avalon alegria douro cruise ship cafe with water view

A Portuguese man strums a 12-string guitar, playing a song full of yearning — a hallmark of his country’s famed fado music. 

“We are a very melancholic people,” he says after a hearty round of applause. “We live where the land meets the sea. A land of seafarers. We are always longing for someone who isn’t here.”

Portugal’s soundtrack might skew mournful, but the mood in the room tonight is celebratory. It’s our first evening aboard Alegria, Avalon Waterways’ newest river cruise ship. The 102-passenger vessel made its long-awaited debut on the Douro this spring.

You could say the Douro is having a moment. Several cruise lines are beefing up their offerings to meet increased demand for voyages on Portugal’s river of gold. Riviera River Cruises is rolling out MS Porto Mirante on the Douro this summer, followed by another new ship next year. And AmaWaterways extended its Portugal river cruising season all the way through December. The company will launch AmaSintra, a sister ship to the AmaDouro, in 2025. 

avolan waterways new riverboat on the douro
Courtesy, Avalon Waterways

Avalon had been itching to get on the Douro for some time. It wasn’t until recently, when its partner company opened an operations division in Portugal, that the Denver-based river cruise line finally got the green light to build its own boat — one that’s modeled after Avalon’s other “Suite Ships.” On these vessels, the vast majority of cabins boast floor-to-ceiling windows that open as wide as 7 feet, turning the room into a de facto balcony. Unlike most other river cruisers, each suite’s bed is positioned to face a wall of windows, making a comfortable perch to watch the Douro’s terraced vineyards and granite bluffs pass by.

Alegria differs from Avalon’s other ships in that it was custom-made for the Douro. The boat had to be shorter and smaller than the rest of the European fleet to navigate the river’s locks. 

bedroom on the Algeria riverboat
Courtesy, Avalon Waterways

“One of the fun things about the fact that Alegria isn’t moving anywhere else is that we were able to really bring Portugal to life on the ship,” said Avalon President Pam Hoffee, who joined us for the inaugural cruise. 

Hand-painted Portuguese tiles give a sense of place to Alegria’s dining room. The color scheme leans light and bright. Hot tubs on the top deck have been swapped for a pool better suited to Portugal’s (usually) sunny weather. 

Alegria is a Portuguese word for happiness. And that’s what I feel, sipping a ruby glass of port in the ship’s panorama lounge, listening to those fado songs. That’s because there’s simply no better place to be than on the river when it comes to exploring this verdant slice of northern Portugal.

riverboat views in portugal
Courtesy, Everaldo Coelho via Unsplash

Steep hillsides layered with rows of tidy grapevines flank the ship as we travel along the serpentine waterway, a route used for centuries to transport the country’s most famous wine. Wooden cargo boats loaded with casks of young port would make their way from interior vineyards to the area around the coastal city of Porto, where the fortified wine spent time aging before being shipped to thirsty customers around the world. These days, the wine arrives by truck, leaving tourists to enjoy the river.

Avalon’s eight-day cruise, Vida Portugal: Vineyards & Villages Along the Douro, starts and ends in Porto, a lively spot packed with steep, cobbled streets, tiled facades, and soaring bridges. It’s where the meandering Douro ends its 550-mile run from the mountains of Spain and empties into the Atlantic Ocean. 

As Alegria hopscotches from one port to the next, passengers can choose from excursions categorized as active, classic or discovery. Giving guests choices is a cornerstone of Avalon’s M.O. Rather than a set meal time, for example, passengers decide when they want to go to dinner. And if your mattress and pillows aren’t to your liking, you can channel your inner Goldilocks and pick harder or softer options.

view from the algeria riverboat
Courtesy, Avalon Waterways

An “active” kayak trip had me paddling to a wildflower-peppered island, where two guests much braver than me jumped off a rope into the inky water below.

“It’s (swear word) freezing!” the first one shouted as soon as he came up for air. 

The next day, I opted for a “discovery” outside of Peso da Régua. The town itself is nothing special. But it marks the gateway to the Douro Valley wine region, one of the world’s oldest — and prettiest — appellations. Our group followed a charming, 72-year-old countess named Maria around her restored country estate, surrounded by fruit trees and vineyards. (“Maria wants all of you to come back for harvest,” she pleaded, clasping her hands together in prayer. “Maria needs help picking the grapes.”) She fed us homemade cookies by the fireplace, poured us port from a barrel, and regaled us with stories about going from riches to rags to riches again. 

After our morning with Maria, all of the ship’s passengers reconvened for lunch at the casually elegant Quinta do Bomfim winery set on a ridge overlooking the Douro. The three-course meal by Michelin-starred chef Pedro Lemos featured goodies like paté en croute and a dessert of mille-feuille paired with a 20-year-old tawny port. 

bedroom on the algria
Courtesy, Avalon Waterways

The food made by the Portuguese chef aboard Alegria proved every bit as tasty, and it came accompanied by a well-curated selection of Portuguese wine. (Pet peeve: cruising through some of Europe’s finest viticultural areas only to be served cabernet from California.)

As Alegria wended its way back to our starting point in Porto, I appreciated the chance to have another pass at the scenery. The lush landscape sometimes felt close enough to touch from the open window of my suite. From here, I could listen to a symphony of birds chirping in the green hillside. I could hear church bells ringing in the distance, and the Douro’s waters gently lapping the brand new ship. 

This wasn’t fado music. It was Portugal’s other soundtrack. One of happiness. Of Alegria. 

(Cover image, courtesy, Avalon Waterways)