On Scenic Azure, Portugal placidity

The 48-cabin Scenic Azure sails past the northern Portugal town of Peso da Regua on the Douro River.
The 48-cabin Scenic Azure sails past the northern Portugal town of Peso da Regua on the Douro River.
All hell broke loose on the Scenic Azure when the host of music trivia night offered bonus points to passengers who got a crew member to dance with them.

Flushed by wine and spirits, one woman who appeared to be about 60 ran behind the bar and lunged with the vigor of a 16-year-old for the bartender. "Really, I can't!" he cried in a panic, struggling to fend her off and finish several cocktail orders for the thirsty and increasingly well-oiled crowd.

About halfway into the 11-day cruise along the Douro River that threads through northern Portugal, it was undoubtedly the most excited moment on the otherwise exceedingly tranquil journey through the incomparable beauty of the Douro Valley.

Launched in April, the Azure still carries that new-ship smell, with the gleam of the marble surfaces, plate-glass windows and uniform buttons of the 36-member crew optimally bright. One of Scenic's fleet of "Space Ships," the custom-built river cruiser, with its rounded, white, capsulelike body, looks as if it could slip out the pod-bay doors of "2001: A Space Odyssey."

The design comes down to Earth after climbing the gangway and stepping inside, with furnishings, fabrics and a gray, white and black color scheme reminiscent of upscale business hotels or fine dining restaurants: high in comfort and quality but modest in design. Considering the spicy, bright and colorful Portuguese world outside, it's a marked contrast, but one that grounds the largely wealthy, elderly British, Australian and Canadian passengers filling the ships' 48 cabins.

The same goes for the cuisine, with sumptuous breakfasts, lunches and dinners that more or less stick to the comfort foods of the Anglo-American world; from ham, eggs, beans on toast and fried mushrooms in the morning to classic pasta, meat and fish dishes in the evening.

That's not to say Portuguese flavors don't make appearances. In fact, they never seem to disappear from the wine glasses that the staff keeps perpetually filled with phenomenal Douro Valley reds, whites and greens, and each lunch buffet comes with one or two local dishes. The two more exclusive dinner spots — Portobellos in a sectioned-off area of the Panorama Lounge & Bar and the Table d'Or (only available to Diamond Deck passengers) at the back of the main dining room downstairs — make a stronger effort, with the latter being the best meal of the trip, and certainly the best cut of beef.

A house in the mountaintop village of Provesende, one of the excursions offered on the Scenic Azure’s cruise on Portugal’s Douro River.
A house in the mountaintop village of Provesende, one of the excursions offered on the Scenic Azure’s cruise on Portugal’s Douro River. Photo Credit: Mike Dunphy

However, it's 100% Portugal outside the window in the Douro Valley, easily one of perfect marriages of geology and humanity, with the steep, green hills heavily sculpted over the centuries into terraced olive groves, fruit orchards and, most of all, vineyards. So, too, has the river been altered, with five massive locks and dams installed to make it navigable by shipping vessels.

Just about each day of the cruise brings the opportunity to disembark and set foot in the stupendous landscape through a choice of excursions, including guided tours of the towns, cities and landmarks; port wine tastings; kayaking and hiking; and visits to museums and wineries.

More active and independent people, however, can get quickly frustrated at the relatively low impact and slow pace, but by and large it works for the majority of the clientele.

The trip to the mountaintop village of Provesende on Day Eight was probably the most impressive stop. Not only does the trip bring you high (indeed, frighteningly so along the sheer drops off the roadside) above the valley, but the tiny village provides a sense of Portugal's yesteryear, especially in the traditional bread of its bakery, Padaria Fatima, deliciously aromatic enough to lift your feet off the ground cartoon style; and the musty, barrel-filled tasting room of the Morgadio da Calcada, a 17th-century manor house still inhabited by the family who built it, surrounded by the grapes that go into the best port of the journey.

For the most part, you'll be back well in time for dinner, after which the ship's charming lounge singer, Arsenio, kicks the keyboard up to 11 in the Panorama Lounge for passengers quietly sipping nightcaps on some nights and on others, like trivia night, slurping down cocktails and launching behind the bar to try to pull the bartender into a dance.

Happily, at the end of the day, the cabins and their wonderfully comfortable adjustable beds are only steps away. There you can dip into the included snacks and booze of the minibar, pull up a chair on your personal balcony, connect to the internet (if the signal is having a good day) and make your friends hate you even more by uploading pictures of life on the Azure.

Rates for the 11-day, Unforgettable Douro tour begin at $5,570. Visit www.scenicusa.com.

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