From Luxor to Aswan, Egyptian cruises are back in demand. Nick Dalton talks to the experts about exploring this enticing region
A cruise through the ancient history of Egypt is an extraordinary experience, a voyage like nowhere else. One of river cruising’s grand dames, it has been through a bad patch; internal unrest in Cairo reflecting badly on the slow, relentless waters of the Nile.
But now, with Foreign Office warnings for the Nile Valley area rescinded, the tide has turned and the Nile is hot again.
At the forefront is Viking Ra, a boutique, 52-passenger ship designed with the same Scandi-chic style as the cruise line’s other contemporary river vessels, but with an Egyptian twist.
“We have been overwhelmed with the response to our Nile cruises and the fact that they have sold out so quickly demonstrates travellers’ strong interest in returning to this magnificent river – our guests safety and security will be paramount in all areas visited,” says Wendy Atkin-Smith, UK MD. “With such high demand, we will be launching our 2020 programme in the next few weeks.”
Most cruises stick to the 140-mile stretch of river between Luxor and Aswan, packed with temples, tombs and ruins. Viking’s 12-day Pharaohs & Pyramids trips also travels another 50 miles north of Luxor to Qena (near the lesser visited Greco-Roman temple complex of Dendera), combining a week-long cruise with time in Cairo (from £5,895pp including flights; 0800 319 6660; vikingrivercruises.co.uk).
The classic stretch of Nile is one dazzling piece of history after another. At Luxor is the riverfront Temple of Luxor while a mile north is the Temple of Karnak, reckoned to be the world’s largest ancient religious complex, boasting giant columns and avenues lined with sphinxes. Great Hypostyle Hall itself is a forest of 134 enormous sandstone columns. The whole complex comes alive at night with a spectacular sound and light show.
A short dive away across the river from Luxor is the Valley of the Kings, a breathtaking desert and rock setting where there are more than 60 tombs, including the tomb of Tutankhamun.
On the way to Aswan is the Temple of Kom Ombo, which is dedicated to the crocodile god Sobek – 300 mummified crocodiles are displayed in The Crocodile Museum.
The bustling city of Aswan and busy riverfront hotels is a place to stroll among the markets and shops. Elephantine Island, opposite where most ships moor, is the site of Aswan Museum featuring artefacts discovered during the building of Aswan Dam just upriver, and the ruins of the Temple of Khnum. Neighbouring Kitchener’s Island has lush, palm tree-filled Aswan Botanical Garden, a collection started by Lord Kitchener, the Consul-General.
From here most cruise companies offer additional tours to the dam; some by road, more extravagant ones by air. The dam itself is only a few miles but most tours head 14 miles south to the twin temples of Abu Simbel on the banks of the reservoir, Lake Nasser, relocated from their original site piece by piece before the lake submerged them.
Scenic has continued to run its 11-day Treasures of Egypt tour, combining a four-night cruise with Cairo and the pyramids (from £4,595pp, including flights; 0808 231 7024; scenic.co.uk).
“There is definite renewed interest,” says Nichola Absalom, Brand Manager at Scenic. “We have 30 years of experience and, during the last few years, maintained close ties with local experts and travel operators meaning we have always been able to offer exceptional itineraries. During the unrest these areas have been relatively free of tourist crowds – and there is still time to enjoy the ancient wonders before numbers reach previous levels.
“We are opening up Egypt, combining it with destinations such as Jordan and Africa to offers guests once-in-a-lifetime events that aren’t found on the ordinary tourist trail.”
The 20-day Essence of Egypt & Jordan tour features a four-night cruise with a stay in Cairo and Jordan, boasting a visit to the cliff city of Petra, a desert tent stay in the Wadi Rum and Red Sea boat ride (from £7,795pp, including flights).
Jules Verne, the company that offers extraordinary cruises and tours, has always stuck with Egypt.
“Although mass tourism all but stopped, the more adventurous traveller was able to enjoy historical sites at a pace not experienced since Victorian times,” says Francis Torrilla, MD of Jules Verne. “We continued operating with the long cruise from Cairo to Aswan doing particularly well and this year the Nile is having something of a renaissance, especially on our autumn sailings.”
Particularly popular, and unusual, is A Royal Steamer Restored on the classic stretch of river. The seven-night cruise is on SS Misr, called ‘the most luxurious steamship on the Nile’ with its Egyptian-style décor, built by the Royal Navy in 1918 and later owned by King Farouk. Following restoration led by Jules Verne, the steam-driven vessel with only 24 cabins offers five-star service – think sundeck with wicker chairs and plunge pool.
The trip combines the ancient world with colonial splendour. There’s a cocktail reception in the Sofitel Winter Palace Hotel, where Howard Carter announced the discovery of Tutankhamun’s tomb, and tea at Aswan’s Old Cataract Hotel, which starred in Agatha Christie’s Death on the Nile, and was where the 1978 movie was filmed. Departs regularly in October, November, January and February from £2,195pp including flights and no single supplement (020 3553 3722; vjv.com).
Uniworld’s 12-day Splendours of Egypt and the Nile features two nights in Cairo both before and after the cruise, which includes a boat ride to see bird life (from kingfishers to vultures), a cruise in a traditional felucca and tea at the Old Cataract.
“Bookings for our Nile cruises are starting to come back for 2018, which is great news as Egypt offers such a unique historical and cultural experience and is a wonderful destination to cruise,” says Uniworld’s UK MD Chris Townson.
“We would always recommend visitors look at Foreign Office advice before embarking on any travel plans, but there is a general optimism around returning to Egypt and we are delighted that the market seems to be reinvigorating.
“With fewer crowds at the moment, and the new Egyptian Museum building in Cairo slated to open later this year, there are plenty of reasons why 2018 is the year to visit.”
Titan has continued to champion Egypt and runs two cruises and tours. “Titan customers have enjoyed Nile cruises for more than two decades now, and we’re delighted to see an increase in guests for 2018/19 on our two escorted river cruise holidays,” says MD Andy Squirrell.
“These focus on Egypt’s historic sites from Alexandria, Cairo and the pyramids in the north to the treasures of Luxor, Edfu and Aswan in the south. They have attracted travellers, tourists and academics for centuries, and it’s great to see that the allure is as strong as ever.
“Customer safety is of paramount importance to everything we do at Titan and, as such, we will always closely monitor and follow Foreign Office advice.”
Titan’s 12-day Cairo, Alexandria and a Nile Cruise combines seven nights on a smart Presidential Nile ship with a four night stay in Cairo, plus a day trip to Alexandria. There are regular departures from September to May, with prices from £1,679pp including flights, most meals, drinks with dinner on board and VIP door-to-door travel service (0808 250 0759; titantravel.co.uk).
The British Government advises against travel to some areas of Egypt but the Nile Valley, including Cairo and the Red Sea. Resorts are not affected although tourists are advised to be vigilant. It says that almost 320,000 Britons visited Egypt in 2017 without problems. See fco.gov.uk for updates.
A tourist visa is needed for visits of up 30 days but can be bought at the airport (US $25), although it is generally included in the holiday price. Vaccinations are not required. It is recommended to drink bottled water.