Travel: A date with the Douro

Discovering a celebration of Carmen Miranda’s 100th anniversary in Marco de Canaveses along the Douro River in Portugal was one of many unexpected events experienced aboard the MS Amadouro, a seven-day wine cruise that revealed the heart of this country’s legendary Port wine region. Miranda was a vintage Hollywood star remembered for her upbeat Brazilian-inspired singing and dancing while wearing some of the most outrageous headgear since Hedda Hopper’s hats.

Born in Portugal, she immigrated to Brazil in 1912, but memories of her still linger in this village along the Douro River, which has since become a focal point for wine lovers. Christian Abker, cruise director aboard the MS Amadouro, pointed this out to the 104 passengers aboard, along with the inside story on the vineyards, monasteries and mountain villages that make up one of the most dramatic cruise itineraries I have ever experienced.

While California’s Napa Valley wine route lends itself to the car, the Douro Valley is best experienced on a river cruise. Reserving a cabin and stopping at ports such as Regua, Pinhao, Bitetos and Barca d’ Alva where access to the vineyards and villages is a breeze best appreciate the Douro’s dramatic coastline. Two touring buses followed the Amadouro from its embarkation in Porto, Portugal’s second largest city.

From a Sunday morning departure “The Port Wine Route” revealed the history and lifestyle of a region devoted to the production of wine and eventually won recognition by UNESCO. The organization chose the Alto Douro Wine region as a “cultural evolving and living landscape” because of its age-old winemaking, which was transformed over the course of centuries. The grape harvest season is a celebration in its own right, with barefoot feet crushing the tender grapes, as it has been done for centuries. Thanks to MS Amadouro’s intelligent itinerary, passengers were routed to museums such as the Mateus Palace where the link between Mateus Rose Wine and the Mateus family’s 18th century palace is explained.

A daunting bus ride to the village of Castelo Rodrigo reveals a once thriving Jewish community, which gave sanctuary to Jews expelled from Spain during the Inquisition. Sweet almonds and lemon-scented handmade soap sold at the village’s artisanal gift shop showed how this remote village has become self-sustaining. Stopping at Pinhao’s quaint train station where tile murals reveal life along the Douro River was enchanting. Nearby Quinta Nova de Nossa Senhora do Carmo offers walking tours and visits to wine cellars.

If you are ready for a cruise that does not pay homage to stylish showrooms, casinos shopping malls and spas, the MS Amadouro fits the bill. There is no midnight buffet or 24-hour pizza service, but dinners offer a different fresh pasta station nightly, such as spaghetti alla putanesca and fine Portuguese wines are poured nightly.

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Desserts are displayed with cakes and crème caramel but I created my own: a shot of port wine over vanilla bean ice cream. The open seating policy and “no reservation” policy makes this a casual, informal cruise. There is no “passenger list” so it’s up to you to mix and mingle.

Without the distractions of cell phones and computers, the passing scenery becomes a vivid mosaic of vineyards, mountains of granite and slate, and deep valleys. Passing through nine locks along 130 miles on the Douro River reveals the navigational prowess of the Portuguese along where as many as 25,000 growers produce a collage of port wine from Vinho Verde, a “green” red wine, to the sparkling rose and tawny port.

The MS Amadouro departs from Porto, Portugal for seven-night cruises throughout 2010.

Information:

-Amawaterways: 800.626.0126; amawaterways.com

-“Portugal,” by David J.J. Evans, Cadogan Guides; cadoganguidesusa.com

Pamela Price is a contributor to ForbesTraveler.com

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