I’ve been on many cruises in all parts of the world, from an expeditionary cruise in Antarctica to a river cruise in Myanmar. When both ocean and river cruises are combined though, I have sailed with Viking more often than any other cruise line and they’re a company that I have come to know very well over the years. That was one reason of many why I was excited to join them on a sailing of Portugal’s much-lauded Douro River. To be honest, the cruise had its issues that were all caused by Mother Nature, and I’ll touch on those along with how Viking handled the problems presented to them. But I’ll also try to talk about the cruise from a higher level since, ideally, historic levels of flooding are not the norm for the average cruiser in Portugal.
In recent years it seems like Portugal has made it to the Must-Visit lists of nearly every major travel publication, and along with it the Douro River. One of the oldest continuously inhabited parts of Europe, there’s plenty of history to be found throughout the many communities that abut the Douro, starting in the ancient city of Porto. Cruise ships leave from this hilly city, but most itineraries will include a land-based portion in Lisbon before the start of the cruise. Passengers are then bussed to Porto where the cruise itself starts. From there the ship winds its way through the valleys best known for their wines and culinary expertise. There are no big cities once you leave Porto and for many cruisers the experience is very much focused on the food and wine of the country.
I have sailed with Viking many times in all corners of Europe, and I have come to know and love the design and amenities onboard their signature Longships. So it was with a lot of surprise that I first stepped onboard the Longship docked in Porto, because, while beautiful, this was not the Longship I have come to know so well over the years. The Douro River is navigable only due to a series of locks, not unlike many other European rivers. The key difference in Portugal is the size of these locks. They’re different than on the Danube or Rhine, which means the ships must also be different. The result is a fleet of “Baby Longships” that only sail on the Douro River. They have the same general layout, the same design aesthetic and other amenities as one would find across Viking’s fleet, but they’re decidedly smaller, or intimate. At once though I was a convert; I loved almost everything about these particular Longships. They carry fewer people than the traditional European river cruise ships, about 100 people or so, and this decrease in the manifest made the experience a lot more fun. I became friends with more people on this river cruise than any other, and I attribute that entirely to the more intimate setting. Add to that the same size staterooms and a pool on the Sun Deck and I was almost immediately won over.
The Itinerary and Rain (So much rain!)
Several river cruise companies operate on Portugal’s Douro River, but few include time in Lisbon beforehand. Sure, they have options to pay for a pre-cruise experience, but on the cruise I took with Viking it was part of the total trip and, therefore, wasn’t an extra charge. For me, that time in the capital city was essential and a highlight of the trip and must not be missed. From there passengers are bussed to Porto where they board the ship and spend a couple of days getting to know the city. Like Lisbon, this was another highlight of the experience and the docking position of the ship made exploring the town easy and fun. This is the point where my experience and the average Douro River Cruise itinerary deviates, sort of.
I cruised with Viking in December and during that time there wasn’t just some rain, there was historic flooding across the country. If I could understand Portuguese, then I would have seen it as the lead news story every single night. The Douro River wasn’t only unnavigable, but normal ports of call were literally underwater. It was an unsafe situation and the government closed down all river traffic. Naturally, that makes life difficult for a river cruise company. All river cruise companies though, not only Viking, have plenty of experience dealing with river issues whether it’s flooding or levels so low that ships are unable to sail. I give Viking a lot of credit as to how they handled everything. The situation was day to day but they were adamant that we not miss a single included experience. Yes, that meant rearranging the entire schedule and relocating (temporarily) to another ship further upriver, but it worked. Did it mean a lot of time on busses, yes it certainly did. The ships were essentially the hotels and we were then bussed to each new spot daily. Was it ideal? Far from it, but the staff onboard both ships did an incredible job of keeping spirits up and making things fun. So, what did we see?
The opportunity to visit small towns and villages isn’t just a perk of a Douro River sailing, it’s a reason why I love river cruising in general. Many times we visited spots I would never have discovered on my own, and my trip was made all the better for having experienced them. A great example on my sailing was the morning spent in Favaios. A very small community, it has long been known for its moscatel wines, which is where the Viking passengers started the day. Visiting a local winery, we learned all about the wine making process, before tasting some of their best vintages of course. From there we visited a local bakery to learn about and try the town’s equally famous four-cornered bread and ended our visit with a walk through the village and a stop at the local wine and bread museum (yes, really). Afterwards the Viking passengers were taken to another local winery for a long and leisurely lunch that was as much fun as I’ve had in a long time. Put all together, that day spent in a very small village was special, certainly unique and nothing I would have discovered on my own.
European river cruises have skyrocketed in popularity in recent years for a variety of reasons and, from my experience, it’s well deserved attention. The cruises on the Douro River though are completely unlike others I’ve experienced, in all the best ways possible. So if you’re considering a river cruise but also looking for something a little different, I highly recommend learning more about the itineraries and programs Viking has put together on the Douro River.