Despite many setbacks over the past few decades, tourism to Egypt is back on the up – recent indicators include Sharm El Sheikh finally being taken off the Foreign Office no go list and Tutankhamun treasures on show in London before being permanently housed in the magnificent new Grand Egyptian Museum which will open at Giza next October. Egypt’s no.1 magnet for tourists though will always be a cruise on the magnificent Nile river, the lifeblood of the entire country and simply the easiest and most efficient way to explore the wonders of Ancient Egypt.
There are many different options for Nile cruises from exclusive charter Dahabiyyas right up to large, modern luxury vessels. For something more historic and characterful the SS Misr is definitely one to consider. I joined an exclusive Noble Caledonia charter on a 600-mile sailing from Aswan all the way up to Cairo.
The Misr (which means Egypt in Arabic) enjoys special status on the river as an historic steamer. Originally built in 1918 by the Royal Navy, she saw active service during the first world war and for several years afterwards before being retired. She was then acquired by the Egyptian government and eventually converted into a luxury yacht to be used by Egypt’s last monarch, King Farouk. When the monarchy was overthrown in 1952, she languished in a boat yard for many years until, in 2003, she was rediscovered by her new owners who embarked on a mission to restore her to her former glory using the original drawings.
They did a great job. The minute you step aboard you know it’s going to be a special experience. The greeting is warm and welcoming from the ever-smiling crew, dressed in their distinctive brocade robes and the decor throughout echoes the royal connections. A grand wooden staircase sweeps up from the lobby to the heart of the ship where you find the panelled Marasem restaurant and a galleried area complete with an antique gramophone and chaise longue. The dark wood, rich colours and plush fabrics create an instant feel of opulence. One deck up and there is a sumptuous bar and lounge area, a rich yet pleasing blend of velvets, silks, tassels and vintage style furniture. 22 individually styled cabins are spread over three decks and skillfully blend period charm with mod cons. All have access to a private balcony, just wide enough to perch on the provided stools, the perfect spot to drink in the marvellous fretwork framed views.
The boat is wonderful – very comfortable, outstanding food, the highest standards of hygiene and service, a relaxed and friendly atmosphere – but the star of the show is Nile itself. Surely one of the most scenic and fascinating rivers in the world.
The section of the Nile between Aswan and Luxor is the best known and most visited for good reason. If your time is limited, in just 5-7 days you get to see some of the most celebrated sites of Ancient Egypt: the magnificent temples of Karnak and Luxor, the picture perfect island temple of Philae and perhaps less well known but equally impressive Kom Ombo, Hatshepsut and Edfu temples. There’s a chance to wonder at the engineering marvel of the Aswan Dam and the option (if you can handle a 4am start and 4-hour drive each way) to visit Abu Simbel, the temple world famous for being saved and moved due to the construction of the Dam. And then there is the Valley of the Kings and Queens and the fascination of stepping down into the ancient and highly decorated tombs, most famously of course that of the Boy King, Tutankhamun.
Even if you are not especially interested in the complexity of the history and the dynasties, you cannot fail be awed by the scale of it, the mythology, the beauty of the art. Awed and possibly a little overwhelmed – it’s an awful lot to take in. To avoid the heat of the midday sun and worst of the crowds, 5 and 6 am wake up calls are essential. So it’s no ‘holiday’ but it is a memorable experience.
Thankfully, for the second half of this longer cruise the pace slowed considerably as we continued north from Luxor towards Cairo. This section of the Nile was completely closed for two decades after terrorism incidents but re-opened in 2015 and is slowly regaining popularity. Everywhere we went ashore and every village or farming community that we passed, we were greeted by smiles and waves – tourism is vital to the Egyptian economy and, having been starved of it for so long, this part of the country is clearly overjoyed to see it coming back. That said, the security risk has evidently not disappeared. We were shadowed throughout by a police boat, additional security personnel on board and both police and armed security escorts on excursions. At times it seemed so over the top, it made you question just how high the risk might be – hard to know but all I can say is that we certainly felt well protected.
The places we visited on our half day excursions on this section were unfamiliar names but no less impressive. The amazing colours of the art at Dendera, Akhenatun’s Royal City and the palace at Amarna, the catacombs at Tuna Al Gebel and the necropolis of Beni Hassan. Just when you think you’ve seen the most astonishing, the best preserved, the most intricate, something else will top it. And we learned to take our cue from our guest historian on board, George Hart, whose excitement grew the further north we went. He told me his personal highlight was the stunning temple at Abydos, built of white limestone and home to the most exquisite wall carvings. George described it as the ‘Rolex’ of temples – who am I to disagree? Cairo and the Pyramids then provided a predictably fantastic finale to our epic Egyptian adventure.
Half day excursions on this part of the cruise meant plenty of time back on board to sit and stare at the stunning, ever changing scenery, wave at the people on the riverbank (there is lots of waving), to enjoy the heat of the sun deck, the pool and the convivial company of fellow guests. We even had a full day of sailing which gave time to take in a tour of the steam engine room with its small museum, to inspect the reassuringly spotlessly clean kitchens and, quite simply, to just relax.
The weather is the only dry thing about this Nile Cruise – yes, there’s a lot of history, guided tours and fascinating lectures, but there is fun too, led primarily by our amiable cruise directors, Mohamed and Sherif. Meals are all open seating and very sociable affairs. In the main people moved around a lot and although like-minded souls gravitate, happily no real cliques formed. Barbecues out on deck on several evenings provided a welcome change of scene and the inevitable Egyptian night was way less cringeworthy than I had feared. Some went all out fancy dress, but most were content with a token effort of donning a colourful ‘Galabeya’ robe (available everywhere for around £10-£15). They must have done it hundreds of times but what made it so special was that the crew were clearly having a great time, showing off their drumming and dancing skills and their unforced high spirits were contagious.
This was one of those trips where there was so much to see, so much to absorb, that it’s not until you get home that you fully appreciate the impact of the experience. As one of my fellow passengers so succinctly put it ‘Egypt is not so very far away, but it’s a different world’. It really is and especially so on board the regal SS Misr. I urge you to put it on your travel wish list.
Cathy travelled as a guest of Noble Caledonia and filmed the experience. Watch her video report below.
Silver Travel Advisor recommends Noble Caledonia.