(2:50 p.m. EST) -- Standing at the back of American Countess, watching the red wooden paddlewheel churn through the muddy Mississippi River and leaving a quarter-mile wake, I felt that familiar spark of excitement cruising always brings.
It had been a while. More than a year, in fact.
Yet it was easy to fall right back into it all: watching sunsets (and sunrises) from our balcony, attending spirits tastings, meeting new cruise friends, chatting with the crew and dining on gourmet food I'd never have at home, especially while being locked down over the past 12 months.
Before I joined American Queen Steamboat Company in March for the maiden voyage aboard its newest riverboat, American Countess, I wasn't sure whether it would be able to deliver all the things that make cruising my favorite way to travel. I had my doubts, knowing that new health and safety protocols were in place as we continue to battle the COVID-19 pandemic. I'd been wondering if cruising would ever be the same.
Being onboard a new cruise ship, sailing from New Orleans to Memphis, left me feeling buoyant that cruising is getter ever closer to returning, able to deliver a fun vacation while also keeping guests healthy and safe. Here's why we're optimistic.
We all have different reasons we enjoy cruising. For me, it's first and foremost simply being on the water. But it's also the friendships you make with fellow travelers, the connections to crewmembers, great food and the ability to relax and cut loose. Some people cruise for the ships, others for the destinations.
On American Countess, we were there to celebrate a new ship. We also had a chance to catch up with industry colleagues we hadn't seen in ages. We had long dinners reconnecting, though conversations often turned to "have you been vaccinated?" or "have you had COVID?" And the food was divine; we probably ate a little too much of the chef's various gourmet takes on Southern comfort food. (But come on: fried chicken livers? Shrimp and grits? Who can say no?)
The ship offered a full schedule of activities that felt just like pre-COVID days. A favorite among guests was the bourbon tasting -- it was so popular, a second tasting was added to the schedule to accommodate those who weren't able to participate the first time around. We also took in nightly shows, including a romping Ragtime performance by pianist and riverlorian Steve Spracklen.
Ashore, things were a little different than typical: Buses had limits on capacity, and excursions were more on-your-own instead of led by a guide, as a measure to combat crowding. (One self-guided excursion visited a mansion, for example, and were handed a brochure that outlined what we were seeing and its significance.)
Whatever your reason for cruising, you're likely to find that the bulk of the experience is intact. Your favorite cruise line still will offer beautiful accommodations and spaces, great activities, excellent dining, fun shore excursions and the best crews at seat, but expect, initially at least, some changes (just as you'd expect on land) as the lines ease back into service and err on the side of caution.
Being locked down for so long has many of us a bit cautious about resuming normal activities, like travel. As much as we're eager to do the things that once seemed so simple -- hugging, handshakes, travel and more -- it's sometimes chilling to imagine that we'll ever do those activities again.
On American Countess, we felt reassured -- even before we stepped foot onboard the company made it clear health and safety protocols were top of mind. We had been sent clear instructions on what we should do before our trip and what we should expect onboard. We needed to register for a pretravel PCR COVID test, which would be administered at the hotel AQSC put us up at in New Orleans. (Every person sailing on American Countess had to show proof of a negative test.) We also had to fill out a health questionnaire.
Arriving in New Orleans the day before, we headed to the specially set-up hotel ballroom, where we checked in for the cruise and took the COVID test. Our results were sent to us overnight, and we showed them to staff in the morning to get on the shuttle buses and head to the riverboat. The process was totally smooth, and protocols continued on the bus, where some seats were blocked and capacity was capped.
Onboard, seats in the theater were strategically blocked off to promote distancing, and masks were required when it wasn't possible. This has become so normal on land, that it didn't feel out of place on the ship. A majority of passengers on our sailing (including us) had been vaccinated, and starting July 1, all passengers and crew on any AQSC ship will be required to be vaccinated. For now, the plan is that the other requirements -- mask wearing, distancing and testing -- will remain in place, even with the jab mandate. (Read all about our experience onboard.)
The protocols are similar to what other cruise lines plan to do when they return: A large number have announced vaccines will be required, and distancing and mask-wearing could be part of the return as well. On our sailing, it really did work; I felt comfortable and confident. Like everyone, I can't wait for the day where we don't have to do those things anymore, where the pandemic isn't always top of mind. But until then, wearing masks and keeping your distance isn't such a chore that it ruins the cruise experience. We will adjust.
We routinely hear from our readers: "I'm not cruising until it's exactly the way I remember it."
We get it. But the truth is, cruising will never return to what it was pre-pandemic. Cruise lines have spent their time during the shutdown laser focused on making sure the experience is safer and better than before.
On our cruise, we saw this in a number of areas. Perhaps the most noticeable was at check-in and embarkation. This long has been a cumbersome process, but on our cruise, it was lightning fast and efficient.
Upon arrival to American Countess, all passengers had their temperatures checked and identity verified via facial recognition software -- all in the same scan. AQSC is employing new technology designed to make the process contactless, so keycards aren't handed off to crew.
In another effort to reduce contact, American Countess' buffet options were pre-plated or served by chefs. Passengers didn't actually need to approach the buffet stations, as a paper menu listed all the options; they could instead just order from the waitstaff -- though we could also go up to the buffet on our own and have a server hand us our choices. This effectively eliminated all lines, and it meant we weren't sharing serving utensils with others -- a big bonus in my book.
The daily events schedule also offered activities several times -- the aforementioned bourbon tasting, cooking demonstrations and even set dinner times with two seating options. This all was designed to make sure guests were able to enjoy all the activities while staggering potential choke points for traffic. The result was more scheduling freedom and less pressure to feel like we had to squeeze in everything.
Even the biggest cruise lines have said this type of approach is coming: Change has always been part of cruising. Advancements, like facial recognition, improved mobile apps (AQSC debuted their newest one on our sailing), virtual muster drills and wearable technology, will improve embarkation, remove the need for unnecessary contact and ultimately speed up processes that typically have bogged down the cruise experience.
I wish I could say that the pandemic wasn't on our minds during the cruise, our first since the pandemic began, but that wouldn't be true. I can't imagine any type of situation where that would be the case.
Our cruise on American Countess was not exactly the same as before; it's not the same cruise experience you remember. But all the pieces are there, all the fun is in place and all the memories are there waiting to be made.
And it provided some much-needed escapism, giving us all a chance remember what it's like to take a vacation and reconnect safely with others.