Portugal’s sun-drenched Douro Valley is one of the most in-demand river cruising destinations in Europe. The UNESCO World Heritage-listed terraced vineyards that are carved into the hillsides form one of the oldest winemaking regions in the world, producing exquisite ports, as well as unfortified red and white wines. To cruise the river between Porto and Vega Terron, just over the Spanish side of the border, is to cruise through a region that is seemingly untouched by the vagaries of modern life.
While traditional ways prevail on land, it is a different approach on the water, demonstrated by the two newest ships to arrive on the river. Douro Serenity and Douro Elegance are representative of the future. Their design has more in common with sleek superyachts than it does with the river ships of old, favouring an edgy steel-grey colour scheme. The two newest members of the Douro Azul fleet made their debut with flair in March. Portuguese society feted the double arrival with a firework-studded gala on the golden river, with two dazzling godmothers to christen the two new five-star hotel ships. Douro Elegance was welcomed by British singer-songwriter Joss Stone, while Douro Serenity made her debut with Sara Sampaio.
As a Victoria’s Secret Angel and the most famous Portuguese supermodel on the international catwalk, Sara was a natural fit to represent Douro Serenity. Both are modern beauties that showcase the best of Portugal, while holding its traditions close. Sara returned to her hometown for the event with her boyfriend, English tech millionaire Oliver Ripley. “She was born in Porto, [now] she is a global fashion personality, and the godmothers are chosen for their international recognition,” says Mario Ferreira, president of the company. “In fact, that’s why four years ago, I invited Sharon Stone and Andie MacDowell to be godmothers of the Amavida and Queen Isabel ships.”
Ferreira, who founded Douro Azul 25 years ago, shared his vision for the company with the crowd of 200, announcing his goal to “reach new regions of the globe”. The two new ships represented an investment of €26 million (AU$39 million), with Ferreira emphasising that they were “built in Portugal and by Portuguese”. Douro Azul is now the leading cruise line on the river, and was named Europe’s Leading River Cruise Company at the 2016 World Travel Awards. With the arrival of Douro Serenity and Douro Elegance, there are now nine hotel ships in the fleet. The two new sisters each accommodate up to 126 guests across three decks, offering attentive service with a ratio of three crew members per passenger.
Throughout their voyage, passengers can soak up the panoramas of the river and the vineyards from the Bar Lounge, do a lap or two in the top-deck outdoor swimming pool, or indulge in a rejuvenating treatment at the spa on the main deck. Cuisine is also at the heart of the Douro Azul experience, with the main restaurant serving up extensive buffet breakfasts, lunches and sumptuous four-course dinners showcasing international, Mediterranean or Portuguese specialities.