on the open upper deck, and a smattering of umbrellas offers shade.

Before the boat became the American Countess, it was the Kanesville Queen, a casino boat originally built in 1995. In a complete top-to-bottom renovation inside and out, 60 feet in length was added and the casino removed. Now, instead of gaming tables, guests gather in the expansive main salon with its traditional paneled bar, a beautiful theater, and a full-width dining room that has views to both port and starboard.

Balcony - Deluxe Outside Stateroom Cat. A - American Countess.American Queen Steamboat Company Balcony - Deluxe Outside Stateroom Cat. A

Photo: American Queen Voyages /

The Countess feels somewhat like a boutique hotel, with 123 passenger cabins, (most suited for two passengers). The décor is pleasantly contemporary with a tasteful, subdued color scheme, well-chosen art and sculptures, and fresh floral arrangements in all public spaces and on all dining tables. While an ocean-going cruise ship might have multiple pools, dining spaces, and attractions for all ages, river cruising offers a leisurely pace, intimate spaces, and a focus on the people one meets and the small towns and scenery along the route.

The Theater The Theater - American Countess.American Queen Steamboat Company

Photo: American Queen Voyages /

The floor plan of the Countess clusters public spaces – theater, guest services desk, a small shop, and the curving staircase – around the boat’s main bar on Deck 1. Called the Grand Lobby, this is where passengers can spontaneously gather for cocktails and conversation, where trivia games and contests are held, and where musicians play dance music after dinner. The floor-to-ceiling windows that run the length of the space perfectly frame the passing river vistas.

Tucked into a space adjacent to the grand staircase is a baby grand piano that’s used for impromptu singalongs, and where the ship’s musicians get together for informal jazz performances.

The Bar - American Countess.American Queen Steamboat Company The Bar

Photo: American Queen Voyages /

The Grand Lobby Bar is open most days from 11 AM until the last guests are ready to say goodnight. Double doors adjacent to the bar allow access to the theater, a multi-level space that’s perfect for port talks, cooking demonstrations, afternoon movies, or informative presentations. For this itinerary, special guest Michael Veach, a noted bourbon historian and member of the Bourbon Hall of Fame, held court with several presentations and tastings for passengers who were eager to learn about bourbon’s history and how the spirit is made.

Grand Dining Room - American Countess.American Queen Steamboat Company Grand Dining Room

Photo: American Queen Voyages /

Behind the Grand Lobby is the boat’s full-width dining room, featuring white-clothed tables for two or for a group, with gourmet fare at breakfast, lunch, and dinner.

The more casual River Grill, one deck above and far astern, offers buffet service for breakfast and lunch, a variety of sandwiches, and prime rib as well as other selected entrees for dinner each evening. It’s a popular alternative to the main dining room. There is a small bar as well, where guests may enjoy a view of the turning paddlewheels while the boat is underway. In port, a shaded patio invites outdoor lounging and dining.

Perks Coffee Room, near the bow, is open 24 hours a day, with fresh coffee, pastries or fresh-from-the-oven cookies, and a soft ice cream machine with a variety of toppings. A small fitness center is neatly tucked into space on the opposite forward side of Deck 1.

The Library The Library - American Countess.American Queen Steamboat Company

Photo: American Queen Voyages /

Other comfortable guest spaces include a well-stocked library with plush, comfortable seating, as well as a card and games room outfitted with chess, checkers, backgammon, and card tables with leather chairs and an assortment of puzzles. One deck above, another hideaway is the Chart Room, where passengers can study route maps and immerse themselves in nautical lore and riverboat stories.

Chart Room Chart Room - American Countess.American Queen Steamboat Company

Photo: American Queen Voyages /

Dinner, however, is the main event. On our sailing, there were two seatings each evening: dinner at 5:15, followed by showtime in the theater at 9, or the schedule in reverse with a 6:30 theater call, followed by late-seating dinner at 7:45.

A company defining the modern American river cruise

Artwork Detail at the Library Artwork Detail at the Library - American Countess.Amercian Queen Steamboat Company

Photo: American Queen Voyages /

In an interview with Cindy D’Aoust, who assumed duties as the new president of American Queen Voyages in January 2023, she emphasized her goal of “simplicity, affordability, and convenience” for the passenger river cruising experience.

Vice president of marketing Angela Composto, who is also new to the company, notes that the cruise line intends to build new relationships with the towns along their routes and has plans in the works, primarily in the area of food and beverage service, that are designed to “surprise and delight” passengers.

The presence of American Queen Voyages culinary ambassador Regina Charboneau, affectionately known as the biscuit queen of Natchez and a well-known cookbook author, and noted restaurateur Dickie Brennan, of The Bourbon House and other iconic restaurants in New Orleans, on this cruise did exactly that.

Charboneau has added some of her Southern specialties like shrimp and grits, deep-fried frog legs, and her biscuits while tweaking traditional favorites like lobster and duck. Her goal is to introduce regional specialties whenever possible on the various itineraries, and to add customer favorites throughout the fleet.

On-board entertainment

Cruise director Emma Harper teamed with assistant cruise directors Nick McCarthy and Michael Nicholas to present passengers with varied entertainment every day. In addition to scheduled movies, games, and onboard
quiz shows, the talented and the American Countess Ensemble and Show Band puts on Broadway-worthy productions featuring energetic and eclectic song and dance numbers – from “Riversong,” a musical experience with a variety of river-inspired songs, to a vocal collection of blues and jazz tunes. Another show features country favorites, and yet another, “Just Go to the Movies,” showcases big screen favorites.

There were passenger team events like trivia or name that tune, cocktail and bourbon tastings, afternoon movies in the theater, a cooking show presented by the Charboneau and Brennan, bourbon lectures and tastings by Veach, and destination talks prior to each port call.

McCarthy serves as the cruise “riverlorian” in addition to being a featured performer. With daily lectures that offer background information and little-known facts about the rivers and their history, these Riverlorian presentations were consistently some of the best-attended special events of the cruise.

Staff and Crew

Unlike officers on large ships who tend to remain a bit aloof and distant, Captain Scott Dunham was not merely introduced at a welcome reception, but rather made an effort to greet everyone who wanted to shake his hand. On subsequent days, he would routinely stop to chat with passengers.

Artwork Detail at the Library Artwork Detail at the Library - American Countess.Amercian Queen Steamboat Company

Photo: American Queen Voyages /

Several pilot house tours were scheduled, open to anyone interested in seeing the “nerve center” of this riverboat. The tours allow passengers to see what’s involved in maneuvering a modern riverboat along the waterway. The boat’s captain and pilot man the pilot house in alternating four-hour shifts around the clock.

Exploring the rivers one small town at a time

american countess

AQSC Christening of American Countess
A general view of the atmosphere during the christening of the American Countess at Mardi Gras World on March 21, 2021 in New Orleans, LA. (Josh Brasted for AQSC)

While days at sea may represent an almost equal appeal to cruise passengers as the ports visited, river cruising is mostly about the cities along the way. Much of the actual river travel is done at night. There’s a wealth of shore excursions in the small towns along the river, but there are onboard activities even while the boat is at rest in a port.

American Queen Voyages has a fleet of contracted buses and drivers. The buses mimic each cruise itinerary via highway routes, and they meet at the dock each morning to whisk passengers from the boat to a daily round of complimentary hop on-hop off destinations. Local guides typically join each bus to offer insights about the history and attractions of each locale. Travelers are free to visit as many of the stops as they wish, and spend as much time as they wish at each, and are cautioned about the last run of the bus each day (the boat doesn’t wait for late passengers).

On this particular itinerary, each stop provided something entirely different.

Brandenburg, Kentucky

Named after a local barkeep and landowner rather than the German city of the same name, historic Brandenburg prospered as an early American trade center, and there’s evidence of Native American settlements in the area dating back at least 10,000 years ago.

Here, a four-hour tour highlighting the life of Abraham Lincoln, who hailed from this area, is a prime excursion offered at no charge for cruise passengers. The tour includes a stop at the Abraham Lincoln Birthplace National Historical Park, an impressive memorial building set upon park-like grounds with a replica of the Lincoln family’s humble one-room cabin and a natural spring that has been in use for well over a century.

The tour also stopped in Hodgenville to visit the Lincoln Museum, which occupies a prime location on the town square. Here, Lincoln look-alike dressed in period attire recited parts of the Gettysburg Address and explained some of the reasons behind Lincoln’s actions during the Civil War.
Those who chose the premium tour in Brandenburg also took a hands-on pottery class at PG Studio Arts Center.

Owensboro, Kentucky

Owensboro is the self-proclaimed “Barbecue Capital of the World,” with a hometown festival scheduled in May that attracts tens of thousands of international visitors to the town of 60,000 people. It’s also sometimes known as Kentucky’s Festival City, with at least six other festivals throughout the year.

During the 19th Century, there were 18 distilleries located in Daviess County, but today only three are left. Cruisers can visit Green River Distillery, the tenth bourbon distillery licensed in Kentucky, for a tour and tasting.

Other stops on the cruise bus route include the Western Kentucky Botanical Gardens with the world’s tallest Sassafras tree (100 feet in height with a trunk that measures 21 feet around), the Owensboro Museum of Fine Art, Smothers Park, the Bluegrass Music Hall of Fame and Museum, and St. Stephen Cathedral.

Henderson, Kentucky

Here, the premium experience for $129 per person was a bourbon tasting paired with small dishes of Southern comfort food at Hometown Roots. Started by Henderson-born Casey Todd, the restaurant focuses on local ingredients and has a grow wall filled with Bibb lettuce.

Drinks included an old fashioned cocktail made with Buffalo Trace and three other distinctive brands of Kentucky bourbon, all accompanied by plates from chef Shawna Harrington: deep-fried Brussels sprouts, a deviled egg duo including one deep-fried version, pimento cheese fritters, and cornbread served in a miniature cast iron skillet and topped with a whopping scoop of soft butter.

Paducah, Kentucky

The premium experience in Paducah, “Check-In Along the Chitlin Trail,” is $99 per person. That check-in is at a large frame house with a sign above the front porch that simply reads Hotel Metropolitan. Except that it stands almost alone on its block today, there wouldn’t be much to distinguish it from other homes in town. But in the early 1900s, this house was a well-known safe haven for Black musicians, performers, and travelers who were denied room and board at many places in the South during segregation and Jim Crow. The Metropolitan Hotel was one of the sites listed in The Green Book, a travel guide published between 1936 and 1967. It identified businesses that would accept Black customers.

B.B. King, Billie Holiday, Ike and Tina Turner, Louis Armstrong, Ray Charles, Thurgood Marshall, Ella Fitzgerald, the Harlem Globetrotters, and many others have found sanctuary in this simple home-like setting with 11 bedrooms. Today, it has been totally restored, and is run by a non-profit organization that seeks to preserve the history of the hotel and its operator.

Other noteworthy stops in Paducah include the National Quilt Museum and, depending on the day and time of year, the Saturday Farmers Market. Silent Brigade Distillery, the Lloyd Tilghman house, Paducah Railroad Museum, and the River Discovery Center are other options along the bus route. Walking back, be sure to catch the stunning murals by Robert Dafford that capture Paducah’s rich history.

Cape Girardeau, Missouri

Old St Vincent's Catholic Church

Photo: photo.eccles / Shutterstock

After departing Paducah late in the afternoon, we followed the Ohio River to where it flows into the Mississippi River near Cairo, Illinois. Turning to follow the mighty Mississippi’s course upstream at that point, we were scheduled to arrive at historic Cape Girardeau at approximately 8 AM.

Cape Girardeau is said to have been one of Mark Twain’s favorite towns, and I was immediately enthralled by its quaint appeal. Even though it was Sunday and many of the shops and businesses were closed, Cape Girardeau exudes charm. The Mississippi River Tales Mural stretches along the interior of the flood wall, while on the river side, a “Welcome to Cape Girardeau, Missouri” mural leaves no doubt about where you are.

We spent most of our allotted shore time at the Crisp Museum on the campus of Southeast Missouri State University, first watching a film about the Mississippian era, then strolling through the museum’s historical art and archeological collections. Some pieces are estimated to be 15,000 years old.

Other stops in Cape Girardeau include Old St. Vincent’s Church, built in 1850s English Gothic Revival Style; the Cape River Heritage Center; and Capaha Rose Garden — Cape Girardeau was once known as the “City of Roses.”

St. Louis, Missouri

City of St. Louis skyline. Image of St. Louis downtown  at twilight.

Photo: f11photo / Shutterstock

Our final day of cruising the Mississippi brought us to St. Louis, with a scheduled arrival time of noon. The 600-feet-tall Arch became visible before we reached the city. Gateway Arch National Park and the Cathedral Basilica of St. Louis, known as the Old Cathedral, are just steps away from the riverboat docking point. Again, the fleet of buses awaited us at the pier and whisked us to the sights we chose to visit in St. Louis. My husband chose to hop off at the Arch, to watch the award-winning film of its construction and walk around Gateway Park. I rode on through the city, to enjoy the beauty of the celebrated mosaics at the Cathedral Basilica of St. Louis.

There are so many things to do in St. Louis that a few hours can in no way do the city justice, but the options available to riverboat cruisers are great ones, including the National Blues Museum, the Economy Museum, and the Missouri History Museum.

Departure from St. Louis was scheduled for 6 PM, and I joined fellow passengers out on the decks of American Countess to celebrate the final evening. One more dinner awaited us, then a final musical show by the ship’s show band, and a few more libations shared with newfound friends.

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