Cruising on Scenic Azure in the Douro River Valley

Sailing northern Portugal’s scenic Douro River Valley is in many ways a “softer,” quieter, more rural experience than that of sailing some other European rivers. That’s Luxury Travel Advisor’s perspective from a 10-night August voyage on Scenic’s 96-passenger Scenic Azure, which delivered an all-inclusive, upscale experience.

While guests embark in vibrant Porto, as the river vessel sails eastward, the scenery quickly transforms into a rural nature. Beyond Porto, the Douro isn’t a wide river with frequent barge traffic and shoreside hustle and bustle. Travelers can savor stunningly gorgeous scenery — terraced vineyards, olive groves, rugged granite rockfaces, locks, quaint villages, homes hugging the hillsides and quintas (rural manors and agricultural estates).

Another difference on the Douro? River vessels do not sail at night so guests can both enjoy the daytime sailing views, but also head out to explore local destinations in the evening (COVID-era restrictions permitting). But what can guests expect aboard Scenic Azure, launched in 2016 and updated a bit during the pandemic? Here’s our first-hand perspective from a 10-night “Unforgettable Douro” sailing in August.  


Luxury Travel Advisor stayed two nights pre-cruise in Porto, the embarkation port for Douro voyages. It’s a city of 232,000 people (within a metro area of 1.7 million) yet our personal interactions with “the locals” reflected a refreshing, small-town friendliness. 

Scenic’s pre-cruise hotel, the Sheraton Porto Hotel & Spa, offered comfortable, clean and spacious rooms with helpful front-desk staffers. On embarkation day, Scenic’s motorcoach picks up cruise guests from that property and drops them at the line’s priority docking point in downtown Porto (many other lines’ vessels are docked across the river in Gaia).

Depending on the guest’s arrival details, COVID-19 antigen tests are administered pier-side for many cruisers. It’s a smooth, easy process. Soon, guests are escorted onboard, their luggage is handled, they’re checked in and escorted to one of 48 suites onboard. 

Scenic Sun Lounge 

Scenic Azure Balcony Suite
Balcony Suite (Scenic)

Entering our “Balcony Suite,” No. 209, (BB category), we noticed that it was brimming with natural light, thanks to its creative Scenic Sun Lounge. Essentially, that’s an enclosed balcony-like area with two chairs, a small table and an expanse of floor-to-ceiling glass that extends across the bedroom area’s full width. Eighty-seven percent of Scenic Azure’s accommodations have similar lounges, which, in our view, offer great “flexibility.”

When the lounge’s top horizontal panel of glass is “up,” the lounge is an indoor extension of the suite where guests can relax in air-conditioned comfort. Luxury Travel Advisor ordered room service breakfast (delivered on time one morning by the butler), settled down with a good book and relished both the perfect room temperature and the gorgeous river views. 

Guests who prefer fresh air, though, can simply push a wall-panel button that lowers the top part of that glass. Presto, the lounge becomes an open-air balcony. Best of all, by pushing another set of buttons, a screen for that top window area can be raised or lowered. So, guests can enjoy the fresh air, yet the suite can remain “bug-free.”  

Scenic thought of everything, it seems. A separate button also will raise or lower a privacy shade between the lounge’s furthest interior point and the start of the bedroom area. A sheer curtain can also be pulled across too, as can an accordion-style glass door. That said, we kept the entire Scenic Lounge space open during our cruise and only used the full privacy shade at night.  

Soothing Colors, Good Perks

Luxury Travel Advisor liked the soothing feel of this suite, with its gray-and-white coloring; comfortable king-sized bed (convertible to two twins), easily adjustable with the touch of a button; and soft sheets, duvet and pillows. 

Those who want to enjoy a “flick,” can do so by watching the suite’s large, flat-screen, wall-mounted TV; it’s viewable both from the bed and the Scenic Sun Lounge. Yes, the entertainment system had the usual range of movies and TV shows, as well as account details and the daily cruise activity schedule (no longer distributed as a paper copy). Scenic guests also are encouraged to download the line’s smart app, Tailormade, for the daily schedule and also to listen to the guide’s narration on shore trips. 

This suite’s small but handy counter/desktop has a stool-like seat and doubles as a workspace or make-up area (make-up mirror provided). Above the surface, too, is a huge wall mirror. Creative closet space includes two doors, each of which can be pulled slightly over and “out” toward the room; then one door slides in front of the other door. 

Closets offer ample storage space with hanging rods, many shelves and a few drawers, plus a safe and a mini fridge stocked with sodas, beer, wines, spirits and snacks. Plush bathrobes, slippers, an umbrella and laundry bags are provided for guest use. One nice perk that we appreciated was the one complimentary laundry service per cabin (not per guest) per cruise; one just fills the bag! 

Scenic Azure
The Balcony Suite is small but has plenty of amenities. (Scenic)

The compact bathroom was well-designed with a walk-in shower (with rainforest showerhead and a separate, hand-held spray), toilet, one sink, fluffy towels and L’Occitane toiletries. At night, we loved the “perfect night-light effect” of the bathroom’s subtle blue lighting.

Our 215-square-foot “Balcony Suite” was a step up from Scenic Azure’s entry-level, 172-square-foot “Standard Suite” (D and E category) with picture window; they’re on the Jewel Deck. For a bit more space, we’d suggest the 247-square-foot “Junior Suite” (RJ and BJ categories). For the ultimate “top digs,” the 420-square-foot “Royal One-Bedroom Suite” (RP category) is the way to go. It has a seating/lounge area that’s separate from the bedroom, plus a full-size bathtub.

Cruising in Style

Due to the Douro’s locks and curves, Scenic Azure and other lines’ Douro vessels, too, are shorter in length and carry fewer guests than many other river vessels on European rivers. For example, within the Scenic river fleet, the 163-passenger Scenic Amber, which sails the Rhine, Main and Danube rivers, is 443 feet long, while the 96-passenger Scenic Azure is only 263 feet long. 

To soak in the spectacular Douro scenery and watch the lock transits in daylight, head for the Sun Deck, atop the ship. It’s the place to stroll, enjoy a yoga stretching session, relax in a lounger or take a cool dip in the small vitality pool; canvas shade covering is available but, at times, needs to be lowered by the crew when the ship approaches low bridges.   

Weather permitting, guests can enjoy a Sun Deck barbecue once weekly. During our cruise, Europe was enduring a heat wave though, so the tasty spread — fresh seafood, hamburgers, barbecue ribs and more — was served inside. 

Inside Scenic Azure, one deck down is the Diamond Deck, the heart of the ship. It’s home to the reception deck and a small desk for the shore excursion team. On the accessibility side, one elevator is also found in this lobby and it operates between all interior guest decks (not the top Sun Deck). Directly behind the purser’s desk is the comfortable Panorama Lounge and Bar with many seating areas of couches and chairs, a full-service bar, a piano and entertainment space.

Unfolding throughout each day in the lounge are port talks, enrichment lectures, trivia competitions, a cooking demonstration or wine-cheese-charcuterie seminar and other fun activities. One of the most popular activities on our sailing was the guest “best photo contest.” The lounge offers a self-serve coffee/tea bar with — in our opinion — the best soft, fruit-filled cookies on the planet. 

Panorama Lounge bar staffers circulate to provide seated guests with drink service (often remembering exactly what cocktail, beer, wine or other drink the guest likes), or guests can cozy up to the bar itself and order. The lounge is also the “hot spot” for live musical entertainment. After embarkation in Porto, the line offered an evening soulful Fado performance here. On another night, guests listened to traditional Portuguese live music, while Arsenio was our cruise’s excellent “resident” singer/keyboard player. On the entertainment side, just don’t expect big production shows or a casino. 

Forward of the lounge/bar is River Café, a multi-purpose space with tables and chairs for daily casual meals, personal pizzas, snacks, desserts and beverages. Don’t miss the pastry chef’s “cake of the day.” The adjacent Panorama Deck space is fully forward for even more seating. Most notably, the River Café space also hosts an upscale, very tasty Portobellos experience.

Scenic Azure Portobellos experience
Executive chef Pedro Ribeiro’s creations are on display at the Portobellos experience. (Scenic)

River cruisers love diving into the culture of destinations visited and one artistic, fun activity that unfolded in River Café was tile painting, a Portuguese tradition introduced to the country by the Arabs centuries ago. Guests select a pattern (such as a boat, animal or flowers, among many others), then scratch that pattern’s “impression” onto their blank white tile. Or, if they feel artistic, they can opt for free-hand painting. 

Either way, they’ll use blue ink mixing that with water to create a tile scene in various shades of blue. An expert is on hand to assist with “the technique” (ours was sorely lacking). Guests either admire or chuckle at their artistry. Then the tiles are taken off the ship, baked in a kiln and are ready for guests to “reclaim” at the cruise’s end — a neat souvenir to take home. 

Elegant Dining

After cocktails or wine in Panorama Lounge & Bar, guests can head down one deck for dinner at the Sapphire Deck’s elegant Crystal Dining room. Dinner menus feature a selection of appetizers, main courses, healthy fare or a “Chef’s Choice” line-up, and wines are freely poured. 

During one Gala Dinner night, cold appetizers included beetroot carpaccio or avocado-and-prawns salad, while hot appetizers were mushroom soup or Atlantic sea scallops. That course was followed by forest berries. Three main course entrées included slow beef tenderloin, slow-cooked octopus with garlic spinach or a Scenic signature dish, zucchini spring rolls. As if anyone was still hungry, desserts, cheeses and petit fours followed. Wine pairings featured Douro Valley vintages.

At breakfast and lunch, Crystal Dining Room also offers buffets, plus à la carte menus for lunch. Scenic’s buffets remain self-serve, as Portugal does not have COVID-19-era restrictions for those. Guests entering the dining room are encouraged to use a hand sanitizer.

One exclusive offering? For Diamond Deck guests and those in Junior Balcony Suites on the Sapphire Deck, Scenic also offers a Table D’Or experience. It’s the executive chef’s exclusive dining experience for up to 10 guests. This six-course degustation menu with sommelier paired wines unfolds within an intimate space adjacent to the Crystal Dining Room. The name, Table D’Or, means table of “gold” (one translation for “Douro” in Portuguese). The experience is called Table La Rive on other Scenic vessels.

Shopping aboard? Directly outside the dining room, the Sapphire Deck’s lobby area houses a glass case (the small ship’s version of a boutique). Here, guests will see displays of gifts and souvenirs that they can purchase from the purser’s desk crew. One fellow guest bought lovely handbags, while we opted for a cute Portuguese-style bistro tablecloth and napkins.

But for a truly memorable souvenir or gift to take home, definitely check out the creatively designed glass sardines. Yes, that’s correct — sardines. The “real” sardines are a tasty treat beloved by Porto area locals. So, these “artsy,” small glass fish (with a hole in the back for hanging on a wall) take on dozens of “looks” and replicate similar sardine glass pieces creatively displayed en masse on Crystal Dining Room’s walls. 

Also on the Sapphire Deck is a small exercise facility with a few state-of-the art machines and weights, as well as a separate small wellness area where guests can have a massage or facial from the wellness coach, who also conducted those Sun Deck yoga sessions.

Service Aboard

Overall, Scenic Azure’s Portuguese crew members were superb service-wise, even though most had only recently returned to work. Wherever the guest is on the ship, crew members almost immediately greet the guest by name. The friendly housekeepers were exceptionally patient as we were typically working many hours in the suite on a laptop so not the best for their cleaning process and timing.  

The reception desk’s “in person” service was very good. Dining room and bar service crew members performed admirably too. The cruise director, Filepe Nunes, was one of the best we’ve ever encountered on any river vessel. 

An added perk for guests in 200 and 300 level suites is butler service. Three butlers serve 15 suites each and provide a variety of guest services. Advisors should tell guests to be sure to review what butler services are available in the A-to-Z services information literature within the suite.

Above and Beyond

Sometimes the unexpected happens while traveling. We greatly appreciated efforts by both the purser’s desk and João Oliveira, the ship’s hotel director, when we needed a new prescription that had been prescribed on embarkation day by an EU telemedicine doctor. They called around to find a pharmacy with the medication, arranged for a roundtrip cab ride (and gave written instructions in Portuguese to the cab driver). Presto, we were out and back in just an hour, and could enjoy the rest of the cruise. It was a great example of over-the-top service to assist a guest. 

In addition to fine service, the inclusiveness of the experience was also a plus. Guests receive two exclusive Scenic Enrich experiences (such as a classical concert at Sao Francisco Church in Porto, exclusive to Scenic), a choice of 17 Scenic Freechoice activities (shore trips, for example), up to five onboard dining options from casual to fine dining; complimentary premium beverages throughout the cruise, complimentary Wi-Fi, all gratuities and tipping, and other perks. 

While our itinerary was 10 nights and allowed us to discover the vineyards in Regua, Vinhateiro and the Coa Valley, cruise guests can lengthen the experience by adding on stays in Lisbon or Madrid. 

Overall, we loved our cruising experience on the Douro and on Scenic Azure. We found the ship intimate, upscale and very comfortable. While capacity was under 45 percent on our cruise, even with more guests, we believe this ship will offer travelers a luxurious, pampering cruise experience.

Scenic Shore Options

What’s unique about Scenic is that along the Douro River, the cruise director and the shore excursion manager are one and the same person. Shore excursion guides also work onboard and sail with guests throughout the cruise. Motorcoaches transporting guests on tours are Scenic coaches with the same drivers following the ship along the itinerary. For more about three of our shoreside experiences on Scenic’s Douro River cruise, check out our separate online story on later this month.

The Portobellos Experience

Scenic Azure Portobellos Experience
More of executive chef Pedro Ribeiro’s ​​​​​​ Portobellos experience creations. (Scenic)

Once per cruise, Scenic Azure’s guests who make reservations can enjoy a cut-above dining experience at Portobellos, presented in the Riverside Café space forward of the Panorama Lounge & Bar. The ship’s executive chef, Pedro Ribeiro, created the menu and the onboard culinary team puts on a delectable presentation of courses. 

First up is the breadbasket with “Pao Regional and Azeites” consisting of corn bread and avintes bread, served with aceto balsamic and premium olive oil. Then the “Peticos” arrive — a lovely family-style platter with marinated olives, octopus salad, paprika cheese, smoked pork loin, prosciutto, mussels and pickles, tuna toast and alheira balls. 

The next course, “Petisco Quente” is essentially portobello mushrooms with garlic, white wine and coriander. Then it’s time for a “Sopa” of Portuguese chicken broth with risoni. The “Prato Principal” or main course is either sliced beef tenderloin with crispy prosciutto, punch potatoes and garlic, and sauteed turnip greens, or a vegetarian option:  seasonal vegetables, sun dried tomato, olives, angel hair potato and eggs. Wine pairings are such Douro River vintages as a white Carm Reserva, a red Quinta do Cuquinho Colheita, and a port wine, Morgadio da Calcada Port Tawny. 

For dessert, a tasty trio of sweet delights included “Leite Cream” (Portuguese crème brulee), “Tarte de Nata” (a tasty Portuguese custard tart) and “Pudim de Ovus” (Portuguese egg pudding). Alternatively, guests could enjoy the regional specialty of quince marmalade, grapes condiments and crackers. Also served were espresso, cappuccino, coffee or tea.

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