Land Of The Ancients

Two Nile Cruises Offer A Royal Experience On Different Budgets

Cover Story

April 18, 2004|By Toni Stroud | Toni Stroud,CHICAGO TRIBUNE

The night train from Cairo pulled into Luxor station before dawn. Five-fifteen was 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 before the train chugged on to Aswan without me.

Despite offers of assistance from an endless stream of Egyptian porters, I spent a lonely few minutes waiting for the transfer man.

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.

And, in fact, within two weeks of this very train ride, I would do precisely that. However, the train, and a price the most skilled hagglers back in Cairo's Khan El-Khalili Bazaar would have envied, made this company's Nile cruise itinerary a standout.

Besides, going by private sleeping compartment sounded very Agatha Christie.

The early reveille and awkward wait ... well, once in a while, life's most memorable days get off to an inconvenient start. This would become 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.

This is a story about Nile cruises -- about Nile cruises in general and two in particular, and what makes a $3,000 trip different from a $1,000 one.

To be more accurate, I should call them cruise-tours because, although it certainly is possible to book a stand-alone cruise, Americans are more apt to take a Nile cruise as part of a once-in- a-lifetime itinerary that includes Cairo and the Pyramids.

Below, I'll tell you about the tombs and the temples, the sounds, the scenery and the sunrises. After all, that's what you take a Nile cruise for. But I also want to tell you about the cruise experience itself: the routine, the food, the entertainment and what the boats are like.

I feel a little sheepish calling them boats. They're small ships, each a floating village in its own right, with lobby, restaurant, lounge, gift shop, bar and pool deck.

There are from 200 to 300 of these vessels in various sizes, carrying anywhere from 60 to 160 passengers at capacity. But to my mind, ships belong on the ocean and boats, however well-appointed, belong on rivers. So I'll keep calling them boats.

Nile cruises navigate the 125 miles of river between Luxor and Aswan. Standard itineraries operate either upriver, that is to say from Luxor to Aswan, or downriver from Aswan to Luxor; and they come in two durations: four-day / three-night or five-day / four-night. (A few specialized, in-depth itineraries may last seven nights or stray beyond Luxor-Aswan.)

Which antiquities you'll see won't depend on the direction of travel or even the length of the three-night trip vs. the four-night one. (Both cruises I took were four nights and part of an eight-night package.) Two things determine your sightseeing: the tour company's inclusions and the Nile itself.

Ah, the Nile itself. Its waters are never so blue, its farmlands never so 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. Act 1, as I've come to think of it, is over in a matter of minutes.

The transfer man had dropped my bags at the boat and, after some downtime in the lobby, handed me off to my guide who shuttled me to Karnak Temple in time to catch Act 2: the freshly risen sun slanting down the Avenue of the Sphinxes, coaxing long shadows from the temple's renowned Hypostyle Hall.

And this, I couldn't help reminding myself, was the cheap trip.

Two companies

I'm a tenacious comparison shopper. It's not just my lifestyle, it's my job, the reason I was standing there that morning among the hieroglyphs. Many months before I ever boarded that train, I pored over a shopping bag full of brochures from nearly four dozen tour companies, studied itineraries, read the fine print, phoned agents who could and could not answer detailed questions about their trips, noodled prices, drew up coded charts.

The idea was to take two Nile cruises, a cheap one and an expensive one, that would be as alike as possible but for the price. For the expensive one, I chose Oak Brook, Ill.-based Abercrombie & Kent -- A&K to seasoned travelers -- because it offered guaranteed departures.

For the cheapie, I chose a company I'd never heard of, Travco. It's an Egyptian company (not to be confused with the American company Travcoa) and claims to be one of Egypt's largest.

I found Travco through the Egyptian Ministry of Tourism's Web site and dealt with the company via fax and e-mail (sometimes with my travel agent's assistance) because Travco does not have any offices in the United States.

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