TRAVEL GUIDE River cruising Europe Bea-all and end-all of luxury cruising

A doyenne of hospitality has redefined comfort, writers STEPHEN SCOURFIELD

I’m looking for Bea Tollman.

So often it’s people who bring our journeys alive and make the memories that stick most.

There are human touches.

There are chance meetings, shared moments; maybe even shared recipes.

That’s what makes travel personal, and that’s why I’m looking for Bea Tollman.

She’s not far away.

On the menu tonight in Uniworld SS Bon Voyage river cruise ship’s Le Grand Fromage Restaurant is “Mrs Tollman’s chopped salad”.

It is followed by “Bea Tollman’s chicken soup”.

Uniworld Boutique River Cruises was established in 1976, Bea Tollman acquired it in 2004, and she is still guiding the experience that the Californian-based company delivers on 500 river cruises annually — and, specifically for me, over eight days in the Bordeaux region of France.

Bea is in her 80s but still hands-on and still credited with being the creative mind behind the ships, the crew and the boutique experience.

BEA IN MY ROOM

In my room it might be the woven aqua-coloured fabric on the walls, which softens and quietens it, and makes it, well, rather French.

A spokesperson for Uniworld confides that Bea is involved in the design of each ship interior, based on the regions they sail. There are relevant colour palettes, personally selected artworks, furnishings that mix contemporary craftsmanship with antiques. Why are specifically elements chosen? “Simply because it’s what Bea loves.”

Bea, with her silver-white hair and impeccable style.

BEA IN THE CREW

Generally around the ship, Bea’s hand is seen not only in the choice of staff, but their approach and attitude — well trained, not over scripted, spontaneous, human, personal.

BEA IN THE FOOD

In the restaurants, Bea appears through her recipes.

Bea has aimed to create a home, and she and the staff succeed.

As a girl, Bea Tollman had planned to become a teacher, but a school trip to Europe changed that thought. Food! Gastronomy! Her palate was piqued, and she became driven by cuisine.

Born in Johannesburg, South Africa, she married Stanley Tollman — a pharmacist with a red carnation in his lapel who loved food, cooking and cuisine. Soon after they married, they leased a hotel, Stanley became devoted to the hospitality industry and Bea started cooking.

She says: “The idea was that I would help my husband out at the beginning (with his first hotel) before going on to teach, but I ended up staying in the kitchen for 15 years.”

Her food dazzled. Diners called for the chef, and were often surprised to see this self-taught 22-year-old woman.

Over more than 30 years, she steered the creation of 17 individually designed properties of the superb Red Carnation Hotel Collection, and then wanted to bring the luxury boutique experience to river cruising.

And she brought Red Carnation’s key beliefs to Uniworld: “unparalleled hospitality, unmatched service and a dedication to going above and beyond for guests”.

They show in the ship, the crew, the food, and what she calls the “Tiny Noticeable Touches” that portray her thoughtful nature.

Says our Uniworld insider: “The spirit of service is one that is rooted in the Tollman family values and is carried out by each and every member of the staff and crew.

“Bea’s hands-on approach and obsessive attention to detail has always been central to her ethos of creating hotels where guests know they will consistently receive the very best service. But, before that can happen, she knows that the team needs to be happy and inspired.”

Red Carnation and Uniworld are just two of the 30 brands that make up the Travel Corporation, with its 10,000 staff, still overseen by 85-year-old Stanley as chairman, and with a big presence in Australia.

She has a big presence here on Uniworld’s SS Bon Voyage, too.

If you look for Bea, you’re sure to see her.

Fact File

Uniworld’s eight-day Brilliant Bordeaux river cruise includes visits to chateaux, wine tastings and good Bordeaux wines on board. uniworld.com and travel agents.

Disclaimer

Stephen Scourfield was a guest of The Travel Corporation. They have not seen or approved this story.

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