Scenic Azure Portugal cruise: At port in a picture-book city

Is there anything quite as mesmerising as the preparations for a long voyage? There's a buzz of activity on the wharf as supplies are loaded, suitcases carried up the gangplank, brass work polished and decks swabbed.

With a proud maritime history stretching back 600 years, Porto, Portugal's picture book northern city, is the obvious launching pad for any shipboard adventure.

Under the patronage of Henry the Navigator (1394-1460), Portuguese expeditions travelled from Porto to Africa, Asia and the Americas, laying the groundwork for a lucrative trading empire and, less gloriously, the slave trade.

My home for the next 11 days, the sleek 80-metre Scenic Azure, is moored at the city's historic Cais da Estiva wharf. On the other bank are the famous port houses such as Sandeman, Graham's, Offley and Taylor's, which have been around since the Duke of Wellington gave Napoleon's armies a bloody nose in the Peninsular War.

While Portugal's great navigators sailed a short distance downstream and into the vastness of the Atlantic Ocean, the Scenic Azure will be following the Douro River inland to the Spanish border and exploring the world's oldest designated wine-growing region; part of which is now protected as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

A river cruise is the ideal way to explore the magnificent Douro Valley, a region which is rich in archaeological sites, baroque churches, monasteries, ancient forts and ravishing scenery but is also celebrated for its olives, beef cattle, wheat, almonds, kiwifruit, citrus and grapes.

Although the Douro is synonymous with port – vintage, tawny, ruby, white and rosé, its latest incarnation – the region also produces some magnificent tables wines, including youthful vinho verde, quaffable rosé and its food-friendly reds made from indigenous grapes such as touriga nacional, touriga franca and tinta barrola.

Despite the obvious pre-voyage preparations aboard the Scenic Azure, our 11-day Unforgettable Douro cruise begins with a full day of sightseeing in Porto itself – ample time to get over the long flight from Australia (my fellow passengers are Aussies, Americans, Canadians and Brits).

It's early August and the riverfront restaurants are packed with French and German holidaymakers tucking into grilled sardines, bacalhau (salt-cured cod) and chorizo. But walk up the hill for 10 minutes and you'll discover one of the most gorgeous cities on the Iberian Peninsula – a heady mix of medieval, gothic, art nouveau and wayward 20th-century architecture.

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For such a compact city, Porto has an impressive stock of civic buildings, museums, episcopal palaces, municipal gardens, churches and bridges, including the Dom Luis I Bridge, designed by a student of French engineer Gustave Eiffel.

Most visitors naturally gravitate towards the Rua de Santa Catarina. The city's major shopping precinct is packed with patisseries, grocer's shops, smart boutiques and pavement haunts such as Cafe Majestic, where J. K. Rowling apparently wrote the first outlines for what would become the Harry Potter juggernaut.

But my personal favourite is the equally magical Sao Bento Railway Station, a magnet for all boy wizards. Opened in 1915, the massive, stone-clad beaux-arts railway station features a series of murals depicting scenes from Portuguese history alongside pastoral images from the Douro. Similar murals, featuring these distinctive blue and white azulejo tiles, can be found throughout Porto.

But no visit to this affluent-looking city is complete without venturing across the river to Vila Nova de Gaia, home to the world's best-known port houses. Most offer wine tastings and guided tours. These days the old riverbank is packed with cafes, bars, street vendors and other attractions such a futuristic aerial gondola.

By the time the Scenic Azure pulls away from its mooring at the Cais da Estiva wharf in the late afternoon I'm already comfortably ensconced in my cabin – a balcony suite on the diamond deck – next to the reception area and the Azure Lounge & Bar.

Having just spent two weeks in a cramped cabin of a sailing clipper, my balcony suite seems grand. Apart from the comfy queen-size bed, the cabin has a well-stocked minibar, satellite TV, writing desk and a snazzy bathroom. Oh, and Jaimie, my unflappable butler; with just 48 cabins and a crew of 38, personal attention is a hallmark of the Scenic Azure, the latest addition to the company's luxurious European fleet.

The ship's designers have included some clever touches, such as the electric-powered windows and blinds, under-bed suitcase stowage and ample hanging space. The balcony, though compact, is a worthwhile addition and a lovely place for a pre-dinner drink while watching the countryside drift past; the complimentary minibar, which includes wine, beer, soft drinks and various snacks, is restocked daily.

There is a similar attention displayed in the ship's formal dining room, Crystal Dining. Lunch and dinner menus feature classic European fare, such as fillet mignon, risotto and lamb wellington, and a good selection of Portuguese dishes, local cheeses and mouth-watering desserts. Buffet breakfasts are equally sumptuous.

Under the command of its dashing young master Captain Emanuel Oliveira, a former officer in the Portuguese Navy, the Scenic Azure begins its voyage in a leisurely manner. Travelling at an average speed of just eight knots, there is ample time to drink in the sights and sounds of the Douro Valley. From Porto to Entre-os-Rios, our first destination, we pass ornate 19th-century mansions, tumbledown stone farmhouses, gothic churches and modern glass and concrete villas. The riverbank is dotted with sandy beaches – a popular afternoon haunt for families, swimmers and kayakers.

By day two everyone has settled into the unhurried routine of the ship. Each evening cruise director Raquel Miranda provides guests with a briefing on the following day's shore excursions and updating guests on the on-board activities, including yoga and fitness classes, ship tours and Portuguese lessons.

Naturally, there are plenty of distractions for guests who choose to spend the day on-board. The ship is equipped with a huge sundeck, complete with plunge pool, a fitness centre, gift shop and covered panorama deck.

As we meander upstream towards Vega de Terron, just across the Spanish border, there is plenty of scope to explore the hinterland. Modern airconditioned coaches whisk us to ancient cities such as Guimaraes, Lamego and Salamanca. Other options include a private tour of Mateus Palace, kayaking on the Sabor River or a guided walk through the historic Croft estate at Quinta da Roeda. There are unexpected delights too, such as the sleepy village of Ucanha where we explore its fortified medieval bridge and tower – one of the best preserved in Europe.

"Sadly, many of these lovely old houses are now empty," our guide says. "Young people are leaving the countryside. There are more jobs and excitement in the city. These villages are now only for the old people."

For many of my fellow guests, the ravishing Douro countryside with its dramatic vineyard terraces, dry craggy hills and bustling port towns will be the most memorable part of this 11-day cruise, but for me it will be the enthusiasm, good humour and genuine warmth of our Portuguese hosts, especially those on the Scenic Azure, that will stay with me. As the Portuguese poet Fernando Pessoa famously said: "The Europeans are not truly European because they are not Portuguese."

BEGINNER'S GUIDE TO RIVER CRUISING

There is no mystery about the growing popularity of river cruising around the planet. What could be more pleasant than watching picturesque villages and castles drift past your private balcony? A river cruise offers the chance to visit several destinations without having to unpack your bags. Modern river cruise ships are generally far smaller than their ocean-going counterparts, meaning a more intimate travel experience.

As you settle into a daily routine your ship will feel exactly like a floating hotel, complete with a first-class dining room and cocktail bar. But there are a number of things that first-time river cruisers need to bear in mind. First, river cruising is not necessarily a passive holiday – today's ships offer a range of yoga, fitness and wellness classes; for the more energetic there are hiking, biking and kayaking expeditions. Second, embrace the glamorous side to river cruising – make sure you pack something special to wear at the captain's table.

Third, take full advantage of the onshore excursions – local guides provide expert commentary and privileged access to cultural sites. Last, be aware that river cruising is a deeply addictive pastime. You'll soon be planning your next aquatic adventure. St Petersburg looks good, darling.

TRIP NOTES

MORE

traveller.com.au/portugal

visitportugal.com

FLY

Etihad Airways flies frequently from Melbourne, Sydney, Perth and Brisbane to Switzerland, with onward connections to Porto aboard local carrier TAP. Cruises depart from downtown Porto, 11 kilometres south of the airport. See etihad.com

CRUISE

Scenic's 11-day Unforgettable Douro cruise sails from Porto along the Douro River to Vega de Terron on the Spanish border and includes a day trip to Salamanca. Guests can choose from a wide range of shore experiences, such as guided city tours, signature dining events, wine tastings and canoeing expeditions. Prices start at $6295 a person, twin share, for a standard suite. Tariffs include all meals and drinks onboard, shore excursions, complimentary minibar, free Wi-Fi, butler service, airport transfers and all tips and gratuities. For bookings, phone 1300 742 859 or visit scenic.com.au

Mark Chipperfield was a guest of Scenic and Etihad Airways.

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