If you’ve ever browsed the options for river cruising in Europe, chances are your attention was drawn to the most popular cruising destinations, probably the Rhine, Rhone, or Danube Rivers, which certainly offer plenty of wonderful sights. However, another European river has stepped in and stolen a bit of the thunder from the others – Portugal’s Douro River, otherwise known as the “River of Gold.”
The Douro is the third-longest river on the Iberian Peninsula, with its source near Duruelo de la Sierra in Soria Province. From there it flows across north-central Spain and Portugal, eventually reaching its outlet in Porto, the second-largest of Portugal’s thriving cities, home to about 2 million residents and boasting an ancient city center that’s dubbed a UNESCO World Heritage Site. A trip along this river offers passengers a chance to see plenty of notable sites and breathtaking landscapes at a leisurely pace while being pampered by outstanding staff members to are eager to cater to your wants and needs.
You have several options from which to choose when selecting the company with whom you’d like to cruise. “Boutique” carrier, Uniworld, offers one of the best options aboard its Queen Isabel ship, which is super elegant and was just launched in 2013. She holds 118 passengers and the staff/passenger ratio aboard this lovely ship is 1:3, so expect the great service for which Uniworld has become known. The suites and junior suites on the Upper Deck are particularly sumptuous. Uniworld’s Douro River cruise takes 11 days to complete and travels from Lisbon to Porto.
Popular river cruise line Viking also boasts a Douro River journey. There’s lasts for 10 days and makes similar stops to Uniworld. (See cruise highlights below.) Choose Viking and you’ll be cruising aboard the Hemming or the Torgil. These two ships were built specifically for sailing down the Douro and really are quite lovely. Though they only accommodate 106 passengers, the rooms are spacious as are the common areas. The Observation Room and the indoor/outdoor terrace are ideal for meals or just for watching the scenery.
Vantage Worldwide River Voyages is another good choice for a Douro River cruise. With this lesser-known company you’ll sail the MS Douro Spirit, which offers 65 cabins and a maximum capacity of 130 passengers. This trip travels from Oporto to the Spanish border and back again. An option to add an extra stay in Lisbon is available.
AMA Waterways also offers a shorter cruise, 7 days total with 3 nights in Lisbon before you head off to explore the Douro River Valley. Sail on the 106-passenger AmaVida, which boasts spacious cabins up to 323 square-feet. There’s a lovely heated pool onboard and plenty of other things to do when you’re not oohing and aahing at the scenery or heading to land to explore the sights.
Europe’s largest river cruise line Criusi Europe, also offers a nice Douro River trip as do several British carriers.
Most of the itineraries for Douro River Valley cruises are very similar as far as the stops made along the way. There are many sights to see and landscapes to enjoy, but here’s a list of a handful of some of the most notable ports-of-call, so to speak. (You’ll also want to take time to explore both Lisbon and Port while you’re in Portugal!)
· Regua – Disembark here and head for Lamego, best known for its Sanctuary of Our Lady of Remedies, a long-time pilgrimage spot for those looking for cures for their diseases or disorders. Dating back to the 14th century, it’s a breathtaking Moorish structure that still attracts many visitors. Many carriers also include a visit to and tour of Quinta do Seixo, where fine port wine is made.
· Barca D’Alva – This town is home to the Castelo Rodrigo, one of Portugal’s so-called 12 Historic Parishes. It sits high above sea level – about 2200 feet – and is surrounded by beautiful almond trees and graced with 16th century homes standing along narrow picturesque streets. It was also once home to a large Jewish population, which landed there after fleeing the Spanish Inquisition. See remnants of that community as well.
· Salamanca, Spain – Salamanca is such a notable stop along this tour that most of the cruise companies will provide you with a full day to explore this ancient city. Step foot onto the cobblestones and you’ll step back into the Middle Ages. Explore the designated UNESCO World Heritage sites but also take time to enjoy the more modern, more cosmopolitan Salamanca as well. There are many great shops and restaurants to check out and you can even make time to take in a flamenco performance. Be sure to include visits to the city’s 13th century university and to the Old and New Cathedrals, the most recent of the two completed in the early 18th century. A truly wonderful – though under-rated – destination!