Super Ship Antoinette spends her inaugural season on the Rhine River. // © 2011 Uniworld Boutique River Cruise Collection
European Waterways Sees Dramatic Growth
River cruise ships, with their uniformly low ceilings, are not made with tall people in mind. So, when Toni Tollman -- godmother and designer of Uniworld Boutique River Cruise Collection's newest vessel, Super Ship Antoinette -- wanted to fit a 10-foot-tall Baccarat chandelier onboard, you can bet she got some strange looks. Despite any initial disbelief, the chandelier, which formerly hung in New York's Tavern on the Green restaurant, proudly punctuates Antoinette's two-story lobby.
Brazilian marble adorns the walls and floors of the lobby, and a 19th-century Venetian glass mirror rests high above the reception desk. Stepping into the Antoinette, it becomes clear that this is not your average river cruise vessel -- she's something quite unique, indeed.
"I have to thank my mother and father [Stanley and Beatrice Tollman of Uniworld's parent company, The Travel Corporation] for having such faith in me, my talent and my expensive taste," said Tollman during the ship's christening ceremony in Amsterdam, The Netherlands. "Super Ship Antoinette is bigger, better and more luxurious than anything that sails."
As a guest on Antoinetteís maiden voyage, I was among the first to experience the five-star, boutique ship, which sails the Rhine River this spring. For me, the ship's design elements -- inspired by 18th-century France, Marie Antoinette and Versailles -- amid modern comforts set her apart from many other vessels on the Rhine.
All suites and staterooms are elegantly appointed with handmade beds and striking headboards, walls dressed in rich fabrics and marble bathrooms outfitted with L'Occitane bath and body products, Grohe fixtures, thick towels from Christy's of England and fresh-cut flowers. The towel-warming racks were a welcomed, unexpected touch, and the North American electrical outlets meant that I could use my flat iron and charge my iPhone with ease.
A full day had passed before my travel companion and I discovered the most innovative feature in our stateroom. Although we didn't have a balcony (all suites and top floor staterooms have full balconies, however), we were able to make our stateroom feel like one, huge covered balcony. With the push of a button, our window retracted, letting in the fresh air and sunshine. With the sound of lapping water and other ships passing by, it felt, at least for a short while, as if we were on a sailboat rather than a cruise ship. Suites and staterooms on La Princesse Deck feature open-air balconies that, utilizing the same technology, can double as enclosed conservatories.
All staterooms throughout the ship have LCD flat-screen televisions with on-demand movies and music. And each suite, ranging in size from 294 to 391 square feet, has an extra TV located on the balcony.
Floor-to-ceiling mirrors helped make our 163-square-foot stateroom feel larger, but with small closets and relatively no empty corners, American travelers might have trouble finding an appropriate place to store their luggage. This is, however, an issue they would face on most river cruise ships in Europe. The Antoinette is Uniworld's longest ship to date at 443 feet, allowing additional room for larger staterooms and suites. In fact, according to Uniworld, she has larger staterooms than any other contemporary river cruise ship operating in Europe.
The ship is so roomy that she has space for a 20-seat movie theater, the first of its kind on any river, where guests can munch on popcorn and screen films of their choosing on a state-of-the-art flat screen with Dolby surround sound.
There is also a spa, fitness center and a heated indoor swimming pool accented with ocean blue mosaic tile. Guests can even listen to underwater music as they swim beneath the surface.
We loved spending the late afternoon, champagne in hand, on the sundeck's chaise lounges where the colorful cashmere throws and wind-breaking umbrellas were particularly useful amenities, especially at sunset. Also on the sundeck is the safari-themed Leopard Lounge, a popular spot for after-dinner cocktails and dancing.
The lunch buffet in the mosaic-tiled Restaurant de Versailles impressed guests with its fresh gnocchi station and a Movenpick ice cream bar with hot fudge, waffle cones, fresh whipped cream and pecans. But it was the elaborate, mutlicourse meals -- including pink champagne sorbet served on a tray of dry ice and twice-baked potatoes topped with caviar and creme fraiche -- that had everyone talking.
A crew member encouraged us to pair the pickled herring (we were in The Netherlands after all) with a shot of Austrian Blue Gin, a rare vintage that is only distilled once a year. The gin was the finest I've ever tasted and the herring, well, let's just say that at least I gave it a shot. My travel companion, on the other hand, helped himself to the various herring presentations at every opportunity -- including the breakfast buffet. Much like the Antoinette herself, we were trying something different. And, isn't that what traveling is all about?