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Duoro River Cruise - Portugal |Travel Guide

Updated: Oct 23, 2023

We'd always wanted to visit the Duoro Valley, but we didn't want to rent a car, so we opted for an 8 day river cruise with Emerald Cruises, Secrets of the Duoro. Emerald Cruises is owned by Scenic, an Australian Company, however the entire crew were Portuguese which was a definite plus, and our ship, the Emerald Radiance, only takes 110 passengers which never seemed too many.


Day 1 - Porto


We were already in Porto staying at 1872 River House where we'd stayed a number of times before. It turned out that it was right next to the jetty where Emerald Radiance docks, and we’d seen the ship arrive back in Porto the day before. On the morning of our embarkation we left our bags at our hotel and went down to the boat to see what time check in was. We were told quite curtly by a uniformed staff member that it was 3 o’clock. No other information was forthcoming. This puzzled us as there were quite a number of passengers on board at the time. (We found out later these were departing passengers with a late flight out). So off we went for a tram ride and lunch at a local cafe, and supermarket shopping to kill time until check in. We'd opted not to pay extra for a drinks package (€9.90~€27p/p, p/day), so we took quite a bit of BYO alcohol on board which is allowed as it’s similar to staying in a hotel. I'll explain a bit more about the Emerald Cruises free drinks later.


Promptly at 3pm we boarded the ship and were welcomed on board and checked in. The team kept our passports the first night for some reason but apparently this is a standard procedure. We were issued our little QR coded ID lanyard to use when leaving and boarding the ship at each port. If they have your full name on the tag, and you’d prefer a nickname like I do, you can ask them to make up another badge for you. Our bags were taken by the porters and another team member showed us to our cabin and explained things. Within 5 minutes our bags were delivered to us.


The cabin had a closet with 28 hangers, and two really large drawers. All of our large suitcases full of clothes and shoes fit in comfortably. The suitcases slipped easily under the bed, which is also where our life-jackets were. There is a stocked minibar fridge (pay as you go) which we emptied and used for our BYO drinks, and a safe for valuables which fit our iPads and would perhaps fit a small laptop. There was a flat screen TV with the usually CNN, Sky News, sports and other channels. Free WiFi, which they’d said could be spotty, worked perfectly for our entire cruise. And the room. had loads of power outlets as well as one which fit Aussie plugs.


The bathroom was state of the art with lots of shelves, some of which we didn’t use. The shower stall had a retractable washing line, but we found that things didn’t dry nearly as quickly as in hotel rooms. We’d read the welcome booklet which said that we couldn’t use a travel iron for safety reasons so we’d budgeted for a bit of ironing. Shirts were €4.60 each which was a bit steep with the AUD exchange rate but we had to accept this.

We had a Emerald Panorama Balcony Suite on the middle floor (Horizon Deck). It had a seating area with a large window that could be lowered to create a balcony effect. It was on the same floor as the restaurant which was handy because most of the passengers made a run for it at meal times to secure their preferred seats, as it is free seating.


That evening was a general briefing in the lounge with a safety talk and overview of the itinerary, then dinner in the restaurant. Dinner is 7pm each evening, lunch at 12:30pm and breakfast 7:30am. Breakfast and lunch are a buffet, and dinner is a la carte. Beer wine and soft-drinks are included at lunch and dinner and the staff are incredibly generous in their pours. Any drinks outside meal times are at your own expense or part of a drinks package if you've elected to pay for one. Drinks prices are no different to a hotel or a bar, and we really didn't spend much other than for a drink each evening during the daily briefing before dinner.

We went to bed early that evening as we were determined to get up early to see the ship leave Porto at 6:30am the next day. The cabins have an electric roller blind which provides full darkness, and a little under cabinet light in the bathroom which makes thing easy if you need to go during the night. The pillows are super soft so if you’re like me and prefer a hard pillow you’re out of luck. I asked for a firmer pillow but they didn’t have any. Regardless, we slept really well.


Day 2 - Porto to Pinhao


Our alarm went off at 6am and we rushed up to the top deck to watch the ship depart the dock. By the time we got up there we were well underway. We had hoped for the sun to be rising over the Ponte Infante Dom Henrique bridge, but it wasn’t quite there as we passed under. It was still worth getting up to see a still sleeping town slip quietly by, and local fishermen go about their daily catch.



Today was a full day of sailing along the Douro river through the UNESCO World Heritage listed Douro Valley.


The big highlight of the day were the locks which the ship has to traverse, to cruise up the river passing through 5 dams along the way. It’s a fascinating mechanical feat, as the cruise ship squeezes into the lock with not much room to spare on either side or at the front and back. Once inside the back gate closes and water is let in and the ship rises up at a pretty quick speed. Then the front gate is lowered and the ship sails into the upper dammed river. We made sure we were up on the top deck for each of the first day’s locks, and it was exciting when for one lock all the shade sails and the captains wheelhouse was lowered and we were told to remain seated because the clearance under the dam overpass was so low.

There were a number of activities scheduled throughout the day, a cooking demonstration of the Portuguese tarts, a poetry competition, and Portuguese tile painting. The activities are scheduled so you can attend all of them, or just some of your choice. We chose the tile painting, and quickly discovered that neither of us are artistically blessed. 😂 It’s way harder than it looks. You are given a stencil which you rub onto the tile, then blue paint to copy the stencil and add colour, shading, accents etc. I managed to smudge half of my stenciled picture across the tile and lost half of my sardines. 🐟

The day had started out a bit cloudy but it fined up in the afternoon so we got in the pool to cool down, but wow!! The pool water is almost heated, and for Aussies I think we’d have preferred it to be a bit colder. It was like sitting in a warm bath in the sun. But we enjoyed it and used the pool more than once during the cruise.


On arrival in Pinhao, there was an escorted walk around the gorgeous riverside village, but it was such a small town (pop. 600) you could go off on your own without a worry. Unfortunately as it was Sunday everything except the river cruise boat offices were closed, but we got to have a look at the train station which is considered the most beautiful in Portugal with 24 gorgeous panels of tile artwork depicting the way of life in the Douro Valley.

In the evening there was a welcome reception (complimentary drinks) at 6:30pm followed by a Captain’s dinner where most passengers dressed a little more formally than they did for most dinners. In the welcome pack it had said that shorts were not appropriate for the restaurant, however many of the passengers were constantly in shorts and the crew didn’t mind. This was a little frustrating for us, as hubby had deliberately brought trousers and button down shirts for dinners, adding to our luggage, and he didn’t really need them.


Day 3 - Pinhao to Vega de Terron


Up with the birds for 7:30 breakfast and an 8:30 departure to visit the Quinta Do Tedo port wine estate. To be honest we’ve been on so many winery tours, and undertaken so many wine tastings we didn’t need to go but there was nothing else scheduled so off we went. There was a 45 min guided tour of the facility where they still to this day stomp all the grapes by foot to produce their 60,000 bottles of port each year. Then came port tasting of 2 varieties with some tiny ham and cheese sandwich bites. We don’t like port so we won’t comment on the quality. But we did try their red wine varieties afterwards, and they were excellent, especially the one made of all old grape vines. But at €32 a bottle, again with our exchange rate, we couldn’t justify a purchase.

The cruise ship departed Pinhao at 11:30am and after traversing the first lock up onto the first dam, the scenery changed dramatically. The river narrowed and the cliff faces which up until this point had been vines or olive trees, were now sheer rock faces of varying shades of grey and green moss. Quite spectacular!


The afternoons activities were a Portuguese language lesson, a cornhole competition (Google it, we had to) and walking the walking track around the upper deck. We did some walking, quite frankly to walk off all the excess food we’d been consuming, and went up deck to watch us pass through the last lock our ship cruises through on this trip.

On the way back to our cabin I realised that there was a full afternoon tea daily at 4pm. There were sandwiches, cakes, flan, mouse, and a whole buffet of tea time treats. Some of the passengers had a whole array of treats set up at their table with a tea set and the whole shebang!! I’m sure some of them just come on cruises for the free and constant supply of food. 😂 🍰


We arrived at Vega de Terron at 5:45pm and docked for the night. The daily briefing was at 6:45pm followed by the 7pm dinner. There was a movie night starting from 9:30pm on the outside upper deck, but we go to bed early to get up early, so we retired to our cabin for a BYO a nightcap.


Day 4 - Vega de Terron


We woke to a cloudy sky, which turned to a light drizzle, then full rain by breakfast time. Today was the included trip to Salamanca across the border into Spain. We were told it was a 1 hour and 45 minute trip each way from Vega de Terron, departing at 8:30 in the morning and returning at 6 pm in the evening. We’d been to Salamanca before so we opted for the optional tour (€39p/p) to The Village of Castelo Rodrigo. It was a steep and windy 45 minute drive to the tiny hilltop village where we were met by a local handing out sweetened almonds, and then our activity director took us on a guided walking tour of the town.

Part way through the tour it started to rain a little, and then five minutes further along it really started to pour down. A lot of our group were not prepared for rain and were getting quite wet and it was getting quite slippery underfoot on the cobblestones. So we opted to go straight to the almond tasting part of the itinerary. Here we were given an array of different flavoured almonds to try including sweetened, spicy, coffee flavoured, salted, smoked and a number of others. We could also try local liqueurs, ports, and white and red wines. We opted to buy a bottle of the local red wine, which was delicious, and at €8.90, 1/3 of the price of the one that we’d liked the day before at the port winery.


There was half an hour or so of free time in the village and we paid the €1 fee to visit the inside of the castle ruins. Built in 1188, it’s now mainly a few outer walls but interesting nonetheless and worth the admission. The stunning 360° views of the surrounding valleys alone are worth the visit.


We were back on board at 1 pm, for what was termed a light lunch, which included soup, salads, breads, and an extremely delicious seafood paella.

Then there was free time in the afternoon until the main group returned to the ship at 6pm. Some of our group opted to go walking on shore, but there really wasn’t much around, so we went up onto the top deck and did a few walking laps in the name of fitness, and spent some time in the very warm swimming pool.


We sailed to Pocinho during dinner this evening and docked at 8pm. There was an onboard disco night which we very sensibly opted out of, again retiring to our cabin at 9pm.


Day 5 - Pocinho


Today was a visit to the Coa Valley Museum. The UNESCO World Heritage Listed prehistoric rock-art site of the Côa Valley is an open-air Paleolithic archaeological site located in northeastern Portugal, near the border with Spain. In the early 1990s thousands of rock engravings were discovered in Vila Nova de Foz Côa during the construction of a dam in the Côa River valley, documenting continuous human occupation from the end of the Paleolithic Age. (https://whc.unesco.org/en/list/866/, and Wikipedia).


We’d booked to go on the 4WD tour (€39p/p) to see actual rock engravings in-situ, however the tour required a minimum of 8 participants and it only drew five. I was devastated as I figured we’d never be back here again and that it was important to see the actual rock art and not replicas in the museum. 😢

The museum was interesting nonetheless. The building itself is an architectural feat, built on a hilltop overlooking the Coa Valley. The displays are state of the art and the guided talk provided plenty of information on the 40,000 year old art works and the inhabitants of the region at the time.


We were back on board for an upper deck BBQ lunch, with sangria and sardines. Spoiler alert!! The crew sang us a traditional Portuguese song after lunch as a surprise. 🇵🇹 It was quite something. 💕

Mid afternoon there was a port wine cocktail lesson, and everyone that participated got to make their own cocktail, and of course drink it. 🍹 Not being a fan of port, I found that mixing it with other ingredients to disguise the sweet tart flavour was a great way to drink it.


The afternoons cruising saw us traverse down two locks we’d come up in previous days as we made our way to Folgosa. It was raining quite heavily but this only added to the excitement of the ship descending the lock as the water was let out and we sank to the level of the lower river.

Tonight was dinner at a rural winery - Quinta da Pacheca. It's a nice large winery set up to cater for events, weddings and large groups. There was another large group there as well as ours, so there would have been 200 people at least there that evening. Not overly interesting. Service excellent and food OK. Entertainment was an electric piano and a violinist playing contemporary songs we know. We felt that it would have been better if it had been classical music. It was a long and not overly interesting night, and to be honest we’d heave preferred to eat on board, but they were probably trying to make it seem like it was a highlight of the itinerary as well as break up the trip back to Porto.


There was a karaoke event on the upper deck on our return to the ship. As usual we passed on this and went to bed early. By all accounts those that went along had a cracking time.


Day 6 - Regua


Today there was an included tour to the Shrine of Our Lady of Remedies, one of the main pilgrimage churches in Portugal with a long staircase climbing to the top of the hill where the Sanctuary is. We opted for the optional tour to Mateus Palace in Vila Real (€39p/p), a 20 minute drive from where we were docked. The property has a manor house, a winery and a chapel all surrounded by gorgeous gardens. There was a short guided tour of the manor house which the family still resides in, then free time in the extensive grounds. The garden's floral scent filled the air, and it really was a photographers dream.

The Vila Real region is renowned for its cherry production. Unfortunately the cherries had all been picked off the trees at the manor. A pity, as we could have eaten them straight off the trees if we’d been there a few weeks earlier our guide said.


That evening there was another cocktail function for half an hour before dinner (complimentary drinks)and the farewell gala dinner. People dressed up a bit more than usual but it was basically another al a carte dinner. Excellent of course.


Day 7 - Porto


Today there was a choice of a 2 hour bus tour of a Porto or a 2 hour walking tour. There had been a cycling tour advertised which we had been considering, however due to a festival that evening, the roads were closed and this tour was cancelled. We’d been in Porto for 4 days before the cruise so opted to go our own way and booked a tour of the Porto Sardine Factory. 🐟 This was a visit to a working factory where we got to see the various stages of production, culminating in a tasting and then wrapping your own personalised tin of sardines. It was one of our favourite experiences during this trip to Porto!

Conservas Pinhais, one of the oldest working sardine canneries in the world, was founded in 1920 and they still process and pack all their sardines by hand today. The building is still the original from 1920, and they’ve invested a lot in keeping most of the original fixtures to show visitors. They show two short films (one is a tear jerker 😢) and then take you onto the factory floor where you’ll see over 100 ladies and 10 men at work processing sardines by hand. The workers seemed genuinely happy to welcome visitors and smiled and waved as we passed by. After the tour where we really learned a lot about how sardines leave the sea and end up in cans, we got to try our hand at wrapping a tin of our own. You can opt in to this when you book as we did, or purchase the can you wrapped at the extensive gift shop on the way out. We then got to taste the spicy sardines at the end of the tour. They were honestly delicious. 😋 💕


We loved our visit to the factory and have recommended this to the cruise company as a possible extra shore excursion for future groups. (TIP they only take 15 people at a time and English tours are offered at 10:30am, 1pm or 3pm). We took the Metro from Sao Bento, changed lines at Trindade to the blue A line and got off at Camara de Matosinjos. It was then one block down and one block over (5 mins) walk to the factory.


We had a 6pm sunset cruise up the river before dinner. This was probably for the 90 or so passengers who didn’t wake up to watch the sunrise as we left Porto on the first morning.

That evening (23rd June) was the annual Festa de Sao Joao do Porto Festival. The streets are closed off and decorated with multi-coloured ribbons, and families and neighbours get together to celebrate St John the Baptist. People grill thousands of sardines, play loud music, hammer each other on the head with squeaky hammers, blow whistles, set off fireworks, and fly paper balloons with candles in them.


After dinner the festivities really took off. People flooded into the city, music started pumping and the air with smoke from sardine grills. We watched as the sun set over the river and the city went dark and the sky was filled with hundreds of paper balloons lit up inside, floating upwards taking people’s wishes with them. It was quite the sight. It was pretty noisy until the midnight fireworks, and it is tradition that people party until morning and then walk along the river to the west coast to watch the sunrise.


Day 8 - Porto departure


Emerald Cruises includes airport transfers to and from the ship as part of the package. We'd been told our departure time the day before, so we had an early breakfast and were ready for our transfer at 8am. Unfortunately for the poor frantic cruise director and the passengers who had been scheduled to leave on the transfer before ours, the roads had not been reopened to traffic at the time they'd originally been told, and their bus was having difficulties getting to the dock. After 15 minutes or so their bus arrived and they were able to leave, and we then took our bus to the airport.


Tips

  • If you’re not set on going to the various sites on the included shore excursions, pay a little extra to go on the optional tours. There are much fewer participants on these.

  • Get to the restaurant exactly as it opens for meals if you want a specific seat. It’s free seating and it’s a bit of a rush.

  • They were always replenishing the breakfast and lunch buffets so there is no need to be first there if you don’t mind where you sit.

PRO’s

  • You are allocated your cabin number when you book so you can check where it is on the floor plan before you check in.

  • The cabin was well lit, well laid out, had plenty of storage space, and a very modern bathroom and great hot water pressure. It was great to unpack for 7 nights and not live out of a suitcase.

  • The room had a large wide screen TV with cable channels, CNN and Sky News worked best, and this was used to view the itinerary with exact times of the day’s activities.

  • The onboard team were faultless. They went out of their way to ensure that nothing was too much trouble.

  • Housekeeping standards were 5 star. They made up the rooms after breakfast, and did a turn down service while we were at dinner. We always had fresh towels, and a little chocolate on the pillow each evening.

  • The F&B team were always smiling, always replenishing drinks, and quick to remove plates once we’d finished.

  • The activities team were vibrant, charming and loads of fun. There were activities on the sun deck during the day, and on most evenings after dinner.


CON’s (note that none of these detracted from our experience)

  • We were the youngest couple on the ship by at least a decade or more. We are in our late 50’s and didn’t have much in common with retirees (but we did meet some lovely couples).

  • With around 100 people, some quite mobility challenged, it took a long time to disembark the ship, and board and alight from buses for the various shore excursions.

  • The deck chairs on our ship were incredibly uncomfortable. These are the upright directors chairs.

  • The number of sun lounges was limited, and they tended to get snapped up early, mostly by passengers sleeping in them for hours at a time.

  • The temperature of the pool water was luke warm, which wasn’t refreshing on a hot day.

Conclusion


Would we river cruise again? I would, my husband is still undecided. I liked the slow pace of the days, the great views, the fact that there were shore excursions included in the mornings, and free time to relax most afternoons. We enjoyed the dining experience, the food was excellent, but we don’t usually have three course meals for lunch or dinner and found that we only partook in all the courses each time due to a sense of “getting our moneys worth". By day 7 we were both seriously bloated. And don’t get me started on the alcohol consumption. We drank way more than we normally would, again because beer, wine and soft drink is included with lunch and dinner. And we also now know that seniors can really put it away. They drank us under the table!! 😂 The crew were fantastic and the ship was modern, clean and comfortable. ⛴️. Thank you Emerald Cruises for an unforgettable trip.

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