Egypt is a country that lends itself well to superlatives: the most pyramids, the most colorful bazaars, the oldest temples. For a trip that bills itself as water-based, the typical Nile River cruise includes a surprising amount of time spent on land. You'll get a workout climbing steps, and your nerves will be tested by the persistent street vendors. Still, it's hard to complain when you're seeing sights that were already ancient by the time Cleopatra took charge in 51 B.C.
A Nile River cruise can also present some logistical challenges that differ from those found on a regular cruise. With so many tour opportunities, you'll be hard-pressed to decide when to keep moving -- and when to head back to your ship or hotel for a refreshing dip. Some of the extra excursions can produce moments of awe -- or leave you wondering why you bothered. And you'll want to dress appropriately, both for the brutally hot temperatures and to be sensitive to Egypt's Muslim customs.
To get the most out of your Nile River cruise, here are our tips, following a 12-night river cruise aboard Uniworld's River Tosca.
Slide photos (except #7 and intro image) are courtesy of Chris Gray Faust. Light show photo is courtesy of Shutterstock.
Arrive Early, and Hire a Private Guide
Many Nile River cruises start in Cairo, with a tour of the country's capital. Your included Cairo tour will probably take you to the Citadel, where the Ottoman-style Mosque of Muhammad Ali is not to be missed, and the Egyptian Museum, where you can view the treasures of King Tut.
If you can, arrive early, and hire a local guide to take you through some of the city's other famous attractions. These include the Coptic Quarter, where the churches date back to the beginnings of Christianity, and the Khan el-Khalili bazaar in the Islamic quarter. My extra days in the city, with a private guide that cost far less than any you'd find in an European port, meant that I was more relaxed when the trip started and less flummoxed by Egypt's chaotic pace.
Pyramids: Are You In, or Are You Out?
Giza is dirty, and the touts are persistent, but the Great Pyramids are just as majestic as when they were created about 4,500 years ago. Note for the claustrophobic: It's hot inside the Pyramids, and there's nothing on the walls to see, plus you walk crouched down for much of the way. Unless going inside is on your bucket list, save your money to visit an extra tomb in Luxor's Valley of the Kings.
Up close, the Great Sphinx of Giza is smaller than you might think. The body of a lion with the head of a Pharaoh, the Sphinx has long caused contention among Egyptologists, who attribute different origins and meanings to the monument. Its name in modern Arabic means "The Terrifying One."
Tally Ho, Camel!
Sure, it's touristy. But riding a camel is one of those things that you have to do once, just to say you did. And think about how the photo will look on your holiday cards. At the Pyramids in Giza, you'll be accosted by touts with camels, some saying that your ride will only cost $1. Don't believe them. Instead, let your cruise line's tour guide arrange your camel ride for you. There's a plateau in the back of the pyramid complex where you can see all three structures and ride your camel without a million people watching you. Fifteen to 20 minutes is all you need, and it should cost you less than $20 (not including the tip you'll pay to your camel handler for the pictures he'll be taking).
Ship Side Matters
After you've seen the Pyramids (and perhaps toured Memphis and Saqqara, as well), your cruise company will fly you to Luxor, where you'll board your river ship. Because so many ships ply the Nile (more than 400 are licensed), each line has a different berth along the city's corniche, with ships lined up shoulder-to-shoulder. You may have to walk through several ships to get to yours.
The berthing position does pose a problem for people who have their rooms on the shore side of the ship. You may want to ask when booking what side the ship docks, as you could be looking into another boat's window if you're on the wrong one.
Take Advantage of Down Time Onboard
Your Nile River cruise will be hectic, filled with excursions and daytrips. Many mornings will begin with a 6 a.m. wakeup call. When you're not traipsing around, take the time to savor your ship, which can be a welcome respite from the heat and dustiness outside. The nicest Nile River ships have pools on the top decks; most have sun decks and spas. Use your excursion breaks to take advantage of onboard amenities. (I indulged in not one but two massages on my trip.) You'll be more relaxed and ready to see the sights.
Get to Know Your Staff
Twice on my River Tosca cruise, the ship held an Egyptian night, with local food and musical performances by the staff. Costumes were encouraged, and those who dropped the formality had a better time than those who refused to participate. It's a great way to get an idea of the traditional songs and drumming techniques that are indigenous to the culture. While there were some language barriers, I found that the staff onboard were eager to share not just their music, but information about their country. You can learn as much about Egypt from your staff as from your guides, as far as modern life is concerned -- take advantage of it.
Sound & Light Shows Aren't Always Worth the Money
Most ancient sites in Egypt now have Sound & Light shows, complete with booming narration and fancy lights imposed against the buildings. Whether or not you like Luxor's show depends on your tolerance for cheesiness; booming voiceovers and overwrought descriptions don't do much for me. In my group, several felt it wasn’t worth the extra $30, especially considering that our tour included the more professional show at the Giza pyramids. If you do go to Luxor, take your time, as you’ll be walking over uneven ground in limited light.
Strategic Temple Viewing Is a Must
The Valley of the Kings, where rulers were buried in tombs carved from the desert walls, is a must-visit. The standard admission ticket buys you entry to three of 63 tombs. My guide recommended Ramses I for the vivid colors, Ramses III for its long corridor of hieroglyphics and stars on the ceiling, and Ramses IX because of the snake hieroglyphics. I paid extra to also see the tomb of Ramses VI, as it has a stunning depiction of the Egyptian Book of Day and Book of Night on its ceiling. Also worth a visit is the Temple of Hatshepsut, built by Egypt's most successful female pharaoh and considered the most Classical of the ancient civilization, with elegant pillars akin to those you'd see in Greece. You can also pay extra to visit the tomb of King Tut, but there's not much to see as his majestic belongings are all at the Egyptian Museum.
No matter what time of year you visit, Egypt's weather can get brutally hot. Bring a hat, sunglasses and plenty of sunscreen, and make sure to stay hydrated with bottled water. You'll also want to consider the country's Islamic culture when packing; shorts and tank tops will draw looks from Egyptian men who aren't used to seeing women in such revealing clothes. A wardrobe of loose capris and blouses will make you feel more comfortable.
Go for the Optional Excursions in Aswan
Depending on the length of your cruise, Aswan will either be your debarking point or the place where you turn around and head back to Luxor. If you have time, there are two optional, for-fee excursions you don't want to miss. Take a ride on a felucca, a traditional Egyptian sailboat. You'll cruise near the Cataracts, a shallow section of the Nile where large stones and small islands provide a haven for birds. Or, visit a Nubian village, where you can learn about a culture displaced when the Aswan dam was built; the role that the Nubians played in ancient Egypt was significant, and it's interesting to see how their descendents survive as a minority in the country today. The dam itself isn't too exciting, although it does give you a glimpse into Lake Nasser, the world's largest manmade lake.
Don't Miss Abu Simbel
The optional excursion down to Abu Simbel, home of the temples of Ramses II, is worth the extra cost. The temples were relocated to their current spot after construction of the Aswan dam threatened their original Nubian location. Guarded by monster statues of the king, the temple was meant to intimidate those on Egypt's southern border -- at that point, you'll be less than 30 miles to Sudan. Abu Simbel is also famous because, twice a year, the sun hits the temple in a way that illuminates the face of Ramses inside. It's a marvel of engineering, both in the way that the pharaoh designed it and that archaeologists were able to re-create it. And that's Egypt in a nutshell. You'll be amazed at what people so long ago were able to create -- and wonder what from our own civilization could possibly compare.