Secrets of the Douro

Our holidays together seem doomed. My increasingly-less-mobile husband prefers to ’fly, flop and read’ (his novels need their own suitcase!) whilst I long to venture off the beaten track. Close proximity to fine dining is key to our holiday enjoyment, further limiting our options.

Solution: a river cruise with Emerald Cruises. 

Why Choose Emerald Cruises?

I could envisage my husband relaxing on deck, occasionally glancing up from his book to enjoy passing scenery: me joining onboard EmeraldPLUS activities – from early morning yoga to cookery demos and cocktail mixing – and onshore adventures in new and different places. Emerald Cruises’ additional EmeraldACTIVE and DiscoverMORE excursions are perfect for guests like me who strangely prefer discovering a destination’s hidden delights on foot, by jeep or kayak rather than the comfort of an air-conditioned coach. 

Eagerly surveying Emerald Cruises’ brochure, we chose ‘Secrets of the Douro’ – 8 days sailing from the lively metropolis of Porto through sun-drenched terraced vineyards to visit iconic landmarks. Mateus Manor House (familiar to all 1970’s Rosé fans), the baroque village of Lamego with its picturesque shrine, and the beautiful university city of Salamanca beckoned. Visits to local Quintas along the route promised wine and port tastings and DiscoverMORE offered enticing, hand-picked experiences delving deeper into the region.

We’d already enjoyed cruises on the Nile, Rhine and Danube when my husband was more active and the Douro has been on my wish list for several years. Relatively unknown to many, the Douro was wild and unnavigable in places until relatively recently and was only tamed by the construction of dams and locks between 1965 and 1985. I was looking forward to an exciting combination of adventures off the beaten track, visits to vibrant cities and great food and drink.  Starved of travel for a couple of years, our expectations were high. But would Emerald Cruises deliver?

Cruise Highlights 

Not only did they deliver – they exceeded both our expectations. Highlights for me included a visit to the fairytale gardens of Quinta da Aveleda near Porto. As we followed our guide through lush gardens, past the goat tower (I kid you not) and across a rickety bridge, we discovered an enchanting summer house. Here – concealed behind a fountain – the ladies of the manor escaped the heat of the day to take ‘afternoon tea’ – smuggling flasks of the estate’s cool, crisp Vinho Verde wine in their picnic hampers. I wonder how many toppled into the lake after their secret sessions.

Another highlight, not for the faint-hearted, was a hike to see Côa’s truly awesome ancient rock art discovered recently during the building of a new dam. Local school children had successfully mounted a nationwide campaign to preserve the area and halt the building work. Joining a small group of hardy Australian guests I bounced off in a 4×4 through steep tracks before trekking in 36 degrees heat to view rock carvings. “There’s a reason why this area’s called Canada do Inferno,” observed our guide cheerily. Meanwhile, our less adventurous/more sensible compatriots studied replicas in an air-conditioned museum and enjoyed an entertaining workshop on stone-age toolmaking. 

One of the included excursions was a trip to Salamanca. Such an amazing city – I was awestruck to see the actual crucifix that El Cid carried into battle, during our tour of the Cathedral. After our guided walking tour in fierce heat my companions mostly wanted to shop and sit in shaded cafes during our free time so I set off to explore, crossing the river via a Roman bridge to view the city skyline reflected in the water. Our group came back together for the Tuna Band performance – cheerful young medical students dressed in medieval student robes playing traditional songs and performing energetic dances.

Similarly in Porto, a guided walking tour was followed by plenty of free time to explore. I hiked across the iconic Dom Louis bridge and took the cable car across rooftops to enjoy differing views of the city and to take photos of the rabelo – traditional Portuguese cargo boats used to transport port barrels upstream.

Star-Ship Emerald Radiance

What a pleasure to return each evening to our home for the week, the Star-Ship Emerald Radiance. Holding no more than 112 guests and 37 crew, she is Emerald Cruises’ smallest ship, purpose-built to navigate the narrow locks that have tamed the Douro in recent years. The friendly, all-Portuguese crew provided exceptional levels of customer service. Handrails gleamed, mirrors and windows sparkled. Drinks were served promptly in the bar. A memorable moment saw the entire crew (minus the captain who was busy steering the ship) downing tools and serenading us on the sundeck with a traditional song as we feasted on a barbecue of fresh sardines, juicy spatchcock chicken and salads. Another special moment occurred early morning when my yoga stretching on deck was interrupted by the crew busily cleaning the ships windows and moving in time to Queen’s “I want to break free.” 

Emerald Radiance Crew

Our Panorama Balcony Suite held all our belongings with ease thanks to under-bed storage for suitcases, deep drawers and, yippee, a shelf to store John’s library! In addition to a high-powered hairdryer, mini-bar, safe and a full range of good quality toiletries, there were robes, slippers, an umbrella and two walking poles. Pre-holiday, Emerald Cruises had posted us rucksacks and also water bottles that we could fill with ice-cold water or tea/coffee available 24/7 from machines in the lounge. These guys think of everything!

As cruise ships may only sail the Douro during daytime, my FOMO (fear of missing out) new vistas and lock experiences whist sleeping was allayed. Emerald Cruises also seemed to have bagged the best mooring spots and rarely tied up alongside other ships, allowing us uninterrupted views through our cabin’s floor-to-ceiling windows.  (I’ll never forget on my first ever river cruise standing stark naked and flinging open our curtains to greet dawn on the river Nile, only to find a startled man sitting in his cabin inches away from ours.  A ship had quietly docked beside us overnight).

Emerald Radiance in Pinhao

The sheer convenience of having Radiance’s fine-dining restaurant within easy reach of our room was a real bonus. Carefully planned menus and accompanying wines reflected local or national produce wherever possible. Chef positively beamed when he tempted this vegetarian to taste slow-roasted pork sourced from a local piggery bred to produce the sweetest most tender meat.  Melt-in-the mouth butterfish from the Azores starred in another memorable meal. Our charming and most attentive waiter, Daniel, remembered our drink preferences and gracefully met our cheeky requests for extra cheese and biscuits with a glass of tawny port. 

Fellow guests helped make the whole experience even more special. We soon found our ‘tribe’ amongst the mixed group of Australian, Canadian, American and British guests. Our competitive gang of 60-something boomers outdanced and out-sang the competition during a music quiz. We all agreed we hadn’t laughed so much in ages. Many were returning customers with one couple enjoying their 8th cruise with Emerald Cruises – I can certainly see why.

Carole was hosted by Emerald Cruises on an 8-day Secrets of the Douro cruise. Currently priced from £1,906 pp, July 2022

Next steps

To take an Emerald Cruise like Carole’s or to find out about their worldwide voyages and to book your Cruise, call our Silver Travel Advisors on 0800 412 5678

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Carole Tidball

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