Come Aboard: My Nile River Cruise on GCT's River Anuket, 2007
By Glenn Tucker, Cruise Critic Contributor
Published Date: August, 2007
Yes, I'm sorry I haven't been in touch, but I've been away. Well, actually, out of the
country. Well, actually, Egypt. Yes, Egypt. You know ... the Pyramids, cruising on the Nile, temples (and temples and temples and temples), palm trees,
tombs, deserts, bazaars, dates, mosques and churches ... all that "stuff."
No, it was wonderful, fascinating, exciting and most of all,
different. No, not scary, just different. Well, for one thing, there was no Senor Frog's.
Tell you about it? Sure, but this may take a while.
First off, yes, it was a cruise ... on the Nile. No, I didn't see Agatha Christie or Hercule Poirot, but it felt like they were there. Of course, the
fact that I re-read the book and watched both the movie (Peter Ustinov) and television (David Suchet) versions before I left may have had a lot to do with
Also, though you may find this hard to believe, it was sort of a group tour or rather cruise-tour. Yes, I know, I normally hate that kind
of thing, or I used to. Always preferred banging around on my own while "discovering" the world, but maybe I've changed. Egypt is a bit of a challenge for
independent travel. Not that you can't do it -- I mean you can, but there's just so much to see, so much to cover ... and unless you have unlimited time or
piles of money, it can be a bit much.
The company's called Grand Circle Travel, and they do cruises and trips for people over 50. Well, the last
time I looked at my driver's license, that included me. The mirror may be willing to lie, but not the DMV. Besides, the people on the trip were great fun and
The trip includes roundtrip air, five nights in Cairo and a seven-night cruise on the Nile, followed by an additional night in
Cairo, plus all the ship's meals, breakfast each day in Cairo, several shore excursions and most side trips (others are extra). Other than tips, shopping,
any personal stuff (booze, laundry), it works out nicely.
The trip itself? Well, here goes.
The Roughest Part: Leaving America
If I had to do this day over again, I wouldn't. Let's just say that horrible weather in the New York area combined with cancelled connecting flights,
delays and a change in arrival airports left me standing at JFK in front of a closed and empty Egyptair counter over an hour after my plane had left for
Cairo. Salvation came from a GCT phone rep named Mary, who made sure I was rebooked for the following day, and directed me to a nearby Hilton Garden Inn
where a hot shower, a good meal and a truly comfortable bed made things much better.
The next day I'm off again, and everything goes okay, though
Egyptair's another story. Not bad, just mediocre. The flight is long at over 11 hours, the food is bland and the continuous movies on the overhead monitors
are boring. There is no alcohol served onboard, which is fine by me, but what's worse is that they don't serve ice with their drinks. I solace myself by
reading, going for walks around the cabin, napping and chewing on my secret stash of Twizzlers.
Cairo, At Last
The arrival in Cairo
goes smoothly and quickly. It takes five minutes and 15 dollars to get a visa, and the other formalities are all taken care of in short order. The GCT rep is
waiting and hands me over to a young associate who loads me into his slightly battered car and proceeds to introduce me to the chaotic traffic that true
Cairenes (as they are known) take for granted. We reach the hotel intact. The Cairo Marriott, built around a 19th-century palace, is an in-city resort
reminiscent of a cruise ship with an array of facilities, amenities, shops, restaurants, bars and even a casino. The rooms are large and comfortable, and my
bed, covered in a duvet and pillows, looks like a pile of marshmallows. For us, the most useful feature is a separate group entry area with parking spaces
and room to sort out luggage and people.
My delay in reaching Cairo is actually greater than first mentioned. Due to unusual circumstances, I am
actually three days late, and the group has already done the Museum and the Pyramids. The only thing that makes that acceptable is that I had seen them on a
previous visit -- when I was on a cruise that stopped at Alexandria, and also when I came to Cairo independently on the train for an overnight stay just to
visit both sights, only to be left standing on the pier as my ship sailed for Greece (but that's another story).
Even that was worth it; the
experience is still so vivid in my mind. It's really amazing when you first get a full view of the Pyramids and the Sphinx -- it's truly a wow moment. These
are icons we have seen in pictures all of our lives; to finally stand within reach of them and touch them is just incredible. As you walk among and around
these incredible structures, you can't help but be in wonder of not only their size and presence, but the realization that they have stood here for over 40
centuries. It's a cliche, but awestruck is such an insufficient word sometimes.
The same holds true for the Egyptian Museum and its centerpiece
collection: the treasures of Tutankhamen. The display is actually overwhelming, even more so when you consider that Tut was not an important or significant
figure in history. His tomb is, however, the only one found intact and undisturbed. It is also unfortunate but understandable that many visitors will
overlook the rest of the Museum's wonders because of their focus on Tut alone. They miss so much that way.
My unplanned overnight stay at JFK has
also caused me to miss the optional ($95) daylong trip to Alexandria. My previous "stay" there basically involved figuring out how to leave. I really had
wanted to visit the modernistic Bibliotheca Alexandrina and the new National Museum. Guests who took the trip were fascinated and considered it well worth
it, though one man did tell me that it gave new meaning to the old movie title, "The Longest Day."
Even as I get settled in my room and
contemplate my first Egyptian nap, I get a welcoming call from Mohamed El-Wassif, who will serve as my Program Director throughout the trip. For those
unfamiliar with GCT's programs, these professionals function as combined group leader/tour guide/lecturer/social director with each in charge of 30 - 40
guests during the cruisetour. In the case of Mohamed, he is a university-trained Egyptologist and teacher with more than 18 years of experience in his field.
He and the others share a "host" of duties and are an invaluable asset to the program's success.
It's our last day in Cairo, and I am taking an
optional ($40) tour called "Spiritual Cairo." We start above the city at the ancient Citadel and its Alabaster Mosque, where under-dressed female tourists
are given shiny little green capes to cover bare shoulders; pre-warned, we are all dressed appropriately. Everybody goes into shoes-off mode while the
Program Directors discuss mosques, Islam and the religion's place in Egyptian history. The broad terrace outside overlooking the city must have been
incredible when it was built with plantings and fountains and a view down to the Nile and off to the Pyramids. Now it's dirty and badly kept, the fountain is
dry and the gardens are gone; the smog is terrible and the Pyramids can't be seen. Same thing is true of much of Cairo. The city is tan, dirty and much of it
needs a good bath and scrub, but given the lack of rain there's only so much that can be done.
Both Coptic and Islamic Cairo are truly
fascinating; at one point, we run into a joyful religious procession in the ancient city near the spot where the Holy Family allegedly sheltered when they
first fled from Herod to Egypt. Nearby, the ancient but still active Ben Ezra Synagogue is open to visitors, but unfortunately there isn't time to tour the
neighboring Coptic Museum.
A special mention should be made of our visit to the famed Khan el-Kahlili bazaar. I hated it; it's dirty, cramped and
the vendors have undergone commando training. They can run rings around the beach sellers of Mexico and the nutmeg pushers of Grenada, not to mention any
street merchant in Jamaica. I bolt and hide out in El-Fishawi's, a legendary coffeehouse in one of the bazaar's inner passages that has been operating
round-the-clock for over two centuries. The coffee is jet-fuel strong and the passing scene is intriguing. It more than makes up for the rest of the place.
After a too-big lunch at the Marriott, there is a talk and discussion with an American expatriate housewife who tells some funny stories (while
hoarding chocolate chips and getting peanut butter care packages) and answers questions about the similarities and differences of living in Egypt. No, she
doesn't normally wear a veil, but did learn Arabic and converted to Islam by personal choice. Here's a heads up: Kudos to GCT, but they've planned so many
activities, that those lusting for a bit of independent wandering will have to forego something....
Since morning will come early, a few of us
stroll up to one of Cairo's "dated" streets (26th of July Boulevard) and a well known restaurant, Maison Thomas, which despite its Franco-English name,
specializes in pizza. A comfy wood-panelled but casual spot filled with the smell of garlic and herbs, it's as popular with locals as with Cairo’s
international community. Just down the street is the aptly named Drinkie’s, the only wine/liquor store I saw in Cairo. A quick peek inside was done mostly
out of curiosity, and while I was not looking to buy, they do seem to stock a fairly wide selection.
On to Aswan & River Anuket
Awakening at dawn and in total darkness, which seems to be a regular occurrence on this trip, we're shortly on our way (bus stops in the middle of highway to pick up the luggage that is falling out; not mine). We're off to Aswan where we'll join our ship. Driving into Aswan from its airport, the countryside is
harsh and nothing but dirt, but the roads are edged with beautiful bougainvillea and oleander, good choices both for brilliant color and their
Aswan has a long history as the center of Upper Egypt and the ancient Nubian Kingdom, as well as a trade and
transport hub dating back centuries, located as it is at the First Cataract (rocky waterfalls) of the Nile. It's a different world from the near-bedlam of
Central Cairo, and while busy and congested in its own way, its smaller size and provincial status make it easier to comprehend. This city, along with Luxor
to the North, serves as a main start/finish point for Nile cruises ranging from three to seven days, and it's here where we will begin our true Nile journey.
As we turn onto the Corniche (riverside boulevard), it seems like there must a hundred river ships moored along the embankment, many double- and
triple-parked along the Nile; we're headed to our spot at the far end. Our first sight of the river here does not disappoint, with lushly green islands along
the center channel and dusty dry hills rising away to the West. The city looks a bit shabby, but maybe it's the climate, since like in Cairo rain is rare and
The River Anuket is waiting for us along the quay, and it's a delight to see, gleaming white in the sun. It looks like all the rest of
them; most of the ships except for a few classic steamers are built to a standard size and shape, but this one's ours, so it's special. We board the ship and
are welcomed in what will become a customary ritual with trays of moist towels and glasses of chilled juice (I go for days thinking it's limeade, only to be
told it's hibiscus juice. Who knew?) The marble-floored reception area reminds me of a hotel in Normandy, all warm wood paneling and vaguely French chairs
with paneled passageways leading to cabins. My cabin, number 229, is next-to-last aft, but they're basically all the same, though I must say cabins in the
rear are subject to a strong "magic fingers" sensation each time the ship's engines first crank up.
The cabins are attractive and are more like
nice hotel rooms with sliding glass doors and exterior railings creating a French balcony. Only problem? There's another ship moored directly opposite; it's
a common occurrence along the Nile, but disconcerting. Fortunately, the windows are mirror-glazed on the outside, and the next morning the other ship is
gone. The room has the standard amenities, with a couple of change-of-pace items. The fridge is empty, and comes with an order (and billing) sheet you give
to your steward, and the shower has folding doors (unfortunately in, not out) instead of a curtain. And, for those who care, the "invasion of the towel
animals" has reached Egypt; personally, I think it's napkin-folding on steroids. Note to GCT: New American-style mattresses should be on the priority to-do
After lunch, the first of a series of delicious buffets (today's Egyptian specialty is a delicious version of stuffed peppers), we have a
brief respite to unpack and settle in, but it's not for long. In the GCT way, it's time for our first Nile excursion, and we're off to board a felucca -- the
low, broad, native ship with a huge triangular sail. Except for the fact that we are the only people on the entire river wearing bright orange lifejackets,
the trip is a delight. The afternoon sun is slowly slipping west toward the hills as we sail past Kitchener's Island, which started as a botanical garden and
is now a vast local park popular for school trips and family outings. Above the overgrown western shore, we can see the spare and simple shape of the late
Aga Khan's tomb perched on a naked hilltop and cliff-like hills studded with caves and graves behind it. Then, as we drift down the Nile back towards the
ship, a young Nubian crewmember begins to dance and chant, getting all of us to join in with singing, dancing and clapping. It's an amazing sight to see all
these "senior" Americans shaking their booties, Nile-style.
To reboard our ship, we walk through the lobby areas of two other river boats; the
decor of both is bright and brassy and Vegas-modern. Along with other fellow passengers, I'm already more and more grateful for the warmth, grace and quiet
comfort of River Anuket. Dinner is served in three courses using portion control with lots of white space. I'm so tired I can't stay awake, much less deal
with the evening's scheduled Nubian Folkloric show, and I head for my cabin and my bed.
The next morning is another
middle-of-the-night thing, but it's worthwhile since we're headed for Abu Simbel on one of the few optional excursions. At $199 per person, it's not
inexpensive considering it includes roundtrip Egyptair flights from Aswan along with ground arrangements there, and we'll be back just in time for a late
At Abu Simbel, a set of two massive temples and statues up to 60 feet high along their facades are monuments to Ramses II and his wife
Nefertari. They were carved into a rock mountain thousands of years ago, only to be threatened in the 1960's by the building of the High Dam and the
formation of Lake Nasser. Only a herculean international effort saved them and provided for their precise reconstruction in a duplicate of their original
setting. By a stroke of scheduling luck, we have the complex almost entirely to ourselves. At one point, I turn from the view over Lake Nasser, and as I gaze
again at the temple facades, it hits me -- I am momentarily alone with one of mankind's greatest monuments. The moment passes as others emerge from inside,
but I've already taken a mental snapshot and filed it away in my memory.
Before dinner this evening, and every evening for that matter, people
gather in the main Lounge, which is a big open living room where most onboard activities take place. One or more of the four program directors recaps the day
and previews the next; this is when any schedule adjustments are discussed with the group and also serves as a sort of daily port talk. Bar service is
available, but they don't make a big thing of it now or anytime on the ship.
After dinner, there is a neat trip to the Aswan Spice Market where
color and smell intertwine. Mohamed shows us how to tell the good spices from the bad, using saffron as an example. The variations in color and weight are
indications of freshness and quality. The Market is also combined with the local bazaar, where the shopkeepers are thankfully less assaulting than in Cairo.
I take advantage of the excursion to walk over to the Old Cataract Hotel, paying homage to Agatha Christie who wrote here; it's a beautiful old pile of a
place with incredible views out over the Nile. Oddly enough, the hotel has a sort of cover charge/minimum for non-guests, but since I walked in with an
English couple I met on the way up from the Corniche, the guards assume I am with them. I didn't correct them and spent a lovely time on the terrace with my
new friends and a glass of Spanish wine (I tried Egyptian wine on the ship -- it needs work).
Movin' On Down the Nile
breakfast and then we're off on the buses for a morning "field trip" around Aswan. First, a trip to the High Dam, modern Egypt's greatest engineering feat
and least interesting tourist attraction (I'm almost embarrassed that I'm not more impressed). Next, there's a visit to a Papyrus Institute, where there is a
short and truly interesting explanation of how paper's precursor was made -- conveniently enough this takes place in a gallery where papyrus artwork is for
sale. Can you say shopping opportunity in Arabic? The last stop, the Temple at Philae, is a marvelous example of Egyptian and Roman art and was moved after
being partially submerged when the British built the first Dam at Aswan over a century ago. It now stands on a small island of its own requiring a short boat
ride to reach it, and yes, we're the tourists in the bright orange lifejackets again.
Back at the ship, lunch is the best green lasagne
(tomato-less, no less) I've ever eaten, and finally, we set sail for our cruise down the Nile to Kom Ombo, on the way to Luxor. I spend the afternoon up on
the sun deck (no elevators, just stairs), stretched out on one of the rattan "not-plastic" loungers by the swimming pool, which seems to be filled with
melted glacier; it's so cold only my big toe gets in and briefly at that. Many passengers are sitting in the canopied area near the bar, chatting, relaxing
andwatching Egypt drift by as Nubian craftsmen demonstrate their amazing handiwork before us (of course, I buy something). The riverscape is agricultural,
broken by the sight of small villages where the minarets of local mosques point up through the palms and sugar cane. It's all so very green and quiet, the
quiet only broken by the chuff-chuff sound of pumps bringing the Nile's water to the fields. Its front-porching at its best.
The approach to Kom
Ombo is wonderful, as the ship's pilot brings the boat around so that it will rest at the mooring while pointed upstream. The usual vendors are waiting but
it is the temple and its setting that is so impressive, set high on a bluff above a bend in the river. The late afternoon sun turns the stones a deeper and
deeper color as we walk to the site, a fascinating double temple (part dedicated to the crocodile god Sobek) with a majestic pylon (gate) in the ancient
tradition. As we finish our tour, the sun begins to set over the opposite shore and we stroll back through a small market area in the soft twilight with a
scent of burning charcoal in the air.
Dinner tonight is an extensive Egyptian buffet: wonderful lamb with crushed mint sauce, a moussaka-like
eggplant dish and a variety of traditional entrees and side dishes. Many of the passengers have dressed in a variety of Egyptian-style robes for the Galabeya
Evening, which is the costume party afterwards, where we learn about Egyptian music and dancing; sort of the pharaohs' version of American Bandstand.
Hurray! Today is a late morning as the ship is moving, but the passengers aren't -- we're enjoying breakfast on the river as we head to our next stop
at Edfu. Breakfast is always served buffet style and features a good variety of hot dishes like custom omelets, baked goods, fruits, cereals and yogurts. As
always, meals are single, open-seating affairs, which gives everyone an opportunity to spend time with an assortment of different people. I send out some
laundry and it's back before evening, neatly folded and stacked -- I think they actually pressed my underwear, but thankfully no starch!
at mid-morning. The temple complex here is bigger than expected and still has vivid colors visible from twenty-some centuries ago. And while certainly not
experts, we begin to recognize when Mohamed points out Hathor, Isis and Osiris. The temple is dedicated to Horus, the falcon god; huge black granite statues
stand at the 118-ft. high pylon gate. With each stop, each temple, we are beginning to understand and recognize more of what we see. Then it's back to the
ship, and we cast off for lunch and another peacefully pleasant afternoon of quiet cruising along the Nile (local version of a sea day). For the truly
inquisitive, two of the program directors give a class in hieroglyphics and also demonstrate written Arabic (from the look of it, my name must be Squiggle).
Face it: If you finish a GCT trip without being "enriched," you must have been unconscious the entire time.
Late in the afternoon, many of us
gather forward on the sun deck as we make our way through the locks at Esna, where the Nile drops. All river cruisers making the trip between Aswan and Luxor
are designed to fit here, and that is one reason why they all look so similar. There is only one set of locks, so traffic must wait as the water level is
lowered, then raised in turn. Until a new, second set of locks is finished, we're told the wait can sometimes last for hours as traffic backs up. Fortunately
for us, that is not the case today, and the entire operation lasts less than an hour.
Later at dinner there is delicious beef with basmati rice
or pan-fried Nile perch (or both), and frozen nougat with chocolate sauce, followed by a surprisingly good crew show in the lounge. We finally arrive late in
the evening at Luxor, and I watch from the open deck as we slowly move past the impressively floodlit temple to our docking spot.
The Valley of
It's another early rising and breakfast as we leave for the Valley of the Kings so as to beat the crowds, which will become massive as
the day moves along. The landscape is barren and forbidding, all rocky and devoid of growing things, but below the surface is a different place. Fresco-like
wall paintings, still vibrant and alive, adorn the tombs of long-dead pharaohs and testify to the complexity of a long-gone civilization. Most tombs are
empty because they were robbed repeatedly over the centuries. Tutankhamen's tomb was miraculously undiscovered until the 1920's, and now his resting place
(number 62) is a landmark unto itself (with a separate fee to enter), even as his burial treasure is the centerpiece of the Egyptian Museum in Cairo. It's
hard to take it all in; there is way too much to see in the time we have and not enough time to visit all of the tombs.
Afterwards we stop to see
alabaster being carved (how amazing -- they also sell it in the same place!) and visit the very much lesser Valley of the Queens. I would have preferred to
visit or at least see the nearby Temple of Hatshepsut with its magnificent colonnades and ramped temples. On the way back to Luxor, we stop briefly to look
at the twin Colossi of Memnon, 60-ft. tall statues that used to guard Amenhotep's tomb and now stand silently in a clearing between ancient Thebes and the
Nile. Talk about "Ozymandias."
Quena And Dendara
We set sail after lunch for Quena further down the river, and during the afternoon
there's a lecture and discussion about the Nile and modern Egypt. Mohamed and the others share their knowledge freely but become very reticent when the
questions verge toward current politics. Then there's more sun time on the sun deck. I'm surprised they don't do afternoon tea or a barbecue up here at least
once during the trip. Later, dinner is followed by a little tourist train ride around Quena (think Key West Conch Train) and a stop at an outdoor public
garden where entertainment and refreshments are offered. This is, without a doubt, the cleanest and neatest town we have seen. The mayor responsible has now
been appointed to work the same magic on Alexandria (which could use it).
A morning trip to the Temple of Dendara is an optional excursion ($50).
From the Graeco-Roman era, the temple features carvings of Tiberius and Claudius making offerings to Hathor, goddess of love, not to mention images of
Cleopatra and her son Caesarion (who's your Daddy?). This was followed by a true discovery -- a visit to a primary school where the children treat us like
rock stars and try out their English (it's mandatory). I think we enjoyed it even more than the children. We sail slowly back upriver to Luxor during the
afternoon, enjoying our last chance to feel the movement of the Nile before our final day aboard. A cooking lesson is given this afternoon, but when I
realized they were preparing recipes using okra, I got up and left. I may be a Southern boy, but I cannot stand the slimy stuff.
Today's our last full day of the cruise, and they saved some of the best stuff for last. For the really intrepid, there is an optional
excursion ($145) with a 5 a.m. departure across the Nile to go ballooning over Thebes. Personally, I preferred lying in bed and watching as they rise above
the palms. After breakfast, there is the visit to the blockbuster -- the huge complex of the Temple at Karnak, a breathtaking example of the majesty of this
ancient people. As always, our program directors were there to inform and enlighten us, and to make sure we had time to wander and explore on our own. From
the great roofless colonnade to the view from the far side of the Sacred Lake, you are constantly in awe of what was done thousands of years ago. And while
people joke about "ADT" syndrome ("another damn temple"), it never happens; each is unique unto itself and magnificent outright.
Later, we head
to Luxor Temple, which is probably my favorite. It's situated in the middle of Luxor, set back from the promenade and the Corniche along the Nile. The main
entrance faces toward Karnak, and there still remains some of the miles-long Avenue of Sphinxs that once connected the sites for ceremonial processions. In
front of the Great Pylon (gate) stands an obelisk with its missing twin now the centerpiece of Paris' Place de la Concorde, a gift from the Egyptians to the
French. Inside the walls there's an active mosque that was built centuries after the temple from its stones, and further on, there's a great pillared court,
an area for a Roman Christian church and another area showing Alexander the Great making offerings to the gods. There are so many eras in one space, oddly
harmonious despite their differences.
Afterwards I stroll over to see the old Winter Palace Hotel and browse its shops and the nearby arcades.
The streets here are lined with ranks of Luxor's emblematic caleches, the silver-trimmed black carriages that have been carrying around tourists for more
than a century. I decline the drivers' urging and slowly walk back to the ship, passing along the temple grounds just as the floodlights come on, bathing the
complex in warm and living light. Good show, Luxor!
Cairo, Then Home
The final morning is disembarkation, a painless event thanks to
a well-organized system and our small numbers. We fly back to Cairo and check into the Marriott. Later, we all meet for a farewell drink in one of the
unbelievably ornate reception rooms of the original palace and then head off to a final dinner outside in the Garden Promenade, a favorite lunch and dinner
spot for trendy young Cairenes.
I wake the last morning before dawn in my room on the 20th floor, hoping that the early light will be clear
enough to see the pyramids off to the southwest; but no such luck, though I can hear the nearby muezzin leading the call to morning prayer. It's okay, I know
they're there. I've seen them and now so much more.
I'm just so very glad I came.
--by Glenn Tucker, Cruise Critic Contributor