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Travelling like royalty on the River Queen

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GO WITH THE FLOW: Queen Isabel docked in Porto, one of the mightly locks on the Douro

GO WITH THE FLOW: Queen Isabel docked in Porto, one of the mightly locks on the Douro

GO WITH THE FLOW: Queen Isabel docked in Porto, one of the mightly locks on the Douro

I'M RUNNING down a mountainside, setting a sprint record that Sonia O'Sullivan would envy. River cruising relaxing? Hell, my hamstrings are ready to pop.

Blame me – I've misread the return time to my cruise ship and the blasts of the horn have been drowned out by Go West on my earphones.

Under a sweltering sun I leap onto the gangplank, just in time as the Queen Isabel – under pressure from timetables and tidal conditions – readies itself to pull away.

Then a cheer goes up, and I'm the talk of the 80-so passengers onboard.

And that's the beauty of river cruising – you become a cherished part of one small, pampered family on what can best be described as a floating (and high end) boutique hotel.

While ocean cruising mainly caters to mass crowds of all ages, river boats are what cruising used to be about – getting pampered, seeing exciting new places and, most importantly, effortlessly making new friends along the way.

Our journey, with Uniworld Boutique River Cruises, was straight out of Conrad's Heart of Darkness – down a river that's been seen by very few Irish eyes, an unspoiled land of vineyards and quaint cottages far off the tourist trail.

The boarding point was Porto, itself barely on the radar of Irish travellers. The quaysides in Portugal's second city are a Unesco World Heritage Site – filled with Medieval courtyards, multi-coloured crumbly buildings and washing lines where life hasn't changed much over the generations.

There's something wonderful and ostentatious about slipping out of your robe and into the heated pool on the top deck as a working city stops to gawk enviously at you.

The eclectic mix of fellow passengers would fill a collection of Agatha Christie novels.

Evening times were spent having a beer or two with long-retired US Army man Joe, now teaching linedancing in Florida.

Then there was Ruth, the retired Holocaust scholar and schoolteacher, who knew more about the Irish Famine than most people back here at home.

Who culd forget Jacques, the French-Canadian with a glint in his eye every time a young senorita walked past; a former FBI agent who had fought organised crime in Chicago; the Australians blowing the budget on a trip around Europe; the East American Jewish ladies, the former go-go dancer who spent a nighty partying with the Rolling Stones – everyone had a story.

River cruising, as you might have guessed, is for a generation in their halcyon days, people who've lived eventful lives and who aim to keep the experiences coming.

The biggest partiers, it must be said, featured Irene, a Clontarf lady, who was queen of the sundeck, up early each morning to catch a ray or two while her daughter dozed; and the Carnie clan from Canada, each side regaling the other with taller and taller tales over a drink or three.

Days are as lazy as bustling as you want – from the off, even before you set sail, there's a tour of the Ferreira port cellars, beside your dock on the Douro in Porto's picturesque Vila Nova de Gaia area.

Here you get your first introduction to the world of vintage port (there'll be a lot more of that during the week), where Doña Antonia Adelaïde Ferreira, great-granddaughter of the winery's founder was widowed at 33.

Incredibly, the business didn't go belly up but went from strength to strength. You'll learn how the city prospered on the back on vineyards from its river valley and exported port all around the world.

Even better you'll get to knock back more than a few free glasses of the stuff, in its many incarnations.

Setting sail, the sprawl of the city soon gives way to winding banks, forests and little beach resorts along the 100-mile river.

It's a gentle voyage, punctuated with moments of drama as the entire ship is lowered, and lifted by the water through some of Europe's deepest locks.

And watch out for the bridges – one or two are low enough that everyone has to sit down, and the captain's bridge is lowered down by hydraulics as it would never pass through otherwise.

At 6 foot 2 and with the frame of a rugby second row, I expected plenty of bumping around my room on this mini-ship, but needn't have worried – there's stacks of cleverly-spaced wardrobe room, a fine bathroom, a small balcony with chairs and tables, and free recent-release movies on the large flatscreen TV.

Dinner is a dressy affair, with the attentive staff offering local dishes as well as international favourites. When I went, wine and drinks were free at mealtimes, but payable afterwards – this year everything, drinks and tips, are all included in your booking price.

Unlike an ocean cruiser, docking is easy – moorings is quick and within minutes you're off and free to nose around (or even dock beside another ship and chat with its occupants).

Many stops have one or two cafes at the dock, or a little village nearby.

While many of the passengers hit the hay early in preparation for the next day's excursions, the motley crew of Irish and Canadians hit the local bar.

The biggest selling point is the friendliness of the Portuguese. Regua, our first stop, was typical – you can hang out with the crew, try out the Portuguese you've learnt onboard at the free lesson sessions, and live life like the locals.

The Douro isn't a touristy place, but it's beautiful, and before long you'll be arguing the merits with crew and locals alike about Benfica, Porto, Sporting and whatever team they're passionate about.

The next day and a big served breakfast brings you to a typical dilemma – stay onboard and soak up the sun as the dial hits 40-plus degrees, or join the complimentary bus tour.

We got off and it was a good choice – Mateus Palace and Gardens is stunning, with treasures inside and out.

Better still, it's got cheap wine tastings – a great way to hang out with your fellow passengers and learn even more about vino.

A highlight of the trip was an excursion to the family-owned Quinta da Avessada, which produces premium Moscatel. Under a sweltering sun, surrounded by vineyards, lay tables groaning with drinks and nibbles.

The setting is stunning – think Tuscany, but more deserted – and you're the only visitors for a day of drinking, eating and local music and dance.

Pinhao brings you to the big names in port production like Sandeman, but we decided to stay on the Isabel, and take advantage of the pool and pool drinks service.

Next day brings you to Vega de Terron, a toe dipped in Spain, from which there's an excursion to Salamanca.

Not a big name on the Irish radar, it's got a main square just like Madrid's Plaza Mayor, and backstreets like Seville or Valencia in a stunning university city. A fitting highlight to a trip that's rarely been tried by others, but they don't know what they're missing.

FACTFILE:

Portugal, Spain & the Douro River Valley All Inclusive eight-day, five-star river cruise prices start at €2499 and include a seven-night cruise in a river view stateroom, return airport transfers, breakfast, lunch, dinner and on board snacks, a farewell gala dinner, and unlimited beverages on board.

The cruise also includes a large selection of daily shore excursions such as visits to vineyards where you will meet the local winemakers , a scenic vineyard dinner in a local quinta and a traditional Flamenco show in Salamanca, and a visit to the famous Mateus Palace, signature lectures, onboard local entertainment, free Internet and Wi-Fi.

Flights are approx. €240 per person – but look out for specials with Ryanair or Aer Lingus. Alternatives include starting in Lisbon and flying out of Porto.

Book with www.uniworld.ie, phone 01-7753803, or visit your local travel agent.


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