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As the midday sun glistened on the water rippling past Spirit of Chartwell’s bow the barman busied himself pouring out glasses of port. Possibly like many Brits, until now the only time I’d ever sipped the country’s famous fortified wine had been during the festive season and always after dinner; never in the early summer and pre-lunch. But I quickly learned that when in Portugal do as the Portuguese do.The first taste of the crisp, chilled white port was completely different from the heavy ruby drink of Christmases past and heralded the beginning of a modern-day voyage of discovery along the River Douro. Along with sampling the country’s lesser-known (and equally delicious) wines, the gastronomic element of our journey was the perfect accompaniment to the sights along the way.
We later learned that two young shippers from Liverpool added grape brandy to some unremarkable Portuguese table wine in 1678 to stabilise it on its shipment to England. The end result tasted surprisingly good, and paved the way for today’s port. With its British roots it seemed ironic that it is a misunderstood and often maligned tipple, and subsequent tastings during our cruise revealed a drink with far more complexity and varieties than I’d ever imagined.


Glasses of Port wine

Set against the backdrop of omnipresent vineyards and rugged scenery, the Douro is a twisting waterway that winds 125 miles through the landscapes of Portugal’s green north from the mouth of the Atlantic in Porto to the Spanish border. It was from here that famous seafarers, including Prince Henry the Navigator - who was born in Porto in 1394 - set sail to explore the world. Slipping beneath the double arches of Porto’s landmark Dom Luis bridge, we headed in the opposite direction, cruising in style on board a unique vessel. In 2012 our floating home, which carries just 30 passengers, was the gilded barge that carried the Queen and Duke of Edinburgh when it led the flotilla of 1,000 boats along the Thames during the Diamond Jubilee Pageant. 

On deck by Dom Luis bridge

Today it can be found transporting Titan passengers on the so-called River of Gold. Some say the name derived from the god Durious, going back to the time when Celtic tribes inhabited the area, others attribute it to the literal translation of the word for gold, de ouro. 

We quickly settled into our regal surroundings, and in between daily excursions the retro piano bar and elegant dining room were the convivial social hubs where we gathered for cocktails and to sample different regional wines at lunch and dinner; both activities deemed an intrinsic part of our ongoing education about the wines of Portugal!

Dining aboard

One lunchtime and evening the chef had some well-deserved time off and we had private group meals in the beautiful surroundings at family-owned wine quintas, the name for Portugal’s wine producing estates. The lunch was at Quinta da Aveleda, where the family has been making wine since 1870. After strolling through the tranquil gardens we settled down for a long lunch overlooking the vines. Our dinner was in a gorgeous private dining room at Quinta da Pacheca, where visitors on land-based trips can sleep in novel giant wine barrels in the grounds. But for us, it was the comforts of the wood-panelled cabins of the Spirit of Chartwell that called.

The week included a visited Mateus Palace, set in large landscaped gardens and famously depicted on the curvaceous bottles of the namesake rosé wine. Whilst this undoubtedly is the country’s most famous wine export, by the end of the cruise we had all adapted with seemingly unsurprising ease to Portugal’s drinking culture. One passenger joked that after all the lavish hospitality his figure resembled a stout Mateus bottle.   

Mateus Palace

This is a country where port is not just for Christmas or served as a post-meal digestif. You can enjoy refreshing cocktails mixed with white or pink port along with lighter ports served throughout meals.On the last night we sat in loungers on the warm deck and savoured a final glass. It marked the end of a memorable week that provided a real taste of the Douro region - in every sense.

If Jeannine's river cruise on the River Douro has inspired your next holiday, we have several River Douro and Portugal escorted tours

Article published on: 27th May, 2020


Jeannine Williamson

Jeannine is a freelance journalist, award winning travel writer and river cruise queen. You can follow her travels on Twitter (@J9_Williamson) and Instagram (j9williamson_). 

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