Jeannine Williamson spends a week on the River of Gold with Riviera Travel
A hush falls over the lounge as snatches of music play and collective minds try to variously work out titles, singers and composers. Animated and muted conversations ensue as bands such as The Platters, Beatles, Rolling Stones, Fleetwood Mac and Eagles are discussed. Meanwhile, others take to the dance floor after learning there are bonus points to be reaped for anyone who struts their stuff; irrespective of style.
The after-dinner quiz on Riviera Travel’s Douro Elegance is certainly a big hit and – in the interests of transparency – I will admit there’s an extra frisson of fun when our team wins (albeit more by luck than judgement I hasten to add!). A couple of team-mates sit at our table at the last minute to make up numbers. Until then I haven’t spoken to them, but over coming days we talk more.
One of the joys of river cruising is that with small numbers of passengers – 119 maximum on Douro Elegance – it’s very easy to get to know people and start to chat. Even more so with Riviera Travel, which is aimed at UK travellers and predominantly over-55s. Indeed, we first met several shipmates after arriving at Porto airport at the beginning of our week on the Douro.
With the plethora of river cruise lines available it can sometimes be hard, especially for first-timers, to decide which company to go with. Even more so on the Douro, where all sailings are near identical seven-night trips from the Atlantic city of Porto to the Spanish border and back. With Riviera you know you’re going to be sailing with like-minded shipmates and find plenty in common. It’s also a great line if you’re single or choose to travel on your own. On each sailing Riviera sets aside a number of lower deck cabins that carry no supplement. There are also Douro sailings aimed solely at single travellers where you can book any accommodation, including swish suites, and not have to pay extra for sole occupancy.
Our floating home, one of the newest ships in Riviera’s fleet, certainly lives up to its name. Slightly smaller than mainstream European riverboats, in order to fit into the Douro’s five locks, Douro Elegance is a stylish well-designed vessel with amenities including a massage room, gym and pool on the sun deck.
The so-called River of Gold, which was first discovered by the Romans, winds 125 miles through the dramatic vineyard-clad UNESCO-listed Douro Valley and offers a unique river cruise experience. Unlike working rivers, such as the Rhine and Danube that are lined with major towns and cities, it was once a wild waterway. Before being tamed by the dams built in the 1960s and 1970s many boats foundered as they transported wine to the historic warehouses along the Porto waterfront. We visit one on an excursion and gaze up at huge wooden casks filled with fortified wine in the cool, dark cellars. Additionally, ships only sail during daytime so you never miss passing scenery and there are no bumps in the night navigating locks.
Needless to say, we learn a lot about Portugal’s famous export as the days go on. The first lesson is that in Portugal, port is not just for Christmas or after dinner sipping. The cocktail menu on Douro Elegance features a variety of drinks including pink port and tonic, a refreshing tipple that became my go-to favourite. Unlike some lines, Riviera doesn’t include drinks with meals or at the bar, which means occasional drinkers and tee-total travellers aren’t effectively paying the bar bills of others. If you enjoy a drink it’s well worth getting the reasonably priced drinks package. Also, one of the perks of staying in an upper deck cabin or suite is Riviera Plus, which includes a bottle of fizz on arrival and a daily cocktail.
Each morning brought something new. A day trip to the honey-coloured Spanish university city of Salamanca was a highlight. At Mateus manor house, featured on the label of the namesake rosé wine, many of us relived formative wine drinking years with a nostalgic glass at the bar across the road. At the lofty Sanctuary of Our Lady of Remedies Church in Lamego we descended the grand outdoor staircase decorated with distinctive blue and white Portuguese azulejos tiles. Back onboard there were unexpected treats including a cookery class to discover the secrets of making the perfect flaky Portuguese egg tart, pastel de nata, sold at all bakeries and first baked by nuns more than 200 years ago.
Portugal is the world’s largest producer of cork, which is made into all kinds of novel items including handbags, hats, jewellery and shoes. I couldn’t resist buying a pair of the latter during the excursion to the 12th century walled village of Castelo Rodrigo.
On the last day my flight wasn’t until the late afternoon but instead of being cast adrift for the day, which has been the case on some other cruises, Riviera booked a meeting room at a nearby hotel with complimentary refreshments and somewhere to rest and store hand luggage while we made the most of our last few hours in Porto. It was another welcome touch on a stress-free sailing where everything was taken care of.
From March to November Douro Elegance, and its sister ship Douro Splendour, sail on seven-night round-trip cruises from Porto to Barca d’Alva. All-inclusive fares cover flights, transfers, meals, tea and coffee, excursions, Wi-Fi and the services of an onboard Riviera cruise director. Drinks packages and a three-night cruise extension staying in Porto are available.
Visit Riviera Travel and call our Silver Travel Advisors on 0800 412 5678 to find out more and to book.