Douro River with Vantage

By Philip A. Shart
This item appears on page 22 of the February 2017 issue.

When explorers returned to Lisbon, Belém Tower was the first thing they saw. Photo by Philip A. Shart
I took a 12-day tour and cruise in Portugal, May 14-25, 2016, with Vantage Deluxe World Travel (Boston, MA; 888/514-1845, www.vantagetravel.com).

I paid $6,346, which included air (Miami-Lisbon/Oporto-Miami), single supplement, insurance, an optional tour to Sintra and Cascais, an early-booking discount and a discount for having previously traveled with Vantage.

The trip began in Lisbon, where our group spent three nights at the Pestana Palace Lisboa (Rua Jau 54; www.pestana.com/en/hotel/pestana-palace)

Completed in 1904, the Pestana Palace is a national monument. The main building’s architecture ranges from Romantic to rococo, with frescoed ceilings and marble floors plus precious-wood walls covered with majestic mirrors and beautiful paintings. Many antiques are on display, and there are luscious gardens.

Having been in Lisbon several times, I spent my free time riding the funicular. What the cable car is to San Francisco, the 1920s-style trolley is to Lisbon. It’s a good way to people-watch. I also enjoyed just sitting in a park and munching on delicious pasteís de nata, a custard-filled puff pastry.

One night we had dinner in the Bairro Alto district. While we dined, a performer sang the haunting, melancholy and passionate songs known as fado. A group of dancers performed some folk dances.

A typical tiled house in Portugal. Photo by Philip A. Shart

From Lisbon, we headed north, stopping at Óbidos, a walled city that is very touristy. We had lunch on our own in the colorful fishing town of Nazaré. Nine hours after leaving Lisbon, on this very long day, we reached Oporto and the riverboat that would be our home for the next seven nights.

Accommodations on the Douro Spirit all were outside cabins with French balconies, and each bathroom had a glass-enclosed walk-in shower. 

The Floating Garden dining room seated all 130 passengers in one open seating. The food and service were perfect. During lunch, a light buffet was served in the bar lounge. Wine, beer and soda were gratis at all evening meals. Coffee, tea, juice and water were available 24 hours a day on the lower deck.

The air-conditioned ship had a small elevator, an adequate gym and an outdoor pool on a sun deck. There were few books in the library, so I advise taking your own reading material.

The bar lounge was the hub of all activities. There we had a lecture on the importance of cork in Portugal, a lesson on how to make those mouthwatering pasteís de nata pastries, a flamenco dance show, a performance by a wonderful tuna band (students who engage in musical competitions) and another by a musical group from Tabuaço.

As we meandered up the Douro River, the deciduous trees and evergreens gave way to gorges and hillsides where vineyards made the terrain look like a contour map. Olive trees in groves looked like polka dots on a patchwork quilt. We sailed through several locks.

The shore excursions were included in our tour price. Each excursion group usually consisted of 40 people. We were given headsets, so it was easy to hear what the guide was saying. 

We visited several vineyards. My favorite was the magnificent palace depicted on Mateus rosé wine bottles, which came alive as we toured the 18th-century Casa de Mateus and its gardens. We also visited several castles. 

We went by bus for a short visit to Salamanca, Spain, home to Roman, Arabic and Christian architecture and the University of Salamanca, founded in 1218. 

 On previous Vantage Travel tours that I took, including a tour from Paris to Nice as well as a Christmas markets tour in France, both within the last four years, each had a group of tour members who had difficulty walking, so they were assigned a guide. They walked at a slower pace but still got to see everything. Not so on this tour.

In Salamanca, where we had an hour and a quarter, we had some people who had problems keeping up with the local guide. At the end of the tour, we were given over an hour to shop, so, in hindsight, they could have had time for a slow-walking group. (When I mentioned this in a letter to Vantage afterward, I received a reply saying, “Thank you for your suggestion regarding pacing for the Salamanca tours.”)

A funicular in Lisbon. Photo by Philip A. Shart

The weather throughout the trip was clear and in the low 70s, except on the last day when we headed for the airport and there was a heavy rain.

I really enjoyed the tour.

One problem did arise on my way to Europe. My Miami-Madrid-Lisbon flights had been booked with only one hour to change planes in Madrid. Having gone through Madrid on a previous trip, I knew I couldn’t make the connecting flight that quickly, and, of course, I missed my connection. The Iberia airline agent was very helpful and rebooked me on a flight four hours later.

While my one-hour connection time was “legal,” it wasn’t realistic. What hadn’t been taken into account was that my plane would arrive late and that it would dock at a satellite terminal, requiring my taking a train to the main terminal, and that my boarding pass would have no gate assignment on it. 

You should allow at least two hours for a connection between flights in Madrid. Also, on your initial flight on your return, allow three hours at the airport to check in for your international flight.

PHILIP A. SHART
Tamarac, FL