Rollin’ on the River

A writer’s experience on the American Countess, the newest paddle wheeler on the Mississippi

Photo courtesy of American Queen Steamboat Company

I’m not a big crier, but I feel two fat tears threatening to spill down my cheeks as an eight-piece band performs “What a Wonderful World.” I’m sitting in a darkened theater aboard the inaugural voyage of the American Countess, a luxurious new paddle wheeler cruising the Mississippi. One of the vocalists raises his voice as he sings, “I see friends shaking hands, saying ‘How do you do?’ They’re really saying, ‘I love you.’” My heart is pierced.

Photo courtesy of American Queen Steamboat Company

After more than a year of reduced contact with others, sitting in the company of 100 or so fellow passengers (all of whom received a negative Covid test prior to boarding) on an eight-day trip is a gift. The vessel itself, given a stem-to-stern renovation and a 60-foot expansion from its former life as a casino boat, has all sorts of wonders to behold: 123 staterooms; a la carte dishes like lobster mac ’n’ cheese fritters and roast rack of lamb; a third-floor track, perfect for burning some calories and taking in sweeping views; and an opulent lobby with a baby grand piano, expansive bar, crystal chandeliers, and 80-foot panoramic windows. By day, the theater hosts educational talks with cultural experts (including the ship’s “riverlorian,” a dedicated historian), bourbon tastings, and demonstrations by guest chefs. By night, it’s a full-blown concert hall.

Photo courtesy of American Queen Steamboat Company

After spending my first day exploring the boat and watching a part of the South I’d never seen before (from New Orleans to White Castle, Louisiana) pass from a perch on a second-floor rocking chair, I ordered a post-dinner old fashioned and settled into one of the theater’s cozy club chairs. The lineup for the night’s “Southern Celebration” show included “Laissez Les Bon Temps Rouler,” “Walking in Memphis,” and the quintessential Mississippi riverboat anthem, “Proud Mary,” complete with lively choreography. I’m grateful to be here, exploring again. Floating along the river, it’s easy to think to myself, what a wonderful world.

This article appears in the Fall/Winter 2021 issue of Southbound.