For many centuries, boats were the only way to travel around Egypt – unless you trekked across the desert – and today a Nile cruise still offers the best experience of Egyptian history.
The political unrest of 2011 caused tourist numbers to drop off, but recent figures from the Foreign Office show that Brits are returning to Egypt in numbers, with an estimated 415,000 visiting in 2018.
October 2019 saw the resumption of direct flights between the UK and Sharm el Sheikh – the beach destination that’s often twinned with a Nile river cruise – further boosting confidence. And river cruise lines have reacted by building new ships and adding Nile itineraries for 2021.
Andy Harmer, UK and Ireland director of CLIA, the world’s largest cruise trade association, says: “Cruising the Nile is one of the oldest forms of river cruising, dating back to the days of the pharaohs, and it offers a journey full of archaeological riches and ancient monuments. Travellers are once again eager to explore this fabulous country.”
This September, Viking is due to launch its second Nile ship, the 82-passenger Viking Osiris, and become the first Western company to own and operate a newly built ship on the river. It has also expanded its Egypt programme with two new pre-cruise extensions giving privileged access to archives and exhibits in London and Oxford that are not usually accessible to the public.
“Egypt has inspired explorers for generations, and it remains a top destination for many of our guests,” says Viking chairman Torstein Hagen.
Uniworld, too, has ambitious plans, with the luxurious new 42-suite SS Sphinx expected to replace its current vessel, River Tosca, later this year. Sphinx will have two gourmet restaurants, a private dining room, a swimming pool and massage room, and will be decorated with Egyptian art, fabrics and furnishings.
AmaWaterways has also revealed plans for its first new-build Nile ship, designed to carry up to 70 guests and due to launch next year. Kristin Karst, the line’s executive vice president and co-owner, says: “We really feel that the country is ready for us to come back.”
This year Tauck is returning to Egypt for the first time since 2011 with two new itineraries aboard Oberoi Zahra and Oberoi Philae, which have just 27 and 22 cabins respectively. There’s a nine-night ‘Egypt: Jewels of the Nile’ itinerary, and the 12-night ‘Jordan & Egypt: Petra to the Pyramids’ tour. Both journeys include an after-hours visit to the Valley of the Kings, with private access to the legendary tomb of Tutankhamun.
Tauck CEO Dan Mahar says: “It’s far easier to reflect on the sheer magnitude of the history you’re experiencing if you’re with a small, intimate group, after everyone else has left for the day. It elevates an already memorable visit to
a truly once-in-a-lifetime experience.”
Riviera Travel has launched two all-new seven-night ‘The Spectacular Nile’ holidays, including one just for solo travellers. They’ll follow similar itineraries, with excursions including a visit to a Nubian village for a glimpse of local life on one of the Nile’s islands.
Emerald Waterways has released a brand new itinerary, the 15-night ‘Israel & Ancient Egypt River Cruise’, from Tel Aviv to Cairo, with highlights such as dinner at home with a local family in Cairo and a four-night Nile sailing.
Upmarket line Sanctuary Retreats has sailed in Egypt for more than 40 years and is one of few companies that hasn’t been absent in the past decade. Its four-ship fleet includes the 32-cabin Sanctuary Nile Adventurer, which had a comprehensive refurbishment in 2019, including a new spa. This followed a revamp of Sanctuary Sun Boat IV, which has two opulent Royal Suites.
“Egypt is the world’s fastest-growing travel destination this year, and we are seeing huge interest in our luxury Nile cruises,” says Sanctuary’s global director, sales & marketing, Peter van der Schee. “They’re the perfect way to see its treasures and temples and to witness its history.”
Nile river cruise highlights
Flowing 4,132 miles northwards from the mountains of central Africa, the Nile is the world’s second-longest river after the Amazon. Usually led by an expert guide, itineraries often begin with land-based stays in Egypt’s capital, Cairo, allowing guests the chance to see the Great Pyramid.
Other options include a stay in Luxor, famous for its historic treasures, and celebrated in more recent times for its Agatha Christie connections.
Typical cruises run between Luxor and Aswan. The former, built on the site of the ancient city of Thebes, once had a population of over a million and was the centre of the civilised world for more than 2,000 years. Described as the world’s biggest open-air museum, Luxor is said to contain about a third of the globe’s most valuable monuments and antiquities.
Guided tours visit Karnak Temple, with its sphinx-lined avenue, once the most important place of worship in Egypt, before taking in the vast Luxor Temple complex. Both are UNESCO World Heritage sites.
Sailings usually include a visit to the 2nd-century BC Valley of the Kings, dug deep into desert mountains and containing the tombs of pharaohs; most notably that of Tutankhamun, which was unearthed by archaeologist Howard Carter in 1922.
Now is a particularly good time to visit, because a painstaking ten-year conservation project that restored the wall paintings in the pharaoh’s tomb, added new walkways and a viewing platform, has recently been completed.
On the way to the Valley of the Kings, there’s the chance to marvel at the mighty Colossi of Memnon, two vast statues still guarding the entrance to the ruined Amenhotep Temple.
Back on board, the entertainment may include belly dancers and whirling dervishes demonstrating their astonishing traditional skills, and sometimes there are fun Egyptian-themed nights, with the option to dress up. Out on deck you can watch the warm breeze fill the triangular sails of passing feluccas – traditional wooden vessels that have been used on the Nile since antiquity – knowing you’re also part of an extraordinary journey along an ancient waterway that traces the path of the country’s history.
Get on board
7-night ‘The Spectacular Nile for Solo Travellers’ cruise aboard MS Hamees, departing 14 September 2020, from £2,199 including flights, rivieratravel.co.uk
11-night ‘Splendors of Egypt & the Nile’ cruise aboard SS Sphinx, departing 10 October 2020, from £5,899 including flights and Cairo hotel stay, uniworld.com
11-night ‘Pharaohs & Pyramids’ cruise aboard Viking Osiris, departing 3 February 2021, from £5,295 including flights and Cairo hotel stay, vikingrivercruises.co.uk