Travcotels Tour Company
by Karen Blair-Imrie
7 Day Nile River Cruise April 1999
[Editor's Note: Karen Blair-Imrie hails from England and all prices referenced in her review are in English pounds.]
About the Boat
The ms Royale is a beautiful riverboat, built in 1992, modern and air-conditioned throughout. She carries about 100 passengers. Although there were morethan 80 on board during our trip, we never felt crowded. Often we would be the onlypeople in the large lounge/bar or in the smaller forward bar where we wrote postcards or
read the Blue Guide to Egypt, with a panoramic view of the river ahead.
always plenty of tables and chairs available in the shaded deck area aft, where a small bar
was ready to serve us drinks, coffee, or tea. There was a top sundeck with small pool
(literally 3 strokes long!) and a Jacuzzi, but at the end of April it was too hot to make use
of for more than 10 minutes at a time. Having said that, some people lay up there for
hours at a time. I don't know how they did it.
The cabins were very large for a ship (substantially larger than my cabin on the
Vistafjord, for example), had good big beds, plenty of closet space, table and chairs by
the window, dresser, additional drawers in the closet, TV with video movies at fixed
times, a locked fridge, phone, individual air-conditioning controls, shower, and bidet (no
bathtubs). Every cabin had a large picture window looking out over the Nile. The cabins
were cleaned twice daily and were immaculate in every way. We very rarely saw the
man who cleaned our cabin; service was discreet and quiet.
The reception area was large, with staff always available behind the counter.
There was a locked drawer for each cabin, but if you lost the key, there was a fine of 140
English pounds to replace the drawer. We kept our key in the locked fridge in our cabin!
There was a notice board detailing the itinerary for each day.
There was a same-day and a 2-hour laundry service but we just rinsed out our clothes in
There was a tiny shop next to the restaurant which sold postcards, camera film, the
obligatory photograph of you in your gallabeyah on Egyptian night, jewelry, T-shirts,
and gallabeyahs (the Egyptian robe). Prices were steep in the shop, and everything there
could be purchased much more cheaply off of the boat. There were no toiletries
available, such as sun block, toothpaste, shampoo, aspirin, etc. For these you had to go to
a local pharmacy.
Meals were in a single assigned seating at tables for 8. There was no dress code; people wore whatever they liked, including shorts and sandals
at dinner. The waiters (all men) were playful, often taking away our plates before we
were anywhere near finished, or only giving us one pea if we indicated we did not want
very much. It was an on-going game they played right up until the last meal, so we all
just played along. The staff was always correctly dressed, complete with bow ties.
The food was, as usual on a boat, plentiful. Having eaten on the Vistafjord (5 star gourmet cuisine), I cannot say the food on the ms Royale was up to that standard, but I never had a complaint about the quality or cooking. There were 2 vegetarians on board and the cook made individual meals for them.
Breakfast was self-service except for coffee (very strong) and tea (also very strong); fresh
fruit juices, hot croissants, other breads and rolls, butter/jam/honey, danish, fresh fruit
(bananas, dates, oranges, melon), fresh fruit salad, a bowl of delicious plain yogurt, hot
things that changed daily (crepes, sausages, potatoes, etc.), eggs cooked to order by a chef at the central island, and the Egyptian breakfast (hot fava beans in sauce, which I thoroughly enjoyed).
Lunch, again, was self-service: at least 8 salads, breads and rolls, fruit, hot entrees much like those at dinner.
Dinner was composed of self-service starters and puddings, the entree brought to you. Beef figured as one option almost every night. We also had fish, liver, chicken, and turkey. Puddings were
varied and delicious. There was always plenty of fresh fruit and an interesting variety of
salads, including Egyptian type dips and bean salads. At first we thought the starters were
the meal, due to their quantity and type (lasagne, a variety of other hot pastas, noodles with different toppings, sweet and sour vegetables, etc.). Every day there were a hot Oriental dish and a hot Italian dish. Watermelons and other fruits were carved into imaginative and complex shapes. The table linens changed to reflect the dinner theme.
Fresh fruit juice was the best thing! Orange, date, grapefruit, and hibiscus were all fresh and delicious (except for the date, which we didn't like). The Egyptian house wine was about 8 pounds a bottle and was quite acceptable, the warm spicy red being better than the white. There was a winelist of non-Egyptian wines but I did not see it, as
we were happy with the house wine. Alcoholic drinks were expensive, I thought. The beer (500 ml, 4 percent alcohol) was about 3.40 per bottle, but was good and cold. Mixed drinks were over 5 pounds a glass. Given that we had a good fridge in our cabin, the best option would be to get a couple of duty-free bottles and some mixer before
arriving. Everyone carried 1 to 1.5 litre water bottles with them all over the ship. It would be a simple matter to mix up a Gin and Tonic (or whatever) in one's water bottle and bring it to the lounge bar before dinner.
The only problem with the food was that all drinks were extra, including bottled water and non-alcoholic drinks. Coffee and tea at breakfast and teatime were the only included drinks. Given the excessive heat and dryness of Egypt in April, we needed to drink a huge quantity of fluids, all of which had to be purchased.
The staff was unfailingly cheerful and courteous. They never hovered or became
obtrusive. Occasionally our waiters did not take our coffee or drinks order at the very
beginning of the meal and we had to flag one down, but generally service was good. No request was turned down; if you wanted a boiled egg for breakfast and that was not on the menu, the chef would make eggs for you.
The Tour Guides
We had two, both Egyptian women, both university trained Egyptologists, and both excellent. They were also available at all times on the boat for
questions and conversation, and helped with every conceivable situation, including breakages of alabaster items after purchasing, sickness medication, delivery of special meals or drinks to your room, advice on books or further reading, and whatever else you might need. They were our liaison with the boat, the staff, and the rest of Egypt.
Since the tourist shootings last year, the tourist police are everywhere, even in the back streets of the towns. We were shopping at 1:00 AM in the Aswan bazaar, and there were as many
tourist police on guard there as at any other time of the day in the modern parts of town. We always felt that help was at hand.
This was my third visit to Egypt, although my first Nile cruise. Our guide (Sally) said that cruising is now the favourite way to visit Egypt. I was there in 1973, and again in the early 80s. Since then, tourism has arrived in a big way. When I first visited the Valley of the Kings, I crossed the river from the small rural town of Luxor by ferry with a load of Egyptians, poultry, and sugarcane. I then rode on a donkey to the Valley, through fields that were worked by hand and watered by buffalo-powered watermills.
Today you cross the Nile by bridge, in an air-conditioned tourist bus. You pass the same
fields, but now they are often worked by tractor, and there are electric pumps to bring in water. There are still lots of donkeys being ridden and driven, still lots of little 2 wheeled carts carrying sugarcane and plaited mats, and a few camels, but in general Egypt around Luxor is given over to the tourist and what Egyptians think he or she wants and needs.
Literally hundreds of factories have sprung up - the Tutankhamum alabaster factory, the
Hatshepsut papyrus factory, the Ramses whatever factory. These are very small, often single room shops that sell a very similar type of object. It is all too easy to get ripped
off and buy a painted piece of plaster or stone sold as hand-carved alabaster or basalt. Our guide took us to one genuine alabaster shop, and one excellent papyrus shop. She also took us to one good jewelry shop, at which I tried on a beautiful gold and enamel necklace, only to be told it cost 1250 pounds! Since there are no prices on anything, I could not know before hand that I had unerringly gone for one of the most expensive
items in the shop! I did buy an amber necklace for 80 pounds. Gold and silver are sold by weight (grams) and all gold is 18k.
Shopping in the bazaars was fun. We had the benefit of Sally, who told us ahead of time
what common prices were for popular items. Once the seller realised that we knew how much a thing should cost, the bargaining quickly went our way. Everything is amazingly cheap, although there is a huge amount of tourist junk you have to wade through to find real quality. Sometimes a seller tried to attract us into his shop by saying absurd things like, "Everything here one English pound," but of course once we got inside we found this simply wasn't true. Others attempted to make us believe that things were free! However,
everyone was really friendly, and there was no begging for baksheesh, which used to follow you everywhere in the country.
When I came in 1973 to the Valley of the Kings by donkey, I rode alone with my guide over the hills and down the steep, winding path. In the Valley there were a few guides and a small teashop with a toilet hole behind. Perhaps 10 people were there. I went in at least a dozen tombs out of the more than 65 available, and could have gone in more but did not due to the heat. In the tombs I wandered wherever I liked. Photography was
permitted outside and inside as well, but I didn't have a good camera and flash. (A good thing, as the flash fades the paintings).
Today, the donkeys are gone. You arrive by bus or car, park in a vast parking lot, and walk through a large cafe/shop to another carpark. Here you wait in long lines for Disney-like transport, painted in purple, yellow, and turquoise. A few minutes on this and you finally arrive at the Valley. Even at 6:00 AM., this area is heaving with tourists. You are only allowed to take certain pictures in the Valley; a permit must be purchased for tripod use, or video cameras. All flash photography is forbidden. I saw a tourist attempt to take a flash photo, and a guard immediately had a word with him. Another offence and his film would have been taken out of his camera. There is now modern plumbing and loo paper, [Ed: toilet paper to us North Americans] although you have to purchase it for about 17 pence a shot. The ticket only allows you to enter 3 tombs, and only 9 are open. The King Tut tomb costs an extra 8 pounds.
Every tomb is crammed completely full of tourists. You literally cannot move a single
step in any direction in any part of any tomb. Even outside the tombs, the tourists are so
thick you can barely move. Some parts of some tombs are cordoned off so you can look but not walk freely. It is very hard to hear what your guide is saying as so many guides are shouting in every earthly language. It took us an hour to see 2 tombs and we called it quits without even seeing the third. By 9:00AM the heat was well over 100 degrees, and the tombs are not ventilated. I have to say that I will never go back.
The Valley of the Queens was the same, although here there are far fewer tombs. I think
that 3 were open, and we saw one of them. We were limited to 5 minutes in it, and only 12 people were allowed in at one time. The newest tomb (Nefertiri's, I think) has just been opened. It cost an extra 28 pounds to see.
Queen Hatshepsut's Temple, due to its vast size and being outdoors, seemed far less crowded. However, only one of the three tiers is open to tourists, and you cannot go into the temple proper.
The 2 Colossi of Memnon sit by the side of the road and are easily seen by anyone.
The Temples of Luxor and Karnak are both very crowded, although nowhere near as bad as the Valleys. Again there are hordes of tourists in large groups with their guides. I was
saddened to see that a souvenir shop had sprung up right next to the Sacred Lake, but, in
general, these 2 magnificent temples are unspoiled. You do now have to pay to enter these and every other temple in Egypt; the base rate is about 4 pounds per site.
Having visited Abu Simbel in 1973, I did not take the optional flight there this time. It
cost 120 pounds for the morning tour and flight, and you were only there for one hour. While most of the boat was at Abu Simbel, we rode camels (5 pounds) and took a boat trip through the wildlife preserve near Aswan. Although winter is the time to see the greatest variety of migratory bird life (the Nile is a major flyway), we were not
disappointed with our trip. In the afternoon we went to the Botanical Gardens island first
set up by Lord Kitchener. We only had half an hour here. I am a forester, and could have done with at least an hour. The white-trunked royal palms were stunning, and it was intriguing to stand beneath 40-foot specimens of what most of us know as various houseplants.
The High Dam at Aswan is heavily guarded. If you take any sort of photograph at all, your film is confiscated. Sally said we would also be thrown off of the bus. (Then what?) There is a definite military presence in the south; open truckloads of armed soldiers are frequently seen (usually waving and smiling). I also saw a tank with a long gun, and 7 soldiers in the tank with machine guns. It was startling to look up from a pile of statues in the bazaar, and straight down the muzzle of a machine gun. These are military soldiers, not tourist police.
We saw 2 sound and light shows. The one at Philae Temple was our favourite, although
the one at Karnak Temple was longer. At Philae, we went to the island by boat. It was
magical, coming away from the island after the show - the stars swung in a vast sky, and behind us the temple glowed as if lit from within. Sally warned us about mosquitoes, so we all slathered ourselves with sprays and creams; however, not an insect appeared. The same warning was given at Karnak, and again nothing flew by or bit us. I guess we were
lucky. The Philae show was about the gods and goddesses; the Karnak show was about the historical successions.
In summary, the boat was excellent. The guides were outstandingly knowledgeable. Some parts of the tour (Valleys of the Kings and Queens) are now just too popular to be fun sightseeing, but the rest of Egypt is still Egypt, beautiful, exotic, and mesmerising. Sally said it best:
Friendly, amusing, fun loving, and warm, the people (both on and off of the boat) really made our visit.
"The jewel of Egypt is her people."
Karen Blair-Imrie hails from England and can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
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