It’s been five years since Scenic Group‘s Scenic Azure began sailing with guests along Portugal‘s Douro River in 2016 and Maria Andrada, general manager, Portugal, Scenic Group, has been running the operation since the start. In fact, she joined Scenic in 2014 at a time when the company’s concept of sailing the Duoro was just an aspiration and the line had no Portuguese ships.
During a recent Scenic Azure sailing (roundtrip from Porto), Andrada met with us aboard the river vessel. She talked about her personal journey and that of Scenic Group, which operates two river vessels for two different brands in the Douro River Valley, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. These include the 96-passenger Scenic Azure, catering to Scenic’s luxury guests, and the 112-passenger Emerald Radiance, which has a lower price point and typically a bit younger, more active clientele, for Emerald Cruises.
“I was there for that first stretch through delivery,” Andrada said with pride. “These ships were built only to sail on the Douro River,” she added, noting that they are among the smallest ships on the entire Scenic fleet across the globe.
She explained that the ships are like her home and the crew her family, as many of the crew members onboard have been with Scenic since 2016. Andrada believes that’s “a huge success” as typically within the cruise industry “there’s a lot of rotation, but here in Portugal, we were able to keep the people and create kind of a family. And we’ve been working together since 2016.” She credited crew members for the company’s success on the Douro.
A Different River Experience
Flowing from Spain and across northern Portugal’s countryside, the Douro River Valley is known for its quiet tranquility, river-centric cities, including Pinhão and Porto, viniculture, quaint villages and friendly people. One river differentiator is that Douro voyages sail only during the day with vessels docking at night. So, guests have a chance to go ashore, enjoy dinner or drinks, mix and mingle with the locals, and also not miss seeing spectacular scenery along the river route each day.
The river is also narrower than many European rivers. Cruisers look out from their balconies on Scenic Azure to close-by riverbanks and sheer granite rocks. Along the way are never-ending views of cascading terraces of vineyards, small villages, port wine production facilities/cellars, locks and dams
River vessels such as Scenic Azure that sail along the Douro also are shorter in length—built to handle both the nuances of the river and the locks along it.
The Douro River // Photo by Susan J. Young
This isn’t a year-round river for vacation cruising, as the five dams along the river close in late November every year. They produce electricity in the wintertime. “So, it’s very difficult to sail between November and March normally,” Andrada told Travel Agent, adding that’s why the river lines don’t operate holiday cruises on the Douro.
Right now, the ships are back on the Douro but are only filled to about 50 to 60 percent capacity, based on current demand and a lack of travelers from two of Scenic’s big markets—Australia/New Zealand and Canada. “We’ve kept the American market and the British market as the only two markets that are working with us right now,” Andrada said. On Travel Agent’s Douro cruise on Scenic Azure there were 41 crew members onboard and 40 passengers.
Moving forward, the line plans to fill the boats—not limit capacity—if demand escalates, she said. Currently, there are no requirements set forth by Portuguese authorities about limiting river cruise vessel capacity.
Navigating the Pandemic
The COVID-19 pandemic sidelined Scenic Group’s river operations—with the last voyages operated in November 2019. Crew members had been unemployed up until voyages began earlier this summer. Andrada described the work stoppage during the pandemic as “a massacre for most of the crew, because there were no jobs in Portugal…It’s been a long stop.” From her perspective, being back on the job, sailing and welcoming guests once again is one thing: “It’s a joy.”
She provided this poignant example. On the first cruise back, she said: “The captain of the other ship was crying. He could not address the passengers on the first day…The entire crew was very emotional.”
During the pandemic, some updates were made to the ships, such as normal maintenance, as well as enhancements for air conditioning, carpeting and improvements in the galley “to make sure that we don’t have cross contamination,” per COVID-19 protocols put in place to protect guests and crew, according to Andrada.
During the first voyages back, yes, there were some challenges, she acknowledged, but added: “Overall, the passengers gave us excellent ratings – 9.7 overall of 10.”
Challenges remain, though, such as continuing to secure the latest and best information from government or health authorities. Training, too, has been a big part of the restart. All crew are required to wear masks, so Andrada asked reporters to imagine how challenging that can be in a cruise ship galley, where temperatures are high.
But she says, it’s a process and explaining it thoroughly and getting full compliance from crew members is the goal. “We were training for almost 15 days and putting in place all that was needed for the safe sailings, and so far, so good,” she stressed.
With the training of crew, by the time the first guests arrived, Scenic wanted to confidently show them, said Andrada, that “we were so well-prepared, and we are safe.”
Interestingly, the buffet on Scenic Azure, just one of many dining options, for example, remains self-serve “because there are no restrictions in Portugal anymore,” she said. In addition, “for our guests, the buffet … it is absolutely essential.”
Hand sanitizers are readily available around the ship and at restaurant entrances. Again, all guests and crew must be masked, except if eating or drinking. That mask also must be a white N95 mask. Those are freely distributed to guests onboard; guests could get as many as needed aboard, and they were left in cabins by housekeeping staff, too.
On Travel Agent’s recent cruise, the crew were good about noticing any passenger walking in a public corridor without a mask and asking the guest to put the mask on. Alternatively, the crew would voluntarily go get a mask for the guest. That said, at times, some lounge guests—neither eating nor drinking—did not wear masks. Travel Agent observed that guests did wear masks on the Scenic motorcoaches and on tours.
All passengers must be fully vaccinated at least 14 days prior to arrival, and Andrada said the line is “very strict” about that. Crew, too, have been vaccinated as quickly as possible. On our cruise in early August, all crew had received the first dose of the COVID-19 vaccine, most the second. All crew are also being (antigen) tested daily.
All guests not arriving directly from the airport receive a complimentary, rapid antigen test pierside before they’re cleared to board the ship. Anyone testing positive will be denied boarding. During the cruise, guests also receive a complimentary PCR test with a lab report so they can comply with international air requirements for their return home.
Lower Occupancy in 2021
Passengers boarding Scenic Azure // Photo by Susan J. Young
Most of Scenic’s guests are couples and most 60 years of age and older. On a global basis, 60 percent of all guests are repeaters.
Occupancy rates are highest this year for October and November, Andrada indicated. She said August is typically a weak month in a normal year, as it’s a family holiday month. While occupancy isn’t where the cruise company wants as yet, Andrada believes it’s still important to keep sailing. One reason is to bring some new crew members on for training with experienced crew. The goal is training in preparation for full occupancy in 2022.
While Portugal is a member nation of the European Union, each E.U. country has a different policy regarding travel and processes during the pandemic “which is very hard when you want to set up an operation,” Andrada noted. The picture can change overnight.
At one point the U.K. citizens weren’t coming at all, and then they suddenly were. Passengers also were booking, then cancelling if Portugal showed up on a particular list for COVID-19 status. Then, the same guests would later rebook.
It became such a frustrating situation for the Scenic team that the owner decided that the ships would sail for sure—even with only a few passengers. “We need to show our guests that we are doing all we can for them,” said Andrada, hoping for the best in the coming year. “I guess some day we will get back to normal.”
The Douro’s Charm
Given that Andrada has been with Scenic since its first sailing five years ago in Portugal, Travel Agent asked her what makes the Douro so special? Why should guests choose this river over another in Europe?
“It’s not only the river. It’s the culture, landscape, the people,” she tells us.
It’s also possible to sail stretches of the Douro and not see another ship. At some points along the Douro, “you are in direct contact with nature,” she emphasized. “You don’t see people. You don’t see buildings…You see nature. You are there alone looking at the beautiful landscape.”
Stay tuned over the next few weeks for more coverage, including a ship review, of Scenic Azure.