This Scenic Wine Region Is Europe’s Most Underrated River Cruise Destination

Making the case for escaping the crowds sailing Europe’s Danube and Rhine rivers and heading to Portugal’s UNESCO-protected Douro Valley instead.

Buildings and vineyard-laced hills on the Douro River

The historic Douro Valley is delightfully devoid of commercial and industrial development.

Photo by Rach Sam/Unsplash

As our river cruise ship wound its way through Portugal’s postcard-perfect Douro Valley, a colorful passenger train passed through the nearby hills, its occupants leaning out to wave and shout greetings.

Our captain responded with a sharp toot of the S.S. São Gabriel’s horn, drawing cheers from passengers aboard the ship and train alike.

It was a pleasant interruption to a serene, sunny morning, and one of many reminders during a weeklong sailing with Uniworld Boutique River Cruise Collection of the unique charms of one of Europe’s most scenic and unspoiled rivers.

The Rhine has its castles; the Danube has the Wachau Valley and Budapest’s famed Parliament building. But the Douro Valley, with endless views of vineyard-lined, terraced hillsides dotted by quaint villages, wine estates, and the occasional pousada or campground, offers a surprisingly uncrowded respite from the tourist hordes infiltrating Europe’s more popular and populous destinations each summer.

Yes, like every river in Europe, the Douro has seen an increase in river ships plying its waters in recent years, including the São Gabriel, one of several new ships that launched postpandemic to bring the total number of vessels on the Douro River to around two dozen. Yet unlike cruises along the more traveled Rhine and Danube, virtually the entire trip is through the UNESCO-protected Douro Valley, which is delightfully devoid of commercial and industrial development and chain hotels and resorts that attract mass tourism.

Aerial view of Porto, Portugal

Douro river cruises begin and end in the charming coastal city of Porto.

Photo by Simon Pallard/Unsplash

And because no roads run directly parallel to the river, the only traffic along the banks is the occasional passenger train.

What it’s like cruising the Douro River

Douro River cruises start and end in the picturesque Porto and generally include an overnight on each end to explore Portugal’s second largest city.

During a sailing in early June, our boat was docked on the Gaia side of the river, home to the city’s many famous port wine houses and directly across from the historic city center’s colorful terra-cotta-roofed, multi-story townhouses, remnants of 14th-century fortification walls and baroque church towers.

Weary from the three-flight, overnight trip from Albuquerque, I spent the first afternoon warding off jet lag by strolling the hilly, cobblestone-lined streets and alleys along the river near the ship before relaxing on the sundeck to watch flat-bottom wooden boats, or rabelos, traditionally used to transport wine barrels, ferry visitors back and forth to the mouth of the Atlantic.

The next morning, I joined a walking tour that took us across the famed Ponte Dom Luis bridges, along medieval streets and alleys to the Cathedral Sé, a key stop for hikers making their pilgrimage along the region’s famed Camino de Santiago. We then wandered through the San Bento train station, famous for its blue and white-tiled azulejos, or murals that tell stories of the city’s history, before making our way to the Bolhão Market, an open-air farmers’ market, for a taste of canned sardines and bacalao (salted cod). We then wandered Santa Catarina Street, a busy shopping strip full of beautiful cafés, shops, and historical landmarks, before heading back to the boat to begin sailing.

For the next five days we wound our way slowly east along the Douro River to the border of Spain and back, with an itinerary that highlighted the region’s wine and cuisine. In Peso da Régua, about 70 miles from Porto, we visited the Douro Museum for a port tasting and short lecture on the region’s wine-making history. Then we headed to Lamego, home to one of northern Portugal’s most iconic religious landmarks, the hilltop Our Lady of Remedios Sanctuary, which towers above the town with a 686-step, garden-lined, tiered outdoor staircase featuring large blue-and-white-tiled murals of angels. After we made our way down the staircase we stopped for—what else—a sampling of port wine and local meats and cheeses before exploring the town and heading back to the boat.

That evening we took a five-minute drive to a dinner set in the cavernous wine cellar at the Quinta da Pacheca wine estate, known for its Old Tawny Port, and home to the Wine House Hotel, which features luxurious wine barrel–shaped rooms. (There’s even a wine barrel doghouse at the entrance for the resident rescue pooch, Pacheco, who snuck in for a few pets during dinner.) The menu was simple but delicious, a steak filet with a light sauce and some of the tastiest green beans and scalloped potatoes I’ve ever eaten.

The next day we had a relaxing morning sail to the town of Régua where we had an option for an afternoon excursion to the medieval village of Castelo Rodrigo or the archaeological park, Foz Coa, a UNESCO World Heritage site. I opted for the park, where we drove into the valley to see rock carvings dating back to the Stone Age.

Waiter serving tables in an outdoor plaza in Salamanca, Spain

On a Douro river sailing, get a taste of Spain with a day trip to Salamanca.

Photo by Shutterstock

On day five, we boarded coaches to cross the border into Spain to explore Salamanca, known as the “Golden City” for its tawny sandstone buildings. Salamanca is home to Spain’s oldest university; among its historic churches are two cathedrals: a newer one, built in the early 16th century, and the Old Cathedral, which dates to the 12th century. The beauty of river cruising is the ability to skip the guided excursions and set out on your own whenever you feel like it. So, my traveling companion and I opted out of the walking tour and instead chose to browse the shops along the Rua Mayor, visit the city’s Art Nouveau and Art Deco Museum, and have an outdoor lunch in the baroque building–lined Plaza Mayor before meeting back up with the group for the bus ride back to the boat.

From there it was time to make our way back to Porto. On the return we spent more time sailing, making one more stop in Régua, but this time with tours and winetastings at nearby vineyards.

Sailing on Uniworld’s S.S. “São Gabriel”

A central element of any river cruise is the ship—your floating hotel for the journey. And when it comes to luxury river cruising, Uniworld excels.

The newest ship in Uniworld’s fleet, the S.S. São Gabriel is one of its smallest with 50 cabins. It’s also—because of Portuguese laws on local ownership and employment—the only one in its European fleet not owned by the company or staffed completely by Uniworld employees. (It’s owned by a Portuguese company and leased to Uniworld.) Nevertheless, the service and locally sourced food and wine onboard definitely met the five-star standards one would expect from the luxury line.

Interior of river cruise ship stateroom with view of Porto

A room with a view: Embrace your floating hotel with choice views of passing Douro scenery.

Courtesy of Studios Visuelle Medien Gmbh/Uniworld

The breakfast and lunch buffet spreads offered a mix of local and international cuisine. And dinners were full-service, fine-dining affairs that always included traditional Portuguese dishes like octopus, pork cheek, and caldo verde, a green cabbage and chorizo soup. Oh, and did I mention the wine? Different options were offered tableside each night to best pair with the entrées of the day.

Cabin choices range from grand suites complete with sitting rooms and large bathrooms featuring double vanities, big soaking tubs, and separate showers to more economical lower deck cabins with windows but no balconies. All the suites, both the 4 grand and 12 regular suites, come with 24-hour butler service. And all levels of accommodation include unlimited food and beverages, including signature cocktails and an impressive menu of Portuguese wines, including my new favorite: Montanha Reserva, a crisp, dry sparkling alternative that rivals the finest champagnes.

I stayed in one of the mid-deck French balcony cabins, which feature floor-to-ceiling windows that span the full width of the room and open halfway down with the touch of a button. And while quite cozy at 150 square feet, the space is perfectly adequate on a sailing during which the only time spent in your cabin is while you sleep.

When the weather allowed, I spent most of our sailing time on the sprawling sun deck, which in addition to a swimming pool offers a mix of uncovered and shaded lounge chairs, couches, and tables.

On cooler rainy days, there’s plenty of room to relax in the third-deck glass-walled lounge that at the very front of the vessel offers stunning 180-degree views of the Douro River Valley and the many interesting locks the ship passes through.

For the fitness- and wellness-focused, there’s a small spa and surprisingly well-equipped fitness center. And each morning the spa director led stretching classes on the sundeck or in the lounge, depending on the weather.

During daytime sailings (Douro ships are prohibited for cruising at night), the crew kept guests busy with activities like Portuguese lessons and a demonstration on making the country’s famous pasteis de nata, or custard tarts.

The bar onboard the S.S. "São Gabriel"

After hours, drinks flow and the DJ spins some dance tunes.

Courtesy of Studios Visuelle Medien/Uniworld

Because the overnights were in smaller towns and villages, there wasn’t much in the way of off-ship nightlife. But the onboard disc jockey made up for it by spinning an array of tunes heavy on Motown that was popular with all the guests, who appeared to be mostly in their 50s and 60s—nearly everyone crowded the dance floor late into the night during a 1970s-themed party.

Most days had two included excursion options, one being a coach tour and another a walking tour of the sites and/or vineyards.

Because there aren’t really any easily accessible roads or bike paths along the Douro, the ship—unlike most of Uniworld’s European fleet—doesn’t carry bicycles for guests to use. But on our final day in Porto we took an optional three-hour “Port to the Sea” excursion on electric bikes (for an add-on price of €49 euros, or US$53) that wound from the ship through a fishing village to a port-side complex that includes a laundry where locals can wash their clothes then leave them outside to hang dry. From there we hopped on a 20- kilometer bike path along the coast, passing windsurfers, many dogs, and families enjoying the weekend on the beach and its array of waterfront cafés, ice cream parlors, and street markets. Our final stop: Praia do Senhor da Pedra, a beach featuring a 17th-century chapel built on giant boulders that juts out into the sea.

It was the perfect end to a perfect trip that offered the right mix of urban bustle and country and seaside serenity.

Sustainability onboard the S.S. “São Gabriel”

Like many cruise lines, Uniworld has eliminated single-use plastics onboard, which includes supplying staterooms with in-room water in glass bottles that cabin attendants diligently refill. Guests are provided with aluminum water bottles that can be refilled on the ship, and soaps, shampoos, and lotions are available in fixed, refillable dispensers. Daily menus incorporate meatless options, including both vegan and vegetarian items. And Uniworld, like its parent company the Travel Corporation, has instituted an automated food waste reduction tracking system. Company-wide, the Travel Corporation aims to be carbon neutral by 2030 and to source half of its electricity from renewable sources by 2025.

Jeri Clausing is a New Mexico–based journalist who has covered travel and the business of travel for more than 15 years.
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