A cruise can be a great way to learn a new skill, polish up an old one or study an ancient culture. Maggie O’Sullivan combines a Nile cruise with a tour of Egypt’s temples and tombs.
The ancient Egyptians believed that their gods travelled up and down the Nile by boat. This would have been far easier to imagine when boats were elegant feluccas, powered by wind and graceful oar, rather than the ugly floating hotels that chug along the river today.
I say floating hotels but even a two-star wouldn’t get away with a room the size of the average Nile cruise cabin. However, you shouldn’t judge a cruiser by the size of its cabins. And a good job, too, I think, as I survey my accommodation on Oberoi’s new Zahra, billed as the most luxurious cruiser on the river. Suites measure a roomy 50m² but I’m not in a suite, I’m in a cabin and at 26.4m², it feels rather snug.
There’s room for two single beds (or are they berths?) and bedside tables, a built-in wardrobe, a desk that doubles as a dressing table, two armchairs and small table. The chairs are arranged side by side, facing the opaque glass wall of the – very luxurious – bathroom, and at right-angles to the picture window. I rearrange the chairs so that they are both next to the window and place the table against the wall to clear more space. When I return from lunch, the chairs and table have been restored to their original positions.
I notice that I can hear my neighbour moving about in her cabin. Perhaps you shouldn’t judge a cruiser by the quality of its soundproofing, either.
But it doesn’t matter, because I won’t be spending much time in my cabin. I’m on an introductory cruise, which means that we will only be spending two nights/three days on the Zahra Nile Cruise and travel from Luxor as far as Qena – the real thing goes from Luxor to Aswan (or vice versa). But as on the longer cruises, we are provided with our own Egyptologist who will guide us around the sights; transport will be on a small, private coach.
Our Egyptologist, Ahmed, announces that he will be calling us the “Royal Family” group. We don’t understand what he means until later at Luxor Temple he extracts us from the general mêlée by calling out: “Royals… follow me.” After that, we rather enjoy being addressed as Royals, particularly as we are following in the footsteps of so many real kings and queens.
We are mesmerised by the temple, for most of us, our first taste of ancient Egypt. Guarding the entrance is an 82ft high obelisk that looks strangely familiar. “There were two – the other one is in the Place de la Concorde. Empress Eugenie did a swap for a kiss and a clock. The clock has never worked. You can see who got the best end of the bargain,” sighs Ahmed.
But it isn’t the obelisk that stuns us into silence, it’s the two beautiful, colossal statues of Rameses II seated just behind it. It’s hard to believe that they were carved more than 3,000 years ago, and not something made up by a special-effects department. We’ve clearly all seen The Spy Who Loved Me too many times.
It’s still blisteringly hot at four in the afternoon but the temple is surprisingly uncrowded. This, says Ahmed, is because Zahra times its tours to be out of synch with everybody else’s. It’s true: when we get to Tutankhamun’s tomb on our third morning, we Royals are the only ones gazing down over the boy king’s sarcophagus. Although we try to obey Ahmed’s exortations not to talk – “when you talk, you exhale 20g of moisture, which harms the tombs” – we find it impossible to stay silent.
With Ahmed at the helm, the tours are also delightfully concise, so although we do the Luxor Temple and Luxor museum, Karnak, the Valley of the Kings, Dier el-Bahri, Dier El Madina and the Temple of Denderah, in just three days, we never feel templed-out.
The other reason we’re so relaxed is why, I suspect, people will happily spend £1,795 on this particular cruise. Think of all the facilities you would expect to find in a luxury hotel – spacious room excepted, obviously – and they’re all on the Zahra: outdoor swimming pool (14 breast strokes from end to end), a gourmet restaurant serving – albeit rather slowly – superb Egyptian and Indian food (the chef is Indian), a swish bar area, a cigar room, a library, a gym and a small presentation theatre for lectures and films.
There’s a spa with four treatment rooms and, up on deck, an automated misting system to keep you cool (frizz alert, girls). I like the contemporary décor, too: lots of cream and chocolate with wooden flooring in the cabins and opaque glass stairs between the decks. Very different from the British colonial look that other Nile cruisers go in for.
It isn’t just the boat that’s relaxing – the Nile has the same effect, particularly once we get going. On the banks, fields of crops and half-finished houses slide by to a soundtrack of muezzins calling the faithful to prayer and the muted throb of the Zahara’s engines.
It’s also another chance to see some of the sights we have already visited: Hatshepsut’s glorious terraced temple at Dier el-Bahri looks especially dazzling from the water. We’re rather obsessed with Hatshepsut – Ahmet calls her “the Egyptian Margaret Thatcher – beautiful and intelligent” but we’ve all read the recent research which concludes that she was actually extremely fat.
There’s a wake-up call when we reach Qena: we are escorted to the Temple of Denderah by an armed tourist police car. This appears to be more for show than anything – and the car is so ancient that on our return journey it needs a push start – but it serves to remind us that the risk of terrorism against tourists remains high in Egypt. There’s a gun mounted on the deck of the Zahra, too, though this is quickly dismantled once we leave Qena.
It’s late in the afternoon and the ostentatiously armed guards at Denderah are irritable and keen for us to leave. It’s a shame because this is the loveliest temple of all – dedicated to Hathor, goddess of love, music and beauty – and really needs a little more time than we have.
In the end, the guards lock the gates and we have to walk across flowerbeds and round the back of the information centre to get out.
On our way to the airport to fly back to Cairo, we stop off at Luxor Museum. Cairo gets all the good stuff, of course, but there are still some interesting artefacts here, including a stunning statue of Thutmosis III in granite and several mummies. Wandering around the artefacts, I meet someone I know from London. I feel a stab of envy – for while my journey along the Nile has ended, his is just about to begin.