Nile cruises operate in Upper Egypt, between Aswan and Luxor, from September to May, although the best time to visit is in the cooler months of November to March.
Most visitors make the most of Egypt by adding to the cruise. Stay in Cairo for a few days to see the Pyramids, the Sphinx and the Museum of Antiquities. Or take a second cruise, from Aswan, across Lake Nasser, for the blissful tranquillity of life on a lake boat and some of the lesser-known temples. Alternatively, do the Nile and then hit the beaches of the Red Sea at Sharm el Sheikh and Hurghada.
Packing for a Nile cruise is straightforward. You’ll need good walking shoes, cool clothing that covers knees and elbows (Egypt is a Muslim country), a sunhat, camera, binoculars and a good guidebook; this is one destination where it really helps to understand the history. Also take small change (US dollars, Euros or Egyptian pounds) for souvenirs, and just as a precaution, Immodium and rehydration salts.
All Nile cruises call at the same ports, either starting or finishing in Aswan or Luxor and visiting the riverside temples of Kom Ombo, Edfu and Esna underway.
Aswan, Egypt’s southernmost city and the setting in which Agatha Christie wrote part of Death on the Nile, sprawls dustily on high ground on the east bank of the river, its centre a lush, green oasis of palm trees. The Nile braids itself around several small islands here and feluccas, traditional Nile sailing boats, zigzag backwards and forwards across the river on sightseeing trips.
Aswan has grown up around stone quarries which were exploited by the Egyptians some 1500 years before Christ. It’s also located next to the Aswan High Dam, which was built to create the vast reservoir of Lake Nasser and is a tourist attraction in itself. Take a side trip from the town to the breathtaking temple of Abu Simbel on Lake Nasser, which had to be moved, piece by piece, when the reservoir was created.
As well as the dam and the stone quarries, visits here include the beautiful Temple of Philae, dedicated to Isis, goddess of magic. Like Abu Simbel, Philae was actually dismantled and moved to a safer, higher spot as the Nile waters began to rise.
The stretch of the river between Aswan and Luxor is particularly beautiful. Spend the voyage on deck, just looking at life drift by: water buffalo standing motionless in emerald-green fields; herds of goat kicking up dust; small children playing football; people fishing from old wooden boats and the occasional train snaking its way across the desert landscape.
There are three temple stops between Aswan and Luxor. Just 20 miles to the north of the town lies the temple of Kom Ombo, where you’ll see amazing reliefs on the ancient walls, clearly depicting surgical tools, including bone saws, scalpels and dental tools.
Further along the river, surrounded by fields of sugar cane, is the temple of Edfu, one of the best-preserved in the whole of Upper Egypt, and to the north, the Temple of Khnum at Esna, much of which is still to be excavated.
Luxor is the biggest attraction of Nile cruises and it’s debatable whether it’s best to see it first or last; in a way, the Valley of the Kings and the mighty Karnak Temple are best kept as a grand finale to a Nile cruise.
Karnak, a vast complex covering 100 acres, lies just outside the city. Bigger and more spectacular than anything else you’ll see in Egypt, it took 1,300 years to build. A sound and light show takes place every night, mysterious voices echoing out from towering columns and solid walls as evocative lighting illuminates different aspects of the ancient site. Luxor Temple, in the middle of the town, is smaller but nonetheless impressive.
Across the river, on the west bank, are the Valley of the Kings and the Valley of the Queens, where the pharaohs were buried in underground tombs. Most tours come here at sunrise, when the desert and the mountains glow ochre and red in the early morning light and clusters of hot air balloons lift gracefully off the ground, an unforgettable vantage point from which to watch dawn break over the Nile Valley.
The Valley of the Kings, though, is the real highlight. There are 66 known tombs, and a typical visit includes entrance to three of them. Most tombs don’t actually have anything in them, their treasures long plundered, but the hieroglyphs and paintings on the walls are stunning, with incredible colour that has remained unchanged over the millennia.
But if you want to see the originals, come soon; a grand scheme to build replicas of Tutankhamun’s tomb, the most famous, and others is underway in order that the fragile antiquities can be preserved in peace, away from the destructive presence of thousands of visitors. It’s a sensible plan – but it won’t be the same.
Why not see which cruise lines travel to The Nile?