Scenic Azure Portugal Cruise

Scenic Azure Portugal Cruise: At port in a picture-book city


Journalist Mark Chipperfield travelled to Portugal with Scenic and shared his experiences.
With a proud maritime history stretching back 600 years, Porto, Portugal’s picture book northern city, is the obvious launching pad for any shipboard adventure. My home for the next 11 days, the sleek 80 metre Scenic Azure, is moored at the city’s historic Cais da Estiva wharf.

A river cruise is the ideal way to explore the magnificent Douro Valley, a region which is rich in archaeological sites, baroque churches, monasteries, ancient forts and ravishing scenery but is also celebrated for its olives, beef cattle, wheat, almonds, kiwifruit, citrus and grapes.

Although the Douro is synonymous with port, the region also produces some magnificent table wines, including youthful vinho verde, quaffable rosé and its food-friendly reds made from indigenous grapes.

Despite the obvious pre-voyage preparations aboard the Scenic Azure, our 11 day Unforgettable Douro cruise begins with a full day of sightseeing in Porto itself – ample time to get over the long flight from Australia.

By the time Scenic Azure pulls away from its mooring in the late afternoon, I’m already comfortably ensconced in my suite – a balcony suite on the Diamond Deck – next to the reception area and the Panorama Lounge & Bar.

Having just spent two weeks in a cramped cabin of a sailing clipper, my balcony suite seems grand. Apart from the comfy queensize bed, the cabin has a well-stocked minibar (restocked daily), satellite TV, writing desk and a snazzy bathroom. With just 48 cabins and a crew of 36, personal attention is a hallmark of Scenic Azure.
There is a similar attention displayed in the ship’s formal dining room, Crystal Dining. Lunch and dinner menus feature classic European fare, such as fillet mignon, risotto and lamb wellington, and a good selection of Portuguese dishes, local cheeses and mouth-watering desserts. Buffet breakfasts are equally sumptuous.

Travelling at an average speed of just eight knots, there is ample time to drink in the sights and sounds of the Douro Valley. From Porto to Entre-os-Rios, our first destination, we pass ornate 19th century mansions, tumbledown stone farmhouses, gothic churches, modern glass and concrete villas and sandy beaches.

By day two, everyone has settled into the unhurried routine of the ship. Each evening, cruise director Raquel Miranda provides guests with a briefing on the following day’s shore excursions and updating guests on the on-board activities, including yoga and fitness classes, ship tours and Portuguese lessons. The ship is equipped with a huge sundeck, complete with plunge pool, a fitness centre, gift shop and covered panorama deck.

Modern air-conditioned coaches whisk us to ancient cities such as Guimarães, Lamego and Salamanca. Other options include a private tour of Mateus Palace, kayaking on the Sabor River or a guided walk through the historic Croft estate at Quinta da Roeda. There are unexpected delights too, such as the sleepy village of Ucanha where we explore its fortified medieval bridge and tower – one of the best preserved in Europe.

For many of my fellow guests, the ravishing Douro countryside with its dramatic vineyard terraces, dry craggy hills and bustling port towns will be the most memorable part of this 11 day cruise, but for me it will be the enthusiasm, good humour and genuine warmth of our Portuguese hosts, especially those on Scenic Azure, that will stay with me. As the Portuguese poet Fernando Pessoa famously said: “The Europeans are not truly European because they are not Portuguese.”

This article has been adapted from the Traveller liftout in the Sydney Morning Herald and The Age.
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