Travel

I thought organised group travel wasn’t for me…but I was wrong

TAUCK. A tour operator, based in the US. Ever heard of them? Probably not, but you should.

I don’t generally like organised group travel of any sort, but, with Tauck, I’ll make the exception.

They are just brilliant at what they do.

Now in its third generation of family ownership, Arthur Tauck Jnr heads up a company that offers land tours and cruises in over 70 countries – and everything – and I do mean everything – is included in the up-front price.

One of the main joys of going Tauck is that you will get so many ‘surprises’ that the average traveller can never achieve. Whether it’s getting into Monet’s gardens at Givenchy before they open and the crowds pour in, or it’s a dinner in a private castle not open to the public, it makes the whole experience truly special.

I recently took one of their river cruises – down the Douro River in Portugal. Starting in Lisbon and ending after a bit of overlanding in Salamanca and Madrid, it was a wonderful experience, in a beautiful UNESCO World Heritage landscape.

The leisurely pace of exploring Europe on a vessel carrying around 85 guests makes it way more relaxing and far more intimate than a large cruise ship – in fact, there’s no comparison. We had under 70 guests on our beautiful boat – the ms Andorhina, and the staff were superb.

After a few days everyone had met everyone and friendships were being formed – some that will, I expect will last a lifetime.

Obviously as an American company, most travellers come from the US, with a smattering from Canada and the odd Brit. The type of traveller you find on a Tauck river cruise are seasoned travellers in their later years.

I travelled on my own but could not recommend it highly enough for a single’s holiday – way better than any ocean-going cruise I’ve been on as a solo.

A river cruise ship docks right in the heart of a city, so there aren’t any long transfers to reach the different attractions along your route. You just stroll off the ship and you’re there.

With a small swimming pool on the sun deck, a spacious restaurant, a bistro restaurant, a panoramic lounge and bar and a good variety of staterooms for different budgets, it’s a great base for a week. This vessel was designed specifically for cruising the Douro. It is only two years old and easily the nicest boat on offer to tour this region.

The beds are comfortable, the showers hot and the food is especially good.

Good news for Scots is that regional flights are included in the overall price – as are all meals and drinks, including alcohol and quality wines.

Why did I choose the Douro itinerary over others? Because it’s a hugely picturesque river valley with dramatic cliffs, lush hillsides, medieval walled villages and beautiful vineyards.

Lisbon is the starting point for this trtip and we were billeted for two nights in the Inter Continental Hotel. I really like this city – it’s has a shabby chic vibe and plenty of top sightseeing. Sitting atop seven hills over centuries, the city is home to cobbled lanes, castles in the clouds and maritime monuments that pay lasting tribute to Portuguese explorers like Vasco da Gama who changed the world.

Prices in Portugal are still reasonable for our weakened Pound, and

Stop one was Coimbra, Portugal’s medieval capital for more than a century. A walking tour along the tiered cobbled lanes of this hilltop city brings you to its esteemed university, founded here in 1537, where its caped students evoke images of Harry Potter’s Hogwarts School, its majestic buildings line squares steeped in history and cloistered arcades lead to architectural showpieces beautiful to behold.

From there their itinerary takes you to another favourite of mine – Porto.

Porto’s pleasures are diverse and one of Tauck’s little ‘surprises’ was to ride a historic tram from the Foz Quarter to the medieval riverfront district. A tasting tour followed, in a refreshingly small group size.

In addition to having an experienced Cruise Director on the boat, you have two Portuguese guides with you from the minute you arrive until the flight home. And on top of that you get local guides in pretty much all the destinations. It’s this degree of service that makes Tauck stand out. I was recovering from major back surgery and was slightly nervous about the trip, but I couldn’t have been better looked after.

There are various visits to wine-making estates or quintas, but this is not a cruise one would take to see big sight after big sight. It’s great to just chill though.

The idyllic village of Pinhão, situated at a scenic bend of Portugal’s Douro River, is considered the gateway to the quintas and large wine estates of the Douro River Valley, one of Europe’s oldest and revered wine making regions. A choice of shore excursions today includes a walk in pretty Pinhão, nestled in the heart of port wine country, with a visit to its historic tile-covered train station, a vision of blue and white Azulejo tiles – or a vigorous hike through the area’s lush, sloping terraced vineyards with striking views of the town and river.

Around 20,000 years ago prehistoric man called the Coa Valley home, leaving evidence of their residence on rocks in the Coa Valley. Here we visited the Museum of Art and Archaeology of the Côa Valley – amazing exhibits of rock art from the valley’s Paleolithic era, discovered in the 1990s when excavations began for a Côa River dam.

Madrid was a good end to the 12-day trip, and the overall experience was, decidedly first class.

You might not have heard of Tauck, but once you’ve been on one of their trips, I very much doubt it’ll be your last.

For details, see www.tauck.co.uk

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