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Uniworld’s new ship makes royal splash in European river cruising

IF YOU GO

THE ANTOINETTE: Eight-day “Castles Along the Rhine” trips between Amsterdam, Netherlands and Basel, Switzerland started last week and run through late November. Prices start at $1,999 a person in the lowest category cabin. For the same cabin, add $1,100 during peak season between late August and early October. Upgrading to a stateroom on the top deck costs an additional $1,075 a person. Prices include breakfast, dinner and most lunches, wine and beer during dinner, six shore excursions and arrival and departure transfers. The Antoinette also will offer “Rhine Holiday Markets” cruises between Basel and Cologne, Germany in December; (800) 733-7820, uniworld.com.

TIP: Book by June 30 to save $300 a couple.

Updated: September 24, 2012 6:25AM



AMSTERDAM, Netherlands — Workers were lapping on final coats of paint, hanging pictures and dispensing vases stuffed with long-stemmed tulips as guests began to trickle aboard the S.S. Antoinette.

It was the eve of the Antoinette’s christening cruise and Captain Frank Versluis had been up until the wee hours of the night, putting tiny bottles of L’Occitane soap in each of the 80 cabins.

“I must have bought every mirror in Holland and I still need more,” said the ship’s lead designer and namesake, Antoinette “Toni” Tollman, over the din of an electric drill.

Mirrors, marble tables, gold leaf, 18th century style chairs draped in velvet — Tollman handpicked these pieces for the ship’s salon to evoke the Palace of Versailles, once home to the most famous of Antoinettes. And just like Marie-Antoinette’s Versailles, no expense had been spared.

“We want the ship to be as much of a destination as the cities of Europe,” said Tollman, whose family owns the Travel Corporation. The company’s thick portfolio of travel brands includes Contiki and Trafalgar coach tours as well as the chichi Red Carnation hotel collection and Uniworld Boutique River Cruises.

The Antoinette is the first of three new river cruisers being launched in 2011 by Los Angeles-based Uniworld. Antoinette and the Douro Spirit will sail in Europe, with the former taking guests on eight-day cruises on the Rhine between Amsterdam and Basel, Switzerland. Uniworld’s third newcomer, the River Victoria, will be assigned to Russia.

“It’s a very ambitious year for us,” said Uniworld President Guy Young.

Long overshadowed by bigger, ocean-going vessels, river ships are becoming an increasingly popular option for cruisers, especially in Europe where so many historic cities line the waters’ banks.

The industry group Cruise Line International Association reports that several new river ships — usually carrying no more than 200 passengers — will ply the waters this year, including a trio of new boats for AmaWaterways. Viking River Cruises last month announced plans for four new builds set to begin service at the start of the 2012 sailing season.

The Travel Corporation scooped up Uniworld in 2004 and set about an extensive overhaul of its fleet, adding what Tollman described as a much-needed dose of boutique hotel luxury to the river cruise market.

“I know you’re supposed to call them ships, but for me the concept was ‘boatels,’ ” Tollman said. “It’s about giving the guest a five-star experience.

“All of these ships out there were made of Formica,” she added. “Some are still being built that way. It’s gross. You go to use the shower and the plastic curtain is in your mouth. Not very sexy.”

Tollman’s idea of sexy is Antoinette’s two-story marble lobby crowned by a 10-foot Baccarat crystal chandelier — the same chandelier that once graced New York’s Tavern on the Green, where Tollman’s father often dined before the legendary restaurant closed last year.

When it comes to sexiness and river cruisers, apparently size does matter: The Antoinette is Uniworld’s largest ship, with most of the 71 staterooms measuring a roomy 196 square feet. The Owner’s Suite is nearly double that size.

Cabins on the top deck come with balconies enclosed by a glass wall that slides up or down, converting an open-air veranda into a conservatory with the touch of a button. Similarly, a leopard-themed lounge and greenhouse-style dining venue on the sun deck can be lowered, allowing the boat to pass under low bridges.

The ship boasts a heated swimming pool that pipes in music under water, as well as a fitness center, spa and 22-seat movie theater — a first on river cruisers.

Tollman hired a South African artist who spent six months installing tile mosaics in the pool area and the main dining room. Rich fabric covers all of the staterooms’ walls. Thick Christy’s of England towels hang on the marble bathrooms’ heated racks.

Needless to say, there are no plastic shower curtains.

“This is one very expensive toy,” quipped a Travel Corporation employee on last month’s christening cruise, attended by media, travel agency owners and three generations of Tollmans — along with their cadre of tiny dogs, the requisite accessory of those in the top 1 percent tax bracket.

The recent three-night cruise was as much about celebrating the launch of Uniworld’s newest ship as it was about ironing out the kinks, such as some staterooms’ temperamental key cards and leaky showers that sent water cascading onto bathroom floors.

These glitches had to be fixed before the Antoinette welcomed her first paying guests last week on a maiden voyage down the Rhine.

And a few more mirrors needed to be hung.

“It’s a competitive world out there,” Tollman said. “You have to do it 150 percent better than everyone else.”

Information for this article was gathered on a research trip sponsored by Uniworld.



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