It’s 7.30pm, the temperature is still a heady 30 degrees and we are soaking up the last rays of sunshine on the observation deck, sipping predinner cocktails. Chilled port as an aperitif is new to me, but I have no complaints and sipping a sundowner from the comfort of a teak steamer chair is certainly the perfect way to savour this stately, four-night cruise. Our vessel, the Spirit of Chartwell, has a unique heritage. Having started life in 1997 as the Vincent Van Gogh, on the Rhine, it was then refitted in 2009 as a deluxe Thames cruiser. But its crowning glory came in June 2012, when it served as the Queen’s royal barge in the Thames Diamond Jubilee Pageant. Gleaming from a six-month, million-pound makeover, it was garlanded with fresh flowers to carry the royal party, forming the centrepiece in a spectacular seven-mile flotilla of more than a thousand vessels.
Now in its third incarnation, this 64-foot river ship is sailing under a Portuguese flag, transporting all nationalities on luxury cruises along the Rio Douro, the “River of Gold” which dominates northern Portugal. The ship’s exterior may appear less regal, but very little has changed inside. The distinguished cream and chocolate livery is reminiscent of the 1929 Pullman railway carriage it was modelled on; a baby grand piano graces the cocktail bar and original Lalique glass panels glow under a kaleidoscope of twinkling lights in the dining salon. Beneath a portrait of Her Majesty, a pair of Harrods red velvet “throne” chairs are a recent addition, providing a novel photo opportunity. A total of 30 passengers can travel in style in the 15 mahogany furnished staterooms; though not large, they are well designed and inventive with their use of space. The VIP Home Departure Service provided by Titan ensures a comfortable, relaxing journey both to and from the airport, and the welcome on board is no less warm/ The small crew, led by the multi-tasking cruise director, Manuel Alves, are always on hand and Helen de Cruz, the Titan tour manager, could not have been more accomodating.
Port is of course the country’s most celebrated beverage. As the ship set sail through the lush Douro Valley, we saw row upon row of neatly manicured vines, clinging to the terraced hillsides that cascade down to the river. The epicentre of port wine production is Pinhao, which we reached on our second day, and from here we visited a local vineyard for dinner. The region also produces many notable red wines and the Quinta da Avessada didn’t stint on serving a selection of its finest; with a lofty location, an interactive wine museum and state-of-the-art scarecrows to protect the vines.
Our cruise included several excursions, but the most memorable for me was a trip to Castelo Rodrigo, a 12th century walled village with cobbled alleyways, a distinctive church and a tiny shop selling a selection of home-made delicacies – everything from rosemary-infused honey to roasted almonds coated in green tea.
Another highlight was a journey to the Baroque town of Lamego, where the Sanctuary of Nossa Senhora dos Remedios is the main visitor attraction. Commanding dramatic views over the town, the shrine that sits at the top of a huge, ornate flight of steps, decorated with blue tiles. Every September pilgrims climb all 686 of them on their knees – we took the easy option and walked down which, given the midday heat, felt like ample exercise for the day.
Ample could also describe the food on board – head waiter Lazzaro on a personal mission to plump up his passengers (in my case he succeeded). Care was taken to provide authentic local dishes, particularly at the special barbecue on deck. The restaurant has panoramic windows to marvel at the glorious scenery floating by, but with temperatures still around 30 degrees in the early evening, dining out on the sun deck was a refreshing alternative.
Titan cleverly combine their Douro river cruise with a three-night stay in a historic pousada. These luxury hotels, dotted all over Portugal, are similar to Spanish paradores. Often located in castles, convents or palaces, many pousadas are architecturally magnificent, while others may offer more rustic charm.
Our Chartwell “house party” (because by now that’s what it felt like) stayed in the Pousada de Amares, originally a 12th century Cistercian monastery, a couple of hours drive from Porto.
The centuries of meditation and peaceful prayer have left their imprint – I have rarely been anywhere quite so serene, spacious and elegant. Rooms, public areas and even corridors were all breathtaking; award-winning Portuguese architect Souto de Moura has created ultra-modern comfort without losing any of the monastery’s unique character.
Days are spent relaxing by the big, circular pool in the gardens, with buffet-style meals served in the convent’s kitchen restaurant. The local wine is the popular, gently sparkling Vinho Verde, produced in the vineyards of this Minho region.
Excursions from here included a trip to Braga, the religious capital of Portugal and then on to the nearby 18th century neoclassical church of Bom Jesus do Monte. An optional tour to the Peneda Gerês National Park was offered on our last day, but we all preferred to savour the peace of the pousada.
The tranquillity was only broken by a nightly frogs’ chorus – after-dinner entertainment that, like the rest of this enchanting trip, will linger on as a fond memory for years to come.
This article was originally published in Cruise International Magazine on 01.12.2013 – please note our current ‘Celebration of Lisbon and the Douro’ itinerary aboard the Spirit of Chartwell varies slightly to Julie’s itinerary, please refer to our website for full details.