There’s something deeply soothing about cruising along inland waterways and just watching the world slide past on both sides. And as a newbie to river cruising, I was finding it hard to imagine a more tranquil setting than the beautiful Douro, which rises in Spain before winding across northern Portugal. Along the way, it snakes between steeply terraced hills thick with vineyards, through narrow gorges and five deep locks, passing groves of olive and almond trees dotted with white houses and hamlets.
I was spending a week on board the Infante don Henrique – or Henri the Navigator – one of a fleet of gleaming green-and-white river cruisers operated by CroisiEurope. Their name may not be familiar, but France’s largest cruise ship company is used by a number of high profile UK tour operators including Archers, Cosmos and Shearings, or you can do as I did and book direct. Porto airport is barely fifteen minutes by taxi from the city centre and I enjoyed a relaxed flight with Portugal’s national airline TAP from London Gatwick.
My trip began in Porto – or Oporto if you adopt the English name – where the 142-berth ship spends the first two nights moored at peaceful Gaia on the south bank of the Douro, a pleasant 20-minute stroll from the historic centre. On our first morning, I joined the optional guided visit by coach which included visits to the sumptuous old Stock Exchange and adjacent Baroque church. An afternoon boat shuttle was then laid on for those who wanted to explore independently.
Cabins onboard Henrique – the 16th century ‘father’ of Portuguese maritime exploration – are compact but comfortable. The shower and toilet cubicle is certainly cosy, but there was constant hot water and taller guests said they soon got used to the economies of space. Cabins are spread between three decks and connected by a lift, though you will need to walk up one flight to reach the sun deck. None of the cabins are wheelchair accessible. And for those who love to keep in touch, WiFi is available in the lounge although the signal can’t be guaranteed up river.
Meals are served in one sitting at shared tables, so don’t expect an intimate meal for two. My husband and I were given the option of making up a six or an eight, and unless you are travelling with friends, you will have to take pot luck, keeping the same table companions throughout the cruise. Fortunately we were lucky with ours!
Lunch and dinner menus are advised the day before and whilst there is no choice, a brief word to the staff is all it takes to secure an alternative in case of allergies or strong dislikes. The food is designed to suit an international mix of mainly French, British, German and Antipodean guests, but we liked the daily inclusion of Portuguese specialities. We were also impressed by the efficiency and hard work of the largely Portuguese staff. All announcements were made in four languages and key staff spoke excellent English.
Our floating home set sail after breakfast on day three – navigation on the Duoro being forbidden at night – and the timing of optional excursions means that nobody need miss any of the river landscape. What you miss on the way up river, you catch on the way back. Every day offered a cultural excursion, all half-day except for a full day to the Spanish city of Salamanca, but none of them activity-based. The Douro Valley – and Porto in particular – is very hilly, but most tours involved minimal walking or stairs, making them suitable for guests with restricted mobility.
We particularly enjoyed the Mateus mansion and formal gardens near Vila Real; the bus tour of the spectacular Port Wine Road (with tasting, of course!), and the pretty town of Lamego with its hilltop chapel reached by almost 700 steps. Here, the coach drops passengers outside the door, the walk down being optional, but highly recommended.
The Douro is navigable for 210 km as far as the Spanish border and whilst most guests opted for the Salamanca trip, we enjoyed a quiet day strolling the little village of Barca di Alva on the Portuguese bank, and reading on the sun deck to the sound of birdsong. There is a small inflatable pool, but we never saw anyone use it – one French couple sitting beside it even mistook it for a lifeboat!
Evening entertainment is low key but atmospheric – a traditional Portuguese Fado show; Flamenco dancers; and a large troupe of folklore dancers that seemed to feature an entire village from tiny tots to grannies. There was also the traditional crew show from our amateur but hugely enthusiastic staff.
Before the ship berthed for the last night back at Gaia, our captain sailed past Porto’s historic quayside to the mouth of the river for the full Douro experience. Guests disembark after breakfast and those of us with an evening flight were able to leave our luggage on board and stroll into Porto for a last lunch.
With everything included except for flights and excursions, our Douro cruise offered excellent value for money, as well as a friendly, informal atmosphere. Best of all, the unspoilt scenery of the Douro valley never failed to delight, from the Atlantic to the Spanish border and back again.
CroisiEurope’s Douro cruises start from £633 per person for a six-day cruise round trip from Porto. Prince includes outside cabin with all onboard meals, complimentary beer and wine at lunch and dinner, and open bar throughout the voyage (apart from champagne, special wines or fine brandies).