CroisiEurope’s Douro River cruises showcase Portugal’s historical, cultural and culinary treasures
Portugal’s tourism is skyrocketing, fueled in part by a massive upsurge in leisure travelers from the United States. It is estimated that more than 700,000 Americans traveled to Portugal in 2018, an increase of nearly 80 percent over the number visiting in 2016. Portugal’s growing media buzz and a wider range of flight options from major U.S. cities are contributing to this growth, with more non-stop flights being added this year.
The European continent’s westernmost country has racked up a substantial number of accolades and awards, too. Portugal was named the #1 World’s Leading Destination in the 2018 World Travel Awards and was selected as one of the world’s top 10 countries in Lonely Planet’s Best in Travel 2018. Lisbon, Portugal’s capital, received the nod as the World’s Leading City Destination in the 2018 World Travel Awards as well.
Portugal is an excellent fit with a number of today’s popular travel trends including culinary and adventure tourism. It’s widely recognized as one of the world’s safest countries, too. Given all this, it’s easy to see why Portugal’s Douro river cruises are gaining popularity.
“The Douro River is a great destination for leisure groups,” said John McGlade, CroisiEurope’s general manager for North America. The region is a gem for themed travel groups, providing a wide range of activities to match travelers’ interests.
“We already offer hiking cruises with hikes up through vineyards for a birds-eye view of the river, while wine lovers will rejoice in the port wine cellars,” McGlade adds.
Rio Douro means “river of gold” in Portuguese, but there’s no official word on how it earned this name. Perhaps it refers to how the light glitters on the water in the evening or the riches that have been generated for centuries in the port wine trade. In my view, the name accurately reflects the Douro’s memorable historic treasures, the wealth of its vineyards and the region’s staggering beauty.
Experiencing Portugal’s Multi-Faceted Appeal
CroisiEurope offers Douro river cruises of differing lengths, providing opportunities to customize group cruises with a pre- or post-cruise stay in Lisbon. Portugal’s excellent train and coach transportation makes this hassle-free as well. We began our trip with a multi-night stay in Portugal’s capital of Lisbon, truly a feast for the senses. Sprawling across seven hills along the Tagus River, Lisbon is a visually stunning city with a tapestry of charming neighborhoods, historic sites, sublime eateries and world-class museums.
Lisbon serves up much more than several days’ worth of attractions, so we focused on key sites in locations around the city. After arriving, we strolled down Avenida Liberdade, stopping for espresso and pastries while soaking in Lisbon’s laid-back vibe. Although riding the bright yellow 28 tram is popular with visitors, we opted to work off calories by hiking up Lisbon’s steepest hill to the lovely church built above St. Anthony of Padua’s birthplace, the Sé Cathedral, and historic Castelo de São Jorge to take in the spectacular views. Then we wandered down through Lisbon’s colorful Alfama district, enjoying getting lost in its maze of narrow cobblestone streets and shopping for crafts.
During our short stay, we visited the majestic Jerónimos Monastery and Belém Tower in Belém, pausing to sample some of Portugal’s famous pastéis de nata custard tarts at Pastéis de Belém. On another day, we headed out to the nearby fairy-tale town Sintra to tour its stunning palaces and monuments, detouring to the seaside town of Cascais for a late lunch on the way back. Then it was on to Porto and the main event – our CroisiEurope Douro river cruise aboard the MS Miguel Torga.
The Douro region is one of Europe’s most spectacular areas for river cruising, appealing to both experienced and novice river cruise guests. “The Douro River typically isn’t a destination many guests have visited before,” said CroisiEurope’s John McGlade.
Designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the Douro Valley is the oldest demarcated wine region in the world, filled with dazzling scenery, historic architecture, welcoming people and outstanding culinary attractions. Outside of Porto, Portugal’s second largest city, the region is relatively undeveloped and that adds to its charm. “Days are spent cruising past steep terraced vineyards and quaint villages with winemakers and fishing boats,” McGlade says.
CroisiEurope’s cruises begin in Porto, a rich UNESCO World Heritage city set where the Douro River meets the Atlantic Ocean. CroisiEurope’s day and evening tours of Porto on its Douro river cruises allowed us to experience the magic of this city during the day and when illuminated at night. High points included wandering through the city’s colorful historic neighborhoods, visiting the Stock Exchange Palace, marveling at the magnificent painted ceramic tile fresco scenes in Sao Bento train station, walking across the double-deck Dom Luís l Bridge, and stopping by the famous Livraria Lello bookshop that reportedly inspired some of J.K. Rowling’s architectural depictions in her Harry Potter series. Port wine tasting at the famed Real Campanhia Velha port wine cellar in Vila Nova de Gaia was memorable as well.
Touring wineries and vineyards was certainly one of the highlights on our Douro River cruise. The Douro Valley is home to approximately 26,000 wine makers and vineyards filled with hundreds of grape varieties. On our CroisiEurope excursions, we toured terraced vineyards and visited wine farms, navigated through the wine region along the N-222 – named the “Best Road in the World” for its striking scenic beauty, sampled numerous varieties of port and vinho verde, and enjoyed frequent wine tastings at wineries, restaurants and onboard our ship.
Some of the Douro Valley’s most spectacular scenery was best viewed from onboard our ship. The Douro River is a relatively narrow waterway passing through massive granite canyons, steep valleys lined with terraced vineyards and idyllic small towns. Ships transit through several of Europe’s deepest locks on this route, some with as much as a 100-foot difference in river levels. Watching the ship navigate through these tight locks and dramatic rocky gorges is an unforgettable experience.
The Douro’s little towns and villages feature stunning sites as well. One of the most memorable spots is the magnificent Mateus Palace in Vila Real, where we marveled at the opulent Baroque manor and wandered through its two-tiered formal gardens. Lamego, a historically popular pilgrimage site, contains the exquisite Shrine of Our Lady of Remedies set on a hilltop and accessible by a double staircase with 686 steps and terraces adorned with blue-and-white tiles. Guests also have the opportunity to spend a full day in Spain’s “Golden City” of Salamanca, a UNESCO World Heritage Site well-known for its beauty, historic university and impressive cathedrals.
Cruising With European Flair
CroisiEurope is Europe’s largest river cruise line, providing a delightful cruise experience with a distinctive French style. This year, the cruise line will have six ships sailing the Douro River with the launch of its newest ship, the MS Amalia Rodrigues. CroisiEurope’s ships vary in size and offer comfortable accommodations and a variety of stateroom configurations well-suited for leisure groups.
Our ship, the MS Miguel Torga, featured spacious cabins, a large dining room, and a light-filled lounge and bar area complete with a dance floor that often showcased entertaining cultural performances, fado music and spirited flamenco dancing. The ship’s huge sun deck and swimming pool areas were well-designed for Portugal’s sunny climate, providing the perfect place to relax and take in the Douro Valley’s dazzling scenic views.
Dining was a special treat on our CroisiEurope cruise. CroisiEurope’s partnership with world-renowned Michelin-starred French chefs has resulted in exceptional menus, multi-course French meals and an outstanding dining experience. Authentic Portuguese dishes were featured on the MS Miguel Torga as well. We continually looked forward to onboard meals featuring fresh local cuisines, seasonal specialties, impressive desserts and excellent wine pairings throughout the cruise.
CroisiEurope’s all-inclusive packages included a wide range of amenities including Wi-Fi, all meals on board the ship, an open bar including wine and beer with lunch and dinner, and shore excursions. CroisiEurope’s Classic package tours typically focus on the area’s history, architecture and culture, while Discovery package excursions are more active and often include hiking, biking or culinary tasting options. Some of our favorite excursions were traveling along the Porto Wine Road and exploring the historic treasures of Guimarães and Salamanca.
Groups with an interest in learning and cultural enrichment will savor CroisiEurope’s multi-cultural and multi-lingual cruise experience. CroisiEurope’s cruises have an appealing international ambience, offering guests the chance to fully experience Europe while sailing and on land. There were many European and international guests onboard our cruise, allowing us to make new friends from around the world. That made our voyage even more enjoyable. CroisiEurope’s Douro River cruises provide a unique combination of breathtaking scenic beauty, memorable cuisine, cultural enrichment and enchanting European style.
For more information on CroisiEurope river cruises, visit www.croisieuroperivercruises.com.
Story and Photos By Nancy Schretter