Our seven-night, round-trip Portugal river cruise from Porto to Vega de Terron has little in common with the perilous journey made by passengers in the early 1700s, apart from all the wine on board. Back then the Douro River was essential for transporting people and wine, but navigating treacherous currents in the traditional wooden boats known as rabelos required great skill. With the construction of modern dams and locks, the Douro is now safe to navigate and a highly sought-after cruise destination.
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The luxurious Viking Helgrim carries just 106 guests and is a smaller version of Viking River Cruises' elegant Longships. I don't spend much time in my cabin due to the complimentary daily excursions but its contemporary design and Scandinavian decor provide a comfortable haven at the end of each day.
On board the Viking Helgrim
On board there is a bar, which doubles as a lecture lounge, and a dining room offering one set dinner seating each evening. There are no alternative dining venues, which is one of the few drawbacks of this smaller ship, but pastries and hot drinks are available 24/7 at a coffee station.
It feels like a house party with well-travelled friends and we are soon greeting each other by name, including the crew, who are charming and professional but also good fun. Almost everyone is a repeat passenger and by the end of the trip I can understand why.
On our first day in Porto, a complimentary tour showcases the city's major sights before we begin our journey down the Douro River. Portugal river cruises travel through the Unesco-listed Alto Douro Wine Region, the world's oldest appellation controlee (legally defined and protected area for grape growing), which is a picturesque drawcard for food and wine lovers.
The vines grow in crumbling schist rock rather than soil, and gleaming white quintas, or wine estates, dot the rugged hillsides. We take in the scenery from the cosy lecture lounge until Carrapatelo, the deepest lock in Europe, looms in the distance. Water pours into the lock and the concrete walls beside us start falling away as the ship is lifted 35m above the river's lower level and sails out the other side.
Although cruising through this picturesque rural landscape is stunning, it does come with a trade-off. Docking at remote villages means most of the major sights are between 45 minutes and two hours away by road. However, the coach is luxurious (and has Wi-Fi and a toilet), our guide is excellent and every bus trip offers plenty to see along the way. It's a small price to pay for the beauty of our surroundings.
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To complete our journey, we travel back along the Douro River and return to Porto in preparation to disembark. The haunting fado music we heard on our first night seeks to conjure an emotion the Portuguese describe as "saudade", meaning a profound nostalgia or melancholy. There is no English equivalent but I know exactly what the word means as I stroll down Viking Helgrim's gangway for the last time.
Prices for Viking River Cruises' all-inclusive nine-night Portugal's River of Gold cruise-tour start at $4795pp, twin share, and include a two-night five-star stay in Lisbon. Multiple departures are available weekly from March to November. See vikingrivercruises.com.au for more information.