A cruise on the Douro is a delightfully relaxing voyage. Credit: Shutterstock

Port of call: Why you should book a cruise right now on the River Douro

Author: Vivian Vassos

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Voyage along Portugal’s River Douro where the Port flows, the porcelain dazzles

and the people delight, says Vivian Vassos

The sky over the town of Pinhao, in northern Portugal, is dark. Suddenly, there’s an explosion of light; then another and another.

Fireworks are blazing a Rainbow Brite trail, igniting the night. Oohs and aahs erupt from our group of a few dozen as we celebrate the launch of Avalon Waterways’ Avalon Alegria, watching the pyrotechnics from the ship’s Sky Deck.

It’s a joyous surprise, as we had no idea when we climbed up top. We huddle in blankets to ward off the damp of this early spring evening – which is not wet enough to dampen our spirits.

Once the last of the sparks have fallen like tears and the fizz of the bubbles has faded, we make our way inside, following the sound of guitars. A pair of local musicians is playing traditional fado, the revered ‘Portuguese blues’ that are steeped in woe and loss.

Pretty little Pinhão sits in the heart of the Douro Valley. Credit: Shutterstock

The Douro translates as river of gold, as it glints like honey in the sun. The water carves a path through quaint villages and vineyards that climb step by step up the gentle hills lining its banks.

Northern Portugal also has its share of hot springs for wellness advocates, and a wealth of Romanesque towns for architecture and history buffs. This region, however, is admired for its Port wines which, like Champagne, are protected by the European Union Protected Designation of Origin.

For Avalon Waterways and Avalon Alegria, the season for the River Douro is now. Alegria – happiness in Portuguese – is the company’s latest ship, and its first in Portugal. Yes, the first.

While other cruise lines such as AmaWaterways and Viking have been sailing the Douro for years, it was important, according to Avalon Waterways’ president Pam Hoffee, to get the ship just right. “We’ve waited a long time for the perfect opportunity to add Portugal to our portfolio and that day has finally arrived,” she said while on board for the ship’s naming celebration in March 2024.

To bring a ship here, Pam insisted the design stay true to the company’s Panorama class Suite Ships, but be purpose-built exclusively for the Douro’s locks, which are smaller than those found on Europe’s River Danube and Rhine.

The dining room onboard Avalon Alegria. Credit: Avalon Waterways

As the ship makes its maiden voyage down the Douro from its starting point in Porto, we stop at Peso da Regua. Avalon Waterways gives its guests a choice of excursions: Classic, Active and Discovery.

I’ve intended to hike, but the never-ending drizzle has put me off so I beg to switch to something indoors. Avalon Alegria’s jovial cruise director, Valentin Georghe, says, “You always have a choice. You can change your mind even after you sign up, we are always flexible. And you don’t have to do anything.”

Guilt managed, I’m intrigued by a visit to a palatial farm that has been in and out of Portuguese aristocrats’ hands. Is the house spectacular, I ask?

“It’s not the house,” Georghe winks at me. “It’s the owner of the house that is the real story.” And she is. Maria Manuel Cyrne is a viscountess; her family’s palace and all they had was taken during authoritarian times in the last century.

Poverty became her life until she began sewing her own scarves and blouses, and a local television station took notice. Soon, the presenters were all wearing her blouses, and Maria’s fashion empire was born. She was finally able to buy back the property and its surrounding vineyards – from Seagrams of booze fame, no less.

Today, Maria produces red and white Ports, and has transformed the main house into a manor hotel, Hotel Rural Casa dos Viscondes da Varzea. She takes us on a tour, allowing us a glimpse of its cosy rooms and the modest country kitchen where she cooks.

After striding through the vineyards, a sip of the white Port is a revelation. It’s light and fresh, not at all cloying. It’s even better when paired with biscuits Maria baked that morning, which we consume by a roaring fire in a living room stuffed with antiques.

Portugal has something to suit every traveller. Credit: Shutterstock

Avalon Waterways’s UK managing director, Lesley Taylor, is excited about the Douro. “Having our own bespoke ship was an important addition,” she tells me later, “especially as British guests have a special affection for Portugal, with its warm, year-round climate; the River Douro and related excursions.”

According to Lesley, the new route has already sold spectacularly well. “We expect this to continue with our existing customers and newcomers to river cruising who are looking for an active yet relaxing way to explore this beautiful region.”

The ship’s interiors, says Avalon Waterways’ president Pam, were inspired by Portugal and the Douro – the river of gold informed the choices of copper and golden hues; green for the hills and blue for those ubiquitous tiles.

The dining room’s walls on port and starboard sides are glass, letting in light by day and the twinkling lights of ports by night. The feature walls are decorated with Portuguese porcelain- tiled artwork, and backlit to create a warm aura and focal point. It’s a detail that helps give guests a sense of place as it echoes how the Portuguese embellish their buildings and streets – which was Pam’s goal when creating Avalon Alegria.

Compared to the line’s larger ships, Avalon Alegria feels like a snug hug. Its intimate public spaces such as the Panorama Lounge, where daily happy hour, afternoon tea and a light, bistro- style menu are served, encourage conviviality; we’re much more up- close-and-personal.

And yet the dining room has lots of tables for two; a thoughtful invitation for those who might be introverted, looking for romance or privacy or solo travellers wanting to read a book and enjoy a meal, no conversation required.

Breakfast and lunch are served buffet style, with a few a la carte selections; dinner with an emphasis on Portuguese dishes is a sit down but informal affair; guests can sit where they like anytime between 7pm and 8.30pm.

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Speaking of snug, it’s not the case for the cabins. Avalon Waterways has continued with its trademark Panorama Suites: floor-to-ceiling windows that slide open to a balcony, window-facing beds to watch the world go by and walls angled to create spacious bathrooms – no jostling for counter space or bashing of elbows in the shower – are original to the line.

There’s room to sit on the love seat and put my feet up; with the windows open, I enjoy the breeze and passing sights.

But first, I mosey down the hall to the Club Lounge, where there’s all-day tea and coffee, sweet and savoury treats – the apple turnovers are a must – and two water dispensers: one filtered, one for infusions such as ginger
and grapefruit, and green tea and magnesium.

A few sips help my tired muscles relax after partaking in one of the Active excursions; hiking, biking or kayaking, the onboard adventure host keeps us moving. There’s also a swimming pool, stretching and sunrise yoga on the Sky Deck, but I opt to unwind in one of the comfy swing chairs in the Observation Lounge instead. A little child’s play never hurt.

Avalon Waterway’s seven-night Vida Portugal: Vineyards & Villages along the Douro cruise aboard Avalon Alegria, return from Porto via Peso da Regua, Pocinho, Barca d’Alva (Salamanca) and Ferradosa- Leverinho (Amarante), departs on November 20. From £4,127.

Great for:
Active, healthy travellers, vegetarians and the sober-curious will appreciate the many plant-based options and mocktail selection.
Best spots on the ship: The Sky Deck for unobstructed views, and lounging in your cabin’s window-facing bed with the windows wide open.
Thoughtful touch: His-and- hers towels.
Live like a local: Most of the crew are Portuguese, and by day two, know my name, food allergies and penchant for chilled Portuguese red wine.
Don’t miss: The nightly port chats delivered by the ship’s cruise director/resident comedian, Valentin Georghe.

102 passengers
37 Panorama Suites
33 crew
1 restaurant

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