We were lucky enough to spend a week in Portugal last year, exploring one of the oldest wine countries in the world onboard AmaDouro, the namesake AmaWaterways ship bringing a touch of gold to the Douro River. Here’s why it should be on your holiday wish list for 2021.
There are certain things that can’t help but make a town feel like fun. Having experienced Porto, I can confirm that riversides lined with port wine merchants and cavernous cellars converted into divine dining spots are among them. For those first few hours in Portugal’s second city, AmaDouro becomes a haven-like spot to which we retreat after sampling the wares of a place that is intoxicating in every sense. Then, after a day and a night in the city, it’s beneath the Louis I iron bridge from which the local lads swan-dived the afternoon before we go.
We’re bound for a week of wine on the ‘River of Gold’, so called by the Romans because the sun setting on its water reflects with a golden glow that means AmaWaterways’ gilded AmaDouro blends seamlessly with her surroundings. So much so, in fact, that you can’t help but feel like nobody else in the world could show you the Alta Douro region quite like her.
By the time Fortunata has refilled my glass and I’ve made myself comfortable in one of the rocking chairs that sit front and centre at the bow of the ship, the scenery has already started to change. Porto’s riverside bairro of Ribeiro gives way in in a colourful blur to plumes of eucalyptus trees and greenery that grows to the very edge of the river, give or take a beach or two. On a Sunday in the summer, those sandy slips and their cherry-red parasols break up the panels of green hillside, simultaneously breaking the silence with little kids playing and big kids living it up on the back of boats. It’s a reminder that a good life is lived on the banks of the Douro.
The nature of the river and a lack of light means that all sailing is done during the day. This means you don’t miss a thing, whether you position yourself in the lounge with your book or by the pool with a drink. With only 100 passengers, the ship feels utterly serene, the quiet giving way only to the toot of a horn at a passing pleasure boat or to birdsong, the singer heard but rarely seen. Quintas and villas emerge at the end of roads to nowhere as you roll on by. Some are charmingly unassuming, timeworn white with olive shutters and washing flapping in the wind. Others are palatial, fronted by manicured gardens and with a boat or two waiting on the water for the lazy days of summer.
Later, the sloping riverbanks would become patterned with cornrow-like vines that create contours on the land like a topographic map, a sight that leaves you punch-drunk before you’ve supped a single port.
You sip and sup your way through days on the Douro. Tipsy travel – or enotourism, to give it its ‘proper’ name – has become big business here in Portugal, following in the footsteps of California and South Africa. While the country might have been late to the wine tourism party, its demarcated wine region is the oldest in the world, dating back to around 1756. The Douro Valley is the only place in the world which produces those divine port wine grapes, but the region’s expertise extends to table wines too. Over the course of my week on AmaDouro, I enjoy an education on both, some of the most esteemed wineries in the region serving as my classroom and generations of winemaker my teacher. My ‘classmates’ have travelled from around the world. There are Brits and Brits abroad, including a couple who upped sticks to start a new life and winery in the hills of El Dorado. Fast forward a few years and those seedlings have grown into grapes that scoop awards on the California wine scene, something that’s no mean given the region’s accolade-heavy appellations.
Californian wine aficionados are a common theme amongst AmaDouro’s guests, confirming that Portugal’s tipples have a reputation for being worth travelling for. The wine mad aside, the passenger demographic is varied, from the young South African family dabbling in the Douro as part of an extended trip to Europe, to the dashing Scandinavian teen holidaying with his uber-glamorous Grandma and taking an air of aristocracy with him on every excursion. Such a varied crowd – and the most fun and friendly crew I’ve come across on any of Europe’s river cruise ships – meant a lively atmosphere on board and a real team spirit ashore. For such a small ship, it’s easy to spend time alone on AmaDouro, but with a group of guests and crew like this, you really don’t want to. We bond over wine tastings ashore and slices of almond cake aboard, catching up at the coffee machines with a wink of unspoken understanding as another cookie falls from the jar with less than an hour until lunch.
Excursions on AmaDouro offer a choice of active levels, although even the most strenuous break only a light sweat. Mostly, they serve to showcase the region’s allure and imbibe guests with its produce. In the gardens of Quinta da Aveleda, with seven regal peacocks for company and the sun setting over the vines, we learn about Portugal’s Vinho verde from the family whose estate is known as one of the very best. Walking under centuries-old trees, having sampled the produce over a traditional Portuguese dinner, is a real pinch-yourself moment.
The next day, our arrival into port at Régua brings us to the Shrine of Our Lady of Remedies in Lamego. Fronted by 686 steps and decked in azulejos, it’s a sight to behold. Some scale the steps, others do it twice (what a way to burn off all that cheese and wine!) and others enjoy a leisurely saunter down to the foot of them, where Lamego sparkling wine and delicious Bolas de Lamego rewards everyone’s efforts regardless.
Just the one wine tasting a day won’t possibly do, so it’s onto Quinta da Roeda for a port wine education in its old stable building. As you’d expect from one of the famous Port Croft estates, the vintages hit the spot and see a lengthy queue for souvenir bottles to be enjoyed at home.
The next day, Pinhão brings sweet ginjinha liquor and sugar-crusted almonds at the baking-hot hilltop town of Castelo Rodrigo. It’s our most leisurely days of the week and everyone laps up the opportunity to relax and soak up some of that Mediterranean sun back on board.
The Douro becomes impassable once you reach the Spanish border, but there’s time for a jaunt into Salamanca before doubling back along the river. ‘The Golden City’ is a sea of sandstone and an academic powerhouse with the fourth-oldest university in the world. There’s a youthful energy and regal history in a place where adventurers like Christopher Columbus and Hernán Cortés concocted grand plans to explore. In the studious surrounds of Salamanca University, you can be forgiven for thinking that the sound of footsteps on flagstones is you stepping into a Dan Brown novel.
Our final day is a favourite, starting with a pastéis de nata demo with sous chef Raúl in the lounge and rounding off with visits to two quintas, naturally. Quinta de Avessada sits pretty in the village of Favaios, where views from a wine-glass shaped infinity pool stretch for miles. Dinner is a Portuguese feast of local dishes, each served with a glass of its Muscatel produce and introduced with a story of how the estate at the heart of the region kept wine production alive during tough times. This, combined with our animated host and the poached pear with red wine, cinnamon and brown sugar dessert, saw it deemed by many as a standout experience of the trip.
Last, but not least, was Mateus Palace and Gardens, creator of the Mateus rosé that kept a generation refreshed from its flask-like bottle during the summers of the ‘70s and is experiencing a revival after a recipe tweak.
And then, after a slow and fond farewell to those vineyard-stacked valleys from the decks of the AmaDouro, it was back to Porto to end the trip with an afternoon and evening in the city where it started. Cork souvenirs were purchased, and one last glass of port was raised to new friends brought together by booze and leaving with plans and promises of winery visits and international catch-ups.
AmaDouro is resolutely local, with the crew, the food, even the furniture all hailing from Portugal. But while all of the above was fabulous, not to mention the ship itself, for all the food and wine that played a part in our week, the real star was the river. Meandering along in all its golden glory.