If finding a dead moth on your bed pillow is the symbolic equivalent of “bon voyage” in ancient Egyptian mythology, then my river cruise adventure aboard the Aggressor Nile Queen would have been blessed by 3,000-year-old deities just hours before sailing.
Alas, the winged cabin mate that was literally dead on arrival — mine — was there by accident, if not neglect, and contributed to an inauspicious start to this Middle Eastern escapade. The first clues were the tacky surroundings when the captain welcomed guests onto his 154-foot-long, eight-cabin vessel. Donned in a traditional white galabeya, he proudly stood beside his floating office as passengers literally had to walk the plank.
While other river cruise lines roll out actual red carpets at embarkation, Aggressor seems OK with having guests negotiate a path made of scraps of mud-stained wood along an unsightly and somewhat treacherous makeshift dock. If that’s normal operations, no way is this my idea of a grand start to a majestic journey. Then again, some might find this charmingly rustic and raw.
Six of the Nile Queen’s cabins are in the deluxe category, each with two single beds that cannot be moved or merged. The only spacious sleeping accommodations are found in the two master staterooms, which feature a queen bed and, we can only presume, no dead moths where you lay your head.
The hallway that leads to all the passenger cabins is carpeted in long shag, further dating a vessel that, to be fair, is reluctantly modern. The problem is the past we’re supposed to be connecting with isn’t the shag carpeting-crazy 1970s, but the more glamorous 1920s to 1940s when sail-powered, shallow-bottomed, barge-like dahabiyas such as this were common in the days of the monarchy when aristocrats loved to cruise the Nile in style.
There is a positive aspect to the outmoded cream-colored carpet, which, again to be fair, might have been in style in retro-respecting Egypt when the Nile Queen was built in 2009. The flooring happily leads to steps that take passengers to an upper deck that is much more inviting than the one below.
The Nile Queen’s itinerary can’t help but yield dramatic views from a top deck decked out with a hot tub, loungers and a bar. Few will argue that the most interesting of the legendary waterway’s 4,135 miles are the 129 between Luxor and Aswan. Aggressor (aggressor.com) makes the most of this route with stops that have guests retracing the footstep of the very pharaohs we all learned about in sixth grade.
Of course, the Nile Queen isn’t the only boat navigating the waterway upon which Egypt is completely dependent for life-giving water and arable land. At least two dozen other cruise lines make the Luxor-to- Aswan run of four nights and longer. Price-wise, the Nile Queen is midrange at advertised rates of $1,729 and $1,849 per person, double occupancy, for a deluxe and master cabin, respectively, through winter 2024.
For Nile Queen passengers, a robust series of day trips to ancient ruins and archaeological treasures begins right after the first onboard group lunch. Saturday afternoon is spending visiting the 2,000-year-old Karnak and Luxor temples, the latter being the largest and most significant religious center in ancient Egypt.
Sunday starts early for guests adding on a hot air balloon ride over Luxor. Then after breakfast it’s off to the Valley of the Kings to visit a selection of tombs open that day and the giant Colossi of Memnon statues. Next up is Queen Hatshepsut’s mortuary temple followed by the Valley of the Nobles, site of colorfully adorned rock tombs that appear freshly painted despite being thousands of years old.
Day 3’s schedule starts on the East Bank for a tuk-tuk taxi ride to El Kab, once the capital of Upper Egypt, followed by a visit to the well-preserved Horus Temple in Edfu. The penultimate tour day has passengers paying a visit to Gebel El-Silsila, an ancient rock quarry site and source of the massive sandstone pieces used to build the temples that had been visited along this journey.
After checking out Komombo temple and some mummified crocodiles, it’s time for a refreshing dip in the Nile River and leisure time on Al Herdiab Island. An outdoor Bedouin barbeque dinner marks the final night of the cruise.
When in de-Nile
If cruising up the Nile doesn’t float your boat, Aggressor can customize an itinerary that includes many of the same sites as a river adventure only via van. The ground experience also begins in Luxor. The key stops have already been covered, but what’s often left out of river cruise itineraries and should be added to a custom land tour is the Valley of the Queens, a beguiling site where wives of the great pharaohs, including Queen Nefetari, were laid to rest from 1550 to 1070 BC.
If you’re experiencing antiquity overload, head to Hurghada, a fast-growing resort area on the Red Sea coast. Getting there by ground allows you to break up the 4 1/2-hour desert trek with lunch in the home of a Bedouin family, a bonus that can be arranged by your guide.
A former fishing village and present-day scuba diver’s paradise, Hurghada is rich in luxury properties, and it would be hard for any to beat the all-inclusive Hilton Hurghada Plaza with its private beach, swimming pools, adjacent shopping mall, nightly live entertainment and exceptional restaurants. Check out where they get their seafood with a walk to the nearby marina and neighboring fish market.
A popular day trip destination is Mahmya, a private beach on the southern shores of Giftun Island. The hourlong boat trip each way is frills-free, but anything but is the Caribbean-esque paradise that offers snorkeling, a buffet lunch, bar service, DJ music and other activities terrific for families, couples and singles.
Cairo: Gateway to the Nile
If there’s a vacation destination that requires expert handholding and professional organization, it’s Egypt. Trustworthy and savvy handlers, guides and drivers are godsends in this land of logistical challenges, bizarre rules and impromptu police checkpoints that several locals said are legacies of the Mubarak regime.
Whether it’s the start of a river cruise or land tour, a classy way to begin is with an arranged transfer from Cairo International Airport to the exquisite Fairmont Nile City. A four-night stay is optimal. Live the dream by being picked up in the lobby each morning and then taken by air-conditioned van to the most amazing spots on Earth starting with the Giza Plateau, home of the iconic trio of pyramids and the Great Sphinx all built between 2600 and 2500 BC.
Day trips should also include Memphis and its giant reclining statue of Ramses II, and monument-dotted El Moez Street in Islamic Old Cairo that leads to the crowded and colorful Khan El Khalili bazaar.
A must-visit come November will be the massive Grand Egyptian Museum located less than a mile from the pyramids of Giza. Opening years later than originally planned, the 5.2 million-square foot museum replaces the undersized and decaying Cairo Museum, and will be the new permanent home of perhaps the famous artifact of ancient Egypt.
The funerary golden mask of King Tutankhamen was the centerpiece of a blockbuster world tour of his artifacts that broke attendance records when it swung by the LA County Museum of Art in the 1970s. Another round of Tutmania was spawned by a world tour in 2018, though the famous mask wasn’t among the treasures when it passed through LA Worthy of note, a silver lining in the museum’s delayed opening is it now comes in the centenary year of the discovery of King Tut’s tomb in 1922.
Whether it comes at the end of an adventure by water, land or a combination of both, a good choice for final-night lodging is Le Passage next to Cairo International. Clean, comfortable rooms, a small of decent boutiques, and a handful of restaurants with surprisingly good Chinese and Indian food make this a solid and convenient choice over staying in downtown Cairo a frenetic hour away. No matter how you experienced Egypt by this point, any chance to reduce stress on the way back home will undoubtedly be welcomed.