I've sailed the Nile from Aswan to Luxor six times: often enough to say I've seen the alpha and omega of Nile cruises. At the high end in price and comfort is the cruise offered by Abercrombie & Kent/British Airways with individual attention, a small group of 20 people or less, and the feeling of sailing on a private yacht. The other extreme (the cheapest, most primitive way to see life in Egypt) is to arrange a cruise yourself on an Egyptian sailboat called a felucca.
The Abercrombie & Kent cruise begins in London, with a one-night stopover at the luxurious Ritz Hotel (high tea at the Palm Court made me feel like Old Money instead of New Plastic). A quick tour the next morning of the Egyptian wing of the British Museum (including the Rosetta Stone used by Champollion to decipher the mysteries of hieroglyphics) got everyone in the mood for the flight to Cairo.
Abercrombie & Kent has two identical Nile boats, the Aswan and the Abu Simbel. Each has 10 cabins instead of the 60 to 80 on most Nile cruisers. Meals are served in a cozy dining room with large windows looking out on the spectacular vistas sliding by. Tea in the lounge is like a small get-together with friends.
Whether you watch from the plush sofas there or from the canvas chairs up on the sundeck, the Nile is beyond description. New sights appear constantly: lush fields built up 20 feet and more by the annual floods of 10,000 years, forested with bright green sugar cane; rocky desert where no one raises water from the river to transform the land; and the temples - at Kom Ombo, Edfu, Esna, Luxor, Karnak - each one a dazzling challenge to our understanding.
Everywhere people rush to the riverbank, waving as if they had never seen a boat. The children persistently yell out ''hello'' and giggle in delight if you yell back. Herons, fishers, egrets, storks, and gulls sail along in the boat's trail, dive for fish or roost in the acacias, jacarandas, and date palms that divide the rich land from the cloudless sky. Bring a camera and 30 rolls of film. In the last few hours of daylight, anyone can reap a lazy harvest of images splashed with the vibrant pastels of a Delacroix watercolor.
All food is meticulously prepared (right down to peeled tomatoes and ice made with bottled water), though the variety of fare is a bit limited. Cabins are spacious, with real beds instead of bunks as on other Nile cruisers. The boats are too small for swimming pools, laundry facilities, or discos common on the larger boats. Night owls and travelers with spunky teen-agers can book a similar eight-day cruise on the Sheraton's Tut.
Several weeks after I finished this deluxe cruise, I was back in Aswan looking to repeat the trip to Luxor by felucca, those creaky wooden boats with triangle-shaped sails that haul everything on the Nile from tourists to blocks of stone. Having made the trip amid the sanitized safety of a modern cruise ship , I now hoped to see the river as many Egyptians see it every day.
Aswan to Luxor by felucca is popular with young Europeans who have more time than money. The average steamer cruise costs $500. Depending on your bargaining skills, the same trip by felucca can cost from three pairs of French blue jeans up to $50. The cruise usually lasts three or four days.
I found out about a boat leaving Aswan the same day by asking the many felucca ''captains'' waiting along the Nile Corniche to take tourists out for a sail around Kitchener Island. And if you hang around outside the cheaper Aswan hotels such as the Philae, felucca men will solicit you to fill up a boatload (that's when you gain the upper hand in bargaining).
The group I sailed with was an international grab bag: a young French doctor fresh from three weeks' relief work in the Sudan, two German women in their 20s who'd never been on a sailboat before, and a French couple taking three months off from school to tour Egypt. No one was especially friendly, and soon I felt as if I were part of the cast of Alfred Hitchcock's ''Lifeboat.''
A felucca is just a plain, open sailboat with no place to get away by yourself. And there are no bathrooms on board. Our little group quickly learned to hop out and run behind the nearest date palm when the captain pulled up to shore for a rest. Steering the boat and trimming the giant sail are hard work, and we stopped often.
The captain cooked all our meals on a stove made from the guts of a kerosene lamp. The two Germans brought along fruit and bread, refusing his plain meals of potatoes, falafel (vegetarian meatballs), fried eggs, and coarse bread. Perhaps it was the fresh air, but everything tasted great to me. We drank bottled water and tea made from boiled river water once the bottled water ran out.
Our trip was a constantly changing melodrama of natural obstacles and human emotions. Just below Kom Ombo (our first temple), a dust storm beached us for a whole day. When the wind finally let up, we were forced to tack, and the Germans were terrified if any water splashed into the boat. I wasn't much happier, since tacking left me no chance for photographs. We all had to shift from side to side as the boat zigzagged across the river.
The traveler who can adapt to circumstances will be richly rewarded. Forced by the wind to stop once more, we ate dinner in the captain's village, where his relatives fed us a rich, spicy lentil soup, coarse bread, tomatoes, and Coca-Cola, waiting until we finished before they ate. After-dinner talk was full of jokes we couldn't understand, as we all drank scalding hot tea made with water one of the women had carried on her head from the river.
Nights were bitterly cold and we slept out on deck under musty blankets. Yet nights on the Nile can be magical. Trying to make up lost time, we set sail just as the moon was rising over the desert, and flew over the dark water past purple sand dunes with no sound except the wind and our wake.
A passing river barge gave us a tow next morning, and finally we arrived at Edfu. After almost four days of sailing, its perfectly preserved temple was a gift to my senses. The weather had finally calmed enough for us to sail to the last temple at Esna. By that time we had spent six days on the Nile and none of us could bear it any longer. We paid up and hired a taxi to Luxor.
The two cruises couldn't be more different. The Abercrombie & Kent/British Airways cruise celebrates Egypt's antiquities while shielding tourists from inconvenience and discomfort. But the frustration and aggravation I experienced on the felucca cruise could not destroy the fascination I felt at seeing everyday life along the river as tourists rarely do. I'm at a loss to recommend one cruise over the other. I'd gladly take both again. Practical information:
Fifteen-day packages from Abercrombie & Kent/British Airways (with five nights in Cairo and one at London's Ritz) are $3,035. For details call 1-800-323 -7308. Air fare on British Airways (with free stopover in London) is $1,102 excursion; $749 apex. TWA, KLM, and Pan Am fly to Cairo; only TWA flies nonstop.
Felucca cruises average $25 to $50 per person (food is extra). Conditions are extremely basic, and medical precautions are considered essential, especially from April to October. South Sinai Travel (tel. (212) 888-5388) offers felucca cruises as part of a package tour to Egypt.