Unexpected Pleasures: Sailing the Douro River Aboard Viking Helgrim

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In the year 2000, I sailed the Rhone and Saone rivers aboard Viking Burgundy, a vessel operated by Viking River Cruises, a little-known line that, in fact, had just entered the American market. I was bucking the cruise trend of the time, shunning the mega ships that were capturing the headlines in favor of an intimate vessel and a type of sailing that had not yet hit most cruise fans’ radar.

What a difference 20 years makes. Today, river cruising is the fastest-growing segment of the cruise industry and that little-known Viking line now boasts a fleet of over 70 riverboats and ocean ships that sail the world over and has earned top awards and honors from some of today’s most prestigious publications, including Travel & Leisure, Afar, Berlitz, USA Today, and Town & Country.

In 2013, Viking set a Guinness World Record when, in a nod to the explosive growth of river cruising, it simultaneously christened 10 new Viking Longships, an innovative concept in river cruising: energy-efficient vessels with a sleek and patented Scandinavian design, a variety of stateroom options and a guest capacity of 190 passengers and 48 crew members. More Longships followed in succeeding years and successfully plied all the major rivers of Europe…except the Douro.

The short and narrow locks that dot Portugal’s Douro River demanded a vessel smaller than the 443’ Longship design. The solution? A custom-built Viking baby Longship, a more diminutive (262’ long) adaptation of the signature Longship. With four decks, 106 passengers, 36 crew and eight cabin categories, these baby Longships would offer everything their big sisters had…and, in fact, more, as these smaller vessels include a sun deck swimming pool while their pool-less sisters do not.

It is the latest baby Longship, Viking Helgrim, that has lured me across the Pond to Lisbon for a two-night stay in Portugal’s capital before traveling to Gaia to board the riverboat for a seven-night sailing of the Douro.

Okay, I’ll be honest here. When I think of the wonders of Europe, Portugal isn’t the first country that springs to mind—or, at least, it wasn’t until I sailed the Douro. The itinerary for my Douro cruise was sprinkled with towns and villages with which I was completely unfamiliar and whose names I could barely pronounce. Portuguese cuisine seemed to be limited to sausages, sardines and weird concoctions that listed stale bread among the main ingredients. There seemed to be little opportunity for shopping and port was not my favorite drink. In fact, the only Portuguese libation that I’d ever been acquainted with before my sailing was Mateus rose—that was just once when I was in high school in the 1970s and let’s just say the evening didn’t end well.


It wasn’t long after I arrived in Lisbon, was greeted by a red-shirted Viking representative and whisked away to the five-star Tivoli Avenida Liberdade Hotel that my ambivalence for Portugal began to lift. The hotel, part of my Viking Helgrim package, was situated on Lisbon’s chi-chi equivalent of Fifth Avenue, luxury shops lining the tree-shaded streets and directly across was a charming market filled with affordable items, many crafted of the cork that is so prevalent throughout the country, along with fashionable clothes, nuts, olive oils, soaps and jewelry.

That evening, the hotel’s lobby restaurant, Cerejana Liberdade, opened my eyes to Portuguese cuisine. Think classic seafood dishes, spicy succulent meats, rich and buttery cheeses served with an addictive pumpkin jam and, for dessert, an “apple pie” that was, in fact, a flakey galette lined with sweet slices of apple and topped with a scoop of intensely-flavored cinnamon ice cream and a lace cookie. And that dish that incorporates stale bread? Known as acorda, it ended up being my favorite taste of the evening, jumbo shrimp enrobed in a delicious garlicky tomato-based stew.

After dinner, I experienced another epiphany at Seen, the popular rooftop bar located on the 9th floor of the Tivoli Avenida Liberdade Hotel: I like port! In fact, as I gazed out at riot of red tile roofs and the hilltop St. George Castle beyond, I realized I love port when it’s part of the not-very-originally named Port & Tonic, a mixture of—you guessed it!—port, tonic water, lemon and mint. What you probably hadn’t guessed is that the port used in this cool and refreshing drink, Portugal’s most popular cocktail, is a dry, white port created from the white grapes of the Douro Valley.

As jet lag finally overtook me and I slipped between the high-thread count sheets of my hotel room’s bed, I realized that though I’d only arrived in Portugal a scant 12 hours before, Portugal had already surprised me. And I was ready to eat it all up and drink it all in during the days ahead.

Luscious Lisbon:

There are some days when I really wish I was a breakfast eater and our first morning at Tivoli Avenida Liberdade was one of them. A lavish buffet of eggs, meats, cheeses, breads, pastries and fruits lay before us, most people digging in while I could only summon up the appetite for a tart homemade lemon yogurt and coffee.

This evening we were promised “A Taste of Lisbon,” an optional tour that would introduce us to regional dishes and petiscos, Portugal’s version of tapas, and I was saving my appetite for that, working one up, in fact, with a refreshing dip in the hotel’s sparkling circular pool, browsing the city’s markets and exploring the hilly streets until we reached Eduardo VII Park, the largest park in central Lisbon.

“A Taste of Lisbon” kicked off with a walking tour of the Graca neighborhood, a vibrant area filled with charming homes, each bearing wall after wall of the dazzling glazed ceramic titles (azulejos) that can be traced back to the 13th century when the Moors invaded Spain and Portugal. Tales of tile thefts by tourists or vendors looking to sell the little works of art to tourists were intriguing but, as we passed a bake shop and I spied what looked like miniature custard pies in the window (more on those later), my stomach rumbled and I earnestly yearned for the “taste” in “A Taste of Lisbon.”

At last, I was rewarded. A duo of canapes awaited us at our first stop: marinated tuna on a bed of cumin-spiked hummus and—uh-oh—sardines on a bed of lettuce, both served on slices of rustic Portuguese bread. The tuna was delightful, its hummus bed, the perfect base.   I held my breath as I bit into the sardine and my eyes widened as I discovered this was not the oily, fishy, scaly thing that comes out of a tin sold at the grocery store back home. Light, mild and tender, I could pop these babies one after another while watching a movie.

We food hopped for the remainder of the evening, our taste buds tantalized by a variety of Portuguese treats including a savory cornmeal biscuit studded with chorizo, delectable cheeses of both sheep and cow’s milk varieties and, at our last stop, Graca do Vinho, each table was set with a lavish charcuterie board piled high with meats, sausages, cheeses, fruits, vegetables and tapenade.

Of course, “A Taste of Lisbon” also included a “sip” of Lisbon and throughout our journey we enjoyed lovely local wines, a few shots of ginja (the deceptively potent local liqueur that combines sour cherries, cinnamon and sugar) and Super Bock beer. Super Bock and its competitor Sagres have a fiercely devoted—and divided–following ….which is based not on taste but on consumers’ favorite soccer clubs, as each brand supports different teams! I’m not sure what Sagres is like, but put me down as a fan of Super Bock whichever team they support.

Helgrim, Ahoy!:

Our chariot—or, rather Viking motor coach—delivered us to Gaia and the foot of Viking Helgrim as it basked in the Portuguese sun (a sun that was working overtime for the duration of our sailing—not one drop of rain).   Waiting to welcome us was the riverboat’s captain, himself, smiling warmly alongside red banners displaying the Viking logo. You have to love small ships, and the personalized attention they allow a ship’s crew to provide.

Embarkation was a simple thing. With all of the details covered via Viking’s website prior to departure and the small number of guests that Viking Helgrim holds, we basically strolled up the gangway and onto what would be our comfortable river-going home for the next week.

Our cabin, 221, was a cozy 150 square foot and featured single beds (convertible to queen), a 40” wall mounted TV, ample closet space, small refrigerator, hairdryer (two, in fact), a safe, and marble bathroom with shower. Floor to ceiling sliding glass doors led to a private French balcony and dual voltage of 220V and 110 V let us stay charged without the need of adaptors and converters.

The Viking Helgrim experience is largely an all-inclusive one. Other than gratuities, which are additional and at guests’ discretion, there are no pesky additional charges for bottled water, wi-fi (on your own device or at one of the two computers available for guests’ use), ground transfers, food and wine tastings and, at each port, there’s even an “included” shore excursion in addition to the individually-priced optional ones.   Wines flow freely at lunch and dinner but there’s an optional “Silver Spirits” beverage package that will allow you to freely imbibe at all other times. (The mimosa station at breakfast, a chilling bottle of champagne alongside champagne flutes partially filled with O.J., is available at no charge.)

No fitness facility is available on board but a powerful jet in the sun deck’s pool allows guests to “swim against the current” for an effective aerobic workout. Or so I’ve been told.

(Note, too, that with no children’s facilities on board, Viking Helgrim guests must be a minimum of 18 years of age…which means no screaming kids in the pool or crawling down the halls.)

Sailing…Or Not:

Curiously, riverboats on the Douro are prohibited from sailing in the evenings which allows passengers to opt for dinner ashore, take a stroll or let their hair down at local bars or clubs.

On our sailing, however, it seemed that most of us, after a long day of touring, spent our evenings at The Lounge, the social heart of Viking Helgrim. While most often a relaxing bar with entertainment provided by a charming pianist, The Lounge was also the site of cultural events like Flamenco dance the evening of our visit to Salamanca (our only Spanish port), a fascinating (honestly!) presentation on Portuguese cork, and The Tuna Folk Show (a musical style totally unrelated to fish).

For the less culturally-inclined, it was also the setting of light-hearted games like the Music Quiz, perhaps my favorite on board event! A name-that-tune competition (that my team did not win, though I highly suspect the winning team cheated), the game was followed by dancing to classic rock songs I hadn’t boogied to in ages.

Daylight sailings also allow guests to experience the wonders of passing under exceedingly low bridges (often the bridge or wheelhouse itself is mechanically lowered to allow access, some bridges offering only a couple of inches of clearance) and through the five locks that dot the river. The lock process in daylight is fascinating– the vessel enters the structure, the door closes and water flows in to raise the ship before the far door opens and the river boat exits at the new water level. So cool, particularly when Viking Helgrim is offering flutes of champagne as we watch the spectacle.

Hungry for Helgrim:

As a very early riser, I was delighted to find coffee and breakfast pastries a few steps down the hall from my cabin aboard Viking Helgrim and while that’s all I might need, those with morning appetites never missed the full breakfast buffet, supplemented by eggs cooked to order by the ship’s executive chef—who, I must say, was pretty easy on the eyes first thing in the morning. In fact, I even broke fast each day and downed rice cereal just to check him out with his imposing toque and bulging biceps.

All meals were held in Viking Helgrim’s opulent dining room, floor to ceiling windows allowing us to admire the view as we sailed before the sun set.

Luncheon included a lavish salad bar (no iceberg here, thank you) and small dishes (like the salmon pinwheels filled with creamy goat cheese that I’d look for each day), a pasta station manned by the handsome guy and a full luncheon menu for good measure. The soups were varied and delectable—broccoli, red pepper, potato, New England clam chowder—each one a winner.

At dinner, which is served at one sitting, the menu gave a distinct nod to regional fare, with fresh seafood starring and additional options like chateaubriand, tender scallops, earthy curries, and spicy Asian favorites playing a supporting role. The exception was chef’s “A Taste of Portugal”—a hearty buffet of Portuguese specialties like fire-grilled sausages, duck and mussels, accompanied by local music. Dinner is five courses and dress is always casual—a huge plus after a long day of sightseeing!

Since arriving in Portugal, I had often encountered Pastel de Nata, the official name of those little custard tarts I first noticed in the bakery window I passed during our “Taste of Lisbon” tour the day after arrival. What a delight that our sailing included not only samples of the delicious pastries but a cooking demonstration.

Helgrim Ashore!

As Viking Helgrim glides (and I mean “glides”—there’s no rocking, vibration or pitching on a riverboat), I am surrounded by stunning majestic beauty as we cut a path past lush vegetation….endless vineyards….fields of sunflowers…rocky slopes…rustic red-roofed stone dwellings…medieval castles… and trees heavy with olives, almonds and oranges. The exquisite beauty surrounding this river almost makes me wish we wouldn’t stop and call at any port at all.

But we do. And, just like the epiphany I had about Portuguese cuisine while in Lisbon, I discover that these places I’d barely heard of—places like Gaia, Pinhao, Coimbra, Barca d’Alva, Regua, Salamanca and Favaios– bring me face to face with intriguing towns, cultures, history and amazingly cheerful and friendly people.

They acquaint me with the black-robed law students of Coimbra selling whimsical pens and pencils on the street, plaintive Fado music performances, local markets with dazzling displays of fruits, and vegetables, seafood and cheeses. They take me back in time to a charming village and a quaint bakery that bakes bread in an oven heated with wood and grapevines or a bustling railroad station, its walls telling the history of the country in murals and tiles, and to a lavish quinta that dishes up a delicious beef stew.

And they introduce me to a whole lot of really great booze.

Nestled between centuries of fascinating history and quirky trivia (tempura has its origins in Coimbra, Portugal, live bats are used as a pesticide at Porto’s Estante Library and Livraria Lello was the inspiration for J.K. Rowling’s Hogworth’s Library among them), you’ll find port, the ginja sour cherry liqueur I sampled in Lisbon, Mateus rose (we won’t go there), fortified wines like Moscatel, and the young, slightly fizzy vinho verde.

Now, I’m not a very adventurous drinker—New Zealand Sauvignon blanc and the occasional Cosmopolitan is the extent of my repertoire at home–but now I find myself sipping port like an English aristocrat, strolling through distilleries and buying little bottles of moscatel at the charming Quinta de Avessada.

And I’ve even blended my own port.

That’s right. One intimate, optional shore excursion took us to the hilltop Quinta do Panascal overlooking the Tavora River. Amid the majestic vistas, our small group (only three of us!) learned the wine making process with a hands-on blending workshop under the watchful eyes of a port master. It was only after we meticulously blended (think science class and test tubes) the specific ruby, tawny and vintage ports into our own creation that our leader allowed us a generous port tasting along with regional cheeses, meats and bread.   A little tipsy after the port tasting, we were charged with creating a label for our bottle.   And while the result was a not-very-professional-looking design, we took the bottle back to Viking Helgrim to chill and share with our shipmates the following night.

As I suspected so soon after my arrival in Lisbon, Portugal is, indeed, full of surprises and sailing The Douro River aboard Viking Helgrim was an easy and flawless way to experience them. It’s the perfect sailing for those seeking beauty, history, culture, cuisine and, yes, an intoxicating voyage.

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Story and photos courtesy of our guest writer Judi Cuervo. 

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