The night train from Cairo pulled into Luxor station at 5:15 a.m. — a hard hour to push the sleep from my eyes, toddle down the companionway, find my footing on the concrete train platform and count my bags.
I didn't have to take the train to Luxor. I could have settled on a tour with any of several dozen travel companies that would have put me on an airplane for the hour's flight south from Cairo. But the train and a price the most skilled hagglers back in Cairo would have envied made Travco's Nile cruise itinerary a standout.
The early reveille and awkward wait once in a while life's most memorable days get off to an inconvenient start. This was one of them, for as I shortly would witness, dawn in Luxor is unlike anywhere else on Earth.
But I'm getting ahead of myself.
If you want to take a Nile cruise, you have numerous options. I chose two trips — one for $3,000 and one for $1,000, including single supplement — because I wanted to see the differences. Both were on small ships, each a floating village, with a lobby, restaurant, lounge, gift shop, bar and pool deck. There are about 200 of them in varying sizes, carrying 60 to 160 passengers at capacity.
Nile cruises navigate the 125 miles of river between Luxor and Aswan.
The antiquities you'll see won't depend on the direction of travel or the length of the trip. Two things determine your sightseeing: the tour company's inclusions and the Nile itself.
Ah, the Nile. Its waters were never as blue, its farmlands never as green, as in those moments just before sunrise. There's the growing light and a stirring of the birds. Then the sky blushes orange, the barren hills answer in pink, and as the white-hot sun ascends, a purple haze settles in.
The transfer man had dropped my bags at the ship and, after I spent some downtime in the lobby, handed me off to my guide who shuttled me to Karnak Temple in time to catch the freshly risen sun slanting down the Avenue of the Sphinxes, coaxing long shadows from the temple's renowned hypostyle hall.
This, I couldn't help reminding myself, was the cheap trip.
Shopping around I'm a tenacious comparison shopper. Many months before I ever boarded that train, I pored over a bag full of brochures from close to four dozen tour companies. The idea was to take two Nile cruises, cheap and expensive. They would be as alike as possible but for the price. For the expensive one, I chose Abercrombie & Kent's 80-passenger Sun Boat IV, because the company had guaranteed departures, so even if others who signed up for the same departure backed out or no one else signed up for it, I would go. (With many tour companies, it's standard to cancel a trip that doesn't have a minimum number of participants.)
For the cheap trip, I chose Travco's 160-passenger Crown Jewel. Travco is an Egyptian company (not to be confused with American-based Travcoa) that claims to be one of Egypt's largest. I found Travco through the Egyptian Ministry of Tourism's website (www.egypttourism.org) and dealt with them through fax and e-mail. Travco also guaranteed my departure.
Some sights are common to all Nile cruise tours. The basic sights in Luxor are Karnak Temple; the Valley of the Kings; Queen Hatshepsut Temple, which some tour brochures call Deir El Bahri; and the Colossi of Memnon.
At Idfu, a Nile city between Luxor and Aswan, you'll see the Temple of Horus, and at Aswan, the High Dam; the Unfinished Obelisk; and Philae Temple, which is on an island in Lake Nasser.
Nearly every tour company gives you more than that.
Some visits are a waste of time, particularly at Aswan. You should resist a stop at Aswan's Unfinished Obelisk, for instance. There's a reason the thing has remained unfinished for 3,400 years. Same holds for Aswan's Old Dam and High Dam. I can't fathom why more tours don't go instead to Aswan's modern Nubian Museum, an indoor-outdoor affair that displays some Pharaonic items and Nubian artifacts.
Despite the wording of some tour brochures, you will reach Philae Temple, the shorthand name for the Ptolemaic-era Temple of Isis, by motorboat, not felucca, the small, narrow ships powered by oars or sails. The felucca sail is a separate excursion. Pleasantly, both my tours included a sail in a private, authentic felucca.
From Aswan moving north, many ships make a stop at Kom Ombo for the Temple of Horus and Sebek. It's a 10-minute uphill walk to enter this Ptolemaic-era temple, whose claim to fame is not so much that it is dedicated to two gods but that it also has a shrine with mummified crocodiles, which is not as interesting as it sounds.
For all the confusion that lurks in tour brochures, you may receive even more misinformation on site. Every guide in Egypt is a card-carrying Egyptologist, and I suppose there will always be instances when experts disagree. Then again, there are credentials and there are credentials.
At the Temple of Horus and Sebek, I overheard some guides telling their groups that some reliefs were of Cleopatra VII, the one Westerners are most familiar with. Both my Abercrombie and my Travco guides pointed out the reliefs too. But my Abercrombie guide said these probably were of one or two earlier Cleopatras. My Travco guide said one was probably Cleopatra VII but that this could be deduced only by reading the hieroglyphs of the adjacent figure. I don't know who was right. But I appreciated the intellectual reserve and lack of sensationalism of both guides.
Moving north from Kom Ombo, the next stop is Idfu, for the Temple of Horus. This is another of the Ptolemaic-era constructs remarkable for its state of preservation. The mighty pylons flanking the entry are intact, and many of its chambers are covered with the original stone slab roof.
Just pray that you are taken to the temple by bus or minivan, as I was with Abercrombie & Kent. Getting there by calesh, or horse and buggy, as I did with Travco, is too sad. I liked being closer to the sights and sounds of the street, but the horses showed their bones, and the driver wasn't ashamed to ask me for extra money for feed.
On the West Bank, both tours went to the Valley of the Queens and entered three or four tombs. Nefertari's, reputedly the most beautiful, was not one of them because it was closed. Both went to the Valley of the Kings and entered three or four tombs. With Abercrombie & Kent, the admission to Tutankhamen's tomb was included. With Travco, I paid $8 extra for it.
With a Nile cruise, there are a lot of shore excursions and a lot of tramping on and off the ship. After sightseeing in hot and dusty places — even in winter, daytime highs are in the 90s, and inside the tombs it feels even hotter — passengers are welcomed back on board the ship with chilled washcloths. This was true on my Travco ship, and Abercrombie & Kent's, which also provided glasses of lemonade.
Sometime during the cruise, there will be a tour of the ship. It wasn't until after the tour that I found out more about Nile cruise ships in general, and the Crown Jewel in particular, from assistant manager Yasser Salah.
He talked about how the kitchen uses only mineral water for cooking and has separate refrigerators for vegetables and eggs, a separate freezer and butchering room for meat, and prepares and bakes breads in a separate baking room. A ship the size of the Crown Jewel would have three captains, 10 sailors and a crew of about 90 who work in 45-day shifts or 70-day shifts with no days off. He didn't have to talk about the armed tourist police — I always noticed two — who would board at each stop and take up positions in the bow.
He also said each ship had its own treatment system, with pH testing, for the passengers' bathwater. My hotel-room-sized cabin on the Crown Jewel had a hotel-sized bathroom with a full-size tub. In contrast, the bathroom in my cabin on the Sun Boat IV was of the travel-trailer variety: Open the bathroom door and enter a step-in shower fitted with a tiny sink in one corner and a full-size toilet in the other.
Outside the bathroom, my cabin's decor showed more of a designer's touch and felt more "finished" aboard the Sun Boat IV. It had space for twin beds, a nightstand between them and a dresser with stool. There was a picture window.
My cabin on Travco's Crown Jewel was done in color-coordinated fabrics and had a mini fridge, windows floor to ceiling and space enough for two twin beds, a nightstand, a dresser and a breakfast table with two chairs.
Both had an attentive staff, twice-daily cabin service, laundry and dry cleaning for a pittance and alcoholic drinks for a king's ransom. Both had only one dining room, with pressed tablecloths and cloth napkins at every meal, and all passengers ate at one sitting.
Meals aboard the Crown Jewel were buffet, with a diverse selection of meats, vegetables, salads, breads and desserts. There was an omelet station at breakfast and a made-to-order pasta station at lunch or dinner. The preparation was more home cooking than gourmet, but the passengers I talked to seemed satisfied, and so was I.
On the Sun Boat IV, breakfast and either lunch or dinner were buffet. The third meal of the day was ordered from a menu and was more gourmet than home cooking. Surprisingly, some of the other guests I spoke to thought the meals were not remarkable. I thought they were good.
While the ship is underway, you can stake out a lounge chair on the pool deck, order a drink from the bar and watch the parade of other Nile cruise ships; farms of golf-course green growing cotton, cane and cabbages; the flash of white ibises flying by; the brown mud bricks of houses; the belching smoke of gray factories.
Flabby German men in Speedos, sunburned French women and tipsy Japanese were part of the scenery aboard Travco's Crown Jewel, which was running near passenger capacity. I was the only American, and it wasn't a problem.
On Abercrombie & Kent's Sun Boat IV, there were only 16 other passengers, among them two well-to-do Egyptian families with children, five retired Americans who spent a lot of time talking about things back home and a too-chummy English antiques dealer.
Guiding the way With Abercrombie & Kent, I had the same guide, Hesham Abdullah, throughout the trip, one of the advantages of going with Abercrombie & Kent — that and the fact that a visit to Abu Simbel is included. The renowned pair of temples built into the mountain was moved to higher ground to escape flooding when Lake Nasser was created.
With Travco, I had four guides. One, Sally Moustafa Kamel, led me around Alexandria, a day trip by car from Cairo and part of my Travco package.
Before the trip I had wondered whether my guides would tell me the same history about the same sites, and for the most part they did. An exception was on the West Bank at Luxor, where my Travco guide pointed to some warehouse-like structures and identified them as the grain storage bins that the biblical Joseph had ordered built. When I asked my Abercrombie & Kent guide about them, he said they were houses for the priests from a different time.
Again, I don't know who was right. But the morning I pulled into Luxor on the train, my Travco guide made a comment for which I'll always be grateful.
We were at the smaller, more intimate Luxor Temple. She wished, she said, that I could see it at night, because details that are imperceptible in the harsh light of day become dramatically apparent in the wash of a spotlight.
So I went back on my own at just about sunset that evening. I could smell jasmine, and the air throbbed as surrounding mosques issued the call to prayer. I walked among the carvings and the columns and the statues and the sphinxes into the past.
After all, that's what you take a Nile cruise for.
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Floating on the Nile
From LAX, connecting service (change of planes) to Cairo is available on Lufthansa, British and KLM. Restricted round-trip fares begin at $1,069.
Abercrombie and Kent, (800) 323-7308, http://www.abercrombiekent.com . Eight-night Signature Egypt cruise, with your own driver and guide, costs $2,460 per person, double occupancy. Departures are Fridays.
Travco, 011-20-2-737-1737 or 011-20-2-737-5737, http://www.travco-eg.com . This Egyptian tour operator's eight-night Beauties of the Nile and the Mediterranean Sea package costs $834.
WHEN TO GO:
Many cruise boats sail year-round. High season, when temperatures are a relatively mild 80 to 90 degrees in the daytime, runs from October and November to March and peaks over the Christmas and New Year holidays.
TO LEARN MORE:
Egyptian Tourist Authority, (877) 77-EGYPT (773-4978), http://www.egypttourism.org .
— Toni StroudCopyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times