Cruise Review: Tauck’s exploring The Douro River plus Lisbon and Madrid | Luxury Lifestyle Magazine

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Words by Katie Wood

Tauck, an American tour operator you may never have heard of, but you should. I generally hate organised group travel of any sort, but with Tauck, I’ll always make the exception as they are simply great at what they do.

Now in its third generation of family ownership, Arthur Tauck Jnr heads up a company that offers land tours and cruises in over 70 countries – and everything is included in the up-front price. This company doesn’t advertise; it doesn’t need to as once you’ve been on one of their trips, you’ll tell your friends and so it goes on. Their repeat business rate is phenomenal.

One of the main joys of going Tauck is that you will get so many ‘surprises’ that the average traveller can never achieve. Whether it’s getting into Monet’s gardens at Givenchy before they open and the crowds pour in, or it’s a dinner in a private castle not normally open to the public, it makes the whole experience truly special.

douro river view
The picturesque Douro River is flanked by vineyards

I recently took one of their river cruises – along the Douro River in Portugal. Starting in Lisbon and ending after a bit of overlanding in Salamanca and Madrid, it was a wonderful experience, in a beautiful UNESCO World Heritage landscape.

The leisurely pace of exploring this beautiful area of Europe on a vessel carrying only 85 guests makes it way more relaxing and far more intimate than a large cruise ship – in fact, there’s no comparison. We had under 70 guests on our beautiful boat – the MS Andorhina, and the staff were superb. After a few days everyone had met each other, and friendships were being formed.

tauck douro sun deck
Guests can enjoy the passing scenery from the sun deck

Obviously, as an American company, most travellers come from the US, with a smattering from Canada and the odd Brit. The type of traveller you find on a Tauck river cruise are seasoned travellers in their later years.

I travelled on my own but could not recommend it highly enough for a single’s holiday – way better than any ocean-going cruise I’ve been on as a solo.

A river cruise ship docks right in the heart of a city, so there aren’t any long transfers to reach the different attractions along your route. You just stroll off the ship and you’re there. There are so many advantages to river cruising, you’ll never want a big ship experience again.

tauck douro restaurant
Onboard facilities include a spacious restaurant and a panoramic lounge

With a small swimming pool on the sun deck, a spacious restaurant, a bistro restaurant, a panoramic lounge and bar and a good variety of staterooms for different budgets, it’s a great base for a week. This vessel was designed specifically for cruising the Douro. It is only two years old and easily the nicest boat on offer to tour this region.

The beds are super-comfortable, the showers hot and the food is especially good. Regional flights are included in the overall price – as are all meals and drinks, including alcohol and quality wines.

Why did I choose the Douro itinerary over others? Because it’s a hugely picturesque river valley with dramatic cliffs, lush hillsides, medieval walled villages and beautiful vineyards.

lisbon overview
Lisbon is the starting point for this trip

Lisbon is the starting point for this trip, and we were billeted for two nights in the Inter Continental Hotel. I really like this city – it has a shabby chic vibe and plenty of top sightseeing opportunities and great food. Sitting atop seven hills over centuries, the city is home to cobbled lanes, castles and maritime monuments that pay lasting tribute to Portuguese explorers like Vasco da Gama who changed the world.

Stop one was beautiful Coimbra, Portugal’s medieval capital for more than a century. A walking tour along the tiered cobbled lanes (flat shoes essential!) of this hilltop city brings you to its esteemed university, founded here in 1537, where its caped students evoke images of Harry Potter’s Hogwarts School. Its majestic buildings line squares steeped in history and cloistered arcades lead to architectural showpieces, which are beautiful to behold.

porto from river
The stunning city of Porto is a UNESCO World Heritage Site

From there the itinerary takes you to another favourite of mine – Porto.

Porto’s pleasures are diverse and one of Tauck’s little ‘surprises’ was to ride a historic tram from the Foz Quarter to the medieval riverfront district. A tasting tour followed, in a refreshingly small group size.

In addition to having an experienced cruise director on the boat, you have two Portuguese guides with you from the minute you arrive until your flight home. And on top of that you get local guides in pretty much all the destinations. It’s this degree of service that makes Tauck stand out. I was recovering from major back surgery and was slightly nervous about the trip, but, honestly, I couldn’t have been better looked after.

There are various visits to wine-making estates or quintas, but this is not a cruise one would take to see big sight after big sight. It’s great to just chill though.

tauck douro madrid
The tour concludes in Madrid, home to many historic sites including the Royal Palace

The idyllic village of Pinhão, situated at a scenic bend of Portugal’s Douro River, is considered the gateway to the quintas and large wine estates of the Douro River Valley, one of Europe’s oldest and revered wine making regions. Of course, it’s all about the port in this part of the world, from white to heavy tawny.

A choice of shore excursions included a walk in pretty Pinhão, nestled in the heart of port wine country, with a visit to its historic tile-covered train station, a vision of blue and white Azulejo tiles – or a vigorous hike through the area’s lush, sloping terraced vineyards with striking views of the town and river.

20,000 years ago, prehistoric man called the Coa Valley home, leaving evidence of their residence on rocks in the Coa Valley. Here, we visited the Museum of Art and Archaeology of the Côa Valley – amazing exhibits of rock art from the valley’s Paleolithic era, discovered in the 1990s when excavations began for a Côa River dam.

Madrid was a good end to the 12-day trip, and the overall experience was, decidedly first class.

Once you’ve been on a Tauck trip, I very much doubt it’ll be your last.


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