Everything you need to know about Riviera Travels’ Douro Splendour

Riviera Travel celebrates 40 years of delivering award-winning holidays in 2024, starting with camping holidays in the south of France in the early 1980s before pioneering coach tours to Paris and eventually worldwide destinations.

It wasn’t until 2009 that it launched its first river cruises – along the Rhine and Moselle – and now it also sails the Danube, Rhone, Seine, Main, Dutch Waterways and of course the Douro, as well as the Nile in Egypt and Cambodia’s Mekong.

Although it also offers small-ship ocean cruising, Riviera is best known for its river cruises and to celebrate its 40th birthday the company is offering free Superior drinks packages on European river cruises throughout 2024.

What’s it like onboard?

There are mainly British passengers but often a good mix of Australians, Canadians and Americans too, making for a laid-back atmosphere where everybody speaks the same language and understands the importance of queues.

Douro ships are smaller than most on European rivers because their locks are narrow, so there are a maximum of 126 passengers on board and people get to know each other relatively quickly – especially as faces soon become familiar on the included daily excursions.

Sailing at night on the Douro is not allowed, so you’re likely to spend a morning or afternoon relaxing on the sundeck before or after an excursion, perhaps cooling off in the open-air pool. It’s bigger than those on many older river cruise ships, although still not big enough to really swim in.

Then around 6.30 or 7pm many passengers wander into the bar for a pre-dinner drink, possibly sitting out on the bar terrace in the last of the sunshine before going to dinner.

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The WOW factor

As with most river cruises, the destination is the biggest draw and the River Douro has a considerable WOW factor thanks to its dramatic banks – gorge-like in parts and out of this world in others.

The best section is from Regua through to the Spanish border, where the hills that rise from the river are like sculpted works of art, with carefully tended grape vines running in regular terraces – mostly horizontal with the water but sometimes running vertically up the hill into the azure blue sky.

The Douro Valley is Unesco-listed and until around 20 years ago, when new roads were built, it was one of the most isolated areas in Europe. In parts, it still seems that way and the lack of human habitation is probably the reason why you can sometimes spot vultures, eagles, kites and storks.


Because Douro ships are not as wide as on other European rivers the cabins are quite compact. The smallest are on the lowest deck, with very narrow windows just above water level, but there’s a range of sizes on the second and third deck from standard cabin to suite.

Standard cabins have queen-sized beds that can be made up as twin beds, a wardrobe and desk/dressing table with an ottoman seat, with more storage in a cupboard beside the door and in bedside drawers.

The electric floor-to-ceiling window drops down to create a balcony effect window when the top half is open and there’s a small table and two armchairs for sitting in while you watch out for herons and cormorants along the river bank.

There’s also a TV with news channels and films, tea and coffee-making facilities and a small fridge, plus electric blinds behind the curtains for when you’re moored against another boat – or if you prefer to sleep in total darkness.

The bathroom has a marble-effect floor and walls, a good-sized shower with clear doors and a powerful shower head, while the sink has a marble-effect top and a shelf for storage.


The restaurant is on deck two and is big enough to sit every passenger, with a buffet breakfast, buffet lunch and waiter-served dinner every day.

Early bird breakfast pastries are available in the lounge bar but there’s a much better choice at the restaurant breakfast buffet – cereal or porridge, Continental breakfast and hot meals such as scrambled eggs, Portuguese-style bacon and an omelette station.

At lunch the lounge bar has soup, salads and sandwiches but again the restaurant has more including a hot dish such as pasta.

You can take your plate to eat outside on the lounge terrace or sundeck but there’s only bar service in the restaurant and lounge.

The sit-anywhere policy is still in place at waiter-served dinners, so you can carry on conversations started in the bar. The food is very good – octopus or Mille Feuillet vegetables, for example – with salmon and chicken always available.


The Douro is completely different from any other European river cruise destination. Its sheer cliffs and conical hills mean there are few towns along the route and excursions are mostly to places well away from the river.

This – and the ban on night sailing – means there are often whole mornings or afternoons spent sailing, which is not a problem if you enjoy the idea of sitting in the sun watching an ever-changing view.

Should you tire of views, though, the sundeck is also equipped with luxury loungers for a snooze, and there are armchairs and tables under a large awning for those who want to read or play cards. The pool is also a good place to chat with fellow guests.

So the Douro is an excellent cruise for anybody who wants to spend a good portion of the day doing relaxing with a little bit of sightseeing.

Daily included excursions are mostly by coach and sometimes the narrow, winding, hillside road journeys can be longer than you would expect. The transfer to Spain’s Unesco-listed Salamanca, for instance, takes two hours each way but it’s absolutely worth it – the historic centre is magnificent.

The coach ride to Mateus Palace, familiar to everyone of a certain age as the picture on the front of Mateus wine bottles, is a more comfortable half an hour away but the tiny hilltop village of Castelo Rodrigo takes an hour each way. Not that you would want to miss any of the sights.

Mateus Palace is an architectural treat, while the gardens have a certain charm, and if you don’t want to pay to go inside the palace (nobody did) there’s good coffee and a shop selling reasonably priced wine to take home.

Castelo Rodrigo is one of Portugal’s prettiest villages, even though there are only a few streets and even fewer shops, while Lamego is only about a 20-minute drive from Regua, which is an overnight stop each way on the cruise with a nice riverside walk and a museum about winemaking near the mooring site.

Lamego is an ancient city with several religious buildings including the church of the Convent of Santa Cruz, an impressive chapel designed by the same architect as Mateus Palace. From the church, there’s a wonderful view and a series of terraces all the way to the town, which you can walk to down a series of intricate stone staircases with 600 steps.

Porto and Salamanca are the highlights that bookend the cruise. Salamanca is an elegantly historic city with a massive square – Plaza Mayer – at its centre, two exquisite cathedrals, university buildings that are in Oxford and Cambridge’s architectural league and a Roman bridge that’s still in use.

Porto is the start and finish of the cruise, with two overnights so you can enjoy the outdoor bars and market at Vila Nova de Gaia, where the river ships moor, and a full day with a tour and tasting of one of the port houses in Gaia, plus guided tour of the city.


A pianist plays before drinks every night and after dinner most nights, which is enough for most passengers because they can still chat with others while they listen.

Local fado band musicians may join the ship for an evening and the staff sometimes entertain – we watched the opening of a vintage bottle of port with fire and ice (and a large knife).

But inevitably, the quiz with prizes was the most popular after-dinner event.

Fact box

MS Douro Splendour will continue to sail in Portugal with sister ship MS Douro Elegance, joined by Riviera Travel’s new Douro ship MS Porto Mirante in 2024.

It offers 7-night The Douro, Porto & Salamanca cruises from early April to late October, round-trip from Porto. Prices start from £1,849pp for a lower deck cabin departing April 23 2024, cruise only (rivieratravel.co.uk).

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