Cruising the Nile in Luxury & Style
Never having been to Egypt before a Nile river cruise is one of those iconic bucket list cruises that we knew we wanted to do at some point and the Uniworld voyage seemed to offer us the best of both worlds with a pre and post cruise stay in Cairo sandwiching a cruise down the Nile from Luxor to Aswan.
We arrived in Cairo totally unaware that it is the 7th biggest city in the world and completely unprepared for how huge, busy and chaotic it was. A 45 minute drive from the airport took us to the Four Seasons Nile Plaza, a more than welcome oasis of calm after the chaos and traffic outside of the hotel. After a much needed restful night we rose early the next morning to meet our fellow travellers and the 3 Egyptologists that would be accompanying us throughout our voyage. Each group was assigned their own coach with around a dozen passengers in each group. A short introduction was followed by our first day of excursions to the Alabaster mosque of Mohamed Ali and the Egyptian museum, giving us a chance to get to know Walid, our group Egyptologist, who we quickly worked out was not only a knowledgeable historian but also a very talented storyteller. The highlight of the visit was King Tut Ankh Amun’s golden sarcophagus, treasures and mask, all on show in the Egyptian museum.
No sooner had it started than our first stay in Cairo was over and the next day we were treated to a 5am wake up call to ensure we would get back to Cairo Airport for our scheduled flight to Luxor. Thanks to our Egyptologists guiding us through the airport we arrived safely in Luxor and made our way to our new coaches, immediately noticing that Luxor was much greener, quieter and warmer than Cairo. Straight off of our flight we headed to the first of many temples we would visit during the next week, Karnak temple. Karnak was the largest of the temples we would visit, along with the beautifully preserved Dendera temple; the magical Luxor temple which we visited at sunset and home also to the Avenue of the Sphinxes; the contemporary temple of Hatshepsut; the crocodile temple at Kom Ombo; the sunken temple at Esna; the magnificent Colossi of Memnon and the island temple of Philae. Although we were concerned that we may become temple weary this never happened with each of the temples being fascinating and beautifully individual and unique, with our amazing Egyptologists bringing each one to life, regaling us with the ancient stories written in the hieroglyphics.
One of the highlights of the week was the visit to the Valley of the Kings on the west banks of Luxor. Some guests started the day with an optional 4am start to go on a hot air balloon trip over the valley before meeting the rest of us for our tour to this UNESCO World Heritage site. Though we chose not to do the balloon ride (being driven by our fear of heights) we did enjoy waking up in Luxor and watching the balloons take off from the West bank and sail up over the Valley of the Kings framed by the mountains in the background. So far 65 tombs have been found in the Valley of the Kings, including the infamous tomb of King TutAnkhAmun which was found in 1922 by British archaeologist, Howard Carter. Each day they open up about 10 different tombs, with the entrance ticket allowing you to go into three of the 10 open tombs. Thankfully Walid, our Egyptologist, advised us which ones to go into and what to look out for when we were in there. Entry to King Tut Ankh Amun’s tomb needs a separate ticket so all in all we visited four, very different tombs, each with their own story.
The river cruise part of our trip started in Luxor with stops at Komombo, Edfu and Esna to visit the local temples, but the other main stop was the beautiful city of Aswan. Sailing into Aswan it felt almost like we were approaching a town on the French Riviera with posh hotels, palm trees and pretty islands scattered along the river. One of the highlights of Aswan is the Old Cataract Hotel, a grandiose hotel favoured by Winston Churchill and where Agatha Christie stayed for a year to write her famous novel, Death on The Nile. This colonial style hotel is like a little bit of Britain in the middle of Aswan and our visit to the hotel included a delicious afternoon tea taken on the terrace overlooking the Nile as the sun set over the river. Whilst in Aswan we squeezed in a couple of trips around Elephantine island, a large island located in the middle of the Nile river, one on a bird watching boat trip and another on a traditional Nubian felucca. During our two day stay in Aswan we also visited the Unfinished Obelisk of Queen Hatshepsut which was abandoned when the granite It was being carved out of started to crack and the feat of engineering that is the new Aswan dam, crucial in controlling the flow of the Nile river by creating the enormous Lake Nassau on the southern side of the dam.
Throughout our week we got used to being approached by hawkers trying to sell us their wares and our Egyptologists were amazing at guiding us on what was worth buying, how much we should be paying and how to haggle. Though we all got used to this none of us were prepared for the boat hawkers, also known as the ‘hello men’ because of their loud shouts of hello alerting cruise ship passengers of their presence, that accompanied us all the way through the eight metre deep Esna lock, attaching their rowing boats to the ship to sail alongside us as they throw their wares by up onto the ship, then bartering over the price before catching the money for anything guests decide to buy as it is thrown down from the top deck.
Though our mornings started early and were action packed we were always fully fuelled up with a hearty breakfast and returned to a delicious buffet lunch from our luxurious base, the SS Sphinx. The ship is the newest addition to the Uniworld fleet and as is de rigueur for Uniworld is eclectically decorated with a modern Egyptian feel to the design and styling. Along with the fantastic Egyptologists the crew of the SS Sphinx make the voyage extra special, making sure that our every need was met. In fact there was one gentleman on our tour who had a few mobility problems and the ship sent out a crew member with a wheelchair on every tour to help him get around the sites whenever he needed it.
The all Egyptian crew loved to entertain us as well, bringing the Egyptian galabeya evening to life by wearing traditional dress and leading us in local songs and dancing in the ships lounge and lobby - such fun. On a couple of other evenings we had local musicians and dancers come on board to entertain us before dinner with Egyptian/Nubian music and dance. Every evening there was a cocktail hour in the lounge where one of the Egyptologist would talk us through the planned excursions for the next day which thankfully, if you accidentally nodded off after a long day of excursions and missed this, was also delivered to your suite every evening.
Obviously one of the wonders of the trip was actually sailing on the Nile and although most of the trip downstream was undertaken during night time sailings, the return trip was mostly taken during the day time with special events put on by the crew on the top sun deck of the Sphinx. This included a morning sail away with champagne and a sabering ceremony, a cookery demonstration, bridge tours and open air yoga and Zumba classes. It really was rather magical to either sit in front of the french balcony in our suite or up in the top deck as we sailed along the Nile, taking in the beautiful countryside, an occasional animal and the local people living and farming along the river banks. It is hard to put into words the beauty of a sunset or sunrise on the Nile framed by the shoreside trees, sand mountains in the background and feluccas sailing by.
Leaving the ship in Luxor and flying back to Cairo, Walid assured us we had saved the best to last and after a long day of travel and a farewell dinner in the Four Seasons hotel we still had a full day of excursions before we finished our trip. Another 7am tour start took us out of Cairo before the traffic picked up and straight to the pyramids before the crowds arrived. First up was the Great Pyramid, a truly iconic sight and incredible to see up close and personal. From here we moved to the next pyramid with the option to go into a tomb passing through a rather tiny tunnel into the heart of the pyramid. Most of us choose just to remain on the outside mesmerised by the view of these incredible structures. The whole group then moved onto a panoramic viewpoint where there was the option to take a camel ride in the foothills of the three pyramids. We couldn’t leave Giza without a stop at the Great Sphinx, although by now the crowds had built and because of structural repairs we were disappointed that we weren’t able to get that iconic photo of the sphinx sitting in front of the great pyramid. Although it was only mid morning we had seen so much but we still had visits to the ancient capital city of Memphis and the original of all the pyramids, the Step Pyramid before saying a final farewell to our amazing Egyptologist and fellow travellers, many of whom had now become our firm friends.
Overall this trip could hardly be described as a vacation, with early morning starts and full days exploring ancient sites, we would liken it more to an expedition cruise. It is also impossible to ignore the hardship you encounter on this trip, with the level of poverty in some of the places we visited taking us by surprise. For these reasons we would wholly recommend taking a fully escorted tour, our Egyptologists were crucial to our enjoyment of the trip, keeping us safe and giving us expert advice, not only about the sites we visited but how and who to engage with when we were at the tourist sites. However, overall the trip blew us away with the amount of ancient history and wonders of the world we had managed to squeeze into such a short time, sailing through Egyptian countryside with the Sahara desert as a backdrop, all while enjoying the luxurious surroundings and attentive service on the glorious SS Sphinx.