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Ancient Egypt plus air conditioning. Eat your heart out, Tutankhamen

By Arthur UngerStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / September 9, 1988


CLEOPATRA never had it so good. Instead of a primitive barge, I floated down the Nile on a state-of-the-art Sheraton cruise ship, using the same waterway on which Cleopatra and the pharaohs traveled 5,000 years ago. The HS Tut, one of a fleet of four Sheraton Nile riverboats, is a deluxe floating hotel, complete with air conditioning throughout, a first-class restaurant, a late-night disco, a sun deck with plenty of lounge chairs, and a swimming pool. The ship is also equipped with trained Egyptologists, who accompany tourists on excursions to most of the major tombs that lie close to the Nile between Aswan and Luxor.

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In four days and five nights we toured Aswan's High Dam and Kitchener's Island, visited the ancient temples at Philae, Kom Ombo, Edfu, Esna, Luxor, and Karnak, as well as the Valley of the Kings, on the west bank. We shopped in the exotic souks of Aswan and Luxor, ate superb breakfasts and other excellent meals aboard ship, enjoyed nighttime native dancing, and laughed at tourists voluntarily making fools of themselves at a costume ball and at the fancy dress party which was held in the disco.

Throughout the voyage we met interesting and stimulating people who had chosen a unique vacation combining luxury with learning. They delved into the mysteries of ancient Egypt the enjoyable way.

Whereas a few years ago there were only a few comfortable boats plying the Aswan-Luxor-Aswan route, now there are about 80 such vessels. Some are rather primitive by any standard and some rather luxurious by Middle Eastern standards.

But that doesn't mean any of them would meet the requirements of cruise buffs used to the utter luxury of such ships as the Sea Goddesses or even the Royal Viking Line. Many ships are operated by Egyptian companies. Both the Hilton and Sheraton hotel chains run their own boats as well. The Sheraton boats are the Anni, Aton, Hotp, and Tut. The Hilton boats are the Isis and Osiris.

Chats with seasoned travelers in Egypt convinced me that I should play it safe and book on an American-operated boat just to make sure that the reservation would be honored, the water filtered, and high sanitary standards maintained.

Even though the Sheraton and Hilton boats were a bit higher in cost than most, the price still constituted a bargain by most international cruise standards. In season, the four-night, five-day Sheraton cruise cost $920 double (1989 price, $1,060) for an air-conditioned, private-bathroom stateroom with all meals and all excursions included. The high season runs from about Oct. 1 through April 30. In the off-season, May 1 through Sept. 30, the price for the same voyage was $680 double (for 1989, $780).

Hilton prices for 1989 will probably be about $980 (double) in high season; $512 (double) in the off-season. The Hilton boats are smaller and somewhat simpler in recreational facilities. Most of the other boats are less expensive.

There are three-night cruises and seven-night cruises at proportionate rates. All cruises, however, run between Luxor and Aswan in either direction; the longer ones simply take it slower and visit two extra tombs (Abydos and Dendera).

The low waters of the Nile between Luxor and Cairo make boat trips to and from Cairo impossible at most times of the year; so, for the most part, the Cairo-Aswan itinerary has been abandoned.

I discovered that the Aswan-Luxor direction was preferable to the Luxor-Aswan trip, since more of the trip is accomplished in daylight, enabling passengers to see more of the marvelously diverse local life along the Nile.

Although many expensive package tours to Egypt include three-, four-, or seven-night cruises on the Nile, we decided to see Egypt on our own and book passage on the Nile boat of our own choice. My American travel agent contacted an Egyptian travel agent, who made arrangements for a stay in a fine Cairo hotel (the Marriott), then a flight to Aswan, and a stay at another fine hotel (the Oberoi) before boarding Sheraton's luxurious HS Tut.

From Aswan to Luxor

A tour of Aswan before the boat sailed downstream included a ride in a native felucca (narrow boat) and a visit to the nearby temple compound of Philae, dating from the 4th century BC and ruled by the goddess Isis.