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In a raft of river-cruise brands, Uniworld stands out for its flamboyance. Steve Hopkinson explores Portugal’s Douro River on Queen Isabel.

Locks and moorings dictate that all river cruise line ships have roughly the same dimensions.

However, that doesn’t mean they’re all the same.

Uniworld, for instance, bigs itself up by describing its river fleet thus: “It isn’t often that the ship one travels on rivals the destinations. Yet this is more than true for Uniworld’s fleet of luxurious floating boutique hotels. Every Uniworld ship is a work of art.”

Flamboyant interiors, art on the walls and gigantic chandeliers are all hallmarks of this superlative line.

Queen Isabel is smaller than most of the line’s ships. And while she’s relatively restrained by Uniworld standards – she’s owned by the Douro Azul company – she’s comfortable and refined.

Her lavishly appointed river-view staterooms and suites all have handcrafted Savoir of England beds with high thread-count Egyptian cotton sheets, along with a menu of pillow options.

We sailed Queen Isabel through the UNESCO-designated Douro Valley and met the winemakers and others who’ve made this region famous.

We chose to make our own way from Lisbon to Porto, where our cruise on the Douro was to begin.

The ease of getting around Portugal lies in its world-class motorways. Lisbon to Porto is a little more than 300km, and by starting out early we easily took in both Obidos, an ancient walled town with an impressive castle, and Coimbra, home to one of Europe’s oldest universities, dating from 1290. Porto itself is gorgeous.

We board Queen Isabel about an hour ahead of our 5pm sailing and quickly discover a lot of our fellow passengers are loyal UniWorld cruisers, a typically well-travelled mix of North Americans, Brits, Australians, Kiwis and a few South Africans.

It must be said that Queen Isabel is petite, like all ships on the Douro. She measures 79 metres long by 11.5m wide.

Her 59 cabins are on the small side, particularly in comparison with those on other Uniworld ships. However, cabins on the lower deck have generous windows, and all the cabins and suites on the upper two decks come with sliding French doors and well-appointed balconies. Bathrooms are equipped with L’Occitane products and ample storage.

We tried out a cabin on the main deck and an upper deck suite. Our verdict: we’d pay the little extra for the suite, if only for the extra space and the smallish balcony.

As for food, Portuguese cuisine is about using the best ingredients, with the restaurants usually family affairs.

Queen Isabel has an excellent restaurant, and there is a small separate, alfresco dining area. Breakfasts includes a good, healthy selection of fruit and cereals along with eggs, bacon, freshly baked breads and pastries, cheese and cold cuts.

Before both lunch and dinner, guest gather in the main lounge for the activities rundown and an introduction to the wonderful wine to be served with our meals. Every day, we’e presented with new red and white varieties as we make our way along the Douro. Portugal’s been producing wine since the Romans arrived in the first century, so they’ve had a bit of practice.

Lunch and dinner are hearty meals: roast leg of lamb, succulent pork, fantastic Portuguese fish dishes and aged beef.

Desserts are suitably indulgent and, of course, the cheese selection is accompanied by port – what else? One night is dedicated to a Portuguese traditional dinner. We start with poultry sausage, followed by a wonderful kale, cabbage and chorizo soup. The mains are a choice of bacalhau com broa (salted cod), grilled entrecote or charred yellow pepper stuffed with vegetables, rice, raisins and pinenuts. That left just enough room for a Portuguese trilogy of custard cream, cinnamon sponge and cooked pear in red wine, and naturally cheese and wine. All this is washed down with an Aveleda or a deep red Porca de Murca, both wonderful drops from the Douro region.

Later, what better way to relax than with a siesta in one of the comfy sun loungers on the spacious sun deck, beside the pool.

Part of the day was spent cruising, close to the shore and the breathtaking scenery beyond. Vineyards, small towns and eyecatching architecture dot the river bank.

The influence of winemaking is everywhere. At Peso da Régua, we visit the Douro Museum for its port and wine experience and drop into the beautiful Mateus Palace (the palace pictured on the iconic Mateus wine bottle).

We head up to the high peaks overlooking the river and vineyards for a tremendous dinner at Quinta da Avessada.

At the Spanish border town of Vega de Terron, we marvel at Castelo Rodrigo, which dates back to the Spanish Inquisition. The following day we venture into Spain and historic Salamanca.

On our return journey we stop at Pinhao to visit the world-class Sandeman Estate. The views are breathtaking and the port easy to drink.

Back in Porto, a number of tours are on offer before a farewell dinner.

When’s the best time to try the Douro? In the European summer, the days start early and the sun goes down about 9.30pm. It feels as if the days never end. Alternatively in late September and early October you can see the grapes being harvested by hand.

But whenever you visit, cruising the Douro is a wonderful way to explore this part of Portugal and gain a different perspective. And being a UNESCO World Heritage site will ensure the region retains its very special charm.

 

FACT FILE

CRUISE LINE: Uniworld Boutique River Cruise Collection

VESSEL: Queen Isabel

PASSENGER CAPACITY: 118

TOTAL CREW: 33

PASSENGER DECKS: 2

ENTERED SERVICE:

LENGTH: 79 metres

FACILITIES: A lounge with full-service bar, fitness centre, restaurant, Serenity River Spa, sun deck and pool.

BOOKINGS: 10-night Portugal, Spain & the Douro River Valley tour, including seven-night cruise, is priced from $5599. Visit: uniworld.com

 

THE VERDICT

Highs: To-die-for scenery, food and the easygoing nature of the ship and crew makes for a wonderful week.

Lows: I’d have liked more wine appreciation classes and perhaps a little more on the history-lesson front.

Best suited to: Those in their late 50s and over.