In 2016, Scenic became the first non-Portuguese company to operate on the Douro River without a European partner or chartered ships. That means the Australian line is free to uphold its high standards in crew, service, dining, touring and onboard accommodation.
The purpose-built ship is shorter and narrower than Scenic's other vessels in order to navigate Portugal's winding river and its many locks, but it still feels spacious and easy to get around. Despite the smaller size, Scenic Azure does not lack any of the frills to which past passengers have become accustomed. It has a plunge pool on the sun deck, butler service for all cabins and six dining options. Then there's the long list of inclusions, from the free drinks to a complimentary bag of laundry (same-day service in most cases).
Adding to the luxury experience is a crew-to-passenger ratio of almost 1:2. Most crew are Portuguese, disarmingly friendly and passionate about their country. Their affable nature bolsters the relaxed vibe onboard, while the department leaders keep everything running smoothly.
With a maximum of 96 passengers and only one lounge, mingling happens easily -- especially before and after dinner. Restaurant tables are set for two, four or six, allowing couples or solo travelers to sit together or move around each day.
While sailing, passengers like to watch the scenery from the sun deck, which is the best vantage point for panoramic views of the valley. However, it can be very hot, even in the shaded area, particularly in July and August when temperatures approach 104 degrees Fahrenheit. There is no bar on the sun deck so one area of improvement would be better, regular service of cold water (or beer) to thirsty passengers.
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The ship's decor is clean and contemporary, with a lot of black, white and gold. Keep an eye out for the Portuguese art, such as a wall of sardines in the main dining room. Cabins are compact and have ensuite bathrooms and comfortable, adjustable beds. All but six have enclosed balconies, known as sun lounges, with floor-to-ceiling windows that can be opened halfway down with the touch of a button.
Scenic Azure would suit couples, especially those enjoying retirement, who appreciate good food, wine, mountain views and a slow pace. This is not a ship for families, as there are no kids program or facilities.
As an Australian company, Scenic attracts a majority of Australian passengers, along with Brits, Americans, Canadians and New Zealanders. Most are retired couples in their 60s or 70s. On the Douro itinerary, it is usually the passengers' first time in Portugal but likely to be their second, third or fourth river cruise.
In the hot climate of Portugal, passengers dress for cool comfort. Men wear shorts and T-shirts, but are asked to wear trousers at dinner; a short-sleeved shirt is OK, and jackets and ties are not required. Women dress casually by day and might change into something smarter in the evening. A light cardigan or shawl is recommended to cope with the chilly air conditioning. A hat and sunglasses are essential for tours. Bring your swimwear if you plan to take a dip in the pool.
Almost everything is included in the cruise fare -- alcoholic and nonalcoholic drinks, vtips, shore excursions, butler service for all cabins and 1 kilogram of vlaundry. For purchases of fine wines and port (not on the complimentary list), vmassages and extra laundry, the onboard currency is the euro.