Luxury Douro river cruises and Sidecar Tours in Porto – what a great combination!
A few months ago, João (John) our main guide, had the pleasure of exploring Porto in a Morning Tour with some very friendly guests.
It was a beautiful Saturday morning and the only unusual thing was the starting point. Not a hotel like normal but one of the river cruise ships that slowly explore the Douro river all the way up to Spain.
The ship itself was beautiful and with lots of history, being the ship that Queen Elizabeth used in 2012 to sail in the Thames on Her Diamond Jubilee celebration.
It seems fitting that an historical ship, like the Spirit of Chartwell, sail from a city so rich in history like Porto and on a river so beautiful like Douro.
To our surprise, a few months later Jeannine, our lovely guest of that morning, send us a copy of her article for ETC magazine about her experience, that we would like to share with you.
Jeannine’s article – Regal cruise on the River of Gold
“As our vessel slowly ascends the cavernous lock at the Carrapatelo Dam it is an unexpected highlight – or to be strictly correct low point – on our voyage along Portugal’s Douro River.
The dramatic landscape of lush forests, olive groves and steep terraced vineyards that produce the country’s famous forti ed tipple is replaced by the impressive man-made view of the immense 115ft walls of Europe’s deepest lock.
Half an hour later Spirit of Chartwell sails beneath the guillotine gate at the opposite end and re-emerges into the sunshine.
Thanks to five dams built between 1964 and 1971, including the Carrapatelo, visitors can now enjoy tranquil sailings along the Douro, and savour the region’s Port and lesser-known wine along the way without spilling a drop.
This wasn’t the case when the river was a turbulent, dangerous waterway that caused many traditional wooden Rabelo boats to founder as they transported barrels of port downstream to the warehouses of Porto.
Whilst numerous river cruise ships now ply the river, following near-identical seven- night itineraries from Porto to the Spanish border and back, there are none like the Spirit of Chartwell. This one-of-a-kind craft, carrying just 30 passengers, is the smallest hotel boat on the Douro which was dubbed the ‘river of gold’ by the Romans.
The idiosyncratic cream and chocolate livery, a nod to stylish Pullman railway carriages in the 1920s, is the rst clue that this ship is unusual. Inside a plush throne- like crimson chair decorated with a golden crown dominates the elegant reception area and the walls are adorned with photos of the Queen and members of the royal family. And here’s the reason why.
In 2012 the Spirit of Chartwell was the Queen’s royal barge, leading a flotilla of vessels down the Thames for her Diamond Jubilee pageant.
The gilded exterior trappings have long been removed, but inside the vessel remains virtually identical to the day it carried the Queen, Duke of Edinburgh and guests following a six-month relift costing one million pounds.
Flanking the reception area is stylish cocktail bar complete with a grand piano played each day by the resident musician, a comfortable lounge and dining salon.
Gleaming wood and brass contrast with delicately coloured Lalique glass panels that once graced the 1920s Côte d’Azur train that ran from Paris. Wonderful retro Art Deco carriage signage from the express has also found a new lease of life on the Spirit of Chartwell.
Lavish wood-panelled cabins complete the luxurious surroundings. Aside from the one grand suite, the 14 cabins are compact but, rather like Dr Who’s Tardis, are very well designed to make the most of the space, in particular the surprisingly spacious bathroom.
Now chartered by Titan Travel, the ship remained a talking point throughout the entire voyage, with some passengers saying their main reason for coming was to sail on the ship and the itinerary was almost secondary.
That said, nobody was disappointed with the cruise. Each day brings an excursion, all included in the fare, and there’s time to explore independently if you want. Having visited Porto in the past, we skipped the tour to head off on a novel sightseeing trip with a difference.
João and his Porto Sidecar Tours
Motorcycle enthusiast João runs Porto Sidecar Tours on his head-turning Russian Ural bike and met us at the ship to take us around some of the main highlights in Portugal’s second city as well as quaint narrow streets that most tourists never reach.
Equipped with helmets and Wallace and Gromit-style goggles, you can choose to ride in the sidecar or pillion. Along the way, passers-by took almost as many photos of us as we did of the passing sights. We stopped at panoramic viewpoints over the city divided in half by the Douro and were astounded by the long queue to go inside Lello bookstore where the ornate staircase provided J.K. Rowling with the inspiration for the stairs at Hogwarts when she worked in Porto as an English teacher.
Three hours later João dropped us back in Cais de Gaia, the attractive waterfront where 18th century warehouses are inscribed with familiar names such as Taylor, Cockburn, Graham and Sandeman.
Back to the Spirit of Chartwell
The following days were interspersed with scenic cruising and mooring at various points of call such as Regua, once the ‘capital’ of the port producing region and a trading post where rabelos arrived and departed transporting wine on the once perilous journey to Porto. We quickly learned that in Portugal port is not just for Christmas or solely perceived as an after-dinner drink. Before long we were enjoying it as an aperitif and in cocktails.
Coaches are laid on for shore tours and one day we drive to the small town of Vila Real, nested amongst vineyards, to visit the baroque Mateus palace set in lovely gardens and famously depicted on labels on the distinctive curvy bottles of the namesake rosé wine.
Another day brings a port and almond tasting and a memorable private dinner in an exquisite room at Quinta da Pacheca, one of the area’s leading wine estates. A full day trip took us to the honey-coloured ‘golden city’ of Salamanca, Spain’s oldest university town that’s lled with quirky elements.
Walking through the grand main square we stopped by the 15th century Casa de las Conchos with a facade decorated with more than 300 shells. At the cathedral and university we gazed at the ornate doorways trying to spot an astronaut, monkey eating an ice cream and tiny frog – the latter said to bring students good luck in exams – concealed in the stonework.
Back on board we relaxed over leisurely meals; buffet breakfast and four-course served lunch and dinner often featuring regional specialities. Free- owing wine, all of it Portuguese and excellent, enhanced the already convivial atmosphere that was akin to an intimate floating house party and friendships were forged.
We were sad to raise a final toast – port of course – on a voyage that was t for a queen, in every sense.
Titan Travel offers a seven-night Douro cruise on the Spirit of Chartwell and a nine- night holiday combining the sailing with a two-night hotel stay in Lisbon.
Prices for 2020
start from £3,099, including all meals, wine with lunch and dinner, excursions, TAP Portugal flights from Gatwick and Titan’s VIP return home to airport transfers.
For further details and departures dates call 0800 988 5823 or visit www.titantravel. co.uk “
Thank you Jeannine for a lovely Morning Tour in Porto and for a beautiful account of what it is like to cruise up the beautiful Douro.
Click here if you would like to know more about our Tours and how João can show you a different perspective of Porto.