The Long-Awaited Douro River Cruise

June, 2019
By Jack Welsch


For years, we had been trying to book a Viking river cruise on Portugal’s Douro river. Each time we tried, all of the good cabins were already booked.  For the past several years, I’ve been telling Linda to just book something a year or two in advance.  That never happened but this spring she found an opening for a deluxe balcony cabin.  Even better, it was smack in the middle of the summer; about the time we’d be itching to get away from the cottage for a bit.

My Journal

Thursday, July 25th Wrighter’s Lake, PA to Lisbon

Left the lake about 1:30 and had lunch at the Waymart Hotel.  Arrived at Best Western Plus near EWR about 4 and dropped the car.  We had just missed the shuttle and had to wait until 4:30. Check-in was easy once we found the Premier check-in on the 3rd floor.  When we told him we were flying out of Newark, our son, Don, told us we were crazy as TSA there was HORRIBLE.  I could not understand his concern as I’ve flown from there countless times but, sadly, he was VERY right; That place should be shut down!  If there is a time when Newark is the only alternative, I’ll stay home!

We had hours to kill but, because we were using business class, we had access to United's Club where we found some quiet seats and enjoyed the free food and wine.

Boarding began at 7:40. As on our China trip, our seats folded flat for sleeping.  My dinner was Thai chicken and Udon noodles in a red sauce. It was absolutely the best airline food I've ever had. Yes, I know, “good airline food” is an oxymoron but this was as good as you’d expect in a good Thai restaurant.  The Pouilly-Fuissé was excellent.

After dinner, I slept for most of 4 hours; almost 3 times what I can usually manage on a flight.  Lin slept even longer.

Friday, July 26th - Lisbon

We landed in Lisbon at about 8:00 and quickly got through immigration and retrieved the bags.  We quickly found the Viking agent but had to wait until about 9:00 for all the Viking folks on the flight.  There were, I think, over 20 of us.  While waiting we met Frank & Judy from New Jersey.

Six of us at the end of the line ended up in a small van and, because it could not use the bus lane, we arrived at the hotel well after the others. That meant that we were a small group to check in with the Viking agent.

Hotel Tivoli Avenida Liberdade is beautiful and in a relatively nice area.  What we saw of Lisbon on the drive reminded me of Buenos Aires which, in turn, reminds me of Paris.

Unfortunately, the rooms were not ready and Bianca, the Viking agent, said she HOPED they’d be ready by 1:30 but it could be as late as 3:00. Ugh!! We’d settled in for a long vigil but were delighted to get the keys at 10:30. With a wakeup set for 2:00 PM, we were in bed by 10:50 without even shedding the clothes we wore on the plane. After that short rest, we got up, showered, dressed and hung in the room with me writing my journal.

We were a bit hungry so, upon the recommendation of the receptionist in the Viking lounge, walked two blocks to the bakery, A Padaria Portuguesa for a delicious pastry called “bread of God”. 

While eating, I remembered that my hearing aids were still in the pocket off the shirt in which I'd slept!  As soon as we returned to the room, I checked and the left one was missing.  After tearing the room apart, I went to Bianca, who said she'd call United but asked that I check the room again.  Fortunately, I found it on Linda's bed.  I have no idea how that happened or how I’d missed it. !  WHEW!!!!!!!

After a 6:00 Viking orientation, we had dinner at Cervejaria Liberdade in the hotel.  Nice ambiance, good food and excellent service.  Linda was in bed before 9:00; I a bit later.

Saturday, July 27th - Lisbon

I had a horrible night.  Wakeup came at 6:30 to a cloudy sky though forecast was partly cloudy.  When we went to breakfast, we realized it was raining. After an excellent breakfast buffet, we left on the bus at 9:00 in light rain.

By the time we got off the bus at the Torre de Belém, we realized we made a huge mistake in not bringing jackets.  After a brief intro walk, we had ½ hour “on our own" to walk in the freezing drizzle.  Women were quite belligerent about selling scarves; almost as bad as we fould when on our Nile River cruise in Egypt.

Our next stop was the Jeronimos Monastery at Belém where we visited church & cloister. The cloister was especially nice. Again, lots of buy stuff at a gift shop.  

The last stop was for a panoramic view at a park above the hotel.  I confess that, having spent another day seeing Lisbon, I was much less enchanted with it. There is graffiti and litter everywhere and much of what we say had a rather down-trodden appearance.

Back at the hotel, we had a snack of cheese and ham and, of course, some wine in the Lobby bar.

We normally get foreign cash from an ATM so I walked a block to a bank to do so but struck out; the ATM said it could not complete the transaction. Fortunately, I had Euros from a previous trip, so conditions were not desperate, but we’d be in trouble before too long. I talked to Bianca about my ATM issue and she said she had just gotten cash from the same machine with no problem.  I tried a second bank and then the first one again to no avail.  This was puzzling as we’ve been getting cash this way for years without having to call our back in advance.

After showering and changing, we went for drinks at the Sky Bar.  The view from there was quite nice but the clientele were young, hip and the venue was certainly not for us.

Because the lamb chops on last night's menu were reported to be excellent, we returned to the same restaurant and ordered them.  They were as good as expected.  At the table next to us were Jim and Cindy from CT.  We had a wonderful conversation and were disappointed to learn that, while they were with Viking, they were on a shop that sails a day after ours.  Rats!!
After packing most things, we got to bed early with both a wakeup and an alarm for 6:00.

Sunday. July 28th – Lisbon to Coimbra to Vila Nova de Gaia (near Porto)

We were up with the alarm at 6:00 and at breakfast at 7:30. The restaurant was nearly empty when we arrived but was mobbed by 7:30 so we bailed to free the table. There was activity on the avenue out front and the concierge explained that on Sunday they close the road to traffic for runners, bikes, vendors and so on.

The bus pulled out at 8:30 for the trip to Porto. The day was sunny, then turned foggy and cloudy.  We had a “technical stop" to use the restrooms, etc. at about 10.  We didn't buy any snacks as others did and, incredibly and probably because she thought we were broke, our tour guide said she could lend us Euros!   By the time we arrived at Coimbra, it was sunny and quite warm.  First stop was at the University of Coimbra where we visited the overwhelming library.  Unfortunately, photography is prohibited so we have only our memories.

Second stop in Coimbra was in town.  We only had 25 minutes in this beautiful, quaint town. There were countless terrace restaurants but Linda and I each independently identified the same one where we'd have had lunch if we'd been on our own. It would have been nice to have had more time.

We arrived in Vila Nova de Gaia across the river from Porto, to board the Viking Hemming at 4:20.  As we exited the bus, we were given our room keys and as we boarded the ship, we were immediately escorted to our suite.  We soon headed to the lounge where we each grabbed a white port and tonic and were invited to sit with Linda and Bob plus Linda and Dave. (To read my comments about the ship, click here.)

Eventually, we went to the room to unpack, then to the sun deck for the &$#@ safety drill.  As we headed to the briefing, I stopped to ask Bianca about her promise to take me to the bank in the morning, but it turned out she had assumed we were taking the morning tour, where we'd both have free time near the bank.  We really wanted to relax in the morning, so she suggested I try the ATM near the ship.  While Linda attended the briefing, I headed to the ATM our card didn't work there, either.  Fortunately, I learned from the concierge that they could exchange US dollars, even though the literature said they could not. 

We went directly to dinner, where we sat with Anne (AKA Terry) and Elsie; nice folks.  Our waiter, Tazim from Bangladesh, remembered our names immediately.  After dinner, we went to the lounge where Martina, from Bulgaria, had also remembered our names.  Incredible!  We danced a bit, the only ones on the floor, and went to bed.

Monday, July 29th – Vila Nova de Gaia to Pinhão

I occasionally suffer from vertigo and awoke just before 7:00 with a very minor attack but was OK.  When Linda awoke, we showered, dressed and went to breakfast at about 8:35. Dining room was almost empty since most had gone on the included “Panoramic Porto” tour. Tazim still remembered our names! 

We returned to the room for a bit, then, after finally exchanging US$150 for Euros, left the ship to walk along the dock at Gaia.  I bought a cork belt and a tee shirt.  As we were walking back to the ship, we were beckoned by a young woman at a sidewalk café to come and relax.  I was prepared to keep going but Lin saw a sign offering a flight of 5 different port wines for 5 Euros so we sat down to a very nice experience.

After a short nap and lunch, we joined 6 others for a 45-minute ride in a full-sized bus to Quinta Avelida at Penefiel.  There, we had a guided tour through the estate's botanical gardens which, to me, looked like Kirby House on steroids.  The wine tasting was interesting but predictable and I'm not crazy about Vinho Verde, which is their stock in trade.  Nonetheless, it was a nice group and we enjoyed the experience.

Dinner was with Dan and Judy from Texas.  After dinner, we danced to two numbers but we were the only people dancing and were still tired, so we headed to the room. The view of Porto from the balcony was magnificent.

Tuesday, July 30th – Vila Nova de Gaia to Pinhão

I awoke at 4:30 with a full-on attack of vertigo with its telltale dizziness, vomiting and profuse sweating.  Since I don’t suffer from motions sickness and, anyway, we were still at the dock, it can only be attributed to a recurrence of the series I had in March. Fortunately, I was able to get back to sleep and felt better when I awoke at about 8:00 to find us in the lock at Crestuma. 

After breakfast and a bit of a rest, we went to the sun deck to enjoy the spectacular view. It was cool and breezy enough that I went down for a jacket for me and sweater for Lin. At about 11:20, we approached the lock at Carrapatelo; at 35 meters, it’s the highest lift in Europe.  It took us almost an hour to process through and, in the meantime, they lowered the signal mast, the huge sunshade and even the pilot house!

A bit farther along, we went under a bridge that required that all of us on deck sit down.  Even at that, the bridge missed my head by mere inches!

By 2:15 we were docked at Régua to disembark those who were going on tours.  We had chosen the optional “Art of Wine Blending” tour.  When we met Bianca at reception as instructed, we learned that we would be joined only by Bill and Marcie from Florida.  We traveled to Quinta do Panascal on the Távora river in an 8 passenger van.  The company is owned by Fonseca, whose name is on the labels.  The climb from the river road to the estate was a chilling drive with spectacular views. 

After an orientation on growing and harvesting grapes and processing (which includes stomping on the grapes for 4 hours) we entered the blending room.  There, each couple was challenged to blend 750 ml of 10-year Tawny by blending 5-, 10-, and 20-year tawnys.  After lots of laughing, both teams got it right.  Then we had to make labels, which were applied to the bottles before they were presented to us to take home.

Finally, they brought in a Tawny and Reserva Ruby at the correct 18C temperature along with tons of cheese, meats, bread, and sweets, asking us to experiment with pairing.  After pictures, etc., it was back to the ship, which had not yet arrived at the dock in Folgosa.  We had missed the lock at Bagaúste but will see it on the way down.

Dinner was a Portuguese buffet, accompanied by traditional music.  The highlight for me was beautiful roasted duck.  We sat at a large table for dinner.

At the the music quiz in the lounge, we teamed up with Dan and Judy.

Wednesday, July 31st –Pinhão to Barca de Alva

Slept well and were up at about 8:30, then dressed quickly and headed to breakfast.  As we were finishing our meal, we passed through the Valeira lock.  The rest of the morning was spent loafed on the aquavit terrace and sun deck. 

We were delayed getting through the lock at Pocinho so our tour to “Marialva Castle and Picnic” started a bit late.  We were only 11 “guests” plus guide on a full-sized bus. Getting off the bus at Marialva, most of us boarded a truck while a few, including Lin, boarded a van for a rough ride through a vineyard to a grove set for a delightful picnic, where we say with Mike and Beth from Michigan. After the meal, we were transported to the related hotel, where Lin and Beth remained as the rest of us walked to and through the castle.

The "girls", were supposed to be taken to the bus by van as the rest of us walked but Mike and I had a bit of a scare. Not only had the van not arrived when we got there, after waiting an uncomfortable amount of time for them, we saw an ambulance approach and park across from the bus!  It turned out that the appearance of the ambulance was unrelated and the van arrived shortly thereafter; simply a scheduling issue.

After about a 1.5-hour ride, we returned to the ship, which had moved to Barca de Alva, in time to dress for a reception for repeat Viking customers in the lounge where we sat with Howard and Dawn plus Cathy and Linda, all from the UK.
Dan and Judy joined us for dinner and the amazing Flamenco show, after which we crashed.

Thursday, Aug. 1st – Barca de Alva to Pocinho

We'd set the alarm for 6:45 but I was feeling a little strange (perhaps a touch of vertigo but hopefully due to too much partying) and neither of us was enchanted with to prospects of the 2-hour trip each way to Salamanca.  Consequently, we had a leisurely breakfast and I slept until 10:00.  We were just leaving the room to go on deck when Emilia, our cabin steward, said that we should check at the desk about the boat trip.  The hotel manager, Herbert Wagner had organized a 90-minute trip into Spain on a pontoon boat.  Of course, we signed up. 

Sat on deck until almost lunchtime.  After lunch and more relaxation, 6 of us (Graham and Maureen plus Brian and Nancy) met Hr. Wagner in the reception a the short walk to the very nice pontoon boat.  After a short distance, Spain was on the left bank and Portugal on the right.  After 1/2 hour or so, we stopped and had Champagne and then Port with tonic.

Back aboard, Lin and I opened the Champagne we'd been given in the suite but drank only half. After a fruitless search on deck and in the lounge, I came across Harry and gave him the remaining ½ bottle.  I sat in the pool with Graham and Maureen, then went down to shower, etc. As we were leaving the room, we left Barca de Alva and as we finished dinner, we arrived at Pocinho for the night.

After dinner, we went to the room and sat on the balcony a bit before bed.

Friday, Aug. 2nd –Pocinho to Régua

I was up at 6:15 and the alarm went off at 7:45. Breakfast was with Dan & Judy.  At 8:45 we boarded the bus for about an 85-minute ride to the small town of Favaios, which is known for Muscatel and “four-corner bread”. First of the 3 short stops was at a small museum, second was at the wine co-op and third was at a small bakery where one old lady allegedly does all of the baking.  Finally, we stopped at Quinto Avessada for a delightful lunch.  While we were away, the ship had moved to Folgosa. 

I quickly went on deck and the pool as the ship left Folgosa and was there as we went through the lock at Bagaúste. We arrived in Régua at about 5:00 but, sadly, tied up to an AMA ship, making our balcony useless. 

During the day, several folks that knew we were flying to Newark had mentioned that they were flying direct to Newark while we were going via Munich. Before the Captain's party, I asked Bianca if there was any possibility that she could change our flight.  She promised to see what she could do.

After the Captain’s party and the compulsory debarkation briefing, we had a delightful dinner with Barb and Marv from Albuquerque.  After dinner we attended an amazingly energetic folk music performance by “Tuna” and went to bed.  Sadly, music from the ship next to us was horrible.  During the night, I had yet another vertigo episode, prompting me to worry about potential issues with our return to the US.

Saturday, Aug 3rd – Régua to Vila Nova de Gaia

We ate breakfast at 7 and, when I went for the boarding passes, Bianca said no business class seats were available on the direct flight.  Bummer!

At 8:45, we boarded a small bus with about 18 people for the optional “Cisterns and Wine Tasting" tour.  We stopped first in a very small village near a bridge and tower, then at the absolutely amazing monastery of São João de Tarouca.  Our guide had been born nearby and attended the church which had been part of the monastery with her grandmother, so she was especially knowledgeable.

Last stop was at Casa de Santo António de Britiande for a wine tasting. 

The ship left immediately after we arrived, shortly after 12.  After lunch. I sat on deck.  We were delayed entering the huge lock at Carrapatelo waiting for small cabin cruiser coming up. About 4:30, I went down to pack, shower and change.

After drinks in the lounge, we had dinner with Dan and Judy, then danced a bit before bed. 

Sunday, Aug. 4th –Vila Nova de Gaia to Newark

I had another vertigo attack as I went to bed but was OK in the morning.  I had put in a wakeup for 6:00 but it never came. Fortunately, I awoke at 6:30 and we were at breakfast by 7:00 and on the bus to the airport at 8:00. When we tried to check in for our flight to Munich, we were told that it was over 2 hours late and we'd miss our connection.  One option was to fly to Newark via Munich and then MEXICO CITY!!!!  However, when she realized we were in business class, she put us on the flight that was unavailable yesterday!

We had to go to a Lufthansa customer service counter to get a confirmation document, then wait an hour to check in with United.  When the girl at that check-in said we were in row 31, I reminded her we were in business class, and after an agonizing delay, we were put in 4A & B.  Whew!!

Security was quick and easy; the antithesis of Newark, and we chilled in the ANA lounge. The flight was uneventful except that there was a huge family with a baby and, I think, a nanny and the kid cried much of the way across the pond.  To top it off, the family set up a stroller in the aisle!  Why the flight attendants allowed that is a mystery.

With our Global Entry, we whizzed through border control but, if course, the bags did not so we had lots of time to chat with Bill and Marcie at the belt.  Though there were a lot of Viking folks on the flight, we saw few at baggage claim so must assume they were still in line at border control.

As instructed, we took the AirTrain to P4, called the hotel and were picked up promptly by a very friendly van driver.  After a rest, we ate in the small restaurant in the lobby; not a place I’d choose but certainly adequate for the occasion.  We were both in bed early.

Sunday, Aug. 5th – Newark to Wrighter’s Lake, PA

We both awoke around 8:00 and had breakfast in the hotel.  They had moved our car to long term parking but retrieved it promptly.  Getting out of the hotel and onto I-78 west was a real nightmare and we endured a horrible traffic jam somewhere around Summit, but things eventually cleared up. 

As previously arranged, we stopped to see our friends, John & Lisa, in Bethlehem.  We’d planned on meeting them and going out for lunch, but we arrived early and learned that, due to Musikfest, most restaurants would be closed so we had time to catch up and they prepared lunch.

We had a horrible time getting between Bethlehem and I-476 because US 22 was virtually stopped and, when I finally got off to go through town, I found that a major bridge was closed, causing further problems.  In my more cynical moments, I think the planners intentionally close alternative routes just to mess with us!

Dinner was at the SpeakEasy Saloon & Resort in Uniondale and not far from our cottage.  Though it had been excellent earlier in the year, the service was unbelievably horrible.  I sincerely hope they get their act together soon or their investment in the facility will be for naught. That will be a pity.

Anyway, it was a delightful trip but I was happy to lay my weary head on my own pillow!

The Ship

The Viking Hemming was delightful.  Built specifically for the Douro in 2014, the Hemming is shorter than their “Longships” found on the larger rivers due to the need to navigate the Douro’s locks and pass under its low bridges.  In fact, many features of its Sun Deck, including the pilot house, are made to “collapse” in order to pass under the lower bridges.  The Hemming's smaller size means it lacks some of the more opulent features of the larger ships bit its passenger capacity of only 106 makes for a more intimate experience.  Being new, it is in excellent condition and its crew is both friendly and competent.  There is free Wi-Fi but the Internet connection is, of course, via satellite so it is slow and, because of the hills, spotty as well.

The reception desk, located on the Upper desk is staffed 24/7 and we found the staff there invariably competent and friendly. There is a very small boutique adjacent to the reception desk.

The large Lounge, also located on the Upper Deck, is large enough for parties and entertainment.  It has a bar and a small dance floor.  A pianist played nightly and there were frequent other events held there as well.  On the bow immediately in front of the Lounge, is the “Aquavit Terrace”, offering alfresco seating but not al fresco dining as on some other ships.

The single restaurant, located on the Middle Deck, always offers white tablecloth service with competent wait staff.  A buffet is available along with a menu and we found the food to be very good ti excellent.  Soft drinks, along with the house’s choice of red, white and rosé wine are complimentary during lunch and dinner.

On the Sun Deck can be found covered and open seating along with a shallow pool.  It’s worth noting that the elevator does not go to the sun deck.

We had a veranda suite (AA), located on the Upper Deck.  At 303 sq. Ft., it was large by ship standards but still small by “normal” ones.  It had a small sitting room with a small open balcony.  A separate bedroom held what seemed to me a king-sized bed, a French balcony and adequate, though not spacious, storage.  Both rooms had large, flat-screen TVs and power outlets for 110V, 220v and USB. The shower was small but still larger than some I’ve experienced. 

We did not have a chance to visit other rooms but, at a glance through open doors, the Veranda (A) rooms on our deck looked quite nice.

The Staff

The staff was wonderful.  Many knew us by name almost immediately.  A small story will serve to illustrate.  A few days into the trip, we were on our way into the lounge before =dinner and I had a look in the ship for a golf shirt.  My size was not on the rack, so I had to ask one of the staff whether they had one.  When I said I’s take it, she asked whether I wanted her to put it in my room.  I said, “No, I’ll do that while my wife settles up with you.”  She said, “No, I can put it in the room and just put it on your account; I know which rom you’re in.”  The thing is, this is the level of service that was NORMAL!

Shore Excursions

As we found on our other river cruises, one shore excursion was included each day at no extra charge.  Optional excursions are available at extra charge.  We chose a number of the optional ones, either because the included ones were too demanding or because they were of greater interest to us.  We found one marked advantage of the optional excursions was the smaller, more intimate  group size.

The Bottom Line

When we were on the Viking cruise in China, we were told that, as good as that was, the experience in Europe was even better. It was. I’d not hesitate one moment to take another river cruise with Viking; they were great.