Luxury river cruising: The magic of the Nile

Embracing the beauty and history of Egypt is best done on board a luxury river ship, writes Ben Ireland

The soothing sound of afternoon prayers emanates from the minarets on the banks of the river as children play in the water, refreshing themselves from the 38C early afternoon heat.

The sun is so intense that we seek out a shady spot on board the sun deck of our Nile river ship to recline and soak in our surroundings, before heading for a dip in the pool.

After the sound of prayers fades away, a fellow passenger on board Abercrombie & Kent’s Sanctuary Sun Boat IV gasps in astonishment. We peer over from the pool to find an ancient temple, dating back to the time of the Pharaohs, carved into the stone.

The view of this structure, thousands of years old, is incredible. But it is a passing sight on our four-night journey along the world’s longest river to visit some of the most sacred and impressive sites in human history.

Our journey starts in Luxor, or Thebes to classical historians. At Luxor Temple, on the Nile’s east bank, our guide, Mazen, gives important context to the wonders we will see throughout our trip, telling us about construction techniques likely to have been used to move giant stones and the methods used to engrave and paint hieroglyphics.

As we gaze at the statues of Ramses II and Tutankhamun and struggle to get the giant obelisk into our pictures, we spot the impressive remains of the Avenue of the Sphinxes, which once stretched 2,700 metres and linked Luxor and the Karnak temples as a ‘Path of God’.

This is all before lunch. We return to the boat where we’re introduced to the unbelievable food that elevates this experience above what other Nile cruises may offer. Freshly-fried meat and fish, endless mouthwatering salad platters and a broad selection of Egyptian dishes are on offer – with new options served each day. The desserts are almost as jaw-dropping as the ancient statues.

Cultural marvels

A short felucca boat trip across the river gives us time to digest as we set off for Luxor’s west bank, arguably the most impressive of Egypt’s many archaeological phenomena and where its ancient rulers were buried.

First up is the twin statues of Pharoah Amenhotep III, the Colossi of Memnon, where you get a sense of the sheer scale of the monuments the ancient Egyptians created. Onwards to the Mortuary Temple of Hatshepsut, one of few female pharaohs and most likely one of the world’s first feminists for challenging gender roles while in power. Her temple, reminiscent of a scene from Star Wars, is ornately and impressively carved into a giant cliff face.

The next site is perhaps the best known in all of ancient Egypt, rivalling even the Pyramids of Giza. The Valley of the Kings houses the tombs of the Ramses dynasty and, most famous of all, the tomb of Tutankhamun. While the treasure has been moved to museums, the detail and colour of the hieroglyphics carved into the walls and the size of the underground sarcophaguses is amazing to behold. You’ll need an evening for it to sink in.

Back on board, guests are left feeling like kings and queens too. Three of the four nights we’re served an elegant three-course menu. Evening dress codes are smart casual so you can be comfortable in the heat. The exception is a Galabeya party where you can dance and wear traditional dress while feasting on an Egyptian buffet.

Standard rooms on board the 32-cabin Sanctuary Sun Boat IV are spacious and come with floor-to-ceiling windows for the stunning river views, but high-flying guests can upgrade to Royal or Presidential Suites.

As well as the sun deck and restaurant, the vessel offers outdoor space on the promenade deck, a lounge area and a library. Unlike many other river ships around the world, Sanctuary offers massage services on board.

We don’t set sail until mid-morning on the second day – there’s simply too much to see. Before we castaway, we visit Karnak Temple. This is a must-see in Luxor for the Statue of Ramses II, jaw-dropping obelisk of Hatshepsut and the temple’s impressive columns in its famous Hypostyle Hall, which you may recognise from the film adaptation of Agatha Christie’s murder mystery Death on the Nile – shown on board during the sailing.

River retreat

A relaxed sailing to Esna, via the giant Esna Lock, gives you a chance to enjoy the onboard facilities and get a sense for how modern Egypt has evolved from its Pharaonic past. We take in the Temple of Khnum, currently being restored to its colourful past using ancient techniques.

Temples come thick and fast on this cruise, but that goes with the territory. Each offers a unique story within the mesmerising hieroglyphics, different characters and various astronomical significance. Our Egyptologist Mazen brings everything to life with his infectious storytelling, helping us learn the stories through casting guests in various roles. While I wasn’t thrilled to be given the part of treacherous usurper Set, I won’t forget the myth of Osiris or its importance to ancient Egypt any time soon.

We sail on to Aswan, via Edfu with its silhouette-like carvings, and Kom Ombo and its mummified crocodiles, as we begin to learn about the culture of the Nubian people native to the south of Egypt.

In Aswan, we visit Hatshepsut’s Unfinished Obelisk, which would have been the biggest-ever, before a trip to the Philae Temple, which is impressive as it was moved stone-by-stone to a spot where it wouldn’t be flooded after the Aswan Dam was built.

The beauty of taking in these ancient sites on a luxury river cruise is that you have the perfect environment to rest your mind and legs and appreciate the unique history of this fascinating country. Clients could twin this cruise with visits to Cairo and the Pyramids of Giza which, stunning as they are, provide unavoidable hustle and bustle.

That feeling of sanctuary on board Sanctuary Sun Boat IV gives you the chance to absorb yourself in this exceptional land through an experience where you feel as though you are living like the ancient rulers whose temples you’ve come to explore. A trip to Egypt can be intensive with so much history to cram in but Sanctuary’s team ensures there’s plenty of time to recline on the sun deck and listen to the sounds of local life on the Nile.

Book it: Abercrombie & Kent packages the four-night cruise on board Sanctuary Sun Boat IV with a pre-cruise overnight stay in Luxor at the Sofitel Winter Palace. The five-night itinerary costs from £2,315 per person.

A seven-night itinerary, including three nights in Cairo at the Four Seasons and sailing in the opposite direction (Aswan-Luxor) is also available and leads in at £2,795 per person.

Ben Ireland

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