Some people love Nile cruise boats, others hate them. On the plus side they offer the chance to travel the river with all the comforts of a four- or five-star hotel. The downside is that you’ll visit temples with hundreds of other tourists according to a rigid timetable, amid much noise and air pollution wherever dozens of boats are moored alongside each other – which is hardly surprising when there are over 330 cruisers plying the river between Luxor and Aswan.
For those with money to burn, a dahabiya cruise is everything a journey on the Nile should be, recalling a leisurely age of tourism before steamer tours, and as more dahabiyas take to the Nile, prices are dropping. At the other end of the scale, felucca journeys between Aswan and Luxor are a uniquely Egyptian experience which many travellers rate as the highlight of their visit – though tales of misery aren’t uncommon either.
Nile cruise boats
The indubitable advantage of Nile cruises is that they’re cheap. Package tours from Europe with a return flight and a cruise often cost far less than flights and hotels booked independently. Peak times are Christmas, New Year and Easter, when most (but not all) tour operators raise their prices. In Britain, you can search for deals on w nilecruisesdirect.com. Independent travellers can find bargains in Luxor or Aswan (Cairo is risky unless you deal directly with the company owning the boat). Budget hotels like Luxor’s Oasis or Aswan’s Nubian Oasis can book a double cabin in a five-star boat for $60 a night, or $40 a night for a single cabin (except in Dec, when berths may be unavailable), while agencies like Travco and Eastmar offer deals on some of the ritzy ships listed below. Alternatively, you can put on smart clothes and go hunting along the Corniche, where boats are moored. The boat manager is likely to quote a lower rate than travel agencies, especially if the boat is near its sailing time and only half full, or you have a bottle of Johnny Walker Black Label to throw into negotiations.
There are two basic itineraries: seven nights to Aswan and back starting from Luxor (or vice versa), or a briefer trip commencing at either end, which means two nights’ sailing if you start from Luxor or a one-night cruise from Aswan. All these journeys include stopovers at the temples of Edfu and Kom Ombo, and an indeterminate wait to pass through the locks at Esna, which makes it unwise to rely on getting back to Luxor or Cairo just in time for a flight home. When the locks are closed for a fortnight’s maintenance in June and the first half of December, passengers are bussed from Esna to sites up to three hours’ distant.
In 2012, Bales (w balesworldwide.com) and Belle Époque Travel (w dahabiya.com) revived “full Nile” cruises between Cairo and Aswan (lasting fifteen days), which had been halted by the Islamist insugency in Middle Egypt during the mid-1990s. At the time of writing, it’s too early to say whether these will become a regular fixture or not.
Choosing a boat
You’ll be told that all the boats rate four or five stars, which the Ministry of Tourism has indeed awarded them, but standards vary from bog-average three-star up to the palatial. Even an average vessel will have a/c en-suite cabins, a restaurant, bar, sun deck and swimming pool; superior boats have double beds, large bathrooms, patio doors and balconies. Try to avoid getting a cabin on the lowest deck, where your view of the passing scenery may be restricted by riverbanks.
Though some tourists expect (and pay for) ultraviolet water sterilization, it is basic hygiene controls that will determine your health on a Nile cruise. Rather than tip your cabin cleaner at the end of the voyage, do so at the beginning as an incentive; cleaners are paid less than £E50 a day.
Other things to consider are the quality of meals (included in the price, but ranging from mediocre to sumptuous), the inflated cost of alcohol (many people smuggle booze aboard despite prohibition), seating arrangements (independent travellers are obliged to eat at the same table) and moorings. Boats in Luxor and Aswan are gradually being moved to new berths far outside town, but those belonging to chains like Sonesta, Sofitel and Mövenpick may continue to dock by their respective hotels.
Boats grossly overcharge for onshore excursions in Luxor or Aswan. The management won’t mind if you find a cheaper way unless you tell other passengers about it.
Egypt’s pharaohs loved their pleasure-barges: Cleopatra and Julius Caesar spent nine months sailing round Egypt escorted by four hundred ships. Some of this luxury rubbed off on the houseboats that conveyed Ottoman officials up and downriver, dubbed dahabiya (from the Arabic for “gold”) after their gilded railings. Despite the advent of Cook’s tours in the 1860s, some Europeans still preferred to choose one of the two hundred dahabiyas for hire at the Cairo port of Bulaq, but by the 1900s steamers and railways had relegated them to Cairo love nests, which later went to the scrap-yard or were left to rot in the 1960s.
Thirty years later, a few entrepreneurs began refurbishing dahabiyas to run exclusive cruises, which proved so successful that replicas are now being built at Esna, Rosetta and Cairo. Though sometimes rented to tour groups, they are often chartered for a private cruise by newlyweds, families or friends. Passengers are less constrained by schedules and moorings than on cruise boats, making it feasible to visit sites at quiet times or where larger ships can’t moor, so besides the temples at Esna, Edfu and Kom Ombo, you get to explore El-Kab and Silsilah, which are otherwise difficult to reach.
A typical dahabiya has a spacious salon; wood-panelled cabins ventilated by sliding louvres, with brass fittings and tiled bathrooms; and an upper deck where meals are eaten, whose awning can be rolled back for sunbathing. Besides sightseeing and stopovers there is backgammon, a library of books and CDs, and maybe live music or dancing after supper for entertainment. Meals are lavish, washed down with fruit juices, beer or cocktails. Filtered water and rigorous hygiene mean that sickness is seldom a problem. Unless carefully designed, boats over 38m long can’t travel by sails alone and have to use engines (thus technically disqualifying them from being called dahabiyas) or be towed by a tug.
Three- to five-day itineraries start or end in Esna or Aswan; longer voyages from Luxor to Aswan and back (or vice versa) are also available. If finishing or starting at Esna, transport to or from Luxor is provided. The price usually includes transfers, meals and soft drinks, excursions and tickets to the temples en route (but not necessarily in and around Aswan and Luxor) – read the small print carefully.
These single-masted boats have been sailing the Nile since ancient times and offer a unique experience of the river. Sailing so low in the water, the Nile’s horizon recedes like an infinity pool, its stillness broken only by passing cruise boats. Evenings often end round a campfire, enlivened by singing and drumming. Most people sleep on mattresses aboard the felucca, but some prefer camping ashore. Each day will be different from the last: stow your phone and take things as they come.
Whether your felucca trip is blissful, tragicomic or unpleasant depends on a host of factors. Nights are chilly in winter and otherwise cool except in summer, when days are scorching. Nile breezes may be cooling, but winds from the desert can suck you dry and the effect of ultraviolet rays is magnified by water.
As the wind nearly always blows south, travelling downstream (towards Luxor) involves constant tacking, unless you simply drift with the sluggish current, but there’s no chance of being becalmed, unlike sailing upriver, where the cliffs between Esna, Edfu and Kom Ombo block the wind – which is why almost all journeys start from Aswan. Since feluccas are forbidden to sail on the Nile after dark, the distance covered by itineraries is reduced and tourists’ expectations often exceed reality. Short daylight hours in winter and the low water level between October and May may also cause delays.
Unless the wind is especially strong, a one-day one-night trip usually only gets you to Kubbaniya – a few miles beyond the Aswan Bridge – where many boatmen have their family homes, to which you’ll be invited for dinner. A two-day two-night trip should take you at least as far as Darow if not all the way to Kom Ombo (visiting the temple next day), while three days and three nights should include a visit to Silsilah and end up somewhere short of Edfu. Whatever your final landfall, onwards travel by minibus to Luxor – with stopovers at Kom Ombo and/or Edfu temples – is usually included in the deal (if not, drivers charge about £E40/person).
Note that it’s also possible to hire a felucca for a half-day outing or day-trip, as detailed in the accounts of Luxor and Aswan.
Arranging a felucca trip
Typically, each vessel has an English-speaking Nubian captain and carries six to eight passengers (the largest boats take twelve). Arranging a trip through a hotel is easier than doing it yourself, but some places use unreliable captains, or take such large commissions that the disgruntled crew pester passengers for baksheesh. Alternatively, you can find a captain yourself after gathering some would-be fellow passengers together. Beware of people claiming to be from this or that family or felucca, who approach you in waterfront restaurants or are recommended by Aswan’s tourist office - it’s better to contact respected outfits directly
The cost should also cover three meals a day: usually simple vegetarian food. It’s up to passengers to buy their own bottled water, snacks and sweets; crews will purchase beer for you if asked. Smoking dope is tolerated or encouraged on many, but not all, boats – the Jamaica family has a “no bango” rule on its trips. If you’re not sure about a crew, women will benefit from teaming up with some men for the duration: an all-female group might have problems.
Establish the number of passengers before you go and don’t be talked into accepting others later on, or food supplies and space will be more limited than you’d expected. It helps if everyone knows what has been negotiated to ensure solidarity in the event of a dispute with the crew. Before departing, you might be asked for a photocopy of your passport for registration with the River Police, but many captains don’t bother, knowing that the rule is rarely enforced.
Blankets are provided but seldom enough to keep you warm at night during winter, when a sleeping bag is advisable (bring one with you). Ensure that the boat has a canvas awning to protect you from the sun and double as a tent at night; adequate mattresses, a kerosene stove and lamp and a padlocked luggage hold. For those wanting more comfort, a few captains have custom-made “deluxe” vessels featuring canvas “cabins” and a fridge, or a shower and a toilet.
Less reputable captains can be careless of hygiene, resulting in passengers getting sick. Buy plenty of bottled water, or the crew may dip into the Nile for drinking or cooking purposes. Bring sterilizing tablets to purify the jerry can of Nile water used for washing up, and carbolic soap for handwashing. Also essential are a hat, sunscreen and bug repellent (especially during summer).