River Cruise Portugal river cruising in the midst of growth spurt By Michelle Baran / February 24, 2012 Share 1 -- After years of sitting quietly in the shadows of mainstream European river cruising, Portugal’s scenic Douro River Valley, a region known for its production of port wine, is suddenly attracting the attention of river cruise lines looking to expand their product portfolios. “With the phenomenal growth in river cruising, all of the river cruise operators are looking for new destinations,” said Guy Young, president of Uniworld Boutique River Cruise Collection. The line has had a steady presence on the Douro, having chartered ships in Portugal since 2001. But for 2013, Uniworld is getting some company. Next year, Viking River Cruises will introduce a Portugal and Spain itinerary on the relaunched, 124-passenger Viking Douro. The ship, formerly the Douro Spirit, was built in 2011 and had been chartered by Uniworld from its Portuguese owner, Douro Azul. Viking is taking over shipboard management, and Douro Azul will continue to be the ship’s owner. Another Douro Azul newbuild will be leased by Ama Waterways in Portugal next year. The 106-passenger Amavida will launch on April 2, 2013. It will feature 53 cabins, 36 of which will be 216 square feet in size and have full balconies. Uniworld, in the meantime, will lease a newbuild for 2013, the 118-passenger Queen Isabel, also built and owned by Douro Azul. “It is not hard for Ama and Viking to see the success that Uniworld has had on the Douro, and the timing of their entry into this and other markets will often have to do with ship availability and the appetite of ship owners to spend the capital on newbuilds,” Young said. Ama has chartered a ship on the Douro in the past, but “after 2010, we decided that the ship which we had chartered was no longer up to our required standards, and we stopped this program in 2011 and in 2012,” said Rudi Schreiner, Ama co-founder and president. “Last year, we finalized the agreement for the construction of a brand-new Douro ship for 2013.” Young explained that the hardware and consequently the economics of river cruising on the Douro is a bit different from the rest of Europe. The ships are built at about 261 feet in length, compared with the newer ships in Europe that are as long as 443 feet. So ships in Portugal tend to be in the 100- to 125-passenger range, compared with the 160- to 200-passenger ships being built for the rest of Europe. But an added bonus, Young said, is that Portugal is more affordable than some of the other European countries where river cruises operate, which is a selling point with a challenging economic climate on both sides of the Atlantic and with the potential added sticker shock of transatlantic airfares. The Douro River experienceThe classic Douro River cruise generally starts with a stay in Portugal’s capital city, Lisbon, before passengers transfer to the northern city of Porto. The cruise itself winds through the Douro River Valley, which has been declared a Unesco World Heritage site for its production of port wine, a practice that dates back to the 18th century. The river is nestled between rolling hills of vineyards and dotted by small, historical cities such as Guimaraes as well as by the winemaking hubs of Regua and Pinhao. The itinerary usually concludes with a land transfer into Spain to visit Salamanca. A university town northwest of Madrid, Salamanca was first conquered by the Carthaginians in the third century B.C. and is also a Unesco World Heritage site. “The Douro itinerary is a little slower-paced and has some of the most beautiful scenery in the world,” Young said. “When packaged with Lisbon, [it] is a very compelling itinerary. Also, the Douro Valley has great allure for wine and port lovers.” In addition to the standard roundtrip cruise itinerary from Porto to the Spanish border and back, Ama has introduced an itinerary for 2013 that includes an extra day to visit Madrid. “In the late 1990s, I started the Douro River cruise program during my tenure at Uniworld, and it always has been one of my personal favorites,” Schreiner said. “I myself have done this cruise numerous times. The Douro Valley is one of the most beautiful river valleys in Europe.”Follow Michelle Baran on Twitter @mbtravelweekly.