She is a slice of modern luxury that would make any pharaoh gasp in awe; smooth as silk and as perfectly posted as a swan, the Royal Viking glides serenely along the golden highway of the pharoahs- the eternal Nile- offering comfort and convenience on a style that even Cleopatra herself could not dream of.
A boat of this size could easily carry almost two hundred passengers quite comfortably. Instead, the Royal Viking carries a maximum of 136, in sixty two cabins and four suites, spread across three upper decks.
All the cabins are outside, with floor to ceiling sliding doors and a balcony rail. There is a table and a couple of comfortable chairs, refrigerator, flat screen TV and a very comfortable double bed. Three wardrobes allow for more than enough storage space. With dark wood fixtures and a wooden floor, these come in at around 252 square feet- larger and more commodious than the regular cabins of most ocean going cruise ships.
The bathrooms also have slatted woods floors, with a toilet, sink, and combination bath and shower unit. Each comes complete with daily changed towels, and en suite bathrobes. Further up the scale, the suites offer even more living space.
The Royal Viking is one of the smartest and most contemporary boats on the Nile. Inside, a gracefully flowing lobby staircase leads down to the main, wood panelled bar. Full of large, comfy chairs and sofas, this is the ideal spot to enjoy a pre or post dinner cocktail with fellow adventurers, or one of the fancy dress parties and treasure hunts that make up the after dinner entertainment.
One level further down, the smart, contemporary dining room is lined by floor to ceiling windows that offer an almost water’s edge view of the Nile. Assigned tables for breakfast, lunch and dinner seat from two to six people. Meals are offered buffet style, with free coffee and tea at breakfast. Ingredients and creations reflected both a tempting, filling of Egyptian and international fare. And if there was a perhaps understandable emphasis on local fish and chicken, the food was almost invariably good to excellent in quality. Meals on board the Royal Viking soon came to be the social highlights of our day.
There is also a small shop on the upper level of the lobby, leading round to the middle deck of cabins. Climbing two levels, you emerge onto one of the most beautiful and expansive sun decks ever seen on this most ancient of rivers.
The forward part contains a large, cool pool that is an absolute blessing to have in the searing heat of an Egyptian spring. White padded, wooden loungers flank this area, all the way back to where a large, shaded outdoor viewing deck, full of elegant wicker chairs, sofas and tables, makes for a fantastic, unobstructed vantage spot across both banks of the river.
It’s a perfect spot for a leisurely afternoon tea as you glide past the beguiling panorama that plays out along the river; cattle and oxen grazing by the river banks. Small boats full of fish struggling to head up stream. The slender spires of mosques and the silently waving fields of rushes that flank the water’s edge.
And, of course, where better to savour the tender, mellow springtime sunsets, or a cocktail at night, with a backdrop of thousands of chirping crickets? All things considered, the Royal Viking is a pretty spectacular way to see one of the most amazing and compelling places on earth.
One of the most potent attractions and enduring sights on the entire west bank of the Nile- the imposing, almost completely intact mortuary temple of one of ancient Egypt’s most legendary rulers- the great queen, Hatshepsut.
Royal Caribbean International has just announced an extensive season of short Caribbean and Bahamas cruises for the winter of 2015-16. The cruises, offered on a trio of different class vessels, sail from three different Florida ports, and offer durations from three to five days in all.
The biggest- quite literally- of the options are offered on the old ex-UK stalwart, Independence Of The Seas. The popular and commodious ‘Indy’ operates three different itineraries from Port Everglades; one of four nights, and two five night runs.
The four night voyages showcase the popular Yucatan port of Cozumel. One of the five night runs offers calls at both Belize and Cozumel, while the second highlights Falmouth, Jamaica, as well as the private Royal Caribbean resort of Labadee, on Haiti.
These are some of the best short cruises on offer in the region, combining exotic and landmark destinations with enough sea time to sample the diverse dining opportunities and dazzling nightlife and entertainment options aboard one of the most completely equipped resort cruise ships in the world. I expect this programme to be hugely popular.
Not to be outdone, Port Canaveral offers the enhanced Vision class Enchantment Of The Seas. The ship- the only one of the six ship, late nineties built class to be (thus far) lengthened, will offer three and four night cruises from that port to both Nassau and the line’s private Bahamian island at Coco Cay, with the four night cruises also offering an extra day at sea.
These short, invigorating breaks aboard a classy ship offer the alluring option of adding a stay at any of the numerous Florida theme parks, including the amazing Kennedy Space Centre.
Finally, Royal Caribbean is offering departures year round from Miami aboard the still elegant, immaculately maintained Majesty Of The Seas (see my previous blogs for a review and separarte photo album of this ship). Majesty Of The Seas is the last of the Sovereign trio, the pioneer class of mega ships developed for the line during the late eighties.
She offers three night cruises that offer calls at Coco Cay and Nassau, and a more mellow, four night Monday departure that adds feisty, bohemian Key West to the first two ports of call. This is a well regimented, destination intensive ‘fun run’ on a ship that was recently refurbished, and still offers more than enough bells and whistles to make sailing her an enjoyable experience. The only qualifier I would add is that the inside cabins are very small, so pack light if you’re travelling economically.
While there is nothing really innovative overall here, this programme is soundly researched, and as tight as a drum in terms of product offerings. The addition of the magnificent Independence Of The Seas, in particular, is a very welcome development.
As always, stay tuned for potential changes and additions’subtractions to this roster.
In a move that is possibly a test run for future sailings, specialist operator Voyages To Antiquity is offering a pair of shorter fly cruises this May aboard the small, beautifully styled Aegean Odyssey.
The fly cruises are of five and nine nights’ duration respectively, and come inclusive of all flights, transfers, shore excursions with knowledgeable, in depth guides, and inclusive beer, wine and soft drinks with dinner each evening. And, with no single supplements to boot, they represent quite extraordinary value.
The first, five day jaunt departs from Istanbul on May 10th, with calls at Lemnos and Izmir to see the stunning, magnificent ruins of Ephesus. Moving on, the Aegean Odyssey then offers a morning touring among the sacred grave sites at Delos, followed by a few hours’ people watching in classy, stylish Mykonos, before disembarking in Athens on May 14th. Single fares for this trip begin at £895.
The second, nine night itinerary begins in Athens on May 14th, and finishes in Rome’s port of Civitavecchia. En route, the Aegean Odyssey visits Nauplia, to see the fabulous site of Epidaurus. After a day at sea, she sails on to Taormina, with it’s fantastic Greco-Roman hilltop theatre, and then on to the historic Sicilian city of Palermo for an overnight stay.
From here, Aegean Odyssey makes her way for another overnight stay; this time in fabled, springtime Sorrento. There is ample time to see such landmark sites as Pompeii, Herculaneum and, of course, the brooding Mount Vesuivius itself, as well as leaving time to enjoy some serious people watching in Piazza Tasso, or even a drive along to fabled Amalfi, or perhaps a boat trip out to Capri.
This cruise concludes the next morning. Prices for the inclusive, nine night package start from £1,495. Again, there is no single supplement.
Flights are usually arranged on the scheduled services of British Airways, and include domestic flights to Heathrow where necessary.
The Aegean Odyssey is a small, destination intensive cruise ship with an ambiance more akin to that of a floating country club than a vast maritime theme park. With a capacity for less then four hundred passengers, she offers fabulous service and dining- both indoors and out- and a smart casual dress code.
This is not a ship for those wanting a lively, late night environment. Think of her as a very comfortable combination of a boutique hotel and a fantastic, fulfilling and educational travel experience, and you have the gist.
I particularly recommend the cove balcony cabins in the aft part of the ship as a great buy. Nicely sheltered, and with lovely canvas chairs, they offer you an expansive and roomy vantage point from which to savour those balmy spring time Aegean and Mediterranean sunsets.
The stunning series of temples that unfurl along the east bank of the Nile collectively stand as mute, timeless testaments to the determination, ingenuity and sheer devotion of the ancient society that brought them to life. Even in their current, partially ruined and faded stances, they still have the power to instill awe and wonder in the modern traveller.
Egypt venerated over seven hundred different deities across the epochs of the great pharaohs, and the most significant of these had temples erected to them along the east bank of the Nile. For the Egyptians, the east bank was synonymous with eternal life; by contrast, all of the tombs are across the river, where the sun sets in the west.
Each major temple was devoted to one, specific god (with one notable exception that we’ll visit later). They were built in a near perfect, symmetrical form, from the inside out.
This began with the sanctuary; an absolute ‘holy of holies’ that, once completed, could be entered only by the high priest and the pharaoh himself. This would usually accommodate a plinth that held a ceremonial boat, to allow the god to sail on the Nile whenever he/she desired.
Leading into this would be a series of antechambers, used for rituals and special ceremonies. Backing further outwards, there would be a large, open air courtyard for the ordinary people, largely composed of massive, circular hypostyle columns, built of sandstone and engraved with top to bottom hieroglyphics, often telling the story of the deity concerned.
Just the construction of these columns alone is a staggering feat. Great Egyptian architects such as Imhotep deserve to be right up there with the likes of Sir Isaac Newton and Ismbard Kingdom Brunel in terms of their reputations for sheer ingenuity, and their grasp of the laws of science and physics. Raising each one of the huge columns (each one weighed a minimum of several hundred tons) was a magnificent feat; assuring the near perfect, timeless symmetry these magnificent relics still exhibit was nothing short of miraculous.
You can still see the greatest example of this in the petrified stone forest of the temple of Karnak, where no less than one hundred and thirty four such columns loom against the powder blue sky. At night, floodlit at their bases, they seem almost otherworldly. Imagine what they must have looked like when brand new.
As new, all of these temples were a swathe of fantastic colours; technicolor triumphs on an undreamed of scale. Centuries of exposure to a pitiless Egyptian sun has largely faded these, but you still can see traces of colour on the undersides of plinths, and the upper levels of shaded columns.
At the outermost extent, a pair of massive, adjacent pylons would give entrance to the temple complex. These massive sandstone structures look like nothing so much as the bulwarks of medieval castles. And their smooth, perfectly proportioned walls often contain the most mind blowing of all the giant engravings; a heroic melange of gods, pharaohs, battle scenes and tributes. These mute, massive murals were the equivalent of propaganda for the rulers of ancient Egypt.
Some temples, such as Karnak, are approached via an avenue lined on both sides by hundreds of ram headed sphinxes, leading to enormous, intricate obelisks and huge, seated statues of the pharaohs. Others, such as the smaller, stunning Philae, are on an estuary in the middle of the river.
One of the few still accessible sites to be devoted to two gods is the temple of Kom Ombo, sacred both to the falcon god, Horus, and to the evil crocodile god, Sobek. It is the only temple to have mirror images on both sides, one dedicated to each god.
Horus was the son of Osiris and Isis and, as slayer of his evil uncle, Set, he was platinum chip stuff as far as ancient Egyptian deities go. The problem was Sobek.
In those days, Kom Ombo was a feeding ground for thousands of ferocious Nile crocodiles. They took a huge toll of animals and humans alike. In an ultimately vain attempt to appease the evil Sobek, the Egyptians raised a joint temple to him. Today, falcon and crocodile gods still sit in uneasy, albeit aesthetically perfect symmetry.
The Egyptians even installed a sacred pool, where they nurtured and hatched crocodile eggs, returning the small snappers to the Nile as a futile gesture of appeasement. Thankfully, the descendants of those same crocodiles are now prevented from coming this far upstream by the impassable barrier of the dam at Aswan.
So, there you have it. Just a little insight into how these amazing structures came to be created. Intrigued? Go see for yourselves. Amazed? You will be…..
Sailing the Nile is like slipping back some five thousand years in time at certain moments. Though the boats you sail on have changed immeasurably since the days when Akhenaton and Ramses crossed these same waters, there are sights, sounds and moments that those venerable, long gone demi gods of ancient Egypt would have recognised and remembered at once.
You see it in the cattle and oxen that graze idly at the water’s edge as you ghost silently by. The crocodiles that might once have taken them are now hundreds of miles to the south, contained in Lake Nasser by the concrete sarcophagus of the high dam at Aswan.
A Felucca or two might stand out across your path, with gently billowing white sails, cantered at a crazy angle as it heels sharply on the silver sheen of the ancient highway.
Small children in canoes paddle gamely out from between a gap in the ranks of sharp, spindly reeds that shroud the edges of the river banks on both sides.
The air is alive with the screeching and chattering of a myriad of birds, many of them keeping a wary eye on the odd, predatory hawk as it slowly circles high overhead, looking for a kill.
Buildings peep out at intervals from the serried ranks of slowly waving date palms. A blue domed mosque here, with spindly minarets clawing at a petrol blue sky. A half finished house there, with mud brick walls daubed a tired, sun bleached shade of musky ochre, with lines of washing hanging from the windows, drying out in the mid day heat.
A small truck here, overladen with fruit in rainbow shades. A tractor there, spluttering asthmatically into life as it rumbles toward the fields.
The sunsets are tender, mellow affairs. The slowly setting sun in the west turns this most ancient and legendary of rivers- the golden highway of the Pharaohs- into what resembles a sea of blazing straw. A moment that is at once both still and electrifying. An ageless, almost supernatural feeling floats in the ether like stardust. A magic as old as time. One that Cleopatra, Nefertiti or Tutankhamun would have known. One that would have made them smile.
Now those same rows of date palms stand, black and massive, against the slowly setting curtain of the Nile sunset. The only sound is that of thousands of chirping crickets, plus the gentle tinkling of the ice in your sunset gin and tonic.
At moments like this, you feel more alive than ever.
A day in the life. A day on the Nile. An experience that sears itself into your soul. It stays with you long, long, after you actually leave it behind. Wonderful stuff.
I was not much looking forward to this journey to begin with, but bit the bullet as the means to an end for getting to and from a brilliant cruise on the Nile. Why so?
Well, it’s a six hour flight, and Egyptair is a ‘dry’ airline. A couple of drinks takes some of the edge off such a long flight under normal circumstances.
Secondly, the airline uses the Boeing 737-800 on what is a moderately long haul route. For reasons that I honestly cannot adequately validate, I have never been a fan of the 737.
Having made those disclaimers, here’s the skinny on how things actually panned out.
Check in was easy, friendly and competently handled at Heathrow Terminal Three. Embarkation was brisk and efficient,via an air bridge, and staggered via groups of rows.
Once on board, the 737-800 featured two sets of economy seating, three abreast, separated by a central aisle just aft of the attractive looking business class seats. Overhead storage was more than adequate, even on what looked like a very busy flight.
The plane was clean, quite smart, with seats upholstered in sky blue, picked out in white detailing. I had managed to score an exit seat at the window, 20A, which gave me more than ample legroom (Though I’m 5’6″ in height). Push back was some ten minutes late, and we got a much appreciated welcome aboard from the flight deck, first in Egyptian, then in English.
Once airborne, in flight service began, courtesy of a very attentive and genuinely warm flight crew. Water, soft drinks, tea and coffee all around. Though the cold drinks were served in white plastic cups, these are no more or less worse than the see through plastic equivalents of other airlines. And at least Egyptair provide their economy passengers with proper drinks napkins, which is more than BA has done for quite some time.
Tables were provided in the side of the armrest, rather than the plastic, fold down ones on the seat backs in front preferred by so many carriers these days. No problems here, either.
In flight entertainment came in the form of two films, played on drop down, overhead screens. Headphones were provided free of charge at the start of the service. The first film was some nonsense with Schwarzenegger, Stallone and Vinnie Jones. The second, a whimsical little affair called Escape From Planet Earth, was actually quite funny.
Meal service offered a pleasant surprise; a choice of two hot main courses, either chicken or beef. The beef, basted in paprika sauce, was surprisingly succulent and tender. I followed it with a zesty lemon and coconut tart, and a bread roll that was absolutely delicious. This service was delivered with another round of non alcoholic drinks.
Tables were cleared quickly and efficiently, just in time to settle down for the second feature. Toilets on this flight were spotlessly clean, fully stocked, and complete with two bottles of hand cleansing soap.
It was especially delightful looking out of the window, as we swept across the snow shrouded Alps at dusk. I was more than comfortable in my seat for the whole flight though, to be fair, I did not try the seat recline.
By the time we came in to land at Luxor, I was feeling far more relaxed and good humoured than I had expected. Landing cards had been distributed early in the flight, giving us ample time to fill them in; a pretty simple procedure.
Landing was smooth and painless, as was disembarkation. Strangely, there are no air bridges at Luxor for the national airline, which did surprise me.
Still, debarkation was a breeze, onto a pair of coaches awaiting us at the bottom of the steps. And the sensation of stepping out into the warm, welcoming night air of Luxor was such a tonic in itself. Despite our slight delay on take off, we arrived on the stand at Luxor a few minutes early.
That formerly ghastly airport has changed out of all recognition, and massively for the better. A visa (£12) was obtained, baggage collected and customs cleared, all within twenty minutes. With Discover Egypt reps awaiting us in the arrivals hall, transfers were seamless.
Conclusion? I was very pleasantly surprised by the quality, warmth and efficiency offered on this six hour, Egyptair flight. This was an impression reinforced one week later, when I flew back on the same route.
Recommended? Absolutely. Well done, Egyptair. It was a pleasure to fly with you.
Sailing along the Nile last week, I was shocked out of my indolent reverie by what I at first took to be a mirage. There, chugging gamely along ahead of us, was a long, black paddle steamer, smoke belching from her single, squat black funnel as her paddle wheels thrashed up the surface of the river.
She was a stunning sight. Two long, open promenade decks, reminiscent of the Mississippi paddle wheelers of old. ran from bow to stern. The paddles, situated amidships on either side, seemed to work at a frantic pace. As we slowly ghosted past her, the steam whistle on her funnel whistled a thin, reedy salute across to us. And then, still trailing smoke, she disappeared behind a bend in the river as we surged on towards Aswan.
Enchanted, I had to learn more about her…
Her name is Sudan, and she is the only survivor of a trio of sisters- the others were the Egypt and Arabia- built by the venerable Thomas Cook travel company between 1911 and 1922. Cook had pioneered the modern tourist travel experience, with expeditions to Egypt back in the 1860′s. The three new ships were built to make the trip from Cairo down to Aswan, in around twenty days.
This was at the time when the likes of Howard Carter and his patron, Lord Carnarvon, had made Egypt front page news with the discovery of the fabled tomb of Tutankhamen. The Nile was alive with a constant procession of archaeologists, diplomats and well heeled rubberneckers, sailing between the various stunning sights along the river. Until 1935, the Sudan prospered on the tourist trade.
One of these tourists was a young lady by the name of Agatha Christie. With her then husband, she embarked on an archaeological mission in 1933. Enraptured by the journey, her voyage on the Sudan inspired Christie to subsequently write the timeless, hugely popular novel, Death On The Nile. And, in a complete full circle, some of the scenes from the 1978 film of the same name were filmed on board the laid up Sudan.
The advent of war in 1939 saw the collapse of the Nile trade. The Sudan lay moldering at dock until 1991, when an Egyptian company attempted unsuccessfully to resuscitate the fabled steamer. In 2000, these joined forces with a French company, Voyageurs du Monde, and began a complete, six month stem to stern restoration of the Sudan. In 2006, the French took complete ownership of the vessel.
On the technical side, the 236 foot long, 32 foot wide Sudan displaces a sprightly six hundred tons. She is powered by a pair of triple expansion engines that generate some five hundred horsepower, allowing her twin paddle wheels to push her along at a stately 9.5 knots. But these are mere materialistic drum rolls.
Today, the gracefully restored Sudan chugs gamely along the scintillating expanse of the most amazing waterway on earth. Suffused with the aura of another age and style, the Sudan is an evocative brew of elegant woodwork and brightly polished copper. Billowing canvas awnings across the upper deck shield the modern wannabe Poirot from the heat of the mid day sun. On deck, cushioned wicker chairs and loungers sit framed by billowing, damask drapes. It all combines to give the Sudan a stance and ambiance quite unlike any other vessel plying the ancient waterway; the golden highway of the Pharaohs of ancient Egypt.
The Sudan offers some eighteen cabins and five suites. One of these is inevitably named for Agatha Christie, another for Hercule Poirot, and another- oddly- for Lady Duff Gordon, of Titanic infamy. All feature parquet floors, copper bed frames, and elegant period furnishings. The air conditioned rooms all come in soothing tones of orange, fuschia and absinthe.
Interested? Me too.
The Sudan is currently operating on five day, four night cruises from Luxor to Aswan, taking in such exotic sights along the way as Esna, Edfu, and Kom Ombo. And, for sheer, platinum chip nostalgia, imagine combining a voyage on this vintage time machine with a stay at the fabulous Old Cataract hotel, right on the banks of the Nile at Aswan? Lovely.
The stunning temple of Karnak, one of the true treasures of Egypt, is one of the showpieces of the ancient city of Luxor, straddling the east bank of the legendary Nile. These pictures give only a small idea of its staggering scale and still graceful, ruined grandeur.