Travel Weekly’s Michelle Baran is in Portugal for the debut of AmaWaterway’s new river ship, the AmaVida. Her first dispatch follows.
We were stuck in Porto for days, but you wouldn’t have known it by the soaring laughter that filled the main dining room during a wine-pairing dinner the other night hosted by George Sandeman, seventh generation chairman of Porto’s famous Sandeman winery, onboard the AmaVida.
The passengers — who on their first night onboard were dealt the unfortunate news that due to heavy rains in the region and higher-than-normal water levels on the Douro River, the ship would not be sailing for several days, if at all — had all but put the glum reality behind them.
As I write this, we are finally sailing a short 35-mile stretch from Porto to Bitetos (at long last we’ve graduated from non-cruisers to actual cruisers!).
It will be the first and only night we dock in a port other than Porto. But it seems as though, in the end, this jolly group of non-cruisers would have been happy even if we’d stayed in Porto the entire time, and that’s due to several factors:
1) The refund effect: From the get-go, Ama President Rudi Schreiner — who together with Kristin Karst, executive vice president of Ama, is onboard the vessel for the entire duration of the itinerary — offered passengers either a full refund for the cruise if they decided to disembark or to stay and get a future cruise credit. This gave guests a choice, and the vast majority chose to stay.
2) A well-executed non-cruise itinerary: Ama worked around the clock to create a daily improvised schedule of excursions and itineraries that gave guests the opportunity to visit, explore and taste Portugal’s famed Douro valley region. For instance, guests were taken on a full-day motorcoach tour of the region that included some of the same wine areas they would have seen by boat.
Despite the long and windy drive through the Douro hills, the passengers were absolutely jazzed by the scenic daytrip, which included lunch at Quinta da Avessada, a local vintner. Alternately, instead of visiting Salamanca, Spain, as originally planned, they were offered the option for a daytrip to Santiago de Compostela in Spain, a Catholic pilgrimage site and charming ancient city known for its cathedral.
3) Camaraderie and a good sense of humor: In life, we have options. We can view things through a sourpuss lens, or we can roll with the punches. And it’s clear that these passengers chose to do the latter — for the most part they seem to be all smiles and are enjoying Portugal, the time away from home, and the plentiful good food and wine. (Smile in the face of adversity?)
Over the last couple of days, I’ve overheard several passengers exclaim, “This is the best non-cruise ever!”
Follow Michelle Baran on Twitter @mbtravelweekly.