Up and Down the Douro on Viking’s Newest River Cruise Ship

Cruise Along the River of Gold

Viking River Cruise ships now number 69. The award-winning cruise line’s itineraries stretch from Russia to the Atlantic Coast. From Amsterdam in the north and Provence in the south, its identical 190-passenger longships are justly famous. They’re known for their walls of glass, Scandinavian design aesthetic and an incredible list of all-inclusive features.

These include shore excursions at every port and wines and beers with every meal. Yes, you even start your day with a mimosa. The staterooms are masterpieces of design — they use every inch of space to achieve absolute comfort with amenities like 40-inch television sets and heated bathroom floors.

And then there’s Portugal. There, the Douro river awaits and on it a group of four “baby” longships that ply this “river of gold.” The Douro starts deep in Spain, then courses through the incredible beauty of the Douro Valley all the way from the Spanish border to Porto.

Portugal’s second largest city, Porto is an absolute delight to travelers. It is the home of one of the world’s great wines, port. And the Douro Valley itself is home to literally thousands and thousands of vines used to produce it.

We were invited aboard the newest of Viking’s Douro river ships, Viking Helgrim, for their Portugal’s River of Gold cruise. Here’s what the experience entailed.

Starting Out

Our trip really began not aboard ship but in Lisbon, Portugal’s capital city. There, we were ensconced in a four-star hotel for two nights. Our days were an introduction to Portugal by tour — both included and at optional expense. Viking has long led the way in combining true learning experiences along with scenery, shipboard camaraderie and menus that introduce local specialties at every meal. Lisbon served as our gateway.

Our local guides’ pride in their country was palpable. By the time we left Lisbon, we’d learned much about Portugal’s intriguing history. The next day, our glorious Viking coaches and their guides introduced us to Portugal’s landscape, agriculture and its heart. En route to Porto we stopped at Coimbra, a remarkable university town and once home to none other than J.K. Rowling of “Harry Potter” fame. She modeled her Gryffindor uniforms after ones worn by students there.

The Ship

At the end of the day, we arrived for the main event: our eight-day sailing up and down the Douro. Docked across the river from Porto itself was Viking Helgrim. It’s instantly recognizable to Viking river cruise veterans as one of its own. Glass-sheathed and sparkling white, it’s the same width as the longships, but it’s considerably shorter.

Its length is dictated by the river it plies. In the late 1980s, the last of a series of locks were completed, allowing boats like the Helgrim to explore what had been a wild and woolly ride prior to their appearance.

The series of locks are all identical in size. Their length dictates the maximum size of all the river cruisers. At 262 feet long, Viking Helgrim carries just 106 passengers. Cut to down to a smaller size, the lounge and dining room are furnished in Viking’s familiar Scandinavian style. The open-air Aquavit Terrace gives great views. In a departure from the longships, it is not an outdoor eating option.

The staterooms are slightly under the size of the ones on the longships. Our veranda room was just 25 feet square. But there’s plenty of storage for two people not known to travel light. Finally, there’s the sun deck where, on the baby longships, there’s a swimming pool — more properly a dunk pool that’s wildly refreshing on a warm afternoon.

Sights and Excursions

After a full day and two nights in Porto, Viking Helgrim made its way upriver. The Douro is only navigable by day; no ships are permitted to sail at night. Since you are passing through some of Europe’s most spectacular scenery, the daylight sailings are particularly appreciated. Not that you’re always aboard as the ship navigates the river. The ship stops at tiny landings and villages along the way where it meets up with Viking’s own luxury coaches for land explorations.

A large number of these tours focus on wines produced in the miles and miles of vineyards the ship passes. Lovers of port will have their days in the sun. Excursions include “The Art of Port Blending” where you’ll have the chance to explore vineyards in Quinta do Panascal. Another excursion involves a visit to a village called Favaios, maker of the world’s best moscatel and home to a baker who makes Portugal’s traditional bread.

Other excursion highlights include a picnic in an olive grove, a luncheon in a centuries-old wine-making estate, and even a tour of Vila Real, best known to North Americans as home to “hey, hey, hey, Mateus Rosé.”

Once the ship reaches the Spanish border, it’s turnaround time. So, if you missed the sights on your way upriver, you may catch them on the way down. But first, Viking takes you to Spain for a day. The remarkable city of Salamanca is just a coach-ride away. And oh is it worthwhile!

A UNESCO World Heritage Site, one of six I counted on Helgrim’s itinerary, the university city is a revelation in art and architecture. Included in this no-extra charge excursion is a tapas tasting in the city’s glorious food market, a walking tour and time out for some very good shopping. And we were still back on the boat in time for cocktails.

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On board, the food was under the supervision of Chef Peter Benko who hails from Hungary. Manning a kitchen that’s just 7 meters by 11 meters, the chef and his crew of six present breakfast, lunch and dinner. The first two can be enjoyed as buffets or by ordering from a set menu.

Dinner is a chance to really delve into the cuisine of Portugal. Every night there’s a Regional Specialties Tasting Menu. An appetizer like caldeirada de peixe, a delicious fish soup, is followed by seared rack of lamb and finished with port wine pudding. These three items change every day and the young chef is most adept at bringing these tastes of Portugal to the table.

Less adventurous eaters may opt for American classics like steak and chicken breast. And of course, attention is paid to food allergies and preferences. Finally, in honor of Viking’s chairman, the Chairman’s Choice: Poached Norwegian Salmon is always on the menu and always a great selection.

Summing up the Experience

Of all the rivers this writer has cruised in Europe — the Rhine, the Rhône, the Saône and the Danube — nothing is quite like the Douro. For one thing, its one-country focus makes this just the kind of voyage Viking’s lifelong learners love: a way to get to know a country, its people, arts, architecture and cuisine in wonderful Portugal.

Second, of all the rivers, this is the least inhabited, a naturally beautiful waterway that passes through wilderness areas and vineyards, tiny towns and beautiful estates with not a city in sight until you are back in Porto. Viking’s Douro is an ideal way to get to know a country you may very well fall in love with in just 10 days.

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