Trusted Traveller: A Royal River Cruise with Jeannine Williamson
I’m admiring the art deco sign of the Somerset Maugham Bar and glinting Lalique wall panels as the bartender sets down an equally sparkling glass of champagne. Behind me, similar period signage points downstairs to the cabins even though the numbers (41-44) don’t correlate with the 15 guest rooms on the Spirit of Chartwell.
He can see I’m looking puzzled and explains the beautiful fixtures and fittings originally came from the 1920s Côte d’Azur Pullman Express train. Despite the numerical mismatch, they were deemed a perfect fit for the stylish retro atmosphere surrounding me. He’s right; they are just a few of the unique features on this gorgeous ship that stands out from the crowd on Portugal’s Douro River.
I’m joined at the welcome cocktail party by fellow Titan travellers, several of whom tell me they primarily booked the holiday to be able to sail on this very special ship. For it was the Spirit of Chartwell that carried Her Majesty the Queen and the royal party along the Thames for the 2012 Diamond Jubilee celebrations.
Today it has a new lease of life on the Douro, a waterway that’s rather fittingly known as ‘The River of Gold’, sailing on seven-night round-trip cruises from Porto to the Spanish border (with the option to add on a couple of nights in the capital, Lisbon). Although the gilded exterior trappings have been removed to enable the ship to negotiate locks and moor up, the interior remains as it was following a £1 million refit in the run-up to the jubilee event. There’s gleaming wood, shiny brass and intricate inlaid flooring in the piano bar, lounge and dining salon on the main deck. The theme continues in the cosy cabins, each named after famous Royal Navy ships.
The voyage itself takes us on a fascinating journey from the fortified wine ‘capital’ of Porto along the once turbulent but now tranquil waterway that has been tamed by a series of locks, including the 115ft Carrapatelo, the deepest in Europe. It’s an awe-inspiring experience when we sail through it. Relaxing on the sun deck, we sail on through the lush green Douro valley flanked by vineyards and famous-name port houses.
Leisurely days are combined with excursions to the golden Spanish city of Salamanca; Mateus manor house, associated with the rosé wine that comes in idiosyncratic chubby bottles; and the 18th-century sanctuary of Nossa Senhora dos Remedios, with an incredible tiled staircase leading down to the town of Lamego. And, naturally, there are visits to port houses for tours and all-important tastings.
Back on board there are fun cookery classes on how to make specialities such as Portuguese egg tarts, and one day restaurant manager Ruben gave an intriguing demonstration on how to open a bottle of port without touching the cork (I won’t give too much away – you’ll have to see it for yourself!).
All in all, we were treated like royalty. It was a wonderful week on board a ship that’s every bit as special as the Douro River itself.
Discover more about our river cruises on Spirit of Chartwell.