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When I saw the two ships Viking River Cruises just launched on Portugal’s Douro River, I was pleasantly surprised. I expected them to be watered-down versions of other recent Viking Longships, but what I found was a ship design that is in keeping with the line’s high standards.
Because of both height and length constraints on the Douro, ships have to be smaller than the ones sailing elsewhere in Europe, and the two new Viking vessels carry 106 passengers each, in comparison with the Longships, which hold 190.
The constraints of cruising on the Douro dictate that cruise lines operating here lease their ships from Douro Azul, with whom they collaborate when designing the vessels. Often, collaboration results in compromising quality but, in the case of Viking’s new Viking Hemming and Viking Torgil, launched in March, the partnership worked amazingly well.
Viking’s typical Scandinavian airiness and space are evident, but local ceramics and crafts warm the interior to great effect. Some touches are very subtle — such as the tiny weavings on wooden chair handles — while others are more obvious, including the colorful fabrics on the beds. However, all of the design elements help bring the flavor of the destination onto the ship.
Compared to river cruise staterooms a decade ago, Viking’s suites are true suites with full separate rooms and sliding pocket doors, and the 302-square-foot Verandah Suites on the Douro ships all have walk-in closets, spacious showers with glass doors, a private veranda off the sitting room and 40-inch flat-screen televisions for movies, television and information. There is even a French balcony in the bedroom.
The Douro ships are also the first Viking vessels to have a swimming pool, which is very attractive and has plenty of deck space for loungers.
Portuguese goods make the onboard shop a great deal more tempting than the usual river cruise store, with really outstanding examples of local specialties, including cork handbags and jewelry. Since cork trees regenerate, these crafts are known worldwide as both sustainable and beautiful.
The only real casualty of the reduced space is the Aquavit Lounge — the outdoor dining found on the full Longships is not available here. Instead, the dining room features two small, glass-walled sections set off in the back, with windows that can be opened to give diners an outdoor feeling.
Viking Hemming and Viking Torgil sail seven-night cruises that include a trip to one of the most delightful strolling places in Europe — the medieval university city of Salamanca, Spain. The Douro River runs through a dramatic, picturesque area that looks like the setting of a Gothic novel. The lovely small towns in this port-growing region have colorful histories and the area has been recognized with UNESCO World Heritage status. The port wines are spectacular, and the river cruise route also makes it possible to find exceptional olive oils, tin crafts, pottery and baskets.
Michele Vieira, owner of Platinum Getaways in Lavon, Texas, took a winery group to the Douro last year and the same group of people are going back again.
“This was an easy sale once clients experienced it,” Vieira said. “Any agent who has a niche in food or wine should be interested in the Douro.”