29 January 2015 by David Warne
Ever since Thomas Cook launched the first tour groups to Upper Egypt in 1869 the classic Nile cruise has become the most sought after – and romantic – way for affluent travellers to experience the country's extraordinary historical sites.
As tourism peaked just prior to the so-called 'Arab Spring' over 300 cruise boats were plying their trade on the Nile. Almost overnight the Nile cruise industry collapsed following the turbulent events of 2011 and even today only a handful of cruise boats are currently operating.
However, as political stability has returned to Egypt, so confidence in tourism is growing again - which seemed the perfect opportunity to fulfil one of my travel 'bucket list' trips to take a cruise between Aswan and Luxor.
After spending a few delightful days on arrival at the Old Cataract Hotel – arguably Egypt's most iconic – we boarded Sun Boat IV in Aswan for a three-night cruise to Luxor.
The Sun Boat IV is a luxurious experience, right from the warm welcome at the start
Sun Boat IV is truly luxurious, and one of three cruise vessels operated by Sanctuary Retreats - the others being Nile Adventurer and Sun Boat III. The fact that all three Sanctuary boats remained in service while the vast majority have been out of action suggests that Sanctuary is getting something right. And from the moment we boarded it was obvious that this is a well-oiled machine. We were greeted warmly with the minimum of check in formalities and taken immediately to our cabin, with our luggage arriving seconds later.
With 40 cabins Sun Boat IV is the largest vessel in the Sanctuary fleet but still manages to feel exclusive. The standard cabins are inevitably compact but stylishly furnished and offer floor-to-ceiling windows. Cabins are well laid-out with plenty of storage and hanging space for 2 people with a complete set of luggage. Although there is no balcony, a sliding glass panel allows guests to go out onto the narrow walkway that runs the length of the boat on each deck.
Cabins are spacious – the floor-to-ceiling windows make make lazy mornings a real pleasure
They've also got a dressing table or desk, wall-mounted flat-screen TV, and smallish bathroom with sink, shower and toilet – all kept spotlessly clean throughout our cruise – with excellent water pressure and unlimited hot water.
Elsewhere Sun Boat IV boasts a stylish and comfortable lounge bar with floor to ceiling windows, a spacious dining room and several outdoor areas; these include a large sun deck with heated swimming pool, plenty of sun loungers and a shaded deck area that is also used for al fresco dining.
The lounge bar is well-kept and exudes Egyptian style
Other than when we slept, we didn't spend much time in our cabin. Not only are the ship's spacious public areas inviting, but the cruise is sightseeing orientated, so a significant amount of time is spent off the boat visiting the historical sites, including Philae, Karnak, Kom Ombo, Edfu and the Valley of the Kings.
After embarking around midday, we unpacked and explored before a leisurely buffet lunch and a chance to meet our fellow guests. There were around 55 clients on our sailing, most of whom were either British, American or European.
Next up was a visit to the site of an unfinished obelisk in an ancient quarry in Aswan, which gave us an insight into the extraordinary effort and manpower required to create one of the most famous symbols of ancient Egypt. The huge part-carved monolith was abandoned after a large crack appeared while it was being hewn out of the rock.
Several Egyptologists were on hand to escort guests in small groups of around 10 to 12, each travelling in separate mini-buses to and from the vessel, so we never felt part of a large group.
Sitting on the dining terrace with a sundowner is the perfect way to end a day's sightseeing
On our return to the boat, we spent the late afternoon taking afternoon tea, followed by sundowners on the pool deck. In the evening the Captain's welcome drinks gave us a chance to enjoy a cocktail or two and sample some Egyptian wines and beers.
Dinner followed, an a la carte three-course menu with a good selection of courses, including an excellent Nile Perch. Waiters were friendly and quickly demonstrated that they had taken note of our preferences from the lunch buffet, which was a nice touch.
Having already visited Philae the day before the cruise, my wife and I opted for a lie in and enjoyed breakfast in bed - which was delivered by the staff quickly, with no fuss and piping hot. For the rest of the morning, we sat up on deck enjoying coffee and a good book.
When the other guests returned, we set sail for Kom Ombo, a temple dedicated to Sobek the crocodile God, arriving late morning. Kom Ombo's setting right on the river meant that it was only a short walk from the jetty – sightseeing at its most convenient.
The Temple of Philae
A buffet lunch was served al fresco, as we set off northbound, on what was to be the longest daylight passage of the cruise. Afternoon drifted into early evening and afternoon tea gave way to gin and tonic, as a glorious colour-wash from the setting sun turned the palm tree lined river bank a dusky bronze. Enjoying the passing scenery, punctuated only by occasional small fishing boats, was one of the unexpected highlights of the cruise.
We arrived at Edfu after dark, in time for a spectacular sound and light show at the temple. En route to the temple the crew had organised a number of horse-drawn carts to take us the half-mile or so through town to and from the temple, a hilarious - and marginally scary - experience as the caleche drivers tried to outrun each other to impress us.
We enjoyed a stunning sound and light show at Edfu
Walking through the temple complex at night is a very different experience to visiting during the day time; coloured lights and projections accompany the surround sound commentary and really bring the story to life.
The evening entertainment back aboard was the Egyptian night, a long-standing Nile cruise tradition, where dressing up in a traditional galabeyah for the Egyptian buffet dinner and joining in after-dinner Nubian dancing is encouraged (but optional). The British contingent seemed the most up for a bit of fun and was the last to leave the lounge bar afterwards. It turned out to be a very entertaining evening, and a great icebreaker to get to know our fellow guests and some of the crew better.
Overnight we sailed to Luxor via Esna lock; ready for what would be one of the most amazing day's sightseeing I have ever experienced. The Luxor area is home to an almost unbelievable array of temples, tombs and other historic sites.
In the morning we visited several tombs in the Valley of the Kings, Queen Hatshepsut's Temple and a couple of tombs in the Valley of the Queens. Seeing the first hieroglyphs and painted scenes in the tombs – many still retaining rich colours even after 3,000 years – literally sent shivers up my spine. The huge tomb of Ramses VI was the most impressive, far outshining the more famous tomb of Tutankhamun. Throughout, our Egyptologist Amr brought the stories depicted on the walls of the tombs to life.
The Mortuary Temple of Queen Hatshepsut was one of the absolute highlights of my trip
After a relaxing lunch and an hour or so of free time back on-board Sun Boat IV we continued to Karnak temple, the largest hypostyle hall ever constructed and a truly monumental site. The scale of the temple complex is staggering, as is the fact it was built and extended over a period of more than 1,000 years.
After sunset we left for the third excursion of the day, a visit to Luxor temple. Visiting the beautifully lit temple after dark was, again, more dramatic than during daylight.
Our farewell dinner in the evening was a nicely presented and perfectly timed five-course affair, with a choice of starters, main courses and deserts. By now we had discovered our favourite of the Egyptian wines – Jardin du Nile – having sampled a few over the previous days in Egypt.
Karnak Temple's carvings are perfectly preserved, even after thousands of years
It's worth noting that imported alcoholic drinks in Egypt carry an eye-watering 460% duty in Egypt, so wines other than those locally produced come at a hefty price.
Egyptian wine is available by the glass for around £6 to £8 if you don't want to break the bank, or just fancy a glass with lunch. Amongst the half dozen or so Egyptian producers featured on board there were three or four whites, a similar number of reds and a rose - which between them covered a surprisingly wide variety of tastes. In fact the only element of the cruise that could have been improved was to offer tasting notes for the wines on the drinks menu to save the trial and error approach.
The evening ended with a belly dancer - another Nile cruise tradition - supported by a trio of excellent musicians. What was really impressive about this very full day of sightseeing is that it didn't feel rushed; the programme ran like clockwork, there was no hanging around unnecessarily and there was still a reasonable amount of time in between excursions to relax.
There was no formal sightseeing on the final day and although we had to vacate our cabins after breakfast there was no rush to get guests to disembark, so there was ample time to relax on deck or visit the nearby Luxor Museum. In our case, we decided to walk the length of the Luxor riverfront to the famous Winter Palace Hotel, before returning to the boat in time for our transfer to the excellent Hilton Resort, where we enjoyed a relaxing two-night stay.
Seeing hierogyplhs in situ, rather than in a museum, was a wonderful experience
Quite apart from the comfortable accommodation and amazing attractions of Upper Egypt, what made the cruise experience exceptional was the consistency of service and smooth delivery from start to finish. The crew throughout were charming, friendly and couldn't do enough for us and whilst tipping is customary in Egypt it didn't feel at any point like they were going through the motions with that in mind.
From my own experience of the cruising the Nile - along with our stays in Cairo, Luxor and Aswan either side - there will probably never be a better time to visit Egypt; whilst political stability (see below*) has returned the crowds haven't, at least yet, making visits to the historical sites all the more satisfying. And I can't think of a more enjoyable way to experience them than by Nile cruise.