Egyptian cruises appeal to the adventurer in all of us. However for a voyage with a difference, set sail on the Nile in a Dahabiya.
I’m on a Nile cruise with a difference. That much is clear from the start as we hang around on the riverbank at Aswan on a dark, cool night. Our boat, El Bey, isn’t even visible, although a string of big Nile cruisers are lined up and horse-drawn carriages wait to ferry tourists to the night market.
A rickety ferry arrives, with no navigation light. The boatman promptly piles our luggage on the roof and we phut-phut across the Nile, inky black in the darkness, away from the city, reed-encircled islands forming tufted shapes that loom in the darkness.
Eventually, welcoming lights come into view. Three little dahabiyas, the old fashioned wooden sailing boats used by intrepid Victorian holidaymakers more than a century ago, are lined up along the bank. I am instantly charmed. We scramble aboard El Bey and are greeted with mint tea (and later, gin and tonics – it’s been a long day). I’m surprised at the level of comfort; polished wood everywhere, soft light filtered into geometric shapes through ornate lanterns and cushions in vibrant colours piled on the sun deck. There are only six cabins, each with its own shower room and period furnishings.
We wake, refreshed, to find we’re moored next to a giant sand dune. Turquoise birds flit through the rushes along the bank and fresh coffee is brewing on the shaded deck, where we have all our meals al fresco.
The pace of life on a dahabiya is deliciously slow. We do all the same tours as passengers on the bigger boats (Philae Temple, the Aswan High Dam, Esna and Edfu temples, Kom Ombo and the antiquities of Luxor) and like the main river cruise lines, have an Egyptologist on board for the whole cruise. In our case, it’s Maged, who turns out to be an ace at dominoes, resulting in many late-night challenges. But we also have long, sun-soaked afternoons lazing on deck, reading and watching life on the riverbank drift by as we cruise north towards Luxor – plantations of mango, lemon and banana, children tending goats, buffalo standing like statues in the water.
The actual sailing part is more decorative than functional; the Nile flows south-north but the prevailing winds blow north-south, so a northbound voyage like ours isn’t ideal for filling the forward and aft sails and the voyage is mostly motoring, a luxury the Victorians didn’t enjoy. The crew do, however, hoist the sails on their rough, wooden masts on a couple of occasions and we tack lazily across the river in the afternoon breeze.
On one day, there’s a surprise: a barbecue on an uninhabited island in the middle of the Nile, a huge array of dips and salads, snapper from the Red Sea grilling on the fire alongside lamb chops and chicken drumsticks. Evenings are a mix of international cuisine and local specialities – curried chicken one night, pigeon another, spiced beef another, all beautifully presented. Dinner is all the better as we’re usually tied up on a quiet island midstream, the sound of braying donkeys mingling with the evening call to prayer as we break open the gin, the comforting smell of wood smoke wafting from nearby villages, hidden behind fields of sugar cane. Egyptian red and white wines, both called Sheherazade, are served with dinner and we develop quite a taste for them.
When we reach Luxor, it’s quite a culture shock, with cruise boats stacked three deep on the east bank where the city lies (we’re tied up on the quieter west bank). The pace immediately picks up as we tour the magnificent Luxor Temple, squeeze in the breathtaking Karnak Temple, the biggest of them all, and get up early to explore the tomb paintings in the Valley of the Kings.
There’s one last treat before we head to the airport; we’ve splashed out around £60 each on a hot-air balloon ride. At the launch site, eight giant balloons are lying on the ground in the pre-dawn gloom, the roar of burners filling the air. We clamber into our basket, under the command of Captain Ali, and drift slowly up, just as the first rays of sun light up the Temple of Queen Hatshepsut. The mountains turn to ochre and the whole of the Nile valley is suddenly bathed in golden light, an endless snake of emerald green across the desert. It’s magical and I don’t want it to end, although the farmer in whose field we land, frightening his donkey, has a less romantic view of the situation. After a lot of shouting, he is rewarded with a fistful of baksheesh (an allencompassing Egyptian word for a tip). The balloons are loaded into trucks and the idyllic life on the riverbank returns to calm once more.
A voyage on a dahabiya is one of many options for cruising the Nile. Discovering Egypt can be done in many different ways, depending on your priorities:
BEST FOR…DISCOVERING THE REAL EGYPT
Scenic Tours For total immersion in Egypt, you can’t go wrong with this luxurious 14-day tour. What I loved was the fact that it combined two cruises; one on the Nile visiting all the major sites and one on the vast expanse of Lake Nasser, the world’s biggest man-made lake. The sense of space and peace on Lake Nasser is unforgettable, as only a couple of boats operate there. You may also see crocodiles and giant fish.
As well as the two cruises, there’s time in Cairo, staying at the Mena House, the most luxurious of the hotels by the pyramids, and a couple of days chilling in Hurghada.
I love snorkelling and a day drifting over the dazzling corals and rainbow-coloured fish of the Red Sea was a complete contrast to the intensive sightseeing. A trip into the desert for a Bedouin-style dinner is also included.
The tour includes: five nights in Cairo; three nights on board the Jaz Omar El Khayam; three nights on the Jaz Minerva on the Nile; and two nights at the Marriott Hurghada on the Red Sea. All flights and sightseeing are included, with full board on the two cruises and B&B in the hotels. Special highlights include dinner with an Egyptian family in Cairo, a Bedouin dinner in the desert and a sound and light show at Abu Simbel. Operates September to May; from £3,895 including flights.
BEST FOR…EGYPT ON A BUDGET
Best of Egypt Egypt can be just as fulfilling without being ultra-luxury. Best of Egypt has a huge range of tours starting at only £699 for a week’s Nile cruise on a four-star boat, MS Troy – which has just 35 cabins (all outside), a restaurant and sun deck with pool – and includes flights, transfers and full board. What’s different about this itinerary, which sails round-trip from Luxor, is that the excursions, all of which are accompanied by a qualified Egyptologist, are optional. Although it’s better to visit the temples with a guide, you can certainly do some under your own steam. Kom Ombo, for example, is right beside the Nile, while Karnak Temple and Luxor Temple are both easily reachable on foot or by caleche (a horsedrawn carriage) once you’re docked in Luxor.
Aswan is slightly trickier to explore on your own as Philae Temple is on an island, but you can always arrange a felucca or one of the small river ferries locally. If you pay for just one excursion, make it the Valley of the Kings, which is both vastly improved and easier with a guide.
Tel: (020) 8324 3112;
BEST FOR…CRUISE AND STAY
African Safari Club offers a wide range of cruise-and-stay holidays in its Egypt programme. If you’re adding on a week in Luxor, make it winter or early spring; otherwise you may find it’s just too hot.
A typical cruise-and-stay itinerary includes all the big sights along the Nile: Luxor and Karnak, the Tombs of the Kings, Edfu, Kom Ombo and Philae. African Safari Club offer some good optional add-ons: for around £210 you can do a day in Cairo (by air) from Luxor. Add a week in a Luxor hotel for a slower pace. When I did this combination, I felt I really got to know Luxor, chatting to the felucca sailors, riding around in a caleche, exploring the lesser-visited tombs on the West Bank and shopping for jewellery in the night market.
A week on the five-star, 136-guest MS Da Vinci costs £779 in February. Includes full board, flights, transfers and 10 excursions, plus £379 for a week’s add-on in the five-star Steigenberger Nile Palace, which boasts fantastic views.
Tel: 0844 875 6030;
BEST FOR…THE ALTERNATIVE NILE
Perfect for experienced Egypt travellers, this week-long cruise in the company of an Egyptologist on the luxury, 48-passenger steamboat SS Misr takes in all the temples on the mainstream itineraries, but then deviates to the Gebel el-Silsila stone quarries and the little-known temple of Horemhep.
There’s a fantastic tour by boat to the Tombs of the Nobles, then by camel or on foot into the desert to the Monastery of St Simeon, as well as a visit in Luxor to the restored home of Howard Carter, who discovered Tutankhamun’s tomb and a private reception at Luxor Temple.
From £1,695 in January 2011, including flights, transfers, full board on the cruise and tours.
Tel: 0845 166 7003;
Dahabiya El Bey (identical to Amber, Zahra and Musk)
DURATION: Seven nights
INCLUDED: Scheduled flights, transfers, full board on the dahabiya, wine with dinner, soft drinks, all excursions in the itinerary, gratuities and services of an Egyptologist guide. Tours cost from £1,980 and operate September to May.
TO BOOK: 0845 057 1819; www.balesworldwide.com
DAY 1 Cairo to Aswan
Flight to Aswan and embark on your dahabiya for a relaxing week on the Nile.
DAY 2 Abu Simbel
This morning, there is the opportunity to visit the spectacular temples of Abu Simbel by air. Afternoon is at leisure. Overnight at Aswan.
DAY 3 Philae
Early morning, visit the High Dam, Old Dam and beautiful Philae Temple. Later you will sail to Kom Ombo to visit the Ptolemaic temple. Overnight by a Nile island.
DAY 4 Edfu
Sail to Edfu where you will visit the magnificent Temple of Horus at Edfu, and afterwards, Karnak.
DAY 5 Esna
Today will be a leisurely day. After breakfast, commence your journey to Esna, cross the lock and onwards to Luxor, where the boat moors overnight.
DAY 6 Valley of the Kings
Option of rising at dawn to take a hot-air balloon flight over Luxor. Today, cross over to the West Bank to visit the romantic Valley of the Kings. Continue to the Valley of the Queens, Medinet Habu and the Colossi of Memnon.
DAY 7 Luxor
This morning your East Bank sightseeing begins with a visit to Karnak Temple. Later this afternoon, explore the magnificent Luxor Temple.
DAY 8 Depart
Disembark the boat after breakfast and transfer to Luxor airport for flight to Cairo. Return flight from here to London Heathrow.