Travelling like royalty on the River of Gold
As the early evening sun glints on the water the barman is busy pouring glasses of port. Until now, most of my previous encounters with the fortified wine have been confined to the festive season and always served after dinner, never in the summer and as an aperitif. But when in Portugal do as the Portuguese do …
The first sip of the crisp chilled white port – totally different from the sweet ruby digestif of Christmases past – heralds the beginning of a cruise with a real difference along the Douro, the so-called River of Gold. We are aboard the Spirit of Chartwell which was the centrepiece of the 2012 Diamond Jubilee pageant on the Thames. It is certainly a remarkable feeling to stand on the top deck and sip my port in exactly the same spot occupied by the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh during the celebrations.
Although the former royal barge has lost some of its gilded exterior trappings – bar a large crest – it remains a splendidly distinctive vessel that’s decked out in the chocolate and cream livery of 1920s Pullman railway carriage. Under new ownership and moved from the UK to Portugal, it is now chartered by Titan Travel and provides a unique mode of transport along the Douro where it is the smallest and most intimate hotel ship, carrying just 30 passengers.
The lesser-known Douro is a great choice for anyone who has ‘done’ the Rhine and Danube, the most popular river cruise destinations. From the Spanish border the river winds for 125 miles through the lush landscapes of Portugal’s green north before meeting the Atlantic in Porto, the country’s second city and birthplace in 1394 of Henry the Navigator who led the Portuguese age of seafaring. It was here we boarded Spirit of Chartwell for our own week of exploration.
A first glimpse of the elegant interior reveals that little has changed since the vessel, built in 1997, underwent a six-month £1 million refit prior to the jubilee celebrations. With a grand piano in the classy cocktail lounge, Art Deco signs pointing the way to the cabins and stylish Lalique decorative glass panels it exudes the opulence of a retro train carriage. This comes as no surprise when we later learn these were fixtures and fittings from the famous Cote d’Azur Pullman Express that used to carry passengers in style from Paris to the Italian border.
With rich dark-wood finishes, the cabins are equally atmospheric. Although quite compact, they are well-thought out with plenty of clever storage space and good-sized bathrooms with powerful showers equipped with proper doors, rather than clingy curtains. L’Occitane toiletries, bathrobes and slippers are a nice luxe touch. In addition to 14 standard cabins on the lower deck, for passengers that really want to push the boat out there’s a magnificent suite situated on the main deck with a grand double bed. This would also be the best choice for anyone with mobility issues as Spirit of Chartwell’s size precludes having a lift and the other cabins are accessed by winding staircases.
Later we start to get to know our fellow passengers in the dining salon where tables are laid out with crisp linen and sparkling glassware. It sets the scene for a week of companionable mealtimes which start with buffet breakfast and lead on to a served four-course lunch and dinner, both accompanied by delicious wines from the Douro region which the majority of us have never sampled before. One night we’re joined by the captain for a cocktail reception and special dinner, which along with other meals reflects Portuguese cuisine such as the wonderfully named Atlantic croaker fish.
After a night in Porto, where the ship is moored on the waterfront lined with port houses and colourful old buildings we set sail. As we cruise serenely down the river it’s hard to imagine the Douro was once a treacherous waterway filled with rapids that caused countless rabelos – the flat-bottomed wooden boats once used to transport barrels of port – to founder as they made the perilous journey to the warehouses of Porto. It has now been tamed by five locks including the impressive 115ft Carrapatelo – the deepest in Europe – where Spirit of Chartwell is dwarfed by the vast walls.
As a result of this turbulent past the Douro is very different from other European rivers, such as the Rhine, as it was never a commercial artery so no large cities grew up along its banks. Instead the UNESCO-listed Douro Valley is lined with dramatic wooded slopes, vineyards and layers of silver schist, the silvery slate-like stone that helps create the heat-retaining soil on which the port grapes flourish. It might not be flanked by grand capitals, but this relaxing cruise offers the chance to sit back and enjoy the stunning scenery and as the ship only sails at night you never miss anything.
Each day brought different shore excursions. Remote farmhouses are dotted high on the hillsides as we head towards Regua. In the 18th century this was the capital of the port producing region and nowadays it is the gateway for various excursions, including Vila Real. From the small town situated in the middle of vineyards, we visited Mateus Palace, an ornate house set in beautiful gardens. It will provoke a sense of deja vu for anyone who cut their oenological teeth on Mateus Rosé wine as the palace is featured on the label of the characteristic flask-shaped bottle.
In Lamego we visited the sanctuary of Nossa Senhora dos Remedios, perched above the town, and one of Portugal’s most important baroque pilgrimage churches. Built in 1750, it is reached by a magnificent stone staircase flanked by fountains, statues and tile murals on various landings, and after being dropped off at the top there was the option to walk down the 700 stairs.
On other days we enjoyed an exclusive dinner and lunch off the boat. The evening meal was at an elegant quinta – the name given to Portuguese wine estates – and lunch, against the backdrop of a fiery flamenco show, was served at a five star hotel during a trip across the border to the Spanish ‘golden city’ of Salamanca.
They both added to the collection of memorable experiences on a cruise fit for a queen aboard very special one-of-a-kind ship.
Titan Travel offers a seven-night Douro cruise aboard Spirit of Chartwell and a nine-night itinerary combining the sailing with a two-night hotel stay in Lisbon. Fares for 2020 start from £3,099 and include all meals, wine with lunch and dinner, excursions, flights from a choice of airports and Titan’s VIP door-to-door pick-up service.
For further details and departure dates call 0808 250 6361 or visit the Titan Travel River Cruising website.
Silver Travel Advisor recommends Titan Travel.