Just off The Andorinha
My DH and I just ended a month of travel with the Villages and Vintages cruise on the Douro. The ship is the most beautiful river cruise ship I’ve ever seen with a two-story atrium that bisects both the Compass Rose and the Panorama Lounge and featuring a skylight above. Both these public spaces have floor-to-ceiling windows offering plenty of light and contributing to a very open feeling ambiance. Arthur’s Bistro at the rear of the ship is two levels with the upper being on the same level as the sun deck and featuring an outdoor open grill kitchen. Unfortunately on our cruise that grill area was never utilized. The sun deck has a small, pretty pool and plenty of very comfortable, shaded loungers. We were in a suite on upper level 3 and it was comfortable, though a little small compared to ocean cruise ship suites. There was a walk-in closet, roomy bathroom and there was plenty of storage.
Food was good to very good, nicely presented and at dinner there were new options every evening. There were many opportunities to enjoy local cuisine and wines. The wines were all local and mostly good. Wait staff in both restaurants and the Panorama lounge were exceptional, so friendly and welcoming. Sergio and Francisco were our favorite servers and Walter was an inspiring leader for the entire service crew.
The Tauck team was also exceptional and worked hard to make the cruise fun for everyone. However, one of the tour directors had an annoying style of speaking to the group as though they were either in kindergarten or a nursing home. We tried our best to avoid her bus.
The Douro is a stunningly beautiful river valley and it was interesting to learn about the port and wine traditions throughout the region. But, some of the stops were rather underwhelming and some towns were rather dismal, Peso da Régua and Pinhão come to mind. Because of the daytime cruising requirement on the river there was a lot of down time and the cruise seemed to be very slow-paced. There were many people complaining about the overall slowness, especially at the beginning of the cruise with one full day cruising up the river. There were several longish bus rides that also added to the tedium. One gets the impression that Tauck was sort of scraping the barrel to find engaging, interesting sites to visit that were also close to the river. On a positive note, at least there were choices of activities in some of the ports. The off-ship dinner at the Quinta was not enjoyable, however. The food was forgettable and too many people were crowded into a space with very poor acoustics. It was impossible to carry on a conversation. The dinner was supposed to include a talk about the vineyard and presentation of each wine paired with the courses but it was too loud for that to happen. On the bus ride back to the ship it was also obvious that the tour director had had too much to drink and she was shouting and rambling on, encouraging our bus driver to pass the other bus.
The local guides were generally very good but the size of the groups was much larger than what we’ve experienced on past Tauck cruises. The small group size is one reason why we are repeat passengers with Tauck but we were disappointed on this cruise.
Onboard entertainment was fun and varied with a a couple of local musical performances and a flamenco performance. We didn’t enjoy the Tauck team’s “fun and games” type activities as much, though. It all seemed more geared towards nursing home residents and a little cheesy.
Another negative was the abysmal WiFi on the ship. Some of it was due to the deep valley but there was also a technical problem the last few days. This of course added to the tedium of the cruise when one was cut off from the outside world. If you must have Internet connectivity while on vacation I cannot recommend this cruise.
Seating in the Compass Rose was difficult for those preferring to dine as a couple. There were no tables for two. This was aggravating because the clientele on this cruise was not quite up to the sophistication level that we’ve experienced on our other Tauck cruises and we found ourselves trying to avoid a few certain people at dinner time. The ship was not quite full and the wait staff knew we sometimes preferred dining alone so they would clear away the other place-settings if we arrived in time. It wasn’t as big a problem at breakfast and lunch. We still enjoyed dining with some other couples but found in general that the lack of tables for two was a negative.
We were also disturbed by the almost complete lack of Covid mask requirements, especially on the busses. The cruise director mentioned on the first day that Covid was on the rise in Europe but that masking was voluntary. That was it, other than a reminder in the daily program to carry a mask in case a venue onshore required masking. There was a fair amount of sick people on the ship so I would not be surprised if there was some Covid transmission.
This was our second Tauck river cruise this year and after experiencing too many negatives each time it is doubtful we will book again.