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Uniworld's European Jewels river cruise will feature the SS Maria Theresa. Photo from Uniworld.

Uniworld’s European Jewels river cruise will feature the SS Maria Theresa. Photo from Uniworld.

I’ve often wondered about the derivation of the ship godmother tradition. A female celebrity of some sort says a few nice words about a new vessel and, in theory, breaks a bottle of Champagne across the bow to christen it.

According to one account I read, the tradition goes back thousands of years to when pagan priests would douse a new ship with blood as a kind of bon voyage send-off.

Somehow this morphed into celebrity godmothers and bottles of bubbly. Even royalty have gotten into the act. Queen Elizabeth II has served as godmother for a couple of Cunard’s “Queen” ocean liners, and Kate Middleton has  appropriately doused a Princess Cruises vessel.

Actresses Make Great Godmothers

Actresses are commonly tapped. In retrospect, I would have gladly splurged on a balcony suite to see Audrey Hepburn swing the Champagne bottle back in the day, but alas, I was a mere lad at the time, earning  a few dollars a week on my paper route.

Audrey.

Audrey.

During one ship launch I attended a few years ago,  in a harsh New York winter, actress Marcia Gay Harden had to “virtually” christen the ship with a fake bottle since the ceremony was held in the ship’s theater due to the nasty weather outside. As I recall, her father held some position in the Navy, perhaps even admiral, thus providing her maritime bonafides.  Since she had to rush off to appear on Broadway that evening, I have no idea if she actually ever got to sail on the ship.

Another christening I attended, in Barcelona, had sunny weather and a celebrity chef, Kat Cora, as godmother. This made a certain amount of sense since the cruise line, Oceania, was emphasizing its onboard cuisine and cooking classes. After the ceremony, Cora sailed off to Venice, and supposedly was welcome to join any subsequent cruise she wanted.

But I suspect most godmothers have little to do with the ships once they’ve posed for pictures and the cruise line puts out a press release trumpeting the launch. It’s a PR bonanza for both, and cruise ops are mostly a bonus.

Hapsburg Heir to Be Uniworld Godmother 

The Empress Maria Theresa, the new ship's namesake.

The Empress Maria Theresa, the new ship’s namesake.

I was intrigued, though, to read that a direct descendant of Maria Theresa, once Empress of the far-reaching Holy Roman Empire as a member of the powerful Habsburg dynasty, is set to be the godmother of Uniworld’s newest river cruise Super Ship, the aptly named S.S. Maria Theresa.

The ship’s lobby decor is intended to evoke the “fantasy of living in an 18th-century Baroque castle,” as one of the designers put it. The three-tiered lobby will be “dominated by a sweeping marble staircase with wrought-iron, hand-gilded balustrade and royal crown detailing,” and a ten-foot-high oil painting of Maria Theresa herself will serve as another focal point.

Public areas will include the Habsburg Salon for relaxing as well as an authentic Viennese cafe, featuring Viennese coffee, sausage and sachertorte. The ship will carry a maximum of 150 passengers.

The godmother-in-waiting’s name is Princess Anita von Hohenburg, and she’ll be christening Uniworld’s Maria Theresa on March 26 of this year in Amsterdam.

The princess is also the great-granddaughter of the famously assassinated Archduke Franz-Ferdinand (the spark setting off World War I) and Duchess Sophie von Honenburg.

Archduke Franz-Ferdinand, great-grandfather of Princess Anita von Hohenburg

Archduke Franz-Ferdinand, great-grandfather of Princess Anita von Hohenburg

I became a little obsessed with Empress Maria Theresa last spring when I was touring Central Europe with Insight Vacations. Historical remnants of Maria Theresa show up everywhere you go in Austria and other parts of the region: palaces, sculptures, paintings, clothing, and anecdotes galore about her and her family.

She reigned for 40 years, from 1740 to 1780, and was the only female ruler of the Habsburg Empire, which dates back to the 1400s. Besides her duties as Empress, she managed to bear 16 children in 20 years, including Marie Antoinette of “Let them eat cake” and guillotine fame. (It wasn’t always a piece of cake being a royal back then.)

You Can Visit Her Castle on a Cruise Excursion

Princess Anita von Hohenburg, the Habsburg descendant and expectant godmother, is owner of the centuries-old Artstetten Castle in Lower Austria, the former summer residence of the Imperial family.

The castle, which serves as the final resting place of Archduke Franz-Ferdinand,  is open to the public. Uniworld runs excursions there from some of their Danube river cruises, and guests can tour the castle and crypt and share a glass of Champagne with the Princess at a private reception. So Uniworld, the Princess and Champagne are already a triumvirate of sorts.

Once properly christened, the Maria Theresa is slated to sail the Danube on Uniworld’s “European Jewels” voyage from Budapest to Amsterdam as well as on some other European river itineraries.

Worldwide, Uniworld, a luxury “boutique” line and the recipient of many travel awards, sails on 22 different rivers in 29 countries on three continents and, like many river cruise lines, is constantly expanding its reach, including onto the Ganges in India next year. So “ship godmother” is one job that’s unlikely to disappear anytime soon.

But I fear there’ll never be another Audrey Hepburn.

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