CroisiEurope – Douro River Cruise

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The Cruise Line

CroisiEurope  is Europe’s largest river cruise line, with 50 boats (2019) operating on all major rivers in Europe and some worldwide. It is French owned.

Their boats are divided into ‘standard’ and ‘premium’, with fares to match.

The dress code is casual, which suited me in this case. I enjoy dressing for dinner, but the budget airlines ever shirking luggage allowances makes packing a tux or  a suit, increasingly  impractical.

The Boat & The Public Rooms

MS Infante Don Henrique is named after Prince Henry the Navigator, as he was better known. He was a central figure in the early days of the Portuguese Empire and in the 15th-century European maritime discoveries and maritime expansion.

The boat (standard) was built in 2003 and carries up to 138 passengers. She is shorter in length (@ 75m) compared to many modern river boats (@ 110m).

The boat has three decks named: main, middle and upper, plus the sun deck. The vessel only has two public rooms, the lounge and the restaurant. (I believe she originally had a stern lounge/bar on the upper deck, but this was converted into two suites).

The restaurant is only open for meals. If there was entrainment taking place in the lounge, there was no other quiet space to sit apart from your cabin. Therefore the loss of the stern lounge is a real shame.

The public rooms looked somewhat dated in terms of décor as did the cabins. A full renovation was well overdue.

CroisiEurope’s boats have a unique design. Interestingly the wheel house does not retract like many, it is at the front of the upper passenger deck.

The restaurant was quite compact and had no tables for 2 persons. Most were 4, 6 and even 10’s. The space between some of the tables was not very generous, so the waiters and other passengers sometimes bumped the chairs.

The lounge was just about big enough, with just enough chairs to accommodate all of the passengers simultaneously. The lounge has a central dance floor which was put to good use by passengers and performers alike. However, four columns holding the ceiling up could obscure the passengers view of the entertainment, if they sat towards the bow end of the lounge.

There was of course a bar in the lounge, which generally closed at 11.30pm each evening and two coffee machines. I believe these were available between 7.00am and midnight. (Why not 24 hours?)

Hot water for tea was provided in a vacuum flask, by staff, but occasionally run out. I’d suggest a 24 hour machine to provide hot water too.

The River Douro

The river was the real star of the show. It is arguably more consistently attractive than The Rhine and Danube. The river is lined with beautiful scenery, countless stepped vineyards and very little industrialisation. It is truly ‘unspoilt’. Some narrow sections provide scenery very close to both sides of the boat. The purser described the river in French as ‘sauvage’ (wild) in places. Therefore it is not surprising, that the river and Douro valley has been designated a UNESCO as a world Heritage Site.

The navigational section of the Douro is not very long when compared to many other rivers. My 7-night cruise was a return journey form Porto (near the mouth of the river) to Salamanca, Spain (upstream near to the furthest navigational point of the river). The boat spent two night in port at the beginning of the cruise, so effectively did the itinerary there and back in five nights.

Interestingly, the Douro river boats are not allowed to cruise at night, due to the often-narrow passage and shallows with many rocks.

Some of the berthing places on the Douro are at very small villages, some being quite remote, not being close to anything of note, including buses, cabs and trains. This often necessitates that you take the cruise lines excursions to reach the places of interest. However, all cruise excursions are overpriced in my opinion, whatever the cruise line, river or ocean.

The Douro does not have the wide range of cruise lines operating on it that the Rhine and Danube do, so your choice is more limited. Viking are one of the other major players.

Embarkation

Boarding a riverboat (and disembarking) is always breeze. There are rarely any queues or waiting. There is no paperwork to complete. A sailor meets you on the gangway and carries your bags. You walk to reception, they tick you off a list, give you a key. A few minutes later you are in your cabin. Sorted!

For disembarkation your luggage does not have to be outside your cabin until 9.00am on the day of departure – how civilised is that, compared to most ocean cruises.

A downside was that CroisiEurope’s boarding quay at ‘Quebrantoes’ is somewhat remote and not very near tourist-Porto. A taxi is needed to reach it from the city centre, at a cost of about 10 Euros.

Some other cruise lines, such as Viking, have their berths, in the prime locations of Porto. offering city views.

The Accommodation

A standard cabin.

The good news is that all of the cabins on this boat have Juliette balconies with a large sliding/opening window (although not of the floor-to-ceiling variety). Although two stern suites have proper ‘private’ balconies that you can sit on.

The standard cabins are compact, but adequate. They do not have a lot of space to walk around the bed/s. A couple would need to create some sympathetic choreography each morning, when they got dressed, in order to avoid bumping into each other or elbowing each other.

The storage space was not great and the wardrobe would struggle to accommodate two sets of adult’s clothes for 7 nights, unless the couple packed very lightly. However, the beds had enough space underneath them to store most suitcases. There was a safe in the wardrobe but this reduced the hanging space for long items of clothing.

The small TV did not feature much in the way of English language material. One channel was suppose to feature a view form the front of the boat but mainly featured a view of the ships horns.

A river view from the TV?

The air-con did not seem over effective, the heating setting seemed better.

There was an exceptionally large step-down from the bathroom ‘module’ – which was not ideal for the many elderly passengers to dismount from. The bathroom was adequate, with a proper flushing toilet and sink. The shower was small, but worked pretty well, however the shower curtain had the habit of welding itself to your back and taking your breath away. Shower products were provided, but they were really nothing special.

There was one chair and a small dressing table and hairdryer. There was no kettle or fridge, in the standard cabins.

There are two larger suites with private balconies, located at the stern and of the upper deck. There are four single cabins, two on the middle deck and two on the upper deck. There is a lift serving all decks, but there are no cabins specifically designed for passengers with disabilities.

The Bad Cabins & Smoking Crew

I was allocated cabin 338, upper deck, which is next to the navigational bridge, as is 337. Some sound of the radio could be heard through our cabin wall, when the boat was underway. The entrance door to the bridge was at the end of the corridor, adjacent to my cabin door. This would occasionally be opened/closed with a bang in the middle of the night (although the boat did not sail at night). There was a night watchman, rather than a ghost!

Unfortunately, the crew (Sailors) often smoked on the bridge wings. The starboard bridge wing was right next to my cabin. If my Juliette balcony window was open, the smoke would enter my cabin, so I had to close it.  I assume that their smoke will have also reached  other cabins a little further down the ship?

I did complain to the Captain, he was very apologetic but the practice continued.

Crew members also smoked on steps near the ship’s entrance/gangway at times, when in port. This would also be unpleasant for some nearby cabins.

In my experience, the older the boat/ship, the more the engines create vibration. Vibration at the stern of the boat was quite bad when the ship was underway. This must have affected quiet a number of cabins at the rear of main and upper decks.

What Was Included?

Most people on-board the boat had purchased a package; cruise and flights, however this had been done by via various travel agents. I had booked ‘cruise only’ direct with CroisiEurope and booked my own flights on-line.

I did note that the cruise finished at 9.00am on the final morning, but some British passengers had 9.00pm flights home, meaning that had to wait all day. This was ridiculous, given the fact that RyanAir and Easyjet offered relatively cheap flights from Porto to the UK, every hour or two, all day. This was hardly a great example of the convenience of a ‘package’ tour.

I had to pay fees for all of the excursions, although there was a small saving if these were booked in advance, rather than on-board the boat. There were also some excursion ‘packages’ which provided a small saving. However some passengers had their excursions included in their fares – but I’m sure that they had effectively paid a larger fare to cover these.

There were 7 ‘classic’ excursions on offer and 7 discovery’ ones, the latter being more energetic with pushbikes and some hiking. A couple could easily spend around £600 on excursions, if they opted for an excursion each, in every port of call.

All standard drinks (water, coffee/tea, bear, wine, spirits, cocktails etc.) were included in the fare, but premium drinks (fine whisky, vintage Port etc.) had additional fees.

Gratuities were optional, which was very fortunate, as very few of the staff on this boat deserved them. Although the two bar staff were very nice people.

Who Was Onboard?

Many of the crew were Portuguese, although the captain was French. Most of the crew spoke reasonable English.

Our cruise had around 65% French speaking passengers, the rest were mainly English speaking (American, British and Canadian) with a few Portuguese. The average age was very high with many passengers being in their 70’s and 80’s.

Anglo-French Relations

Most river cruise boats have an international mix of crew and guests. This can work well, but in this case it didn’t.

It was somewhat annoying that the English-speaking passengers were quiet during the announcement made in the French language, but the French passengers talked incessantly during the announcements made in English. The Purser (the on-board linguist) had to repeatedly ask them to be quiet on the boat and on the coach excursions. This was not just my perception, the Purser told me that this was a ‘cultural trait’. (For the record I’m NOT anti-French, but I am anti-rude!)

There was very little mixing of the guest nationalities on-board. Even the American’s kept to their own and did little conversing with the Brits., or was it vice-versa?

The Food Problem

The food on any ship/boat is extremely important. It punctuates the days. The evening meal should be one of the highlights of the day. Being a French cruise line, I would have expected the food and service to be of the highest quality. I was completely wrong. In fact I began to dread going to lunch and dinner by the middle of the cruise.

The breakfast was buffet style and featured a fair range of offerings, although Amadeus provide more. The hot offerings were often limited to scrambled egg, boil your own egg and strange sausages (probably Portuguese, a bit like the Spanish Chorizo). There was no bacon. Cold meats, cheese. Croissants and breads/baguettes were plentiful. I even saw a ‘chocolate and snail’ croissant, but declined to try it. The fresh fruit was good.

However, hot items like the scrambled egg were rarely replenished – I had to scrape the bottom on the dish to get mine on more than one occasion. The self-service toast machines took forever to actually brown the bread.

The Chef did cook fresh eggs and omelettes on several morning, which was very welcome.

Lunch was a bigger meal than the evening meal (a traditional French trait) and the evening meal was not small by any means. I often sat down to the evening dinner, still feeling full-up form lunch!

Poor Waiters & The Laminated Menu

The waiters (both male and female) on-board Don Henrique provided me with the worst service that I have ever had afloat on any boat, ship or ferry, in over than two decades of cruising. They were poorly trained, appeared to have little supervision and their style of service had more in common with a mess-hall than an upmarket restaurant.

No waiters were assigned to a particular table, random waiter would bring the food. Communication between themselves and the passengers was also very poor. However, it was not really required, as they did not want to know passengers’ personal preferences.

The most shocking aspect was the fact that there was NO menu. What I actually mean by that is: there were no food choices for lunch or dinner. There was one laminated menu per table and also one on the foyer noticeboard, telling you what you would be getting. It contained NO alternatives. (CroisiEurope: Please note that only the world’s cheapest cafés have laminated menus – they DO NOT belong in a cruise ship’s dining room).

Even my flight to Porto with RyanAir has some fifteen food choices, many of them hot. Even my local ‘greasy spoon’ café has a menu with choices, so does McDonald’s.

(My pre-cruise research suggested that there was ‘always available’ items. This was never spoken about on-board or documented anywhere, including on the laminated menu).

The food was French in style, which is of course not surprising for a French cruise line. However, no allowances were made at all for those who may not appreciate all aspects of French cuisine (such as Foie Gras) or had personal preferences.

Gala dinner, but no menu choices!

All red meat was served ‘rare’ and passengers were NOT asked in advance how they wanted it cooked. All courses, were served to all passengers, unless you strongly objected. (Although I assume/hope that any dietary issues flagged in advance of the cruise would be respected).

In fact, if you told a waiter that you did not want something, they exhibited a range of emotions from confusion, bewilderment and often anger.

My wife and I are not very fussy eaters, but we do have personal preferences about what we eat. One day we noted that the evening meal was ‘Sea Bass’. We told the Purser that we did not want this. She said she would speak to the Chef and get back to us later. Later we got a message from the Chef, via the purser telling us that we would be served steak. My wife said that she did not want steak, so after a further message to the Chef, he  reluctantly found her a piece of chicken. (What other restaurant in the world has difficulty proving chicken, given some notice?)

A day or so later my wife communicated to the chef that she did not want Foie Gras or Quail. He then obviously decided that she was a vegetarian (she’s not) and proceeded to serve up non-meat dishes each evening – none of which she chose or knew what they were in advance, before they actually arrived on the table.

The waiters were quite rude about my wife’s personal preferences and almost threw one plate of food at her. They also discussed her likes and dislikes at full volume, in front of the other table guests embarrassing her and making her feel like ‘a problem’. (However  having personal food preferences in this restaurant was obviously a very big problem for the staff).

Being a waiter or a chef on this boat must be some of the easiest catering work on any boat in the world, yet they often appeared very stressed. For example: There is a self-service buffet breakfast at around 7.30 – 9.00. The passengers use machines for hot drinks and toast their own bread. There is very little service required.

There is one sitting for lunch at around 13:00 and one sitting for dinner at around 7.30pm. All guests eat lunch and dinner at the same time and are generally served exactly the same food. There are no orders to take. All passengers were given the same wine, so there are no wine orders to take. You even had to often pour your own wine from the bottle, most of the time. All the waiters had to do was server the food and collect the plates, yet they struggled to do this with any finesse. Smiling was a very rare occurrence, from the waiters.

One waiter nearly took my face off when putting down a plate for me.

One had to be vigilant that the waiter did not take away your plate before you had finished eating.

One waiter nudged me with their elbow, because I was talking and leaning over my plate and they could not gain easy access to it. (What page of the waiters training manual is that technique on?)

Red, white and rose wine was served at dinner. It was normally the same wine each evening, with the exception of the Gala evening meal, when it got upgraded. I would class most of it as ‘plonk’ (low quality), which was very ironic given the fact that we were cursing in a very famous wine region of Portugal, on a French boat, France also know for fine wine.

There were several theme nights where large dishes of food (Portuguese Codfish Pie and Spanish Paella) were put in the middle of the tables. The passengers were then required and to serve themselves. Surely this is a waiter’s dream?

dinner-crop

Fine dining? Self-service Paella and THAT laminated menu behind.

Although both dishes were good and wholesome (if you liked fish) it was definitely NOT fine-dining by any means.

The cold soup (no choice) was a challenge to my stomach.

Black Pingo coffee (just like Espresso) was served after dinner each evening automatically, but British passengers had to beg for tea (and beg for milk to compliment it). No butter was provided with the bread rolls.

When I was given food that I liked, the food quality was generally pretty good to my non-French taste buds. Although I did not rate it as excellent, by any means. In fairness, I did hear some other passengers praising the food, so I assume that must have been perfectly happy to eat whatever was put in front of them.

The cruise dining culminated in a ‘Baked Alaska’ parade, which is always fun. However the Baked Alaska was very mediocre.

Fire! The traditional Baked Alaska parade.

Here is an alarming incident on-board: A very elderly British passenger on my cruise, who had mobility problems (walking with sticks) went to the restaurant for dinner, a little early to avoid the rush and not hold-up other abled-bodies passengers. He pushed open the closed restaurant doors, five minutes early. However the doors were swiftly pushed-back and closed again from the inside, by the waiters, nearly knocking him over. That’s was indicative of the waiters attitude towards their guests.

The Entertainment

This is often a serious weakness of river cruises. However, CroisiEurope did a better job than most. (Mind you they had to excel at something!)

The lounge has a central dance floor which was put to good use by passengers and performers alike.

There were a number of themed nights, based on the ports that we had visited.

We were treated to a Fado (Portuguese Folk Singing) group, a Portuguese folklore dance troupe and a Spanish ‘Flamenco’ dance troupe. We also had an excellent male singer/keyboard player called ‘Helder’ one evening. Another evening there was a crew show, which although was a little short on ‘real’ talent, it did entertain us for 45 minutes. What I found particularly intriguing is that there were several ‘silent’ comedy sketches, which saw members of the wait staff performing, smiling and laughing. It’s a pity that they were not capable of doing this within the dining room.

Flamenco entertainment on-board.

One evening had no entertainment as such, apart from some recorded music being played. We were supposed to dance to it, but it did not really work as there was not DJ handling the proceedings.

During the afternoon and early evening, a number of quizzes, bingo and party-type games were offered, in multiple languages, which most passengers enjoyed.

There were two Captain’s cocktail parties: one at the start of the cruise and one at the end. As per normal key crew members were introduced to the passengers. I recall clapping the chefs at the first party,  before I had sampled their food. I was not so enthusiastic with my clapping, at the party at the end of the cruise.

The Captain was rarely seen during the cruise, apart from at the parties, when he made a brief speech.  (It’s hard to hide on a very small boat, but he managed it very well.)

However, we did get a chance to see the navigational bridge.

Unusually a photographer came aboard and took photos of the guests at dinner which you could purchase. (This is normal onboard ocean cruises but rarely happens on river cruises).

The Cruise That Does Not Cruise Much

Douro boats do not cruise at night, so we were normally berthed by early evening. For the first two nights of the cruise, the boat remained berthed in Porto, a fair distance from the town.

Many excursions are half-day ones and are offered in the morning at 9.00. While you are on the tour, the boat makes progress and the excursion parties re-join the boat at maybe 12.30, at a different berth further up or further down the river. Therefore, you often miss the mornings cruising.

There were no ‘sea days’ as such on this itinerary unless you opted out of an excursion.

Although the Douro river scenery is wonderful, I did get the feeling that I was often off the ship missing it. This would definitely be the case if you took all the excursions on offer – and remember that they were often the only way to leave the boat and see sights because of some remote berthing locations.

The cruise felt like it did not actually cruise very much, compared to the Rhine or Danube (although they are longer rivers).

The Amazing Locks

All of the five locks on the Douro which the boat navigates are very impressive. One in particular, ‘Carrapatelo’ has a drop of 36 meters, which is the second biggest ‘drop’ in Europe. It is quite a spectacle to behold.

There are also a few low bridges, several which required the sun deck canopy to be lowered and passengers to sit on the floor of the sundeck to avoid ‘decapitation’. Even sitting on a chair would still make you too tall to pass under the bridge.

Environmental Issues

I regularly saw crew members (often the sailors) smoking on the bridge-wings, throwing their cigarette butts into the river, when the boat was underway. I also saw a crew member throw an apple core in. This shows no respect at all, for this beautiful UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Only the Captain pilots this boat, so the crew are carrying out this practice, while he was on the bridge. Therefor he must be aware of this practice and chose to ignore it.

Several passengers including myself, occasionally saw the boat discharge very brown water into the river. This got me thinking about river pollution. Now I don’t know exactly what this discharged water was, but I can guess. Even if I’m wrong, it was definitely not very clean water!  If every riverboat on the Duoro does this, the level of pollution that must cause, must be quite significant.

Before the CroisiEurope lawyers get upset with me, such discharging of ‘dirty’ water may well be a permitted practice on this river, maybe on all rivers? Maybe it is done by all river cruise lines? Nevertheless, it was still a little disturbing to witness.

In fact, I have never noticed any infrastructure for waste-water/sewage collection, at any river boat berths, on any river. (Please correct me if I’m wrong). 

I did once hire a narrow boat, on a U.K. canal. I recall that sewage is held in the boats tank and was pumped out at a processing station each week.  So it can be done. I believe smaller cruise ship use the same system and bigger ones can process their own waste.

In Conclusion

The first advice that I give anyone before booking any type of cruise is “do your research”. I did, but was still mislead.  I picked the RIGHT river, but the WRONG cruise line.

The Douro is very beautiful. The excursions (Mateus Mansion, Lamego and Salamanca etc.) were all very interesting.

Firstly, the boat was somewhat dated and needs a good renovation.

Secondly, the CroisiEurope/Don Henrique experience felt like a very low ‘budget’ cruise. I had paid for a 5-star experience, but was  provided with a 2-star one. Although the fare was not as exorbitant as the likes of ‘Viking’ and ‘Emerald Waterways’ cruises, the fare was big enough to offer much higher standards on-board, than I was provided with.

CroisiEurope clearly want to attract non-French passengers, but do little to accommodate their tastes. It was only possible to enjoy all of the food on-board, if you were happy to eat EVERYTHING that you were given. There was never a choice of menu provided at the table.

All red meat was served rare, passenger preferences were never asked for. The restaurant waiters were poorly trained and often had a very poor attitude. The included wine was generally of a low quality.

Crew members are very inconsiderate smokers and have little respect for other passengers or the river. The captain appeared to have no control over them or simply did not care.

The only aspect of the experience that was better than some other river cruise lines, was the entertainment.

However, CroisiEurope do have many good online reviews. If all their boats are run like ‘Infante Don Henrique’ I have absolutely no idea why.

Interestingly we were NOT asked to fill out an end of cruise guest survey. Clearly they do not want to know their passengers opinions.

I really DO NOT recommend cruising on the Don Henrique or with CroisiEurope in general, whatever the fare. I suspect that any other Douro river boat/line would have provided a better experience.  It was so poor, that I will NEVER cruise on any of their boats again. Even if they gave me a free cruise (very unlikely) I would still decline!

However, river cruising can still be a joy, if you pick the right ship and line. Unfortunately, I didn’t,  in this case.

Malcolm Oliver

P.S. I stayed in an excellent Art Deco Hotel (an ex-Fish market) in Porto. See: HERE

For a more positive river cruise review, see: HERE

Would you enjoy a river cruise? See: HERE