Cruising down the Nile in a style fit for a pharaoh

If you've ever dreamed of a steamer trip up the Nile -- and I can't think of a better way to spend $500 to $2,500 -- the word drifting back from the pyramids is that 1980 is the time to go. For the first time in years, there is cabin space available on what has historically been one of the toughest tickets in travel.

It makes me chuckle to think that the quality of steamer travel on the Nile, about to be upgraded with the arrival of several new and luxurious boats, in some ways still isn't the posh and pampering experience it was in the 1920s, when Egyptomania first bit the world traveler. This I learned on a journey to the New York Public Library, where I uncovered a book published in 1928 by Funk & Wagnalls, "Seeing Egypt and the Holy Land," which painted Nile cruising in the '20s as something fit for a pharaoh.

The lucky pharaoh here was E. M. Newman, an exuberant travel writer who had also produced books called "Seeing Italy" and "Seeing Russia." "We travel up the Nile," he begins Chapter IV, "with the ease and luxury of a summer afternoon on the verandah in a rocking chair heaped with pillows."

That was doubtless an exciting time to visit the ancient land, no matter how one traveled. Mr. Newman obviously liked his creature comforts, which to an arriving tourist in 1928 meant taking a room at Shepheard's Hotel (long since destroyed by fire). Before embarking on the cruise, the author made straight for the Egyptian Museum and the King Tut treasures.

In 1928 Tut had only just become a household word, Howard Carter having made the momentous find in the Valley of the Kings six years before. As Mr. Newman wrote, "Nine out of every 10 tourists, we are told, ask first for the room containing the treasures of King Tut, and when they gaze upon these golden objects they are not disappointed. So precious are these mortuary relics of 3, 000 years ago that the guards allow only 25 visitors in the room at one time."

Nothing changes under the sun, least of all the dusty old Egyptian Museum. There was also a limit of 25 persons in the Tut chamber when I entered the room exactly 50 years after Mr. Newman, and for all I know we both gazed on the same scene.

Nile cruising in those days was done in houseboats, luxurious steamboats, or a cross between the two known as a dahabeah.m Our intrepid author took a dahabeahm and was attended by a crew of 20 men and boys, "some of whom seem to have only slightly more labor than we do." One boy's sole task was to brush away the flies and fan Mr. Newman as he sat on deck writing.

There was no air conditioning on the Nile, but none of the other amenities were missing. "We have electric light and ice; turkeys and apples from Smyrna; oranges and figs from Damascus; milk from England; butter from Denmark; cheese from France and Holland; several kinds of bottled waters from German spas; and various kinds of canned fruit from California. Our dining room is cooled by electric fans. . . . Every meal is a sumptuous banquet."

The spacious deck of the little steamer had "big wicker chairs with innumerable cushions, Turkish rugs and fly-switchers." There was also "a well-stocked library and flowers scattered about." Today's Nile cruises, operated by Hilton, Sheraton, Lindblad, and Swan, are keyed on precise, hour-to- hour itineraries.

In the biggest building boom since the pharaohs put in their orders for pyramids and memorial statues, luxury hotels have been springing up all over Cairo. Sheraton has opened a hotel near the airport; Holiday Inn has come to the Giza Plain near the pyramids; a Hilton and Marriot are due next year.

And suddenly this summer, the Nile steamer is making a comeback. Last year Sheraton put on two gleaming new 190- passenger boats, the Tut and Aton, and two others will be launched later in 1980.W. F. & R. K. Swan, the venerable London tour operator (handled in the United States by Esplanade Tours, 38 Newbury Street, Boston 02116), lost its aging MS Delta in a storm on the Nile last May and is getting by with the Memphis until it launches the 68-berth Nile Star this August.

Swan's tours are not for the indifferent traveler. Its 600- mile cruises last 18 days (standard with other companies is anywhere from 4 to 8 days), and its resident Egyptologists are among the best-schooled guides on the Nile. Lindblad Travel offers the most intimate Nile tours, its two 20-passenger boats, the Aswan and Abu Simbel, gliding in tandem on 18-day passages between Cairo and Aswan. Misr Travel of Cairo and Hilton International combine to run the Isis and Osiris, the busiest and perhaps the oldest Nile steamers. Hilton announced the other day it had freed additional space for American travelers on both boats in the coming months. A new package plan for 1980 offers a 9-day program for $ 608 that includes 4 nights on the river between Luxor and Aswan and 3 nights at the Nile Hilton, but doesn't include air fare to Cairo.

None of the steamer companies promise apples from Smyrna or figs from Damascus, but then, not everything about the Nile is changeless.

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