Editor's note: Uniworld is now using the riverboat Queen Isabel for its Douro itineraries. Other lines like AmaWaterways, Viking and Vantage also offer Douro River itineraries.
While it's not exactly in a forgotten corner of Europe, Portugal's Douro River does tend to be off the beaten river cruising track in comparison to the popular Rhine, Danube and Rhone. Yet, a week spent cruising the Douro is full of unforgettable experiences that may surprise those unfamiliar with this region. As well as a day at either end of the seven-night cruise in the wonderful, UNESCO city of Porto (known for its historic centre, graceful bridges and world-famous port wine houses), there are long, blissful spells on the water without seeing other boats, cruising narrow stretches of the upper Douro between steep, rocky slopes on which thousands of hectares of port wine grapes are cultivated.
Although a Douro cruise sets a pretty leisurely pace, there are some wonderful experiences along the way. We wandered around medieval hilltop villages that have barely changed over the centuries. We visited the cellars of some of the big port-growing dynasties and saw their names gracing the steeply terraced vineyards along the river in huge letters. And we ventured outside the area, too, spending a day across the border in the magnificent Spanish university town of Salamanca, one of the best-kept secrets in the whole of Europe, thanks to its exquisite beauty and history. And then there are the simpler pleasures like eating freshly-grilled sardines at a deck barbecue organised by the crew.
While many cruise travellers have yet to stumble across the Douro River, U.K. operators have been plying the river for years. After all, it was the Brits who started the port wine industry 300 years ago with their Portuguese allies, and strong ties remain between the two countries. British operators include Titan HiTours, Saga, Page & Moy, Noble Caledonia and Cosmos.
Among the lines carrying international passengers is CroisiEurope, which has its own boat on the Douro. (The others tend to charter from Portuguese company Douro Azul.) AMAWATERWAYS has dropped the river from its program for 2011, leaving the luxury end open to rival Uniworld, which is chartering a brand-new Douro Azul boat, Douro Spirit, launched in April 2011 and bringing French balconies to the Douro for the first time.
Wondering why you should give the Douro a try? Click on the photo above to view the slideshow of our top eight reasons to cruise down this Portuguese waterway, based on my sailing on Uniworld's Douro Queen, which previously sailed there.
--by Sue Bryant, Cruise Critic Contributing Editor