This was our first venture into river cruising, and we were not disappointed. We enjoy wine and looked forward to learning more about Port and seeing some amazing scenery. The itinerary looked fairly daunting and full on, it was!
We were met at Oporto airport by one of the tour escorts, and after a short wait taken to a coach. Then a 20 minute transfer to Villa Nova de Gaia, where MS Douro Elegance was birthed. To get to our ship we had to cross another ship, this appears to be quite normal for river cruising. Once on board we were taken to the bar/lounge for tea and cakes, and our cruise director Carmen and hotel manager Roseline. We then received our cabin keys/cruise card, our cabin was not difficult to find and our cases were already inside.
Disembarkation is equally efficient. Luggage tags were provided the day before disembarkation, cases needed to be outside the cabin by 09:00. We were not due to leave for the airport until 14:00; this left us with a full morning to explore Gaia and Porto. We had lunch off the ship although a light lunch was provided in the bar. If you needed to freshen up two cabins were available on request. When you did board the coach for the airport you did need to see that your luggage had been loaded.
The restaurant is open seating with a fixed meal time in the evening. A light breakfast was available at the coffee station or a full buffet in the restaurant. Alight lunch was available in the bar or a full buffet in the restaurant.
Some of the choices at dinner were a little ‘unusual’ particularly the starters. In general the food was to a good standard, although choice was limited. Vegetarians did struggle, and risotto appeared regularly.
The wine in the restaurant was very good and locally produced, most evenings the recommend wines were €16 to €18 which was very reasonable and drinkable.
The coffee station was a bit of a disappointment, whatever you selected from the machine it was too sweet for our taste, we are not great coffee drinkers and there was a good selection of teas.
The bar/lounge was spacious and comfortable. Pedro the bar manager was not only highly skilled but also very amusing. There was a good selection of drinks at reasonable prices. White port and tonic became our favourite pre-dinner tipple.
The drinks package changed after we had booked and it only provided drinks with meals which seemed a bit restrictive (though people found ways round this!) They need to make this a simple package that covers all drinks and limit the price per drink.
Our cabin was starboard middle on deck 2 (209), the cabin is a reasonable size, with a large opening windows, though half the evenings we were against another ship or a wall, the half we had very pleasant views. There was a large LED TV, two USB charging sockets, a proper hair drier, a small fridge, two small bottles of water that were replaced daily and a kettle for tea and coffee making. There is plenty of space under the bed to hide your luggage. The safe on the top shelf of the wardrobe is awkward to say the least, and I’m average height. The bathroom is very good and there was always plenty of hot water, it just lacked storage space.
Most mornings we were woken when the ships engines were started at 06:30, but it wasn’t particularly load and there was no vibration.
The information pack in the room was excellent, a detailed map of the Douro was provided along with maps of all the places we were to visit. There were also two wireless headsets for use on the trips.
This took place in the bar on three nights, a quiz, the port ceremony where Pedro opened a bottle of vintage port using port tongs and a Portuguese folk music evening. If you wanted to avoid these, you could take a drink up to the sun deck which was very peaceful.
There wasn’t any! How nice not to have photographers trying to snap you.
This was a token gesture comprising a treadmill and an exercise bike.
The organisation of the trips was very good, at the beginning of the cruise you picked your bus number (1,2 or 3), and that was your bus with the same escort for the whole cruise.
The pre-cruise itinerary covers all the trips in some depth, here are my thoughts on some of them:
Sandeman: This seemed a bit light weight; you are taken round a visitor centre with a quick tasting afterwards, and a retail opportunity. The view of the Douro from the terrace is spectacular. But it takes nearly as long for the coach to get up to the quinta as the actual visit; those of a nervous disposition should not look out of the coach windows!
Salamanca: A long day with a good if chaotic lunch and some large flamenco dancers. The city is quite compact, and we were easily able to do the cathedral ourselves, and then take the organised tour in the afternoon.
Quinta da Pacheca: This was a dinner at a quinta that included a brief tour of the winery. The food was very good with plenty of local wine, and live music.
Mateus Place: Famous for featuring on all those bottles of rosé! Beautiful gardens, and well worth taking the time to walk round. The visit does not include going inside the palace.
Calem: Just a short walk down the picturesque Gaia quayside and a tour of this port lodge with a tasting and another retail opportunity. Well worth seeing if just to get an idea of the scale of port production.
The five locks that we pass through are very impressive and worth seeing. There are also some very low bridges that the ship can only just squeeze under, the sun deck has to be cleared for these.
The sun deck is a great place to sit and watch the scenery go by, but it could use a bar service up there and some way of listening to a commentary. Also, beware of the static electric sock you might get when going down the stairs!
There was a very good atmosphere on the ship, the crew all got on very well together and nothing was too much trouble for them. With only 120 passengers it was more like a large house party, and by the end of the cruise you had probably spoken to everyone else.
And finally, Carmen our cruise director did a fantastic job of making sure everything happened when it was supposed to. Carmen is very hands on, she give the talks in the morning about what we are doing that day, goes on the trips and is dancing in the bar at night!