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Forget France, Please Your Palate in Portugal And Cruise The Douro

12th February 2018

Move over those travelling gastronomes who swear that the South of France is the only European destination for food and wine connoisseurs. They will be given a run for their money in a whole swag of areas in Portugal, particularly the Douro River region. The Douro River stretches from the Atlantic Ocean and the northern port city of Porto, all the way east and south to Spain's Vega de Terron Porto, Portugal's second-largest city, and also is the world ambassador for port, and in the last two decades, has become THE place for delightful table wines.

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Portugal Douro Valley vinyards
Vineyards etched into the Douro riverbanks.

Not only is Porto famous for its port and wines, its regional cuisine makes use of all of its natural resources, thanks to the fertile green fields of the region. Then of course in the west, on the coast, the quality of the fish has a prominent place in Portuguese cuisine. It is a region that also boasts good grazing for cattle and produces world recognised small goods – the perfect place for port, cheese, cured meats and maybe a splash of the eponymous light red wine, Douro.

Porto also serves as a port of embarkation and/or port debarkation for Douro cruises – one of the best ways to see this part of the world. And it really is beautiful countryside with lots of variety. From the verdant vineyard regions around Porto to the rugged mountainsides to the east, river cruisers will be delighted with the landscape that lies just beyond your balcony. One of the best features of this type of tour is that tourists are still a relative novelty, and river cruising by its very nature has fewer guests and generally attracts more relaxed itineraries that are far away from frantic sightseeing and over-scheduled days.

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Portugal terraced area Douro
Living on the edge along the Douro.

Best Time for Douro River Cruises and Other Tips

Away from vagaries of ocean weather, cruising the Douro has a long season, beginning in late March through to November, with APT, Scenic and Uniworld offering a range of cruises throughout this period. Although there's no Christmas markets season, Viking River Cruises offers sailings through December, as well. If you want to pick the very best time to visit the Douro, it is the springtime, May and June, and then again in the autumn months of September and October.

Best Time for Value

To try and find a good deal try for the shoulder season months, from March to early May and then again in November. These offer the cheapest fares, but often the weather can be cool and rainy. Mid-July through August is also a prime time for bargain cruises, as it can be very hot at this time. Note too that for most cruises time is limited in Porto and while most cruise lines offer a handful of tours showcasing the attractions of Porto, allow a couple of days before or at the end of the cruise, as it is truly a fascinating place to visit.

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 Portugal UNESCO winery
Cruising especially small ship cruising gets you right up close to these beautiful vineyards.

Some Land Transportation Required

One of the benefits of a mostly rural itinerary is that you're not cruising through busy industrial cities. So as a consequence, quite a few of the attractions are well off the river, requiring coach transportation that average around 45 minutes. The upside is that the scenery is just breathtaking and varies throughout the region, so there's plenty to see. The coaches tend to be new, clean and comfortable with bathrooms onboard. Still, be prepared to hop off the ship, as many incredible attractions and scenery require a little bit of road rather than river transportation.

Language Needs?

Communication is key. In Porto and in Salamanca, where the primary languages are Portuguese and Spanish, respectively, English-speakers can get around well enough. In the more rural stops, however, English isn't necessarily understood away from your group and guide; a phrasebook comes in handy. So feel free to broaden your language skills, don’t forget to use your hands – they are after all the international language.

Clothing: What to pack?

Pack for climate and occasion with river cruising having occasional, slightly more formal dinner nights. Also Porto can be cool, due to its location right off the Atlantic, but factor in that there are surprisingly higher temperatures the further you travel inland. So pack in layers, and don't forget togs as most river ships have small swimming pools on their sun decks.

Who will enjoy this style of cruising?

Those who seek to experience the best of Spanish and Portuguese cuisine, with plenty of culture, art and history thrown in, all while gently gliding past amazingly diverse, rugged yet beautiful landscapes.

Want to know where to taste the best cuisine on a river cruise? The Best Dining on River Cruises

Or wat to try some European cuisine on the water? Ride the Rhone And Dine The Saone: A Culinary Cruise

Images courtesy of Getty.