Discover the best of Portugal on a leisurely Douro River cruise: Travel Weekly
From Porto’s hillside cityscape to pointed church towers and pastel-hued houses to spectacular inland views of vineyards twirling around mountain peaks, a slow cruise along the Douro River valley is like a lesson in Portuguese history, tradition and cuisine.
It’s a lesson I experienced every day aboard Scenic Luxury Cruises’ 263ft Azure, with cooking demonstrations, fine dining with regional specialties and sips of regional red wines and of reserve and wild harbors. Shore excursions took us to ancient churches and monasteries, museums and vineyards in the world’s oldest wine region – so old, in fact, that it is a Unesco World Heritage Site, with many wine produced here since Roman times.
Scenic resumed its unforgettable 11-day Douro River cruises on July 30, departing from the bustling Cais da Ribeira riverside from Porto to Vega de Terron on the Spanish border, a 310-mile round-trip trip passing five locks , like the Azure and other Douro cruise ships are built specifically to maneuver narrow locks.
Scenic used the pandemic’s forced downtime for maintenance, replacing the Azure carpeting and improving air conditioning, kitchens and bathrooms. Highlights of the ship include the shaded lounge area of ââthe sun terrace and a small swimming pool. Most of the 48 cabins are comfortable 215 square foot balcony suites; almost double space in the two one-bedroom suites. Butlers add to the luxury service above and beyond.
Cultural immersion grabbed us from day one with a fado show on board. “I can feel it in my skin: emotions, pain, love, joy,” singer Claudia Madur said of Portugal’s melancholy musical genre.
Photo credit: Richard Varr
Portuguese specialties and wines during an 11-day navigation offer a taste of the region.
In Peso da Regua, we explored winemaking at the Douro Museum, learning how the mountains blocking the climate of the Atlantic Ocean create a microclimate for over 110 grape varieties. I discovered that workers still crush grapes with their feet and that adding brandy is the secret to good port. “Wine is sweet because brandy stops fermentation,” museum guide Marco Barradas explained.
In Pinhao, we tasted the local port and traditional bola meatloaf in the village of Provesende, at the top of the plateau, where ripening bunches of grapes hang from the vines a few days before harvest. Other tours offer kayaking and an exciting full day exploring the Double Cathedrals and University of Salamanca, as the Spanish city is less than two hours from Vega de Terron.
Back in Porto, classical musicians performed for us in the 15th century Sao Francisco Church, whose nave is dotted with Baroque gold sculptures.
I sailed in mid-August on the second cruise of the Azure season with about 40 other passengers, less than half of the ship’s 96-passenger capacity. Passengers must present proof of vaccination against Covid-19 and a negative PCR or antigen test. Masks are mandatory and crew members take guests’ temperatures after shore excursions.
“We need to show our customers that we are doing everything possible for safe cruises,” said Maria Andrada, general manager of operations in Portugal for Scenic and sister company Emerald Cruises. She predicted that the ships will sail at 50% to 60% of their capacity until November, reaching full occupancy next year. “We are very happy,” she said.