James Hill, river cruise specialist from Go River Cruise, travelled with AmaWaterways on the Douro
The Douro was totally new for me, as was Porto. I’ve done the Danube, the Moselle, the Rhone and the Rhine and booked many people on the Douro but this was my first experience.
“Douro cruises start in Porto, which is very easy to get to and from. It’s a short, direct flight and a short taxi transfer. Ships moor slap bang in the middle of Vila Nova de Gaia and five minutes after being dropped at the gangway, you can be at a port tasting. It has to be the best located embarkation; on one side of the Douro, you’ve got all the old port lodges and on the opposite side, you’re looking at the lovely old buildings of Porto. It’s tremendous. I believe that when you’re sending people on their first river cruise, if the embarkation point is easy to reach and attractive, the whole thing works. If it’s somewhere isolated and they can’t find the ship, it’s not so good.
“The Douro is an attractive river to cruise. Once you’re out of town, past small villages upstream, you’re into big, deep locks and then the Upper Douro, where the vineyards are located, is really remote; there are hardly any towns on the river as the hills are so steep either side.
“There’s no cruising at night so you spend every night moored up. Pinhão was very enjoyable; the little railway station there has beautiful, blue-and-yellow Azulejos tiles telling the history of wine production on the Douro. Pinhão is also the only place you can really go out to a bar.
“The excursions are good and varied. In Lamega, you climb down 700 steps from the Sanctuary of Our Lady of Remedies. There’s a market at the bottom, and a cathedral that is worth seeing, as well as some wonderful cake shops where we tried pasteis de nata [Portugal’s famous custard pies, left]. We did a day trip to Salamanca, which is an extraordinarily beautiful university town in Spain. We did a wonderful wine tasting at the tiny, 16th century village of Castelo Rodrigo and we had dinner in a monastery. You get another day in Porto at the end of the cruise, assuming you’re on a round-trip Porto cruise, which most people are.
“I like the fact that all along the Douro valley, you see old port-growing names you know and love, like Taylors and Sandeman – they have big signs up in the vineyards. Then back in Porto, you visit their port lodges, where the wine is matured and stored.
“The Douro is very hot in summer so I’d recommend a ship with a pool, like AmaVida. Or travel in spring or autumn if you don’t like the heat, but be prepared for it to be raining in Porto, which is by the sea. Half an hour upriver, it’s probably sunny.
“I’d certainly sell this cruise to younger people as there’s physically a lot to do and you get a day and a night in Porto at either end. There are a lot of ships on the river now; luxury vessels like the new Scenic ship and AmaVida, two from Viking and classics like the Spirit of Chartwell, which sails here, and lower cost cruises like those from CroisiEurope. There’s something for all budgets.”