Imagine after finally doing your research and wanting to knock a river cruise in the Douro Valley off your bucket list, you find out there are no cabins available for two years!
Don’t fret! There are several attractive alternatives that may be a better-suited match for your travel style.
If you have your heart set on a cruise and are a seasoned cruiser, then, by all means, I recommend you cruise the Douro River Valley. However, if cruising is not your preference, I don’t think you are short changing yourself if you visit by land.
Through my recent visit to Northern Portugal, I crafted and experienced a land program in the Douro Valley.
Where is the Douro Valley
The Douro Valley is in Northern Portugal, and the Douro River is one of the major rivers on the Iberian Peninsula. The river flows from the source near Dureado de la Sierra and across Northern-Central Spain and Portugal.
Not only does it possess the perfect climate and soil for cultivating grapes and a wine producing culture, but the river carved the deep valleys out of the land, which is luscious green in the summer and flame-colored in autumn. These tributaries and dramatic hillside terraced landscapes are a must see!
When to Go
I highly recommend visiting the Douro Valley between April-June or September-November for the best colorful scenery, comfortable temperatures and lack of rainy days. July and August often experience temperatures in the upper 90’s or higher, which is not ideal for walking, hiking or sightseeing — especially in the afternoons.
The grape harvest in mid to late September is a wonderful experience. You can pick grapes and even crush them by foot at some vineyards. After the harvest, the autumn colors are at their best. The beautiful scenery is a photographer’s dream!
Don’t dismiss December as well. The olive harvest and the holiday season offer unique experiences, including local craft markets, artisan shops and windows filled with seasonal delicacies. For the Christmas holidays, many dishes include salted cod and potatoes, paired with wonderful ruby ports.
Many of the major hotels and wine estates, or quintas, also offer special Christmas and New Year’s programs.
Where to Stay
I recommend coupling a two night stay in Porto with a minimum of three nights in the Douro wine region. Porto offers many accommodations from smaller boutique properties to larger luxury spa hotels. I highly recommend The Yeatman hotel, which offers some of the best views of Porto from each room. Across the river from the city center of Porto nestled on a hill, this Relais & Château hotel has seven acres of land. It offers a distinguished two-star Michelin restaurant, indoor and outdoor infinity swimming pools and a world-class spa.
View of Porto from The Yeatman.
By allocating your time in this manner, you will be able to appreciate the landscape, cultural gastronomy and visit the historical sites. You can also take a boat and train trip as part of a day trip paired with two vineyard wine tastings, all while ideally staying at a luxury hotel or wine estate.
During my trip, I had the privilege of being surrounded by luxury in the heart of the valley at the Six Senses Douro. This five-star family-friendly hotel includes a winery, full-service spa, yoga and wellness center and attentive staff. The Six Senses also has spacious rooms, which are decorated in a chic and contemporary style, housed in the historic beauty of a 19th-century manor home. Located 80 miles from the Porto airport, it is the perfect base to stay and explore the valley.
Six Senses Duoro Valley.
Another great option, just 30 minutes downstream from the Six Senses, is The Vintage House Hotel located in the village of Pinhas. This five-star property is a recently renovated 18th-century building, which overlooks the famous river and has an outdoor pool. The location of this hotel is wonderful, and it provides easy access to wineries, boat trips and surrounding restaurants.
What to Do
Although there are six wine-producing villages in this UNESCO World Heritage region, including Provesende, Favaios, Trevose, Barcos, Salzedas and Ucanha — don’t feel you have to visit all of them.
Each offers remnants of Roman roads and bridges, Romanesque churches and monasteries, local handicrafts and cuisines, and well-established wine estates.
- By Boat – Exploring the river on a boat is mandatory when visiting, even if only for a few hours! There is no shortage of options regarding length, onboard entertainment and whether you prefer a private or a group sailing, you can select from various music ensembles and shows or agricultural and historical expert accompaniments. You can also select from dining choices, such as a barbecue or even a four-course dinner on the deck.
- By Car – I had the glorious pleasure of experiencing a full-day tour in a classic ’75 Eldorado convertible with one of our land operators, Bruno, the owner of Vintage Tours. Bruno and I glided down the road with the top down and were surrounded by breathtaking vistas. Our day began with a visit to two small family-owned vineyards, where I received a thorough introduction to the various wines produced in the valley. I also enjoyed a beautifully arranged lunch featuring local specialties at the Restaurante Rabelo along the river. Following lunch, I was able to experience tours at a medium and large production vineyard. For me, this was the highlight of my Douro visit, as I was able to visit the terraced vineyards by foot and appreciate the unique terrain.
- By Rail – You can also experience the river valley by traveling on the Douro Historical Train, which is like traveling back in time. The steam locomotive has five historical carriages and runs a unique three-hour journey between Regua and Tua. The train includes onboard entertainment, such as regional singers and musicians, and a toast with a glass of Porto Ferreira! It’s a very special experience and an opportunity to immerse yourself in the local culture!
Whether you cruise or undertake a land program for your trip to the Douro River Valley, I encourage you to experience the unique charm, meandering river, terraced vineyards and postcard villages yourself!
Some photos courtesy of Madrid & Beyond.