The Saga river cruise ship, Douro Spirit, has been sailing the famous Portuguese river for over a decade. Bringing guests closer to fascinating ports throughout the country – and even some in Spain – presents a relaxed way to experience the region.
Having recently returned from a week-long Douro river cruise, Bolsover Cruise Club customer Andy shares his day-by-day account of his time on board, and ashore.
Day 1 – Embarkation in Oporto
Our Saga Douro river cruise saw over 100 Douro Spirit guests successfully chauffeured to various airports across the country with their included door-to-door transfers. Everyone finally made it on board by around 10pm, ready to set sail the following morning.
Day 2 – Oporto to Régua to Pinhão
The Douro Spirit sailed while most of the passengers were still asleep, which meant that many missed the first lock. Breakfast started at a civilised hour, after which everyone was ready for the morning safety briefing and port talk. Straight after, there was a mass exodus to the Sun Deck to experience going up in the world – 35 metres to be exact – at Europe’s largest lock.
The rest of the day was busy; there was a talk about the Douro before its five dams were built, followed by lunch (either a light one or a larger meal in the restaurant), and then an excursion to the Mateus Palace, where we discovered that bottles of Mateus rose wine have an image of the residence on their bottles. Temperatures of 40°C meant visiting the splendid gardens took second place to seeking shade outside, although the Palace itself was nice and cool.
The evening presented more opportunities to meet other guests with a cocktail reception before dinner in the restaurant, and a Portuguese folk show. While some stayed to dance, quite a few decamped to pleasant evening temperatures on the Sun Deck before heading to bed.
Day 3 – Pinhão to Vega de Térron
The first lock of the day came at 7.30am, so even those engaged in the stretching exercises on the Sun Deck missed it. The rest of us had a couple of hours later to enjoy breakfast before watching Saga Douro Spirit negotiate the 22-metre Pocinho lock.
A very relaxing morning soaking up the sun and river views, although there was a talk on the history of Portugal for the adventurous.
After lunch, we moored at Vega de Terron, literally a few steps inside Spain. Coaches were on hand to take us on a 30-minute drive to the ancient village of Castelo Rodrigo. A short tour of the old ruins and a very small church was the prelude to a sit-down and drink at the cafe – a necessity as temperatures hit a considerable 43°C!
We made it back to the ship for 5.00pm, ready to change for an evening on board, which included the daily briefing. Although the dress code is casual, no shorts are allowed at dinner. The restaurant was offering Portuguese night, which included a rather unusual way of opening a bottle of vintage port, using something that appeared to have been left by the Spanish Inquisition.
The evening concluded with a West End-style performance on board, courtesy of Entertainment Manager, Richard.
Day 4 – Vega de Térron to Barca d’Alva
The main event of the day was the trip to Salamanca, so after an early breakfast, we boarded the coaches to the ‘Golden City’. The tour was optional and a small number of passengers decided to remain on the ship.
We pulled up outside a hotel that would provide our base for the day. We had two hours of free time to explore; a sensible move because shops would shut in the afternoon, and although Spain is one hour ahead of British Summer Time, we stuck to Portuguese time. Plaza Mayor was an easy 15 minutes away and surprisingly had cheap coffee shops, possibly because over a quarter of the population are students.
The hotel provided lunch, which included wine, port and coffee before half an hour of flamenco. We were then taken to meet our guides for an hour’s walking tour punctuated with stories of frogs and duelling students. At least the temperature was now ‘only’ a balmy 38°C!
Back at the ship the crew, captain included, carried out a deep clean before moving the ship back into Portugal, mooring at the small village of Barca d’Alva, populated by 150 residents with five restaurants.
The drive back, along the same road we travelled on the way, took us through many small villages. We arrived back early evening to find we were surrounded by five other ships. The rest of the evening fell into the usual routine of dinner followed by music.
Day 5 – Barca d’Alva to Cais Foz do Tavora to Pinhão
The day started with a nice relaxing morning, when we set off for a slow sail to our afternoon destination: Sandeman Vineyard. Temperatures now in the mid-30s meant relaxing on the Sun Deck was a more popular activity. Passing through the Pocinho and Valeira locks in the other direction was a more interesting experience as the views downstream had a panoramic aspect.
The ship docked in Pinhao later that afternoon, and everyone was straight onto the coaches for the 30-minute – at times hair-raising – drive, along narrow winding roads to the Sandeman Estate. A short tour, quick tasting session and we were off again on a 55-minute drive to the Avessada Wine State.
Avessada was the highlight of the day. Sat on top of the mountain at over 600 metres in a small village of Favaios, they produce muscatel as opposed to port. After being greeted with wine and bread, there was a short tour showing old-style approaches to wine-making with animations guaranteed to make Walt Disney envious. A four-course dinner with wine, grappa and coffee was enlivened with stories from the owner and a roving accordion player accompanied by a tambourine-bashing drummer; all great fun. We returned to the ship just after 10pm where there was a quiz for those not-too-tired to participate.
Day 6 – Pinhão to Regua, then on to Bitetos
The Douro Spirit set off early in the morning for the short stretch to Regua, where an excursion to Lamegobegan with a 25-minute drive to the Sanctuary (Santuário de Nossa Senhora dos Remedios) is renowned for having the only images of Christ being breastfed. After the short tour, there was a choice of walking down the 700 steps to the centre or taking the coach. The city centre itself had plenty to see as well as cafes to sit and people-watch in the hour of free time. We then returned to the Douro Spirit for lunch.
After lunch, the next part of the trip was the six-hour sailing to Bitetos, so we had to amuse ourselves with the sangria happy hour and farewell cocktail. A gala dinner offered a nice range of dishes, for once with no choices, at 7.00pm. This nicely rounded off the day although 60s music night attracted the hardier souls.
Day 7 – Bitetos to Gaia (Porto)
Our final day delivered a leisurely sail along the Douro, with more locks to enjoy before our final mooring, back where we started, at 11:00am. The first order of the day was a gentle stroll through the artisan market to the Calem port cellars, which was less rushed than the Sandeman tour and good use of visual aids enhanced the visit. There is more to port wine than Ruby and Tawny, the white version going down particularly well during the tasting. The shop saw a lot of activity.
The afternoon Porto city tour was mainly coach-based, although we did walk from the Cathedral down to the railway station to admire the hand-crafted tiles showing scenes from Portuguese history.
Arrival back at the ship at 5pm meant people had an hour or so to pack before the final cocktail session in the Lounge and dinner.
Would I Recommend a Douro Spirit River Cruise with Saga?
The Douro is quite different from many other rivers, for a start you travel both up and downstream, meeting very spectacular locks twice. If you like a tranquil cruise with pastoral views then it certainly fits the bill. The river is definitely one to have on your bucket list if you enjoy river cruising, just be prepared to be docked next to one or possibly two other ships in some of the ports.
You will certainly have a holiday to remember if you embark on a Douro Spirit river cruise with Saga … as well as learn a lot about port wine!
Interested in embarking on a Douro river cruise with Saga? View all the latest itineraries by clicking here.