I’ve sailed the Rhine, the Danube, the waterways of Holland & Belgium, the Seine, the canals of Provence, the Mosel, the Main and more. This was my first Douro River cruise experience.
I have sailed with Viking, Amadeus, AmaWaterways, Croisieurope, and have experiences with Scenic, Emerald, and Uniworld so when I say that our AmaWaterways Douro River cruise was different than all others, it is because it truly was.
On August 13, I embarked with a small Fitzgerald Travel group on the Douro River for the first time. The moment we arrived in the city of Porto, my heart exploded. The people and this ancient port city were welcoming and genuinely so happy to see us. My images on Instagram certainly do not do it justice – but there were six things that made this river cruise unlike all others…
On the Douro, the ships are shorter to fit into the locks. These ships are about 260 feet compared to the normal 360 feet of the ships on the major rivers of Europe. The passenger count is also less with 102 passengers vs 168 with only 51 staterooms. Onboard, if you have sailed before, the noticeable differences are a narrower reception area and the tighter split staircase between the decks. A smaller, yet equally comfortable lounge area is the heartbeat of the ship.
What was striking to me was that AmaWaterways, typically painted white on the outside, was painted a beautiful gold color. I did tour a few others ships while we were docked with and it seems that all the ships built for the Douro have the same interior design, only the interior décor is different. Probably a mandate by the country.
We decided to stay in a D cabin for this trip which is a fixed window. The ship is smaller but our cabin space was roomy and well designed for storage.
Day 1, evening 1, the ship stays in port overnight. I loved this about Ama because your body really needs to rest and adjust to the time difference, and this also diminishes any feelings of being rushed or missing something.
The Douro is a smaller river, a less developed country for typical touristy ports of call so when you sail the river, you return to Porto and enjoy 2 full nights prior to disembarkation. Porto is a city with plenty of things to do like shopping, the market, the cable car, the train station, restaurants, cafes and wineries. The extra time there is very welcome and needed.
Porto is an ancient port city rich with history and Ama structures the last two days perfectly by offering a choice of tours here vs a fully planned itinerary from the days prior. Also, of course, you have the freedom to just explore on your own.
We opted for the Porto City Tour with a local guide which was fantastic! Our Ama bus took the group first on a panoramic bus tour while explaining Porto’s history and then we disembarked the bus at the castle. Our guide was fantastic, spoke perfect English, had 30 years of experience and had a great sense of humor which I adored.
We toured the train station and learned about the story (the history of Porto) represented in over 22,000 mosaic tiles.
We walked over the bridge designed by Eiffel (OMG, windy and very, very high) until we reached the cable cars lift that lowered us gently back to the cruise port. So delightful.
A wine tour was offered in the afternoon, but we decided to just go to the market and explore the goods. Portugal is known for its Port wine and other wines of course, olive products, and Cork! Producing Cork is really fascinating, how it is done, how long it takes and the abundance of it. Too long to explain in this blog but I will certainly talk about Cork again sometime.
Our first overnight in Porto, we had an all-aboard call for 7 PM. Our captain piloted us on a breathtaking evening illuminations cruise. It really took my breath away. It was incredibly relaxing and the perfect set up for what we had in store for the rest of the week.
My favorite obvious difference for cruising the Douro? Day cruising! On most other river cruises, you sail in the evening typically while the passengers are at dinner. Amazing sunsets but you miss the scenery because it gets dark. On the Douro, you sail during the daytime hours, so you get to see some of the most pristine and manicured vineyards ever planted. The homes and the wineries are impressive.
What else blew my mind, the locks. I have been through hundreds of locks in Europe but not like these! These are incredible engineered giants that blew my mind! The highest (or lowest) was 84 feet, the other 72 and we got to do this twice. All I could think of was, “is this what the Hoover Dam is like?” All Fascinating!
I have never seen such a dramatic change in geography during a cruise. Miles and miles of steep tiered vineyards and olive trees, hand-built rock walls for miles. Green and beautiful. When we lifted from one of those magnificent locks/dam, the landscape changed. Not just a little change but a “whoa and wow” change. What it looked like was the Artic Fjords but not of ice, of granite. The river changed into a crystal clear shallower and narrower river. As we glided over the water through the narrow passages, you could see the fish at the bottom. It was remarkable. After we traveled more West, the green steeped mountains re-appeared.
Portugal is a country of rugged slopes and winding narrow roads that are so steep. Reminds me of the Amalfi coast. Therefore, you and the rest of the passengers are driven by an expert motorcoach driver and trust me, they have some mad skills when turning their buses through hairpin turns.
On a regular river cruise in Europe, you can select from multiple tours at every port of call in advance. A nice variety that you can select that best suits your interests. On a Douro River cruise, you do not. It is all pre-arranged for you in advance because this country does not have huge ports of call for tourism, and you are literally brought into the heart of the country.
Your experiences are unlike what you would get on the other rivers. For example, a visit to a Villa high on the hill with a very dynamic, third-generation owner who tells the history of the people. Followed by a delicious Portuguese meal served in two rooms while seated at the longest antique farm tables I have ever seen.
A visit to a winery with a fourth-generation winery owner where we sampled an amazing meal, entertainment, and the wine…oh, the wine! They have barrels reserved from the owner’s great great grandfather, great grandfather, father and now his wine. It stays preserved and is only opened on Easter when the local Priest comes to Easter dinner.
We visited an ancient walled city that served as refuge for all cultures and religions until it was destroyed during WWII and later rebuilt. The view from the top of the mountain was unlike anything I have ever seen.
We also visited larger cities like Salamanca Spain. This was a fabulous day!
We enjoyed our tour and free time in the city~ We were treated to a lovely lunch by the hotel and a special Flamenco Dance show. The Spaniards tell stories with their dance and though I could not understand a word they sang; I totally understood the love story they told. Full heart, I had tears in my eyes.
Touring looks different. You are assigned to one bus for the week, so you really get to know your traveling companions well. The same driver and the same tour guide. Fun fact, your tour guide is part of the Ama crew and is Portuguese with perfect English.
We loved our guide, Mira, who comes from a family of Olive Farmers. Tour guides go to a special and very thorough college curriculum before they graduate and become guides. You do spend a lot of time on the motorcoach but the destination and experience are what you remember, not the bus ride.
We loved our last two days in Porto. Here is where your ‘typical’ choice of a tour happens. We had three opportunities and chose a Porto City tour with a local guide. The rest of the day, we found an Irish Pub and enjoyed frothy beverages.
There truly is far more to write about this distinctively different Douro River cruise, but I will stop here for now. I hope this blog inspires you to want the experience of the Douro River – if so, get in touch with me – I can help you plan. I know I will certainly be returning to the Douro in the near future!
I am a lucky lady to have the honor to work side by side with Lisa Collins. Ocean Cruise phenom and lover of all things Ocean Cruising. Together we are the Lisas.
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