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Kayakers from Avalon Alegria take to the Douro River for a morning of paddling. (Photo: Colleen McDaniel)

Douro River Cruises Offer More than Just Wine: Live From Avalon Alegria

Kayakers from Avalon Alegria take to the Douro River for a morning of paddling. (Photo: Colleen McDaniel)
Colleen McDaniel

Apr 18, 2024

Read time
7 min read

A Douro River cruise has become synonymous with a journey through Portugal's famed sweet, fortified wine.

It's easy to see why. On these cruises, which typically sail roundtrip from Porto, port wine is free-flowing onboard. Ashore, vineyards dot the scenic landscape of the charming Douro Valley. Even the shore excursions are mostly wine-themed.

If you aren't a wine-drinker or aren't especially interested in the wine-making process, you might be turned off by the thought of a cruise through wine country. Don't be.

I'm not a wine fan, and wine doesn't like me much, either, so when I was invited to join Avalon Alegria for a media sailing on the Douro River for its inaugural voyage, I wondered what I could find to keep me busy that didn't involve wine.

It turns out, there's quite a bit to do, and Avalon Waterways, famous for its Active & Discovery programming, might be just the right fit for cruisers looking for something beyond the wine.

Here's how non-wine lovers can enjoy the a Douro River cruise.

Look for Active Options on the Douro River

Cyclists learn about sand dunes and their importance to the region in Portugal during a tour from Avalon Alegria. (Photo: Colleen McDaniel)

River cruises are becoming more active. Avalon Waterways has been a leader in the active river cruise space for years, thanks to its Active & Discovery cruises. These cruises are specifically aimed at the fitness-minded traveler, offering many active options in port each day.

On the Douro, Avalon doesn't offer Active & Discovery cruises, but it does offer active programming, with at least one active option in each port, as well as an "adventure host" who leads fitness and wellness classes onboard.

For our short four-night preview sailing (standard cruises are seven nights), we tried out kayaking on the Douro River, hiking through a vineyard and biking along the Atlantic coastline.

Our kayaking experience put us in inflatable two-person vessels, and we spent a short time on the water and exploring an island, where we learned about its mythology. Afterward, we had a mini picnic, with snacks like sausage, cheese and cornbread. It was a fun option and we thankfully caught a break in the rain while on the water. (Note: Kayaking isn't offered regularly on Avalon Alegria cruises; we were part of a group testing it out for the line.)

Our hike was really more of a walk through a vineyard (more on that below), but our bike ride was a fun, though windy, 14-kilometer trip that was hosted by biologists who talked about the local animals and plants. It was a enjoyable way to learn about the region and get a little exercise. Usually, this hike will be longer and more strenuous, but our group had a truncated tour as we had to get back to Avalon Alegria for its christening.

It's worth noting the ship has no bikes onboard for guests to just borrow; the line's other European vessels have that option. This is because the terrain along the Douro is more treacherous and meandering than along, say, the Rhine and Danube.

Other cruise lines offer active adventures on the Douro as well, including AmaWaterways, which has an excellent partnership with adventure tour operator Backroads. The two partner on Douro River cruises as well as other rivers in Europe.

Learn more about what it's like to sail on a Backroads cruise.

Don't be Surprised if Wine Shows Up on Your Tour

Hikers from Avalon Alegria stroll through a vineyard in Portugal. (Photo: Colleen McDaniel)

On our sailing, Avalon offered a number of what it calls "Classic" and "Discovery" tours in the various ports we visited; these are in addition to the line's "Active" tours. Classic tours focus on cities and history, while Discovery excursions are more the roll-up-your-sleeves-and-dive-in-deep experiences.

(Other lines will offer similar options, with different designations.)

Read the description carefully and look for those tours that take a relatively broad approach to the region; these will get to you to the various castles, towns museums and the like.

Market visits are also a fantastic way to see the region and try local cuisine and produce -- you also will have the opportunity to taste port, if you choose.

We picked a hike for our cruise on Avalon Alegria, which ended up being more of a 1.3-mile stroll through a vineyard. At the end, we did get a tour of the vineyard's winemaking facility and were offered three ports to sample. It's not unusual to find that some excursions sneak at least a little wine in.

(If you do want to go "all in" on wine, check out our tips on sipping and sunning your way down the Douro River.)

We had fun exploring the vineyard, where we had a chance to talk to the workers there while they were out tending to the vines. We also picked fresh oranges from the tree and got some incredible views of the Douro Valley below.

Enjoy the Enrichment and Entertainment Onboard

A string quartet performs on Avalon Alegria on the Douro River. (Photo: Colleen McDaniel)

One of the things river cruises do well is give passengers an opportunity to take in local entertainers, which sometimes is terrific and sometimes ... a little weird.

Thankfully on our sailing on Avalon Alegria, we had excellent entertainment, including a modern string quartet who beautifully tackled pop and classic rock hits. We also loved the guitar duo, which is played far more traditional Portuguese music, including the melancholic folk fado music.

Our abbreviated sailing didn't offer enrichment, but most sailings typically will. Yes, some of it will be around wine (tastings, the history of winemaking etc.) but you also might learn about things like how the country's ubiquitous ceramic tiles are made and why they've become such a symbol of the country. Or a cooking demonstration of the Portuguese sweet custards pastel de nata.

Drinks at the bar aren't restricted to wine, either; most ships feature a local beer (likely the uber-popular Super Bock lager), and cocktails could include regional spirits.

Stay Onboard to Enjoy the Ship and Scenery

The Douro Valley as seen from Avalon Alegria. (Photo: Colleen McDaniel)

Here's a secret: You don't have to get off in every port. Sometimes, just relaxing on the ship is the best way to enjoy a day.

The Douro Valley is breathtaking, and all of the scenic cruising is done during the day (ships are restricted from night time sailing). So if you stay onboard while everyone else is away, you can relax in the lounge, enjoy the scenery -- the ship might even sail to a new location, where it will meet passengers who have gone off on shore tours.

In the heat of the summer, nothing beats a pool on a river cruise ship. Space is small, and so are the swimming pools -- which a number of cruise lines offer. When you have the ship to yourself, you have free range in the pool (and of the sundeck bar, if there is one). You won't regret your decision to stay.

Extend Your Time in Porto and Enjoy This Charming City

Porto will probably be the start and end point of our cruise on the Douro River. (Photo: Colleen McDaniel)

If you're still feeling a little over-wined, you might want to venture out on your own in Porto, a beautiful little city where you can dine at incredible restaurants, shop to your heart's content and even explore by funicular.

On Avalon Alegria, we had an extra day at the front of the trip, but we wished we had more time, as most of that day was spent fighting the effects of jetlag.

You can extend your time on your own -- two to three days is probably about right. The city is easy to explore on your own, and most people in this tourism hub speak English. You can also hire guides or book tours through companies like Cruise Critic's sister site, Viator.

If you haven't had a chance, this is a great opportunity to pick up souvenirs, like the region's famed colorful tiles or cork products.

You can also grab a meal at some really outstanding restaurants -- try grilled sardines or salads de pulvo, a deliciously fresh octopus salad.

Also, don't miss the Lello Bookshop, which provided inspiration for J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter books.

Cruise lines (including Avalon) also often offer an extension to Lisbon as part of their Douro River cruises.

Updated April 18, 2024
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