Sailing the Douro: Cruises for Oenophiles and Foodies

Uniworld’s 116-passenger Queen Isabel gives guests a closer view of the Douro region’s terraced hillside vineyards.

For travelers who’ve already explored destinations along the Seine, Rhine, Rhone / Saone or Danube, there’s another good western European option — the Douro, a scenic river meandering through Portugal and northern Spain. Cruisers will gaze at UNESCO World Heritage Sites, stroll through quaint villages and view cascading vineyards on terraced hillsides. Grapes have been cultivated in this region since Roman times. 

Portugal’s popularity as a vacation destination has resulted in a 12 percent increase in visitors in 2017 over the previous year, and major river lines have responded by introducing more new river vessels capable of traversing the Douro’s locks. All Douro ships are a bit narrower and shorter in length than others on European rivers, yet they’re also a bit more intimate with fewer passengers.  

In 2019, AmaWaterways’ luxurious new 106-passenger AmaDouro will launch on the Douro. Its sister vessel, AmaVida, already sails there. They operate seven-night “Enticing Douro” cruises roundtrip from Porto; AmaVida also offers a seven-day “Flavors of Portugal and Spain” itinerary, which has both a pre-cruise Lisbon stay and three nights post-cruise in Madrid

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Most staterooms, ranging from 161 square feet to 215 square feet, have balconies. Seeking the most luxurious digs? Those are the Porto Deck’s 323-square-foot Suites, (either No. 319 or No. 320), with floor-to-ceiling windows and a private balcony. Each suite has a comfortable seating area, writing desk, flat-screen TV and many creature comforts, including entertainment-on-demand with free high-speed Internet access, unlimited Wi-Fi, movies, music and English-language TV stations. 

AmaVida has a stylish and inviting Main Lounge, as well as a small spa, fitness room, Sun Deck swimming pool and gift shop; AmaDouro will offer similar spaces. As AmaWaterways is a member of La Chaîne des Rôtisseurs, the exclusive international culinary society, guests will dine on creative, locally inspired cuisine. Lunch and dinner in the main restaurant are accompanied by unlimited wine, beer and soft drinks. 

Douro Elegance’s Deluxe Suites have two full-length windows, of which one opens halfway to create a Juliet balcony. 

We like that cruisers can pair their Douro cruise with a pre- or post-cruise stay in either Lisbon or Madrid, depending on itinerary. For Lisbon, it’s best to not overplan — to simply get out and stroll to peruse tiled buildings, cobblestoned streets, lovely parks, a historic core, and scenes of everyday life. It’s one of Europe’s least crowded capital cities. 

If you get a craving for a sweet treat, try Lisbon’s famed custard egg tarts (pasteis de nata). We’d go to Pastéis de Belém, a 19th-century pastry establishment still going strong with the signature “pasteis de Belem.” For dinner, we’d make advance reservations at Feitoria, a Michelin one-star restaurant located in the Altis Belém Hotel & Spa. Chef Joao Rodrigues creates dishes featuring organic local vegetables, fish and seafood, and couples them with Portuguese culinary traditions, yet in a contemporary way. 

After pre-cruise time in Lisbon, then travelers will board AmaVida or (in 2019) AmaDouro for a roundtrip cruise from Porto, home to multiple port houses. Many shore trips are included; guests choose from traditional tours as well as active hikes and special interest outings. During a call in Regua, Portugal, guests can tour the elegant Baroque town of Lamego, home to a major Portuguese pilgrimage site, Santuario Nossa Senhora dos Remédios (Sanctuary of Our Lady of Remedies) with an iconic, 700-step staircase. That tour also includes a Bolas de Lamego tasting (think bread filled with smoked ham). Active travelers, alternatively, can choose the Lamego Steps hike with Bolas tasting tour. 

In Salamanca, Spain, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, guests will view a flamenco show; while in Pinhao, a Quinta da Avessada lunch and Quinta do Seixo wine tasting are on tap. In Porto, guests can head out for a city tour and wine tasting at Graham’s Winery, founded in the early 1800s. The 20-year-old Tawny Port is smooth as silk with a golden-brown color, a “nutty” aura with hints of orange peel and almonds.

Another luxury option for Douro cruisers is Uniworld Boutique River Cruise Collection. Its 116-passenger Queen Isabel, a lovely boutique river vessel, was designed with the same care as Uniworld’s other European vessels but, as with all river cruise vessels on the Douro, it’s a bit smaller and more intimate. This ship has 20 suites and 39 staterooms (No. 321 or No. 318), but we’d definitely choose one of the Upper Deck’s 323-square-foot Riverview Suites. These aft accommodations have full balconies, so the butler can serve a nice port and cheese plate while guests sip, snack and admire the scenery.

All Queen Isabel accommodations have handcrafted Savoir of England beds, high-thread count Egyptian cotton sheets and European duvets; guests can also select from a menu of pillow options. Perks include a flat-screen TV, individual temperature control, an iPhone / iPod charger and player and Nespresso and tea station. Bathrooms have a spa-like feel with bathrobes, slippers and L’Occitane en Provence bath and body products. Bottled water and fresh fruit are replenished daily.

This year, Uniworld operates an 11-day “Portugal, Spain and the Douro River Valley” itinerary with a pre-cruise stay option in Lisbon. An eight-day version of that itinerary, cruise-only, is roundtrip from Porto. For those with more time, Uniworld also offers a 13-day “Jewels of Spain, Portugal & the Douro River” itinerary from Lisbon to Madrid. Queen Isabel’s route offers opportunities for guests to visit wine producing estates or “quintas,” and meet the winemakers.

Uniworld guests can learn about Portugal’s wine-growing  history by visiting the Quinta da Avessada wine estate for lunch.

Other cruise highlights include a visit to Coimbra, birthplace of multiple Portuguese kings; a dramatic flamenco show in Salamanca, Spain and a small boat ride at Douro International Natural Park. Hint? It’s a superb place for birdwatching so stay alert. Cruisers can view eagles, vultures, falcons, kites, warblers, storks, thrushes and shrikes.  

Uniworld’s itineraries include Porto’s many draws, such as its port house with tasting opportunities and its thriving arts scenes. Contemporary art lovers should stroll trendy Rua De Miguel Bombarda. On the longer Douro itinerary, Uniworld’s guests also can experience three Spanish cities — Salamanca, Madrid and Toledo. 

In 2016, Scenic launched the custom-built Scenic Azure, a 96-passenger luxury Space Ship. It offers several Douro itinerary options. For 2019, we like the 11-day “Unforgettable Douro” itinerary roundtrip from Porto as guests have multiple days in that destination. Among port calls are Entre-os-Rios, Regua and Salamanca. During a call at Pocinho, guests can head out to Pinhao and the Coa Valley along the Portuguese-Spanish border; it’s a UNESCO World Heritage Site with Paleolithic rock art.  

Scenic Azure has just 48 accommodations and more than 87 percent of those have the line’s signature Scenic Sun Lounge. It’s a walk-out, open-air balcony that converts to an all-weather lounge with a push of a button. Top accommodations? Those are the two 420-square-foot Royal One-Bedroom Suites,  No. 322 and No. 323, the ship’s largest accommodations. Other good choices include a 247-square-foot Junior Suite and a 215-square-foot Private Balcony Suite.

Onboard, guests can expect a one-to-two staff-to-guest ratio, private butler service and unlimited complimentary beverages and spirits. Scenic Azure’s onboard cuisine encompasses six dining options, including the degustation experience at Table d’Or, fine Italian cuisine at Portobellos and casual fare at the River Cafe. For those seeking to bask in the sun, there’s a vitality pool on the Sun Deck. The ship also has a wellness area and fitness center.  

As with all Scenic river cruises, guests will never have to reach for the wallet or purse as everything (except a haircut or massage) is included — and this comprises such features as tips and gratuities, Scenic FreeChoice activities that allow for a more personalized vacation, plus Scenic Enrich events exclusive to Scenic and its guests.

Veteran U.K. operator, Riviera River Cruises, now marketing to upscale U.S. consumers as well, launches the new 126-passenger Douro Splendor on the Douro river this year. It’s a sister to Douro Elegance, which debuted last year. Contemporary yet classically designed, the two vessels both have interiors with high-end finishes, polished marble and hardwoods, and the latest technology and environmental features. Staterooms begin at 161 square feet, and the décor has high quality fittings. Amenities include tea and coffee making facilities and bathrobes.

But if travelers want to really indulge, they should choose one of two 312-square-foot Deluxe Suites on the Upper Deck. Most of the added space is devoted to the living area, which has a sofa and elegant armchair. Also, these suites have a walk-in closet and a larger bathroom with twin sinks. Deluxe Suites also have a floor-to-ceiling window, plus a second full-length window that opens halfway down to create a Juliet balcony, complete with a table for two. 

Viking Hemming cruisers will visit Porto’s port warehouses and savor traditional cuisine, wine and fado singing. 

In fact, many Upper Deck and Middle Deck cabins and suites feature those floor-to-ceiling windows that slide down halfway. On Douro Elegance, those accommodations have Juliet balconies, but Douro Splendor will have private exterior balconies in those suites. 

Already plying the Douro with three river vessels, Viking River Cruises has experienced fast-paced growth on the river during the past two years, increasing its berths from 120 to 350. Viking Hemming was introduced in 2014 while Viking Osfrid and Viking Torgil were christened in 2016. 

These ships are a bit smaller than Viking’s popular Longships that sail other European rivers, but past Viking guests and new cruisers alike should still like these ships, as they have many features of the Longships. Those include the indoor-outdoor Aquavit Terrace, a wide range of stateroom choices, onboard solar panels, an organic herb garden, and Viking’s signature Scandinavian ship design. 

What’s new? Viking will add yet another new 106-passenger vessel in 2019 to operate the line’s “Portugal’s River of Gold” itinerary. During this 10-day cruisetour, Viking starts guests with a Lisbon stay, and we’d add the two-night, post-cruise “On the Road to Santiago,” Spain, option; it includes a two-night hotel stay, two breakfasts, a guided walking tour, transfers and a Viking Tour Director escort. The highlight? That’s the chance to explore the Galician capital of Santiago de Compostela and its old town, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. 

Many shore trips are included during the Douro cruise itself. For example, cruisers will explore two of Iberia’s oldest university towns, Coimbra, Portugal and Salamanca, Spain, and will visit Porto’s port warehouses and delve into traditional cuisine, wine and fado singing. 

In Pinhao, cruisers will disembark for a scenic drive to the village of Favaios, where they’ll visit one of the last traditional bakeries in the Douro River Valley; guests will get a chance to watch how bread was made in the past and see how it tastes with a fresh, hot sample from the oven. Then it’s on to a local museum for a wine-and-bread repast, and time in a typical Portuguese village not yet discovered by the masses. Lunch is at the rustic Quinta da Avessada, a centuries-old winery, where guests will sample local varieties of port, including moscatel. 

Top suite on Viking Hemming, for example, is the 302-square-foot Veranda Suite (AA Category) with hotel-style beds, a full-size balcony off the living room, a French balcony in the bedroom, and a large private bathroom with shower. The suite has 40-inch flat-panel TVs with an infotainment system featuring movies on demand plus CNBC, CNN, National Geographic and more. 

Scenic’s sister brand, Emerald Waterways, attracts a bit younger crowd. In 2017, it launched the 112-passenger Emerald Radiance, a new “Star-Ship” and the line’s most intimate, to date. Emerald’s Douro itineraries range from eight-day “Secrets of the Douro” roundtrip from Porto to the 21-day “Lisbon to Nice, Douro and Southern France” itinerary.

What’s special? A new category of stateroom, the Riverview Suites (No. 324 and No. 325) are aft on the Horizon Deck with 300 square feet of space and panoramic floor-to-ceiling windows on two sides. In terms of public spaces, a serenity pool on the Sun Deck is a popular relaxation spot. When it’s time for dining, guests can choose between Reflections, the main dining room, and The Terrace for light breakfast and lunch. 

All ships also have an onboard hairdresser, plus a massage therapy room and fitness area. Onboard yoga classes, port wine cocktail class and tile painting workshops are offered on this itinerary. In addition, as part of the EmeraldACTIVE programming, Emerald Waterways now offers a new guided canoeing excursion in the port of Pocinho, a village in northern Portugal. In Regua, all guests will head out for dinner at a traditional local wine estate. 

The Lounge on Viking Hemming or Torgil has floor-to-ceiling glass doors that lead to an open-air Aquavit Terrace.

Another less inclusive product, CroisiEurope has many vessels plying the Douro and will welcome another new vessel in 2019; the new river boat is based on the model of the Gil Eanes and Miguel Torga, so it can potentially carry 132 passengers, and is designed in the line’s “five anchors” styling with a more modern / contemporary design and bit larger staterooms with larger windows.

CroisiEurope offers six- to eight-day Douro cruises. The shorter option particularly appeals to those desiring to take less time off from work or planning to explore other parts of Europe on the same trip. For experienced river cruisers still seeking a European experience, but something new on the itinerary side, the Douro makes good sense and many of the major lines are introducing new options. 

More European River News 

Tauck is now taking reservations for the Oberammergau 2020 Passion Play. This once-every-decade spectacle is offered on two river cruise itineraries, “The Blue Danube” and “The Romantic Rhine,” plus two land tours. Guests will enjoy premier seating in the best available section of the Passion Play theater. 

Starting in 2019, Crystal River Cruises will introduce 10-day “Enchanting Moselle” itineraries on Crystal Bach, roundtrip from Amsterdam through Germany and the Netherlands. Highlights include many first-time ports for Crystal, Roman ruins at Trier, tastings of Rieslings and other vintages, and the fairytale-like towns of Bernkastel and Cochem.

Next year, Avalon Waterways is introducing a completely revamped Avalon Choice program, offering travelers “Classic,” “Discovery” and “Active” options on every river cruise itinerary and a new AvalonGo App.

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