I love Porto, Portugal, where I’m boarding Scenic Azure for a sailing down the Douro River. Bustling cafes border the river’s edge framing a riot of red-rooved pastel-colored buildings that climb high up into the hills surrounding us. Spires of gothic churches and palaces peek out above this colorful panorama and port tasting houses like Sandeman, Calem, Ferreira and Taylor call to us with bold, neon signage that somehow doesn’t seem out of place even against this rustic backdrop.
I tear myself away from the view and address embarkation. For this cruise, yes, I have my luggage packed with garments appropriate for a warm-weather sailing but even more important are the documents folded up in my handbag: My passport, my Covid 19 vaccination card, Portugal’s “locator,” (an online registration confirmation required for entry into the country) and a print-out of the negative Covid PCR test I had less than 72 hours ago. Before boarding, our temperatures are taken, hand luggage sanitized and those lacking the required PCR test result are settled at tables arranged at the top of the gangway so that Scenic’s medical team may administer a test on the spot.
Travel is, indeed, a maddening new world but some things, like a Douro sailing aboard Scenic Azure, are worth the inconvenience.
Once aboard, Sharone and I head to our balcony suite, a cozy 215 square feet, with two beds and side tables filling most of the restful gray and white space while a large closet, wall-mounted TV, minibar with wine, spirits, mixers and snacks, safe, desk and bathroom with shower are the other features. A closer look, however, reveals the innovation and attention to detail that are the trademarks of this luxury, all-inclusive (only spa treatments and gift shop purchases are additional) line: Beds are adjustable via a gadget that allows guests to raise and lower the mattress with the touch of a button, the bathroom is visible on the darkest night thanks to blue lighting that doesn’t disturb sleep, and the Scenic Sun Lounge, Scenic’s take on the private balcony concept, is an indoor/outdoor one with windows raised and lowered via switch. There’s even an automatic balcony screen for flying-insect-phobic guests like me. And, as befits a luxury line, butler service is provided.
Plush bathrobes hang ready for lounging, a very generous supply of L’Occitane toiletries stand like little soldiers across the vanity and, for those of us longing for the days of a chocolate on our pillow each night, Scenic delivers, and delivers with prestigious Valrhona chocolate—I did say this was luxury!
One thing you won’t find on your pillow each night, however, is a printed daily program. Instead, Scenic encourages the use of “Tailormade” smart guide, a handy app that includes each day’s schedule as well as city guides, a voice guide for narration and other interesting features.
A Taste of the Douro
When it comes to dining, the beauty of the Douro is that its specialties appeal to carnivores and fish-lovers alike. Think tender beef and rich, spicy sausages, briny fresh-caught delights from the sea like savory fish stew or succulent parmesan-topped octopus in a puddle of savory pumpkin puree. Vegans, as well, will be delighted by the country’s abundant fresh produce, raised to delicious new heights when transformed into luscious main courses.
Despite being such a small riverboat (only 263 feet long, 1,780 grt and a capacity of 96 guests), Scenic Azure offers multiple dining choices, including room service, at no additional charge.
Breakfasts and lunches are served buffet style in the riverboat’s Crystal Dining Room, with hot dishes like made-to-order omelets, pastas, carved meats and soups served by attendants behind protective partitions. Portugal, however, has lifted the mandate against self-service buffets and, on the Douro, Scenic Azure adheres to Portugal’s guidance and permits guests to help themselves to its salad bar, small dish offerings and dessert selections. On our sailing of only 40 guests, each of us vaccinated, masked, sanitized and tested, this was not a cause for concern. (Note: An Australian company, Scenic Cruises typically attracts a good number of Aussie guests. The country’s current lockdown is likely responsible for the low number of guests on our sailing.)
For a light lunch, head to the River Café a small dining spot tucked behind the Panorama Lounge and select a sandwich, snack or fruit before indulging in the pastry chef’s “cake of the day,” a daily masterpiece that, on our sailing, varied from rich chocolate to a buttery, berry-topped pound cake, its center stuffed with gooey caramelized walnuts.
Most often, guests return to the Crystal Dining Room for dinner, selecting from a choice of three appetizers, three main courses, a healthy menu or the Chef’s Choice. Once per cruise, however, guests may indulge in a very special Portuguese-inspired dinner at the reservations-only Portobellos, located at the front of the Panorama Lounge.
The feast that is Portobellos kicks off with a family-style platter of appetizers: briny olives, paprika-dusted cheese, creamy tuna canapes, plump giant mussels and more. Our main course is a showstopper: perfectly-grilled beef resting on a bed of spinach alongside a puddle of savory sauce and topped with a slice of smoky bacon. Dessert? Make that “desserts,” plural. Each of us is presented with three, including Scenic Azure’s version of pastel de nata, the popular Portuguese custard tart, a creamy, rich center atop crispy puff pastry.
Those occupying the higher suite categories offered aboard Scenic Azure may experience the ultimate dining experience: Table D’Or, a degustation menu of five courses and six Portuguese wines with explanations of each dish and wine provided through the meal.
A Sip of the Douro
The magic of a Scenic Azure’s Douro River sailing is its immersion in all things Portugal. Look around. The riverboat’s entire crew is Portuguese men and women who are not only lovely, smart, funny and efficient but know the Douro River intimately and can answer any guest’s question without breaking a sweat.
So it’s no surprise that this immersion extends even to Scenic Azure’s bar. Certainly, you’ll find your favorite libation on the menu, whether it’s a Cosmopolitan, Margarita or Gin & Tonic, but you’ll also make some delightful discoveries. Sure, sample a variety of ports, but don’t miss the cocktails that include this Portuguese signature drink in them: White port & tonic, white port and passion fruit juice or, my personal favorite, the refreshing pink port, lime and tonic. For something completely different, take your cocktail beyond port with Licor Beirao, a double distillation of 13 different aromatic seeds, herbs and spices like mint, cinnamon, cardamom and lavender. Try it mixed with lime and sugar in a Caipirao or in a Morangao where strawberries, lime, lemon and sugar co-star. Both appear on Scenic Azure’s bar menu and, of course, all drinks, alcoholic and non-alcoholic, are included in your fare!
With the spotlight shining so brightly on port, it’s easy to miss the magnificence of Portuguese wines. While most of us slugged down Mateus Rose’ in our youth (yes, it’s still around!), Portuguese wines—both whites and reds—are now recognized worldwide. Aboard Scenic Azure, you’ll be able to visit some of these award-winning “quintas” (wine farms or wineries) and try them yourself!
Whether it’s a love of wine, history, architecture or culture that lures you to the Douro River, aboard Scenic Azure, you’ll visit the bustling cities, quaint villages and glorious landscapes that immerse you in your passion…and each tour is included in the price of passage. In some ports, guests are even treated to special, exclusive experiences like, on our sailing, a magical, private classical concert amid the gilded splendor of Sao Francisco Church, the most prominent Gothic monument in Porto!
It’s 9:00 a.m. when we set out in Entre-os-Rios for a tour and tasting at the renowned Quinta da Aveleda. A bit early to imbibe? Perhaps, but the tasting room is put on hold as we first stroll through the property’s lush gardens with flora and fauna from all over the world. It’s a wonderland of flowers, trees and vegetation as well as some whimsical structures like the fairytale guard’s house and the “romantic” house that was a wedding night tradition for members of the family that owned this property since the 1600s. We pass goats in their own storybook pen and a peacock poses for us atop a garden gate alongside trees adorned with flower boxes made of cork, a Portuguese signature.
Finally, we arrive at the vineyards, vast fields of grapes that, in time, will be transformed into wines that will appear on store shelves around the world. A red and white are presented –generous pours that, to me, look like full glasses—and we enjoy this decadent morning tasting, along with plates of local cheeses, crackers and pineapple compote.
In Salamanca, Spain, our only venture beyond the Portuguese border, we head to the Cathedral, actually two cathedrals (the old dating from the 12th-13th centuries and the 16th century new one) joined together. A fascinating explanation of the ancient façade which features a mind-blowing carving of an astronaut reveals that the addition of the helmeted figure was, in fact, added in 1992 during restoration work, thereby blowing the alien theorists’ theory that the carving is proves that extraterrestrials roamed the earth centuries ago. We stroll through the interior with its impressive pillars, frescoes and imposing dome before using our free time to climb the 300 steps to the top for a view of the city (disappointingly, an inside viewing room rather than an outdoor platform), shop in the many stores that line the streets (pick up some lightweight, durable and easy-to-pack cork items as gifts for those back home!) or lunch at an outdoor café, using the 20 Euro note that was presented to us enroute to Salamanca as compensation for the organized group lunch cancelled due to Covid restrictions.
Unlike many river cruise companies, Scenic offers its own transportation in each port along the Douro, comfortable motor coaches (masks required!) that, with their colorful graphics, are a cinch to spot even in the most bustling streets. The best tours, in my opinion, are not conducted by local guides but by Scenic Azure’s own onboard tour managers, including the engaging, Porto University-educated Cruise Director Felipe Nunes whose command of English, outstanding interpersonal skills and local knowledge of…well…everything, combine to guarantee an enjoyable and highly informative excursion. And to think he began his career on the water as a buffet steward/junior waiter aboard ships of a large, mass market cruise line!
With the Douro being such a port-intensive itinerary (we typically participated in two tours per day), you might assume that Scenic Azure’s onboard experiences would take a back seat.
While, like most riverboats, Scenic Azure doesn’t feature a casino, lavish production shows or water parks, this cozy four-deck vessel offers plenty of on-board options while sailing or for those who choose to remain on board and maybe curl up on deck with a good book.
Start the morning with a yoga session under the sun, work out in the small gym or have a massage or facial with Wellness Coach Marlene. Cool off in the small vitality pool on the sun deck and sip that glass of champagne you ordered from one of the bar waiters who regularly pop up to the deck to take drink orders.
Marvel at Scenic Azure as she sails through one of the five locks that line the Douro River—and marvel at Scenic Azure, herself, as crewmembers scurry to collapse the sun deck’s canopy to allow the boat to pass under ridiculously low bridges along her route.
Hungry? Enjoy a wine, cheese and charcuterie event in the Panorama Lounge or participate in a cooking demonstration where you’ll learn how to recreate Portugal’s luscious pastel de nata when you get home. The more artistic might wish to design their own ceramic tile, similar (well…maybe not mine) to those that were first introduced to Portugal by the Arabs in the 13th century and now adorn homes and buildings throughout the country. Your finished design will be glazed and baked, the item returned to you before disembarkation.
Scenic Azure’s versatile vocalist/keyboardist performs nightly and local musicians like The Pina Brothers—a terrific trio who gets the audience involved (and laughing!) by distributing a drum, triangle and tambourine among guests so they may accompany them on local songs—are a frequent musical treat.
While not yet widely known in North America, Scenic is a 35-year-old river and ocean cruise company with origins in land tours. Scenic introduced river cruising in 2006 and launched sister brand, Emerald Cruises, in 2014. In 2019, Scenic introduced Scenic Eclipse, its luxury ocean-going discovery yacht, which was christened by Dame Helen Mirren in New York City and, in 2022, Emerald Azzura, Emerald Cruises’ 100 passenger, 110-meter luxury superyacht will join the fleet.
Scenic offers river cruises in Europe, France, Portugal, Russia and Southeast Asia.
All photos credit Judi Cuervo
Cover photo Scenic Azure, credit Judi Cuervo
See Scenic sailings here:
Sanctuary Sun Boat III
Scenic Eclipse (E)
See more about Scenic and Emerald here:
- Scenic Cruises (see Scenic Eclipse in Expedition & Yacht)
- Emerald Waterways