I have been booking interesting trips for Marion and Ian for a long time, and as big enthusiasts of the seas, I knew how much they had missed the opportunity to cruise for some time. It was pleasing to see them return to the water recently...
As seasoned cruisers in pre-Covid times, we were keen to get back on board, but without the restrictions still in place on many of the ocean cruises.
A river cruise was something we had tried once before and, while the Rhine was impressive, the budget version we chose had not tempted us to try again. It was important to us therefore that the cruise line of choice should be of high quality and in this, as in many other holiday questions, Gillian was able to provide her expert advice.
Emerald Cruises compared well to others in price and quality, and we were not disappointed. The service in all areas was excellent, the food varied and delicious, and the compact ship was comfortable and surprisingly spacious.
The River Douro in northern Portugal, followed by three nights in Lisbon at the end, was a good choice, finding that a couple of days in a hotel between cruise and returning home is a good way to gently break us back into the real world again after being spoiled on board.
We flew to Porto with BA via Heathrow and, given the holiday chaos reported earlier in the month, were relieved to experience only minor delays on outward and homeward journeys and to find our luggage on the belt at both ends.
The pandemic has meant a long break in travel for many people with, perhaps understandably, a corresponding loss of confidence. Any concerns that I had before this holiday were soon dispelled by the efficient and personalised customer service provided by Emerald.
The trip from our overnight hotel to the ship on embarkation day was particularly relaxed, after a group of about 20 passengers gathered at the hotel reception to meet our cruise rep, Natalia. After checking names, our luggage, including hand baggage, was loaded into a van and then we strolled through the quaint streets of Porto to the quayside to board.
A major difference between river and ocean cruises is the excursions, most of which are included in the price of the river cruise. This can sometimes result in a feeling of regimentation for those more used to the variety of port options on an ocean cruise.
On this cruise, however, the variety of alternative options, at additional cost, and the relaxed and welcoming attitude of the ship’s staff to those who opted to remain on board, meant that this was not an issue.
The Douro region is best known for its production of wine, particularly Port, and there is an emphasis on this in the excursions, with visits and ‘tastings’ at a few vineyards and a very enjoyable evening meal and dancing at one.
The two excursions I found most interesting were the day spent at the UNESCO World Heritage city of Salamanca in Spain, which takes place at the midpoint of the cruise before the ship turns back towards Porto, and the morning visit to the Côa Valley, where Palaeolithic rock drawings were discovered during excavation works for a hydroelectric dam.
The dam was never built, and the museum and site of the carvings are now also listed by UNESCO. If your interest is in feats of engineering, the many locks, and vast high bridges are dramatic and, in the case of the bridges at least, rather beautiful.
Although the team on the ship was small, the entertainment was enthusiastically organised and parts of it were enjoyed by all the guests. In the evenings, we had a variety of quizzes, a disco and live music. Afternoons saw Portuguese lessons, cookery and cocktail making, and tile painting, as well as the pre-dinner talks on destinations.
The Lisbon conclusion of the holiday provided an excellent finale.
We stayed at the Avani Avenida Liberdade Hotel on a bed and breakfast basis enabling us to try several different restaurants in the city.
It is conveniently located on Lisbon’s main shopping street with easy access to all attractions, cafes, and the flavours and fragrances of this lovely city.
In conclusion, and probably the strongest part of my recommendation is that, although we have several ocean cruises in the pipeline, we have just booked another Emerald River cruise with Gillian, this time on the Danube, for next summer.