Explore the Red Sea on a winter sun cruise to Jordan and Egypt
By Sue Bryant | 21 Jun 2022
From the heights of the Treasury at Petra to the depths of the wildlife-rich Red Sea, we explore the best of Egypt and Jordan on a winter sun cruise
I’ve climbed up as far as I can on the steep trail to the High Place of Sacrifice. Far below me, tourists, Bedouin, camels and donkeys mill around the ancient site of Petra. Up here, though, it’s silent, apart from the rustle of the wind in scrubby bushes.
The rocky desert stretches into the distance, its jagged chasms and rose-pink rock faces absorbing the facades of the city, built in the third century BC by the Nabateans. I savour the moment, away from the crowds.
I’m on a week-long cruise from the Egyptian resort of Hurghada, sailing up the long finger of the Gulf of Aqaba to Jordan. We’ll spend two nights at Aqaba for visits to Petra and Wadi Rum, as well as a couple of days in Hurghada and one in Sharm el-Sheikh for some beach time.
Cruises with CroisiEurope
This is a new itinerary for French-owned CroisiEurope, a company better known for its wide range of European river cruises.
As well as riverboats and canal cruisers, the company has two ocean-going ships. The 197-passenger La Belle de L’Adriatique spends summer in Croatia, but last winter it was exploring the Red Sea for the first time.
Our little ship is a welcome sight when we arrive at Hurghada following a busy couple of days exploring the sights of Cairo.
It’s like a cocoon after the crazy traffic, the hustlers and the bureaucracy that come hand in hand with travel in Egypt. Following a refit in 2017, the ship is kitted out in soothing, muted colours. The crew members are beaming and the soft vocals of Tabaré, a young guitarist who plays every day, waft out of the lounge.
There’s an open bar, too, which my fellow passengers are already enjoying. There are 75 of us on board, almost all from France and Belgium, and as such, the language of the ship is French, though with a more international crowd on board the tours would be conducted in English as well.
I dig deep to revive my rusty conversational skills and, sure enough, by the end of the first day I’m already dreaming in French.
Hurghada is buzzing with winter sun-seekers and every day a fleet of yellow semi-submersible craft heads out to the coral reefs for which the Red Sea is famous. This is one of the tours offered by CroisiEurope and given that the water is too cold for the snorkelling I had planned, I’m on board.
We drift over the coral, sitting in blue-green light at the bottom of the boat, everyone marvelling at the proliferation of bright yellow butterfly fish and shimmering turquoise parrot fish. To my excitement, a small ray glides gracefully over the coral heads.
The following day there’s an excursion to Luxor which, I have to confess, I skip, having been there many times. I feel slightly guilty but instead spend a blissful day reading in the sun, enjoying an excellent Provençal rosé with lunch and mooching around town.
I’m lounging in the hot tub on deck considering a martini as salmon pink streaks the sky and the evening call to prayer echoes out from dozens of minarets.
The adventurers arrive back at 9pm, dusty and tired but euphoric, and this is where the cultural differences between British and French cruisers become clear. Whereas Brits would most likely raid the buffet and head straight to the bar, my French travelling companions settle down for a full, served three-course meal with decent French wines.
I love the dedication on board to civilised dining. Fresh croissants and pots of tea and coffee are waiting on my table every morning for breakfast. Lunch and dinner are both fixed three-course menus: tournedos de boeuf, an intense mushroom soup, suckling pig, an exquisite tarte tatin and chocolate mousse. Chef Alan makes delicious meat-free dishes for me, too, from falafels to a delicate sea bass.
The bar is kept busy all day, but evenings remain low-key, possibly as we’re all tired from sightseeing. I’m happy to go to bed early. My cabin is compact, with a picture window and nicely done out in shades of cream and pale gold.
La Belle de l’Adriatique sets sail for our first port, Sharm el-Sheikh, perched near the point of the Sinai peninsula. This is the only disappointment of the trip as again it’s too cold for snorkelling and there’s not a lot else to do. If you’re set on snorkelling, which is especially good here in Ras Mohamed Nature Reserve, aim to travel in warmer months.
Jordan is the real prize on this itinerary and there’s a celebratory mood as we prepare to head north from Sharm through the Gulf of Aqaba. A belly dancer and a whirling dervish brought on before lunch shimmy and spin around the top deck as champagne flows.
Later, I lounge in the warm afternoon sun. On one side of the narrow gulf, I can see the luxurious hotels along the Egyptian coast. Rocky islands line the middle of the channel, the occasional yacht moored in a shimmering turquoise lagoon. To starboard, the mountains and deserts of Saudi Arabia glow as the shadows lengthen.
Jordan is completely different from Egypt: more organised, and with a much more prosperous feel. Petra, where we spend the first day, has changed since my last visit, with a gleaming new visitor centre and a contemporary museum telling the story of the site.
The walk through the Siq, the long, towering canyon that leads to the dazzling façade of the Treasury, is as thrilling as ever, with every jaw dropping as we round the last rocky bend for the great reveal. Some places you’ve seen before in a thousand photos and films are an anti-climax. Petra is the opposite.
Wadi Rum, too, is extraordinary. We drive across a landscape vibrant with colour: rust, pink and gold. Rose-red sandstone is striped with crazed swirls of black and green granite and the cliffs resemble golden honeycomb. A row of 4x4s is waiting and we bump off into the great canyon in convoy, hurtling over red dunes, whooping and yelling.
Countless films have been made here: Dune, Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker, The Martian and, of course, Lawrence of Arabia. We stop to look at 5,000-year-old rock inscriptions and a small carving of TE Lawrence’s face from 1917.
Wadi Rum is dotted with desert camps and the cars pull up at the Captain’s Camp for lunch, which is superb: roast aubergine, beans with harissa, lamb-stuffed pita and flatbreads warm from a stone oven.
After lunch, we lounge on low-slung sofas, drinking mint tea around a crackling fire. But the sky has darkened. As we leave, great clouds of sand block out the sun, spinning like dervishes across the desert and forming drifts in the road. Watching the sandstorm, despite the grit in our eyes and cameras, is fascinating.
I’m almost sorry to see the minarets of Hurghada piercing the horizon the following morning as we arrive back at base. This has been a trip packed with bucket-list experiences – and it’s an easy, stress-free way to string together these extraordinary sights, with superb food and good company into the bargain.
Book a Red Sea cruise with CroisiEurope
An eight-day cruise, Treasures on the Red Sea – Egypt and Jordan, with CroisiEurope starts from £1,857 per person departing on November 26 and December 3 and 10. The price includes a round-trip sailing from Hurghada with all meals and drinks, some excursions and port fees, but excludes flights. Find out more from CroisiEurope.