Europe's River Cruise Season Off to a Splashy Start With Uniworld Christening

March 21, 2011
Uniworld-Antoinette-River-Cruise-Christening (2:15 p.m. EDT) -- Europe's river cruise season got off to a more glittery launch than usual this weekend in Amsterdam when Uniworld christened the S.S. Antoinette, its first-ever newbuild. The 164-passenger vessel, built at Holland's Shipyard De Hoop, is the most innovative ship sailing on Europe's rivers today.

S.S. Antoinette is the first of three Uniworld vessels to debut in 2011; ships in Russia and Portugal will be introduced later this spring by the Los Angeles-based company.

Suitably held two days before the official start of spring, Saturday's ceremony was unusually intimate in scope and much more personal than recent big-ship christenings like Royal Caribbean's Allure of the Seas and Disney Dream. That's a direct result of the company being family owned and operated. About 100 attendees -- family friends, journalists, travel agency owners -- were on hand to hear the 26-piece Amsterdam Brass, whose tunes seemed to focus on a rotation of "Moon River," the "Love Boat" theme and a haunting song from the "Titanic" soundtrack.

Of course, there were the traditional accoutrements of a ship christening, including speeches from cruise line executives, tourism officials and the Amsterdam harbormaster. The traditional dedication, complete with the smashing of a Champagne bottle against the hull (in this case, it required two tries), was the highlight.

A Boat-Load of Innovations

Uniworld, one of the world's fastest growing cruise companies, is owned by the far-reaching Travel Corporation, whose holdings include a variety of brands ranging from Trafalgar Tours to the super-luxe Red Carnation Hotels. Three generations of family members (under patriarch Stanley Tollman) are intimately involved in many if not all of its ventures.

Uniworld-Antoinette-River-Cruise Perhaps no one is more passionate about Uniworld than Antoinette "Toni" Tollman, his oldest daughter. Not only is the new ship named after her, but she also served as its godmother and, as the project's lead designer, oversaw nearly every detail. Beyond Antoinette, Tollman has played a lead role in Uniworld's effort to transform its fleet into the Seabourn of river cruising.

"It's easy to say you're a five-star boutique [cruise ship], but it's not easy to deliver it," she said at Saturday's ceremony. "But Antoinette is bigger, better and more luxurious than anything else. And what makes us different all does begin with my mother [Beatrice Tollman was the inspiration for the decor and namesake of Uniworld's 2009 launch, River Beatrice], and the commitment of each and every one of us."

"This design," she added, "has been a true labor of love."

Uniworld's penchant for whimsical and daring interior design (Antoinette, for instance, is based on an interpretation of Marie Antoinette's France), lush cabin appointments and superb service and cuisine is apparent on all the company's vessels. But creating its first ship from scratch offered the company a chance to innovate, and did it ever.

S.S. Antoinette offers a serious wow factor with its new unique-to-river-cruising features, including suites with alcoves that can be converted from glassed-in conservatories to open-air balconies by pushing a switch. Plus, it's got the first full suite on Europe's rivers to feature separate living and sleeping rooms (in all other cases the term "suite" merely means larger-than-standard staterooms).

There's also a beautiful 22-seat cinema with Dolby Surround Sound that's atmospherically housed in a room adorned with vintage movie posters. The popcorn cart wasn't yet in place over the weekend, but it will be in time for the ship's first "Castles Along the Rhine" sailing on March 27.

In addition, the vessel's top deck showcases several innovations. Traditionally, river boats use their upper decks as observation areas in good weather only; height-wise, they contain no furnishings taller than a chaise lounge so that the vessels can fit under low-slung bridges.

For Antoinette, Uniworld has constructed a pair of all-weather rooms: the South Beach-like Leopard Bar (which is a classic lounge tradition in many of its Red Carnation hotels) and the elegant L'Orangerie, an indoor/outdoor dining venue. Both have air conditioning and heating. The reason that Uniworld can build such structures: Their ceilings and windows can collapse on demand if the ship needs to pass under a low bridge.

Uniworld-Antoinette-River-Cruise-Pool Another twist: Few river boats have swimming pools (only a handful even have top-deck whirlpools); on Antoinette, there's a glassed-in facility with gorgeous mosaic tiling, a wall of windows and an adjacent spa. Interestingly, the pool serves in another capacity. The few river boats that have one typically locate them in their midsections, said Patrick Janssens, owner of Shipyard De Hoop, which has been building vessels for more than a century. In Antoinette's case, placing the pool in the rear gives it an operational advantage. With its heavy weight, it creates mass where vibration tends to be a problem, helping to ensure an extra-quiet ride.

The ship has three engine rooms, each with separate propulsion systems, which allow the vessel to operate efficiently -- and with double-resilient mounted frames that reduce vibration of engines and thrusters. And on the environmental front, De Hoop developed a state-of-the-art waste management system.

Coming Soon: More New Ships Rolling Down the River

If ocean-going cruise lines are slowing down their once-rapid pace of expansion, river operators -- including Uniworld, Avalon and Viking -- are all in aggressive fleet growth modes. For Uniworld, Antoinette's debut will be followed by the introduction of Douro Spirit, which will sail the rivers of Spain and Portugal. Its River Victoria, which launches later this spring, will mark the company's return to Russia's Volga River after a multi-year absence.

In addition, the Travel Corporation's effort to refurbish all of the river boats it acquired when it bought Uniworld comes to an end this year with the completion of upgrades to River Ambassador, River Baroness and River Princess.

--by Carolyn Spencer Brown, Editor in Chief