If some wise old Gypsy woman ventured to read the cracked lines and hard blisters of my palm, she could clearly find that two activities have dominated my life—drinking good wine and paddling great waters!
From the early days, my wine-connoisseur father taught us to appreciate the good French and Italian drop around the family table. That enthusiasm eventually turned me into a serious wine producer in the “Cradle of Wine” in the Republic of Georgia. At the same time, I have had the luck and curiosity to explore the Seven Seas paddle in hand—trailblazing more than 30 new kayaking destinations from the High Arctic of Greenland to the steaming jungle shores of Indonesia.
There was one place where these two passions collided, namely from a vista high above the Douro River in the portwine district of northern Portugal. Vitor (my good friend and driver) and I were relaxing poolside after a hard week of doing some work for the Portuguese government. The setting sun lit up the serpentine river bend in golden reflections below, and with a good glass of voluptuous red Tinta Roriz in hand, we were sharing stories of our exploits.
Always full of impatience and crazy ideas and without a doubt a little tipsy, we eagerly toasted and exclaimed: “Let’s paddle this river!” Without knowing whether or how it could be done, or if it was at all allowed.
All we knew was that the Douro River flowed 250 kilometers from the Spanish border eastwards to the port wine storage cellars in Oporto on the shores of the Atlantic Ocean. We were told by the locals that nobody had kayaked this waterway before and we might have to negotiate a little white water and for sure some dams along the way.
Barely one year later, ten eager adventurers joined Vitor and I on our way up along the Douro valley in the little red wineworker train that connects the small hamlets along the river. Our folding kayaks had been shipped ahead in duffel bags to a wine farm close to the river put-in among the barren mountains of northeastern Portugal. That evening, at the local river inn, the spirit of the upcoming adventure was high among all of us. We were treated to a hearty meal of fresh river trout accompanied by glasses of bubbling Vino Verde, boar rump steak downed with heaps of hearty Dao reds and lemon flan enjoyed with the best of tawny Ports. Lots of toasts were proclaimed and at midnight, it was time to fall in.
My mind dulled by alcohol, I suddenly had a last clear thought and looked to Vitor, “What about the kayaks—we have to assemble them for the take-off tomorrow morning?” Vitor grinned back with a “no problem” smirk, probably too tipsy to be realistic. He had never assembled a folding kayak in his life and we had six double kayaks to be finished overnight.
We bade the clients goodnight and left the inn, supporting each other in celebratory camaraderie. Our heap of kayak bags was stashed in the next door barn and we started the Herculean task ahead. For some reason, Vitor thought we needed more wine to strengthen our resolve—so he brought a large red wine glass carboy with him, just in case. Miraculously, a dozen large bags were unpacked, everything lined up to match, frames assembled and inserted into the soft skins. The final steps were to blow up the bladders, adjust the ribs and install rudders and deck lines.
The progress was slow and was interrupted by more sipping of local wine, and it did not help that the light was very dim. The barn was only lit by a small kerosene lamp held up by the patient innkeeper’s assistant, who joined us in the sipping. We constantly stumbled across parts and bags and the final straw broke when Vitor had to lie inside a kayak trying to attach some ribs. He went very quiet and a sweet snoring appeared sonorously from inside the kayak. I guess the party was over for him. I succeeded in pulling him out and waking him up with great difficulty. We finished our task at sunrise—and an hour later we woke up our guests for a glorious day of paddling the Douro River.
The next couple of days were filled with unexpected adventures that one could only expect from an exploratory trip like this. Portaging our kayaks over dams, a client ruptured a disk and had to be evacuated. We stumped grapes in the port wine vats with the workers who have never seen kayaks on the river and we sang with the grape pickers and even picked the riverside grapevines straight from the seats of our kayaks. After ten days of unlimited fun, we finally ended up on that same sunlit terrace where Vitor and I had first schemed this crazy idea the year prior. Here, we all felt like accomplished explorers, and our clients exulted with full glasses of port white in hand, “We seized the day on the river of sweet wine!”
Over the years, Natural Habitat Adventures has refined and perfected the art of kayaking the Douro River in Portugal, which has been a smashing success for many of our guests. It is now a popular staple in our offerings of fun and active European hiking and kayaking trips. We still stay at luxurious quintas and local wine farms owned by our friends, and during the days we paddle in our now modern and comfortable sea kayaks—no more nighttime assemblies of folding kayaks! And we no longer need to carry our boats over dams, since we now have exclusive permits to go through the locks in kayaks, which is really fun! All in all, it is a true European treat, and we are the only ones in the world doing it.
Carpe diem and join us!