How two septuagenarian adventurers were finally won over by cruise

·9-min read
viking cruise - Getty
viking cruise - Getty

The freshness of the early mornings melted away as late September sunlight slipped down the steep riverbanks to sparkle in the water. Each day of our journey, the warmth grew as the Viking Torgil longship glided along the Douro – a landscape of immaculately terraced hills and valleys, grapevines carefully cultivated on every possible scrap of land. Occasionally, the buildings of a quinta were spotted towering over us on a high point of the riverbank, but here, close to Portugal’s River of Gold, the harvest was almost over and there was very little sign of human activity. We sailed almost in silence, hardly noticing the gentle hum of the engine. Such sheer enjoyment did bring its own particular stress. Should we opt to enjoy the comforts of the ship or tear ourselves away to join one of the range of excursions on offer? A tough decision comparable only with the choice to be made from the extensive menu in the restaurant. And to think we had resisted the idea of a cruise for so long. How close we came to missing this!

Despite the hardships of the past 18 months, we had been among the lucky ones who actually managed to make two trips abroad in 2020. After the first lockdown, we were on one of the first planes to leave the UK for Greece, and later in September we took a minibreak in a near-deserted Rome. Basic safety precautions of hygiene and wearing masks were enforced, but otherwise our holidays were trouble-free. The only new travel documents we encountered were the passenger locator forms for each journey. The information required – simply flight details and destination addresses – was not complicated at all. We were completely relaxed about the whole idea of travel and imagined that the pandemic would be nicely under control by the summer of 2021.

But as 2021 progressed, we came to feel very differently. Despite being double-vaccinated, we were overwhelmed by the complications surrounding international travel this year. We were lost in a turmoil of traffic lights and testing – to quarantine or not to quarantine? Questions whirled around in our heads. How would we find the right tests at the right time? What if we tested positive for Covid while we were abroad? Would our insurance be valid? By July, we gave up. A long-planned family trip abroad was cancelled and we lived with regret for weeks. We were angry with ourselves for our lack of courage but still nervous about actually how to get abroad.

At this point, a cruise was suggested as the perfect solution. What could be better than to put ourselves – our enjoyment and our safety – in the hands of an expert team? But, oh goodness no, we don’t do cruises! We had always been put off by the idea of being cooped up in one space. And wouldn’t the staterooms be cramped and noisy? Mild claustrophobia was influential in these arguments, so we decided against a large ocean-going ship. What about a river cruise? Gradually, the idea took hold, and when we came to know Viking, a whole new world opened up.

The river ships appealed to us. Large enough to offer all the amenities of a floating hotel but small enough to enjoy becoming acquainted with a group of fellow travellers. In the event, by far the majority of our new friends were from America. And what a recommendation they were for a river cruise. They oozed interest and enthusiasm. Many had travelled with Viking on multiple occasions. This time, in the absence of direct flights, they had endured multi-leg flights from the States to join the trip in Lisbon.

Lisbon - Lisbon
Lisbon - Lisbon

We had several criteria to meet in our choice of cruise. Thinking foreign travel was not going to happen, we had already filled our calendar with UK trips with remarkable success. And so primarily we needed to find a company offering a wide choice of dates. Even in late September, we were looking for sunshine, and a cruise on the River Douro promised all we could wish for.

An added bonus was the two-day stay in Lisbon before the cruise began. But then a sudden attack of cold feet. What about the prevailing Covid regulations? However would we cope with the complex paperwork and the testing regimen? It suddenly all seemed as if our ship had sunk before it had even set sail. But everything arrived with comprehensive instructions and a countdown of actions that needed to be carried out in the days leading up to departure.

It would be misleading to pretend it all was smooth sailing. The instructions were clear but the app was unfamiliar, even – as we later learnt – to those much more tech-savvy than us. Stress grew astronomically with the requirement to complete a task before a deadline. There were several anxious calls to the wonderfully calm office staff at Viking, who invariably provided reassurance. But our mobile phones became the ultimate enemy. How does one download and then upload, or persuade the things to take a photo in the indicated area? And why – when finally taken – was said photo constantly refused by the software? Our resolve to enjoy the trip was severely tested.

But finally, we were triumphant. Stage one, tick! The journey out was trouble-free and we arrived in Lisbon to the first of many wonderful welcomes – and the real start of our journey.

Every precaution was taken to ensure we remained healthy. Everyone on board – passengers and crew – was tested daily via a non-invasive saliva test. Clear procedures were in place to provide quarantine and eventual return home should anyone test positive, so we had no fear that, should we prove unlucky, we would be simply abandoned. Masks were worn on the coaches and when moving around the ship, and the standard of hygiene was incomparable. Our health never caused us the slightest tinge of anxiety.

In fact, there was no anxiety at all – unless you count the locks. And that was a personal fear brought on by my claustrophobia. I was terrified as we approached the deepest lock in Europe and my heart sank as the captain invited everyone to join him on the top deck as we crossed the lock. It was bad enough to be on board the ship, never mind up there in the open air as those giant gates closed in on us. But I did it! And what’s more, I did it again and again. I will never count locks as a favourite experience, but nor will I feel the horror I once did.

Viking cruises view - Mary Williamson
Viking cruises view - Mary Williamson

Perhaps it was the incredible way the ship was tailored to fit snugly in the lock or the quiet hum of the engine rather than the noisy heaving and clanking I had expected. I’ll admit, I almost enjoyed it… and I certainly don’t fear locks any more. Quite an achievement on the first day of the trip. Could anything be better?

It certainly could. Memories of the entire trip jostle for position: the enchantment of Lisbon; the gentle stroll from the wonderful Tivoli Hotel down through the tree-lined boulevard to the bustling waterfront; the view from our window over the rooftops towards the water. Then there were the two enchanting late evenings under the glass ceiling of the hotel lobby, spellbound by the musical interpretations of an amazingly talented pianist seamlessly and masterfully accompanied by his guitarist.

Our journey towards the Douro from Lisbon took us to the ancient university of Coimbra, with its magnificent library and charming students who welcomed us into lunch with their cloaks laid down for us to walk over. The fado concert which followed lunch was emotional but all too brief as we had to be on our way.

People gathered in front of the library at the University of Coimbra - Getty
People gathered in front of the library at the University of Coimbra - Getty

Any lingering regrets were washed away by the warmth of the welcome we received from the crew of the sleek Viking Torgil as we boarded in Porto. We were bowled over by the Torgil team for the duration. Supremely efficient and professional yet consistently creating a “Viking family” atmosphere, they were – without exception – very impressive. Perhaps one exception should be mentioned. On special occasions, passengers are serenaded by the crew choir. The kindest way to phrase it would be to say that they are a work in progress, but they were an immense source of fun and hilarity, and hugely enjoyed by everyone.

Each day brought its own highlights, and not always the ones we anticipated. The Mateus Palace, so familiar to us from the labels of those famous bottles, was breathtaking but matched by the skill of our coach drivers as they negotiated narrow roads, vertiginous climbs and hairpin bends. Our delight in the charm of historical villages was far exceeded by the thrill of the villagers of Favaios as a load of grapes arrived destined to produce a vintage wine. It felt like such a privilege to share that moment, and returning from a trip into Spain to visit majestic Salamanca we were captivated by a chance to stop to view vultures soaring around a peak.

And have I mentioned the food and drink? And food and drink, and more food and drink? The superb port and wines of the Douro served us wherever we were; the splendid menus on board; and the wonderful pumpkin pastries we sampled in the entrancing old city of Guimarães. The entire trip was a gastronomic delight.

As all good things must, our journey came to an end back in Porto with one final day to discover some small part of this fascinating town with its rich history rooted in the production of the famous wine. Too little time!

If the best gauge of a successful holiday is to leave wanting to return, then this was successful beyond our dreams. Why we resisted cruising for so long is a mystery, but one thing is for certain: we will be back.

Reader Service: Did you know that some cruise operators require specific cruise travel insurance? Learn how to get the right travel cover for your trip.

How to do it

Viking (0800 319 66 60; vikingcruises.co.uk) offer Portugal’s River of Gold cruise from £2,445pp including flights.

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