Queen Isabel’s sun deck offers beautiful views of the passing Portuguese countryside. // © 2013 Uniworld Boutique River Cruise Collection
“Duck!” Shouted a Uniworld Boutique River Cruises crewmember.
On our November Douro River cruise, it was nearly 70 degrees, and we were all wearing shirtsleeves on the sun deck. We bent over or sat on the floor as the roof of the sheltered area descended and the mast was brought down.
It was a very good thing that I was not the one navigating the ship through this deep canyon of stone walls and arches in Portugal — there was a hand’s breadth on either side, and I realized very quickly that river cruise ship construction for Europe has arrived at its limit in both height and width.
The deepest lock in Europe — at the 115-foot-deep Carrapatelo Dam — poured water like Niagara Falls as our ship began to rise from the depths that blotted out the sun. We emerged back into the world, rising slowly and gracefully above the pool below and, released at the top, the Queen Isabel sped away.
We sailed through dramatic wooded slopes to either side, with mossy patches accenting giant boulders sliced by time. Modern houses and ancient abandoned farmhouses dotted the mountains occasionally, and we passed the traditional wooden boats of the region, usually carrying sightseers. The gorgeous vineyards and olive groves set the stage for the cruise, where wine is king and passengers can participate in an olive harvest.
A few minutes later, a very low bridge sent us all back down and silenced discussion about why there can’t be bigger vessels on Portugal’s Douro River. As we resumed our seats and the crew reinstated the mast and raised the roof (literally) again, cameras recorded lovely villages and orange groves along the banks.
Queen Isabel’s home is the Douro Valley, a dramatic area that could serve as the stage for every Gothic novel — wild countryside and accompanying wild tales, some told by onboard staff about the 19th-century Portuguese Robin Hood, who robbed the wealthy and gave to the poor.
I learned that the picturesque stretch of the river that followed was horrifying for wine-laden boats before the locks. They had to navigate the treacherous, rock-strewn river day and night, as the nearly sheer rock walls don’t provide much in the way of places to tie up or pull in.
Portugal claims the title of the oldest wine country in the world, and it certainly created the first appellation system. We sipped ports day and night, both on the ship and in wine cellars along the way. On the last night, the crew delicately uses hot wine tongs and a cold cloth to cleanly break the necks of bottles of superb port, aged in the bottle, to avoid any chance of the old cork crumbling.
By then, if there was anyone onboard who didn’t understand the distinctions among white, ruby, rose, tawny port and vintage port, they must have been sleeping for half the cruise. And if absorbing large quantities of local food and wine make you a local, we are all by now somewhat Portuguese.