Vineyards on the Douro, where Portugal makes port wine | Photo: Judi Cuervo

Viking Helgrim‘s Rivers of Gold

The Monthly Mantra

The Dazzling Douro … The Dazzling Douro … The Dazzling Douro

Viking Helgrim's captain welcomes cruisers to the Douro

Viking Helgrim’s captain welcomes cruisers to the Douro River. | Photo: Judi Cuervo

Pinhao! Gaia! Regua! Favaios! Lamego!

No, I’m not cheering on a soccer team. I’ve just returned from a Viking Helgrim “Rivers of Gold” sailing and these unfamiliar towns located along the stunning Douro River in Portugal are now sitting at the top of my list of favorite European destinations.

And I have Viking Helgrim to thank for that.

After two glorious pre-cruise days in Lisbon, we were whisked away from the five-star Tivoli Avenida Liberdade Hotel via Viking motor coach and delivered to Vila Nova de Gaia and the gangway of Viking Helgrim where the captain himself welcomed us aboard the gorgeous little vessel — I just love personal attention from the big guy!

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Viking Helgrim on the Douro

Viking Helgrim on the Douro | Photo: Judi Cuervo

Fresh from the shipyard, Viking Helgrim is a no-kids, no-crowds and no-drama experience. Cabins — only 53 of them — are cozy and comfortable (ours even included a veranda) and The Lounge is a lovely setting for entertainment, cultural shows and talks. The sun deck features a swimming pool (rare on riverboats … and a refreshing bonus during our sunny and dry sailing) and The Restaurant, an opulent one with floor-to-ceiling windows, serves up full breakfast and lunch buffets and sumptuous five-course dinners. Like a tipple? Wines are complimentary at meal times — and there’s even a mimosa set-up at breakfast!

Portuguese fire-grilled sausages

Portuguese fire-grilled sausages on Viking Helgrim | Photo: Judi Cuervo

Best of all, Viking Helgrim doesn’t just sail the Douro, it is the Douro, bringing guests the sights, sounds and tastes of the region even while on board. We sip port and tonic, the country’s most popular cocktail, or choose from an impressive collection of superb Portuguese wines and a variety of ports from The Lounge’s fully-stocked bar. A literal taste of Portugal is offered at dinner time, particularly at the Portuguese buffet that features a dizzying selection of specialties including fire-grilled sausages, luscious local seafood, succulent duck, and briny mussels. Scrumptious pastel de nata, the custard tarts displayed in every Portuguese bake shop window, are celebrated not only as an onboard dessert, but as the subject of a cooking class (recipe included) so guests can duplicate the treat when they return home. We learn about Portuguese cork in a fascinating (really!) talk by an expert, view a film that documents the tumultuous Douro of yesterday (with the captain providing commentary), enjoy local folk music, and, at Salamanca, our one Spanish port, are treated to flamenco.

Pastel de nata served on board | Photo: Judi Cuervo

Pastel de nata served on board | Photo: Judi Cuervo

Compared to the bustling Danube and Rhine, the Douro is a well-kept secret. Few have heard of the picturesque little villages that dot this river. They haven’t seen the sun set as they sail past banks of endless terraced vineyards dotted with medieval stone structures or walked the narrow, cobblestone streets. They haven’t heard an emotion-drenched fado music performance with its hypnotic, plaintive vocals and the crying wail of a Portuguese guitar or felt the warmth of locals proud and eager to welcome them to their small village. They haven’t been dwarfed by the magnificent cathedrals, marveled at the countless port cellars on the river’s south bank or immersed themselves in the history of the Douro’s wine-making culture. And they haven’t sipped a refreshing, slightly effervescent vinho verde or a deceptively potent sour-cherry ginja liqueur at an unpretentious neighborhood wine bar.

At least not yet.

Portugal’s history is filled with tales of great and momentous discoveries … and after my Viking Helgrim sailing, I realized that the Douro River just might be the best discovery of all.

— Judi Cuervo

Judi Cuervo is a New York City native who fell in love with cruising in 1976 during her first sailing aboard Carnival Cruises’ Mardi Gras. Twenty years later, she began her freelance cruise writing gig and, since that time, has covered mass market, ultra-premium, riverboat and expedition ships for regional, national and international publications as well as cruise websites.