Setting sail for Portugal's wine country on a scenic river cruise

Contributing Travel WriterMay 10, 2014 


    Porto, Portugal

    Getting there: TAP Airlines flies directly to Porto from Newark Liberty International Airport. If you have miles through the Star Alliance, try to upgrade — it's definitely worth it. Direct flights from Lexington to the New York area are to LaGuardia, and you'll have to shuttle between airports, so book accordingly. (The only other U.S. airport that has direct flights to Porto is Boston, which is served by SATA airlines.)

    Where to stay:

    ■ The Yeatman Hotel. This Relais & Châteaux property bills itself as a "wine hotel" and has established partnerships with many of the area wineries. Each of the 82 rooms (all with a view of the Douro River) is named after a winery; the restaurant has regular four-course wine dinners on Thursday nights. The wine list in the 24-hour Dick's Bar has 82 wines by the glass, and the Vinotherapie Spa by Caudalie has several wine-related treatments.

    ■ The Spirit of Chartwell. Originally designed to navigate the winding lochs of Scotland, the boat gained fame as the barge that carried Queen Elizabeth and members of the royal family down the Thames during her 2012 Diamond Jubilee. Shortly afterward, it was bought by Douro Azul founder Mário Ferreira and relocated to the Douro River. The boat has 14 luxury staterooms and one royal suite, spacious public areas and a teak observation deck. The price for the Spirit of Chartwell's summer cruises start at $1,400 to $3,200, depending on length of the trip; they include accommodations, meals, beverages, wine and spirits with meals, transfers, guided tours, off-ship dining and entertainment events, taxes and fees.

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The trip started off beautifully. After a relaxed day in Manhattan, I arrived at Newark Liberty International Airport to discover I had been upgraded to business class on TAP, the Portuguese national airline.

I had never flown TAP. I was impressed with the level of comfort, service and especially food for the overnight flight to Porto, Portugal's second-largest city (after Lisbon) and the center of its famed port industry.

I found my second pleasant surprise in the Yeatman Hotel, a member of the Relais & Châteaux group. Overlooking the Douro River, it was luxurious but not the least bit stuffy. Even though I arrived in the early morning, another surprise: My room was ready. After resting a few hours, it was time for a leisurely lunch in the hotel's Michelin-starred restaurant before touring Porto.

The city — with its distinctive orange-roofed buildings, ornate Baroque churches, and bell towers — spills down the hills on both sides of the Douro, giving it the look of a Renaissance painting. With only a day to spend here, I wanted to pack in as much as possible.

That meant heading to the Ribeira District, a UNESCO World Heritage Site built atop Roman ruins. I visited Sé do Porto cathedral; Livraria Lello & Irmão bookshop with its magnificent stained-glass ceiling; and São Bento train station, whose walls are adorned with hand-painted tiles. I ended up at Gaia Quay on the opposite side of the river from the Ribeira District. Here, some 60 former port warehouses have been converted to caves, where the town's namesake fortified wine may be sampled.

I've always loved tawny and ruby ports, but my tour of Cálem Wine Cellars gave me my first taste of white port. When I asked why I had never heard of white port, my guide told me it was produced in such small quantities that it was all consumed by the Portuguese. Note to self: Drink as much white port as possible before heading home.

Fit for royalty

I would have been sadder at the prospect of leaving Porto after one day if the next part of my adventure wasn't going to be a four-day cruise up the Douro River on the Spirit of Chartwell. Those who watched the televised coverage of Queen Elizabeth's Diamond Jubilee in 2012 might remember the Spirit of Chartwell as the boat on which she and Prince Philip journeyed down the Thames.

After the Jubilee, it was bought by Portuguese entrepreneur Mário Ferreira and moved to Portugal as the crown jewel of his Douro Azul fleet of riverboats. With accommodations for only 30 passengers, the Spirit of Chartwell is indeed fit for royalty. (If you haven't booked it, and no one else has either, be sure to ask the staff to show you the suite where the queen slept.)

As I settled down for my first lunch with my fellow passengers, I thought to myself: This trip can't possibly get any better.

This might be an appropriate time to interject that while I was laughing and enjoying good Portuguese wine with my newfound friends, the fates were plotting against us. The original itinerary called for three days of sailing on the Portuguese side of the Douro, which for part of its path separates Portugal and Spain, with one day for a trip across the border to Salamanca, the famous Spanish university town.

Alas, it was not to be, thanks to an especially rainy spring. To keep the rain in Spain from accumulating on the plain (sorry), water had to be released from dams on the Spanish side and allowed to empty into the Atlantic Ocean on the Portuguese side.

That saved Spanish farmland from flooding but caused currents on the Douro that were dangerous to navigate for a boat like ours with a single engine. We were able to sail only half as far as the itinerary called for.

Undaunted, the Spirit of Chartwell staff was determined that we should see as much as possible, and the Douro Valley, the world's oldest documented wine-producing region, has a lot to see.

Touring on land

While we were able to marvel at the Carrapatelo Dam, one of Europe's largest, from the boat, we had to take land transportation to other points of interest.

No matter. It gave us a chance to see some of the most exquisite scenery on the Iberian Peninsula: lush vineyards on steep terraced hills ending at the water's edge, castles and monasteries crowning distant peaks, and villas surrounded by orange and lemon groves.

We visited the tiny town of Lamego, conquered by the Romans and Moors and home to Portugal's second-largest shrine (after Fatima), honoring Our Lady of Remedies.

Lamego also is credited with being the place where the port wine industry started, so it seemed only fitting to quench our thirst with a tasting at picturesque Quinta do Seixo vineyards.

We enjoyed lunch one afternoon at Quinta da Avessada, a working wine estate where six generations of the same family have produced their signature muscatel. Another time, we dined in the 11th- century kitchen of the former Convento de Alpendurada monastery, now a boutique hotel in a verdant forest.

We also visited the picturesque Casa de Mateus. If the 18th-century baroque palace looks familiar, it's because it's depicted on the famous Mateus rosé wine bottle. A tour of the palace, followed by a leisurely stroll of the gorgeous gardens is enjoyable, but the real fun is the drive to get there, around dizzying hairpin turns with panoramic vistas.

Every evening we would return to the boat, and our band of travelers — eight Americans, six Portuguese and three Brazilians — would congregate in the lounge over a glass of — what else? — port.

All too soon, it was over, and we were back in Porto. As the orange roofs of the buildings and the iron bridge designed by Gustave Eiffel, who designed the Eiffel Tower in Paris, came into view, I reflected on the beauty, graciousness, elegance and majesty I had experienced.

In all respects, it was a journey fit for a queen.

Patti Nickell is a Lexington-based travel writer. Reach her at

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