How do you lure a client to Uniworld’s Douro River Valley program? Paint these images of sites and cities they could be exploring: the medieval treasure trove of Porto, where the Douro River, rising in Spain, reaches the Atlantic Ocean; Guimaraes, named Europe’s Cultural Capital in 2012 and the painstakingly preserved place where Portugal was born; and Salamanca, Spain, where there’s a bridge built by first century Romans, and the entire Old Town is a UNESCO World Heritage site. All strolls led by a knowledgeable insider who fills them in on the local story.
You could call the company pioneers in these parts. In the exploding picture of river cruising, Uniworld Boutique River Cruise Collection racked up impressive pioneering points in 2001 not only as the first North American river cruise company to travel the Douro River Valley of Portugal and Spain, but to sail with an all English-speaking staff and with included excursions guided by local experts—now all standard features in the industry.
Considering the company’s profile and reputation in this history-rich region, it seems fitting that Uniworld’s latest newbuild, launched last year, should be christened after a centuries-past ruler of Portugal, Queen Isabel—now reigning royally over the splendors of the UNESCO-protected valley. Isabel replaces the sleek, chic Douro Spirit with a more classic, traditional style similar to the line’s other ships in Europe. At a 116-passenger capacity, Isabel holds fewer than Spirit but houses more jr. suites—18 at 215 sq. ft.—plus a pair of 323-sq.-ft. suites. All are on the top deck with balconies.
All staterooms (38 at 161 sq. ft.) and suites—pretty as you’re likely to see with a window wall, luxe fabrics, and bright bouquet—have twice-daily service, notably comfortable beds with quality linens and choice of pillows, ample built-ins, robes, hair dryer, safe, thermostat, flat-screen TV, radio, phone, and iPhone/iPod charger and players. WiFi is free, as is bottled water. Compact marble bathrooms come with shower and L’Occitane amenities.
On an 8-day Porto-to-Porto cruise, the onboard culinary scene was excellent, with three meals served in the open-seating restaurant. For me, the ideal location for lunch was the spacious Main Deck lounge, where a light buffet (soups, salads, sandwiches, desserts) was presented daily. In tranquil contrast to mealtime restaurant bustle, it served up serenity with panoramic views accompanied by soft melodies from the ship’s pianist.
In November, the weather was crisp and sunny, with afternoons pleasant enough for passengers to make good use of the viewing deck that opens off the lounge—as well as the big topside sun deck (we did leave the swimming pool to summer cruisers, however). While the lounge and its bar are party central at cocktail time, and post-dinner with music and a dance floor, it was peaceful enough by day to enjoy conversation with fellow passengers. There is also a little library tucked into a corner by the bar.
Arguably the most popular site aboard (quite possibly because it was so welcoming after a brisk-weather walking tour), is the complimentary round-the-clock coffee and tea bar, with its magic machine that turns out perfect specialty coffees and chocolates, with a bottomless basket of cookies at hand plus early-morning juice and pastries.
On the lower deck is a small spa and fitness center, and, adjacent to the lounge, a boutique stocked with tempting jewelry and take-home gifts.
For clients who would find an elevator most helpful, make a note that Isabel has one—not always the case on a river vessel. Another useful tip: on this cruise, “smart casual” is as dressy as it gets, even for the farewell dinner, and most nights specify simply “casual.” While some other itineraries and ships in the fleet sport a dressier style, clients can pack lighter for the Douro River experience.
As for adventures by land, get ready to sign up your lovers of regional wines and cuisine. This, after all, is port wine country, its signature product produced from grapes grown on the steep and rocky slopes of the Upper Douro and its tributaries, where vineyards have rambled since pre-Roman times. Not only are passengers served a full-bodied ruby port each night after dinner, they set out on several wine estate visits that include tastings, and enjoy a traditional country dinner with more tastings and music at the family-owned Quinta da Avessada wine estate.
For walking tours of towns and cities, Quiet Vox audio headsets are supplied to insure that all can easily catch the guide’s commentary. Among the stops are Porto, built into the hillside above the river’s north bank and currently turning up on various lists of top European cities to visit—praised for its well-preserved architecture, vibrant cultural spaces, and new restaurants. The colorful waterfront Ribeira District is a favorite for ambling.
Equally rewarding is Guimaraes, also a UNESCO World Heritage site (the region is full of them). The first capital of Portugal, it shows off a wondrous medieval quarter of antique buildings with ornate balconies. During free time for shopping, we were treated to an impromptu street concert by a student group.
Then there’s lovely Salamanca—a 2-hour drive from the Douro through groves of olives and almonds. Home to Spain’s oldest university and one of the oldest in Europe, its streets resonate with the energy of student life, youthful shop windows and hip bistros. (Fun fact: Christopher Columbus lived here in the late 1480s; it’s said he spent a great deal of time studying maps at the university and seeking counsel of the school’s geographers.) Salamanca has a grand variety of architecture characterized by sandstone buildings that give the city a distinctive golden glow. When feet fail, a sidewalk cafe in the spreading Plaza Mayor provides coffee and peerless people-watching.
It’s an appealing program, Isabel’s voyage through the stunning Douro River Valley—a key aspect being the level of service and attention to client wishes that agents can count on when it comes to repeat sales.
“We continue to see record load factors on our ships,” says Guy Young, the company’s president and CEO. “This is due to the growing popularity of river cruising but also because we have an increasing number of repeat guests on our ships. For Uniworld, our repeat guests are vitally important because we do very little consumer marketing and are therefore very dependent on clients returning to our ships and promoting our brand.”
Young adds, “To help retain our past guests we are always looking for new destinations which may be of interest to past—and new—clients. We continue to have great success on the Mekong, a destination we entered in 2012. In 2013, we introduced Italy, sailing the Venice lagoon and Po River. In 2014, we’re moving a ship to the Aquitaine region of France and will offer a beautiful Bordeaux, Vineyards & Chateaux itinerary.” Fares for the 11-day Douro River Valley cruise/tour, including three days in Lisbon, start at $3,599 pp.
Indeed, all indications point to a killer year. For starters, come spring, Uniworld will send another newbie out of the gate—“Super Ship” S.S. Catherine—to ply the Rhone and Saone rivers of Burgundy and Provence. Catherine will be one of the company’s largest vessels at 443 ft. in length, 159 passengers. Top deck suites (five at 305 sq. ft.; one at 410 sq. ft.) and staterooms will feature private balconies that convert to enclosed conservatories at the touch of a switch.
Uniworld is also introducing all-inclusive cruises in Europe, with unlimited wine, beer, and spirits, and all gratuities for onboard and onshore services, including pre- and post-cruise extensions.
“Our guests won’t need to worry about ancillary items such as tipping,” Young notes. “All they will need to do is relax and enjoy their vacation.”
WHAT TRAVEL AGENTS ARE SAYING…
In selling Uniworld, Luelle Robinson, a river cruise specialist with Avoya Travel, Round Hill, VA, lauds “the exceptional care they take of my clients. I know clients will not come home with any complaints. For me, it means happy customers and repeat business.”
Adds Robinson, who sold more than 150 Uniworld cruises in 2013, “I love when Uniworld comes out with new ships, as they are so popular. People want to return and do the new ship, even if they’ve previously done the itinerary. Same for me—I’m going to do the new Bordeaux cruise in April, and then the Burgundy and Provence itinerary on the new ship, S.S. Catherine.”
Heidi Hoehn, general manager of TravelStore in Pasadena, CA, opines that “any small ship cruiser, or one who likes expedition lines, is an excellent candidate for a river cruise. We were surprised to find that river cruising appeals to tour passengers even more than traditional cruisers, though generally both types of clients will enjoy it. In most cities, the historic parts of town are squarely waterfront and therefore easily accessible from the ship. The quality of the included touring, the access to the towns and cities visited, the hours in port when people can explore on their own—these are all things that the tour customer enjoys. So, I am delighted to get a client on any river cruise because I know they’ll enjoy it, and there is a good probability they’ll come back to book more river trips in the future.”
Citing Uniworld’s “consistent delivery of an outstanding product,” Hoehn relished a Douro River experience of her own last year. “It reminded me very much of the Europe I knew of a few decades ago, less ‘discovered,’ less homogenized. I’ve sent a number of good travelers to the Douro and all have enjoyed it. It’s more relaxing and low key than some other rivers and regions.” Noting Queen Isabel’s uncommon swimming pool, she sees it as a feature that “also reflects the more relaxed pace of this journey.”