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DESTINATION: NILE

Two ways to cruise the Nile

A writer travels down the famed river twice, on budget and high-end trips. Cost sometimes matters, but both ships visit stunning locales.

March 07, 2004|Toni Stroud | Chicago Tribune

Luxor, Egypt — 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.

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