The Spirit of Chartwell is a hotel barge owned by Douro Azul, offering luxury river cruises on the Douro River in Portugal, and I was lucky enough to spend 3 nights onboard in September 2015. Most people however will know her as the ‘Royal Barge’, as she took centre stage in the Diamond Jubilee Pageant on 3rd June 2012. Her Majesty the Queen & the Duke of Edinburgh were onboard the Spirit of Chartwell as she led a flotilla of over 1,000 vessels along the River Thames. I certainly remember watching the amazing scenes on my television. As you read on you can also watch my two videos, and see some photos of the experience. I am afraid that my camera packed up before I even got onboard, so I have had to make do with stills from my camcorder, and pictures from my phone.
Having been built in 1997, she started life on the River Rhine when she was known as the Vincent Van Gogh, before being purchased by the Magna Carta Steamship Company. Following an expensive refit she started offering luxury river cruises on the River Thames in 2010. After playing her part in the Diamond Jubilee Pageant, she was subsequently purchased by Douro Azul and moved to her new home on the Douro River. She is chartered on certain dates by a number of UK tour operators including Titan Travel, which is offering 9 night holidays in 2016, with 2 nights in Lisbon followed by 7 nights on the Spirit of Chartwell, called A Celebration of Lisbon & The Douro.
The ship was originally designed to try and reflect the Cote d’Azur Pullman Service of the Twenties, and still contains some of the signage from those days, such as the ones at the top of each stairway, showing the cabin numbers.
There are 14 identical cabins, each of which has fixed twin beds, and 1 suite, which has a fixed double bed, giving a total capacity of 30 passengers. The accommodation is all on the lower Stateroom Deck, which is accessed by stairs as there is no lift onboard. The stairs can be quite challenging, so wouldn’t be suitable for anyone with walking difficulties.
The Saloon Deck is where you find the reception, restaurant, piano bar and lounge, as well as the 24 hour tea and coffee station. Finally you have the Sundeck where you can relax and watch the world go by, as you cruise through the beautiful Douro Valley.
On the particular trip I was taking, courtesy of Titan Travel, I was with a group of other travel agents and Titan staff. We spent 2 nights in Porto at the HF Fenix Hotel, before boarding the Spirit of Chartwell for 3 nights on the Douro River.
Day 1 – After an enjoyable couple of days in Porto, we all boarded a bus and enjoyed a guided city tour, which included a visit to a large producer of Port, and tried both the white and red ports. Then late afternoon we boarded the Spirit of Chartwell, and settled in with a relaxing drink.
I was really impressed with the ship, and you could see why it was chosen from hundreds of other barges, to be the one used by The Queen for the Jubilee Celebrations. The cabins were really comfortable, with far more storage space than I had expected. I was especially impressed with the size of the bathrooms, which had a large walk-in shower with glass doors as opposed to a curtain. Bathrobes and slippers are provided in the bathroom, and there is a hairdryer, safe and flatscreen television in the air-conditioned cabin. There are standard UK 3-pin sockets in the cabins, as well as around the ship.
The evening started with a safety talk, and then a welcome cocktail dinner party, as we sailed towards Entre-os-Rios, where we would be berthed overnight.
Day 2 – It was time for a relaxing breakfast, watching the beautiful scenery of the Douro River Valley, as we made our way towards Regua. We went through a very large lock after breakfast, and everyone was on deck to watch us rising up to the higher level of the river.
Grapes have been grown in the area for over two thousand years, so it was great that we had an included excursion to Mateus Palace and Gardens. With its impressive Baroque façade, it is easy to see why it is considered by many to be the most impressive country house in Portugal, and the gardens are spectacular as well. We then re-joined the ship in Pinhao.
As opposed to having dinner onboard this evening, we were taken to the ancient site Quinta da Avessada. The setting was fabulous, as it is on a very large plateau in the Village of Favaios, high up in the hills. We were greeted by music and given a drink of the local fortified wine. The evening was great fun, not least because of our host Luis Barros, who is known as the Portuguese ‘Mr Bean’. You can see the likeness in this photo, which shows him with Edwina Coppock, who is the agency sales manager for Titan Travel.
After the welcome drinks we were taken into a small interactive museum, and told about the history of his family and wine production. His presentation style made it interesting to see, and we then went in for dinner. We had a selection of dishes for starter, then soup, followed by roast chicken and a meatloaf main course, and then a selection of desserts. These were all accompanied by copious amounts of wine, port and grappa. In between courses Luis came back and told more stories, as well as leading everyone in some local music and dance. Then it was back to the ship for a nightcap before bed.
Day 3 – We sailed from Pinhao to Regua, and we then boarded the coach on an excursion to the grand rococo sanctuary of Nossa Senhora dos Remedios. This imposing landmark towers over Lamego, and can be reached either by road, or by climbing the 686 steps. The coach took us to the top, and you then had a choice of walking down the steps or going back by coach to the bottom. Most of us opted for the steps, and it was really interesting to see the different architecture. We then sat outside a café with a beer for a while, watching the world go by.
We were back onboard for lunch at 1.00pm, and then set off back towards Porto, where we would be docked overnight. Although dinner this evening in the restaurant was really enjoyable, in the summer months, there is an authentic alfresco Portuguese barbecue on deck, with live music.
Day 4 – It was an early start today, and we were transferred to the airport ready for our flight back to Gatwick.
In summary I would say that the Ship is ideal for those looking for a river cruise, yet don’t want to be with lots of people, as there are a maximum of 30 passengers. There is plenty of room onboard though as, for instance; the sundeck had enough sunbeds for 30, as well as enough tables and chairs for 30. The food is very good, and is freshly prepared onboard by the chefs, using local produce. I also found that the Douro River itself had some spectacular views, and was one of the nicest rivers I have cruised on.
If you are interested in taking a cruise on the Spirit of Chartwell, then Titan travel have a great 9 night itinerary in 2016, and you can click on the following link for details of A Celebration of Lisbon and the Douro. This holiday gives you 2 nights in Lisbon and a 7 night cruise, and includes the visits to Mateus Palace and Gardens, Quinta de Avessada and to the grand rococo sanctuary of Nossa Senhora dos Remedios, as detailed above, among the many places visited. You will be collected from your front door, and driven to the airport, and then taken home again at the end of your holiday, courtesy of Titan’s VIP Home Departure Service. Click on the following link for more details of what a Titan Travel holiday includes. For those you would like to enjoy some of the benefits of a Titan holiday, but would perhaps like to be a bit more independent, why not check out Traveller by Titan.