APT's Douro Cruise Lets Loose Wine And Scenery

8 May 2015

There are many advantages to being picked up by a chauffeur after a cattle-class flight halfway across the world. For a start, your brain need not engage with anything beyond immigration and the baggage carousel.

There is someone else to take your luggage; steer the car; get you out of the airport tumult and to your destination, where a blessed bed awaits. And if you’re lucky, they are a friendly font of knowledge about the place you are here, after a good sleep, to discover.

 Porto's medieval city skyline (image: APT)

On my transfer from the Porto airport to the MS AmaVida, I learn the following things from driver Luis: that the airport is in Maia Harbour, not Porto; that the port wine for which Porto is famous is stored and sold in Gaia, not Porto; and that the 5-star riverboat I am hurtling towards is docked in Gaia, not Porto; just as most of the people who call these twin cities home live in Gaia, not Porto.

I will learn the next day, on a city tour that is part of the APT package, that there are many amazing and beautiful things in Porto, but right now I am bemused. Why have I not heard of Gaia? Why has Porto so thoroughly stolen all the international thunder?

Luis offers something by way of explanation: “The only thing Gaia has better than Porto is the view of Porto,” he says.

Good news for us, the APT passengers on board the MS AmaVida, then, that our riverboat is docked in Gaia with unimpeded views of the medieval Porto cityscape on the opposite bank of the Douro River.

This boatload of Australians has two nights in Porto before setting forth up the river on the seven-night Douro Delights cruise from Porto to Barca d'Alva through the spectacular valley famous for its centuries-old tradition of port wine production. From Barca d’Alva the tour continues by land to Madrid where passengers spend three landlubbing nights in Spain’s largest city.

 The MS AmaVida docked in Porto (image: APT)

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A Life Of Leisure

The 5-star AmaVida, built in 2013, has 53 twin-share cabins and 30 crew members. My stateroom is a luxury retreat and entertainment centre in one. It’s fun to be out and about on the ship as it plies the Douro between ports – hanging out on the pool deck, for instance, to witness the boat negotiate the river’s towering locks, the young and handsome captain Emanuel Oliveira at the controls.

But it’s fun, too, to watch the valley go by from your balcony, or watch one of the films on the vast, free movie menu, or take a sneaky nana nap on your big bed, because what’s a languid holiday on a fancy boat if you can’t do that?

As well as the pool there is a tiny spa tucked away on the lower deck, across the way from the equally compact gym. The AmaVida lounge is the hub of the ship: this is where talks and cruise briefings are held, musicians play and breakfast pastries, light lunches and morning and afternoon tea are served. One deck down is the main restaurant where multi-course meals, designed with Australian tastes in mind, are served for lunch and dinner. Breakfast, with champagne, is a buffet.

Our tour of Porto includes the Calem cellars, one of 30 cellars in Gaia with vaguely familiar names such as Fonseca, Offley and Ferreira. Many of us discover for the first time the existence of white port as we settle back into a morning tasting. Fortified wine before lunch? Porto may be the one place in the world where that feels positively proper.

Wine-tasting opportunities, as you’d expect, pop up regularly on the cruise, typically accompanied by generous morsels of local food.

 Fine dining aboard the AmaVida (image: APT)

From the port of Regua we pile onto three coaches and drive to the  wine-growing estate of Quinta do Seixo to taste the labours of Sandeman, a company established in 1790 by a 25-year-old Scotsman with a 300-pound loan from his dad. There is a tour and a video, too, of an operation which is 21st-Century now: grapes are crushed by automated steel machines that simulate the pressure and rhythm of human feet.

At the ancient town of Lamego, to which we are whisked on the high-end coaches, each of them with local guides manning the on-board mikes, we drink Lamego’s fragrant sparkling wine, Raposeira, and eat the smoked ham of Lamego, the best in all of Portugal, so the locals say.

At Lamego’s stylish Casa do Presunto – aka the house of ham, where smoked and cured ham is indeed everywhere, piled up and hanging from the ceiling - we also eat bola, bread stuffed with ham, fish, chicken or vegetables.

 Spectacular scenery is rarely hard to find (image: APT)

Last drinks in Portugal are at Castelo Rodrigo, a medieval fortified town on a hilltop where local drops are imbibed as we gaze over the cobbled streets and ancient buildings of a deeply historic village and across a vast plateau towards Spain.

It’s a quiet spot for contemplating where we are and what we’ve experienced in the past week or so.

It has been a gentle river amble through a valley of world-class beauty: the scenery at times makes you gasp, not least the dramatic vision in green that is the steep, terraced hillsides stretching for as far as you can see.

There have been villages and towns, palaces and museums, churches and monasteries to explore, and much to soak up about port wine and the distinct culture that has grown around and through it. You won’t look at that glass of after-dinner tipple in your hand in quite the same way again.

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The writer travelled as a guest of APT