The former royal barge that carried The Queen along the Thames now provides a unique way to discover the Douro
There are probably very few, if any, occasions in life when you can say you’ve travelled like The Queen, but as I sip Champagne sitting in a plush red armchair bearing a royal crest, I can truly say that I have. OK, Her Majesty never sat on the throne-like seat, but she did undoubtedly appreciate exactly the same opulent surroundings that I and a fellow group of her subjects are now enjoying.
We have just set sail on a seven-night cruise along Portugal’s Douro, which was discovered by the Romans who named it the River of Gold. The waterway might not be as well-known as some of its European counterparts, in particular the Rhine and the Danube, but in keeping with its seafaring past it offers a unique modern-day voyage of discovery. In the past few years an increasing number of cruise lines have launched ships on the river – with two brand new ones for the 2019 season – however there is one that stands out from the rest, and it’s the one I’m on.
In 2012 the Spirit of Chartwell was the gilded barge that carried The Queen and Duke of Edinburgh and led a flotilla of 1,000 boats down the Thames for the Diamond Jubilee Pageant. Before then it was a day cruiser and hotel boat before having a £1 million facelift for its moment in the world spotlight.
Today it no longer has its ornate exterior trappings – and our captain explains that the mermaid figureheads and faces of Neptune that were mounted by the new owner had to be removed as they snagged the mooring ropes – but it has lost none of its regal elegance. The chocolate and cream livery resembles a Pullman railway carriage, and the theme conjuring up the golden age of travel continues as you step inside, where the interior is little altered since the pageant.
At one end of the main passenger deck is a beautifully retro cocktail bar with a grand piano taking pride of place on the gleaming inlaid wooden floor. Beyond the reception is a lounge with panoramic windows and at the end the restaurant area, which resembles a glamorous railway dining car from bygone days. Indeed, the similarity is more than a coincidence as the Spirit of Chartwell has beautiful Lalique glass wall panels along with cabin and bar signage which came from the Orient Express-style Côte d’Azur Express that ran between France and Italy in the 1920s.
The rich wood and brass fixtures and fittings extend to my cabin. Each room is named after, and bears the plaque, of a famous Royal Navy ship, in this case the Newcastle. Aside from the one spacious suite, the cabins are compact but contain everything you need with some clever design touches to stow everything away and keep it looking neat and shipshape. The bathroom is particularly nice, with a strong shower, L’Occitane toiletries and a cosy bathrobe and slippers.
There is excited chatter in the lounge as I head back up to meet my fellow passengers and crew members over a welcome drink. Carrying just 30 people – far fewer than other vessels that ply the Douro – and with open seating at mealtimes, it’s easy to get to know everyone in the convivial atmosphere and friendships are quickly formed. The easy-going atmosphere extends to the crew, and we are welcome to pop in and see the captain and have a chat on the bridge as we sail along.
Now owned by the Portuguese company Douro Azul, the Spirit of Chartwell is chartered by Titan Travel, which offers a choice of two itineraries; one including a land-stay in Lisbon. Our voyage began and ended in Porto, the country’s second city and birthplace in 1394 of Henry the Navigator who led the country’s age of seafaring.
From the Spanish border the Douro winds 125 miles through the lush green landscapes of Portugal’s green north before meeting the Atlantic in Porto. Vessels are only allowed to sail during the day, so we never missed any of the passing sights.
Sailing serenely along it was hard to imagine this used to be a treacherous river filled with rapids that caused countless rabelos – the distinctive flat-bottomed wooden boats once used to transport barrels of port – to founder as they made the perilous journey to the warehouses of Porto which still line the waterfront bearing familiar names such as Taylor, Cockburn, Graham and Sandeman.
As a result of this turbulent past the Douro is very different from other European rivers, such as the Rhine, as it was never a commercial artery, so no large cities grew up along its banks. Instead the UNESCO-listed Douro Valley is lined with dramatic wooded slopes, vineyards and layers of silver schist, the silvery-like stone that helps create the heat-retaining soil on which the port and wine grapes flourish. It might not be flanked by grand capitals, but this relaxing cruise offers the chance to sit back and enjoy the scenery dotted with improbably remote farmhouses on the hillsides – and of course delight in the Spirit of Chartwell itself.
Days were interspersed by excursions and mealtimes; the latter a buffet breakfast followed by served four-course lunch and dinner, accompanied by excellent Douro wines that the majority of us had never tried before. One night the captain joined us for a cocktail reception and dinner, which along with other meals showcased Portuguese cuisine (including seriously tempting egg tarts at breakfast).
Each day brought something new. The 18th century sanctuary of Nossa Senhora dos Remedios is a literal highlight overlooking the town of Lamego. We were dropped at the top and had the option to walk down the wide stone staircase flanked by fountains, statues and murals made with characteristic azulejo tiles that adorn churches, monasteries, palaces, houses, park benches, fountains, shops and railway stations, well, just about everything, in Portugal. In the medieval walled town of Castelo Rodrigo, we sampled all manner of almonds – savoury, spicy and chocolate coated – and olives. The next afternoon we visited Mateus Palace, famously portrayed on the curvaceous bottles of the namesake wine and set in pretty gardens. A day trip took us to the Spanish city of Salamanca with its vast main square and honey-coloured buildings with ornamental facades. One lunchtime and evening the chef had some well-deserved time off and we had private group meals in beautiful surroundings at family-owned wine estates, or quintas.
The one constant each day was the Spirit of Chartwell, where crew members welcomed us back with cool towels and refreshing drinks. This certainly was a classy cruise fit for a Queen.
Tel: +44 (0)800 988 5823
On Board Facilities: Restaurant, bar, lounge, spa, sun deck and free Wi-Fi.
Number of cabins: 15
Price Band: Medium to high.
Insider Tip: To travel in suitably regal style book the 196 square foot Royal Suite, which is on the same deck as the other public rooms and also best for anyone with mobility issues as the other cabins are reached by winding stairs.
Reviewer’s Rating: 10/10
Factfile: Titan Travel offers a seven-night cruise aboard the Spirit of Chartwell and a nine-night holiday combining the sailing with a two-night hotel stay in Lisbon. Fares for 2020 start from £3,099 include all meals, wine with lunch and dinner, excursions and entertainment, flights from a choice of airports, transfers and Titan’s VIP door-to-door pick-up service.
Known as the ‘River Cruise Queen’, Jeannine Williamson is an award-winning travel writer, cruise expert and our cruise correspondent, who has clocked up thousands of nautical miles.
Photographs by Titan Travel and Jeannine Williamson