The big surprise about Portugal’s Douro River – the most vibrant in this part of the Iberian peninsula, is why it’s not on the top of every cruise traveler’s bucket list. Gorgeous and relatively untouched by tourists, this laid-back waterway is surrounded by medieval history, sprawling and steeply terraced vineyards, and dramatic rocky gorges.
Our trip took place onboard AmaWaterways’ AmaVida, sailing from Portugal’s Porto — a UNESCO World Heritage City that’s also famed for its port lodges — all the way to the tiny village of Spain’s Vega De Terron, population two.
Along the way, we visited quintas (the Portuguese term for wineries), a 16th century medieval village, the golden city of Spain’s Salamanca, and the Sanctuary of Our Lady of the Remedies, best known for a dramatic (and knee wobbling) staircase that hovers over the city of Lamego. We tasted wine at the Graham’s, the venerable port house, dined at the Alpendurada Monastery, and picnicked at Sandeman’s Quinta Do Seixo, high on a mountaintop. We learned about muscatel from Quinta de Avessada, Portugal’s highest vineyard, and our tour of cork production at a Porto factory was illuminating.
In what spare time we could carve out — it was hard to decide what to miss! — we stretched out on comfortable, padded chaise lounges around AmaVida’s pool and admired the rocky gorges, lush forests and groves of almond trees as the riverboat glided along.
It was one of the most relaxing yet engaging river cruises we’ve ever taken. And AmaWaterways is not alone in attracting travelers to this unsung region; along the way, we spotted riverboats from Uniworld, Viking River and CroisiEurope.
Still, there are hits and misses on every trip, and ours follow.
Porto. As the embarkation port for all Douro River cruises, ships overnight here — but even a day is not enough time to explore this enchanting city. Why so enchanting? It’s beautiful and mountainous, and has great shopping, terrific culture and lots of historic churches to explore. It’s located on the Atlantic seacoast, where towns like Matosinhos have wonderful restaurants serving fish just off the boat. The port lodges are lovely, offering winery tours and have tasting rooms. (Some, like Graham’s, have lavish restaurants and bars with hilltop views of the city below.) A lot of our fellow passengers took pre- and post-cruise trips to Lisbon and Madrid, but I’d stay put in Porto for a few extra days.
The Douro. On our ongoing forum thread throughout this trip, Cruise Critic members raved about the beauty of the river. Sure, I thought, but the Danube and Rhine have their gorgeous moments, too. The big difference? Every moment on this river is gorgeous. There’s no industry along the banks, only hillsides that alternate between sheer rock cliffs, lush pine forests and scrubby, polka-dotted desert. Sitting on the sundeck, watching the Douro slip by, was a highlight.
A family onboard actually booked the cruise for two weeks running, saying the first week they wanted to explore all the ports. On their second week, they wanted to stay on board, to chill out, swim, sunbathe and just … relax. One interesting difference between the Douro and other European rivers is that it’s not set-up for nighttime navigation, so all riverboat travel takes place between sunrise and sunset. This is good news for passengers who love time on the water.
AmaVida’s tours. AmaVida typically offered several tours in most ports, which led to some tough decisions. Should we walk down the 686 steps that lead from Lamego’s moving Sanctuary of our Lady of the Remedies into town to sit in a cafe with a coffee and pastry and people-watch? Or choose the simplicity of a picnic at Sandeman’s cloud-high quinta? Learn to cook traditional Portuguese tapas at a seafront restaurant in Porto or visit a cork factory? Fortunately, some places offered just one option — phew — and among these, the trip to the cultural city of Salamanca, with its golden Plaza Major, its main square, was a highlight.
Portuguese wine. Certainly, one of Portugal’s most famous exports is port wine, the fortified wine that’s typically served after dinner. What many of us did not realize was how interesting, and strong, the country’s production of red and whites is, and how little known its wine industry is outside of this region. Interestingly, the other most famous wine of Portugal — the classic Mateus rose, still featured in a bottle that used the canteens of soldiers in World War I for its design inspiration — is not highly regarded. Now owned by Sandeman, the fancy, pricy winery displayed bottles for just 3.62 euro apiece.
Hits & Misses
Amenities. AmaVida was very comfortable and attractively decorated. Most cabins have full balconies and picture windows, and there’s lots of light. Space is efficiently designed, with plenty of storage. Bathrooms are marble, with good showers and nice toiletries by L’Occitane. Most importantly, service was terrific; on this intimate ship, passengers and crew really get to know one another, and that is special.
But because of space limitations, particularly in the variety of locks that ships must pass through between Porto and Spain’s Vega de Terron, all vessels in the Douro are about the same size, and carry about 110 passengers, more or less. As a result, there’s less room for extra amenities; there were no bikes onboard, which is unusual for AmaWaterways. There’s no extra restaurant or spacious library. In the end, it made no impact on the enjoyment of our experience, but it’s worth noting.
Uniformity. One other note: Most of the river cruise lines that operate here are required to partner with a local company. For instance, AmaWaterways, Uniworld and Viking River all work with DouroAzul. That travel company owns the motorcoaches we uses, designs and builds the ships so that they’re largely identical, regardless of cruise line, with a few tweaks. They also create the itineraries, plan menus and hire staff, as well as controlling logistics of docking throughout the region. We were told on AmaWaterways that the only crew member Ama actually hires is the cruise director (on our trip, Mariana was absolutely superb).
That means that there isn’t the same distinction between cruise lines that you’d see on the Rhine, Rhone, Danube and other rivers, where companies have far more leeway to create a unique ambience and experience.
Staying active. It’s not easy to find recreational activities on this itinerary. While some lines offer cycling tours in Porto, the riverfront, in contrast to many of those in other parts of Europe that are surrounded by flat land, is so hilly and mountainous in almost all spots that there’s no room for bike paths. We did occasionally see kayak paddlers at stops like Pinhao, where we overnighted; Salamanca, where we spent a day, did have a city bike hiring scheme. We’d like to go beyond walking (and stairway climbing) on our next trip here.
Buses. Again, because the rural terrain is so challenging at the river level, cities are not based right on the waterfront. That means there’s a lot of travel via motorcoach, with most attractions at least a 45 minute drive (the trip to Salamanca was nearly two hours each way). On the plus side, the scenery was always fascinating, typically on winding, two-lane roads instead of banal highways, and sometimes terrifying. The trip up to — and down from– the Sandeman quinta, where our buses navigated narrow roads with sheer precipices, is not for the faint of heart. A plus, though: The fleet of motorcoaches was new and comfortable, and our drivers and guides stayed with us for the whole trip, so we got to know one another.
Small towns. If what you’re looking for is a river cruise itinerary that visits major cities, offers lots of shopping opportunities and chances to visit Michelin-starred restaurants or sample nightlife off the riverboat matters, you’ll be disappointed here. Most of our entertainment centered around dancing in the lounge (or on the sundeck; one night, several passengers wound up dancing, fully clothed, in the pool), or listening to special Portuguese entertainment brought onboard, like an opera singer and Fado performers. We thought it was fabulous — but it might not be for everyone.
*Thinking of trying the Douro? We’ve got 8 great reasons for you to do it.
*We caught up with AmaWaterways co-owner Kristin Karst to chat about the Douro and Ama.
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