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Portugal's Douro Valley

May 25, 2010 By: Jena Tesse Fox Travel Agent


The Douro Valley

The Douro Valley has become a fixture on Europe’s river-cruising map



Agent Advice

Mary Couto Lewis of Apex Tours and Travel recommends Douro Azul for an authentic local trip along the Douro River. The company operates a full seven-day cruise, but its day trip involves a quick jaunt over to Régua with a return via train.
Lewis says the best time to visit the valley is September, “because they’re picking the grapes,” describing how the scent of the fruit permeates the air during the harvest. While in Porto before a cruise, she suggests visiting the Institute of Wines in downtown Porto. “It gives them a workshop on how to distinguish one wine from another,” she says—a valuable skill when visiting numerous wineries for multiple tastings. For hotels in the area, she recommends the CS Vintage House, a tiny inn right on the water that, she says, is in great demand.



The Douro Valley in Portugal has been a favorite vacation spot for years, and with the emergence of river cruising as a travel powerhouse, it has more to offer than ever.

“It’s not just the Douro; it’s all river cruising,” says Patrick Clark, managing director of Avalon Waterways, which is a member of the Globus Family of Brands. “It’s a popular travel style, and the Douro has benefited from that.” Europe, he adds, has taken the lead in the river-cruising trade because of the sheer number of rivers in the continent, and the cities that guests can tour. “Portugal is a charming, lovely area, and there is interest in combination tours with Spain,” he says.

Guy Young, president of Uniworld, believes that “experienced travelers are increasingly looking for more authentic and less homogenized regions, which Portugal certainly offers.”

What to See, What to Do

Young points out that the wine region of the Douro River Valley has been recognized by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site, and that last year, the valley was ranked seventh on the list of National Geographic Traveler’s “World’s Great Places: 133 Destinations” survey. “And just recently, European travelers voted Lisbon—out of the top 10 European cities [including Prague, London and Berlin]—as the best destination of the year,” he notes.

The Douro Valley includes many historical sites to see and tour, including castles and monasteries. (There are numerous other UNESCO Heritage Sites to explore along the way.) For those not interested in history, the valley also has lots of vineyards with some of the world’s most popular wines. Winemaking in this region dates back 2,000 years—in fact, both Port wine and Portugal were named after the city of Porto, where, now, guests spend several days as many of the cruises begin or end there.

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With such a history of wine culture in the valley, wine tastings are, understandably, a standard feature on Douro cruises, and visitors can spend entire days exploring ancient wineries and vineyards and sampling their wares. “Wine is king” in the Douro Valley, says Miguel Carvalho of the Portuguese National Tourist Office, pointing out that the valley is the oldest demarcated wine region in the world, having celebrated its 250th anniversary in 2006. Clark adds that “the sides of the hills are covered with vineyards, so it’s very scenic.”



Vineyard tours and wine-tastings are among the highlights of a Douro trip

Wine and Wineries

Among the many estates in the valley, Carvalho suggests the Quinta do Noval, which, he says, is “both very much a showcase for the entire Douro [region] and one of its most famous producers of fine wines.” (The vineyard, on the river’s left bank, was responsible for what Wine Spectator magazine called one of the 12 best wines of the 20th century—the 1931 Noval Nacional vintage.)

On the right bank, meanwhile, the popular Barca Velha wine has been produced at The Vale Meão Estate for decades, and the estate now makes several other popular vintages, including the Quinta do Vale Meão.


Portugal for Honeymoons

What better metaphor for Portugal than “a great place to honeymoon and begin a new journey together.” The country’s landscapes, its river, culture, history, language and—of course—food and wine all exude romance, and there are plenty of activities for couples. Maria Grimardi of Uniworld says honey- mooners can go sailing, sightseeing, wine tasting or exploring the cultural and historical sites. Grimardi recommends visiting the valley during fall harvest, which provides a romantic backdrop for visitors (“changing of the foliage; crisp evenings; sitting on the sun deck with a glass of Port in hand”).



In Cima Corgo, Quinta do Seixo, the global winner of Architecture, Parks and Gardens at the 2010 Best of Wine Tourism, is known for the popular Sandeman brand of wines. Tastings at the estate include tours of the cellars and attending demos of the centuries-old production processes and how they have evolved.

For a pre- or post-cruise stay in the Douro region, Carvalho suggests couples try the CS Vintage House Hotel, Aquapura Douro, Hotel Quinta Nova, Hotel Régua Douro or Quinta da Romaneira. For an in-depth wine experience, he recommends the Port Wine Lodge in Régua, “where specialists explain the differences between the various types of this nectar.”

Cruising the Douro

Uniworld, Young says, was the first U.S. river-cruise company to offer a Douro River Valley itinerary. Over the last two years, this has been one of its fastest-growing itineraries. “In 2009, in the middle of a major recession, our business was up 15 percent over 2008 on this itinerary,” he says, adding that the company expects its Douro River Valley product to expand further—“so much so that in 2011, Uniworld [along with its partners in Portugal] will be introducing a new ship on the Douro—the Douro Spirit. The ship will replace the Douro Queen, which Uniworld had been using since 2005.”

Avalon, on the other hand, offers a one-week cruise from Porto on the Douro Cruiser—“one of the newest ships on the Douro at the moment,” according to Clark, with 65 staterooms and capacity for 130. The cruise, which includes several wine estate visits, goes all the way to Spain, where a day trip to Salamanca is one of the highlights.

“It is one of the most breathtaking river valleys on earth,” Carvalho says. “And the cost to spend a week on the river is half what you would pay on the Danube,” he adds, so it also has “lots of value.” Clark points out the usual appeal of river cruises—the inclusion of accommodations, most meals, entertainment, excursions, hotels, sightseeing and buffet breakfasts at one price. The weeklong Avalon cruise begins at $2,399. Getting there from the East Coast is also easy: TAP Portugal, the national airline of Portugal, operates direct flights from Newark Airport to Porto on Mondays, Thursdays and Sundays.

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