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

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.

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.

Philae is on an island between the old and new dams. Recently the temple was moved to a nearby island to avoid the seasonal floodings, which were worsened with the completion of the new dam.

At Kom Ombo, situated on a hill overlooking the Nile, are twin temples for the worship of Horus, a hawk-headed god, and Sobek, a crocodile god. We visited Edfu and Esna, two ancient temples that date back to about 200 BC.

In most cases the temples were within walking distance of the bank of the Nile. Where they weren't, as with Edfu, the boat provided horse-drawn carriages to transport tourists to the temple site.

In Luxor there were tours to the temple area and time to attend the son et lumi`ere spectacle at Karnak. The sightseeing tour of Thebes's Valley of the Kings was far too limited, although there was an opportunity to see the Colossi of Memnon and visit the temple of Queen Hatshepsut and the tomb of Tutankhamen. There was barely enough time for adventurous passengers with enough energy to visit tombs of other nobles.

The four nights and five days zoomed by quickly, and soon it was time to leave the HS Tut.

Life on the Nile had proved to be nearly as exciting as Cleopatra and the pharaohs must have found it, but certainly more comfortable and even luxurious than they could ever have anticipated.

At each stop, the Egyptian travel agency arranged for transfers. We were met at the airports by car and driver and escorted to hotel and plane. We judged the under-$20 fee well spent, since the service allowed us to avoid the confusing and disorienting hustle at airports. The deluxe hotels, by the way, were all about $100 (double) per night - expensive for Egypt but a bargain by international travel standards.

The cabins aboard the Tut are small, simply furnished, comfortable, and well equipped. The air conditioning works well most of the time, as do the private toilet and shower. Each stateroom has a large window through which the occupants can watch the riverbank. There are comfortable chairs for everybody on the upper decks, which make for leisurely people-watching, too.

The guides speak English and are well versed in Egyptian history and archaeology. Most of the tourists on our trip, however, were French and Germans on package tours. They were assigned to guides who spoke their own language.

The Americans on board seemed to be mainly professionals and and people taking advantage of frequent-flier bonus trips.

The most enervating sightseeing was scheduled for early morning hours, before the bright sun made walking too tiring. Charming cotton hats were sold for about $1 by peddlers waiting at the gangplank, and these proved to be essential. Many passengers who visited the souk in Luxor on their own were able to be fitted for custom-made caftans that cost about $7, delivered to the boat. Many, like me, booked a few extra nights at the Sheraton in Luxor for more sightseeing in the Valley of the Kings, with private guides. Some passengers had arrived at Aswan a couple of days sooner and had booked passage on the plane to Abu Simbel, to the south, a colossal temple carved out of the side of a cliff in 1300 BC. It was raised, piece by piece, to safe ground when the new dam flooded the area.

Meals on board were not exactly up to gourmet standards, but were quite acceptable. Especially breakfast, which included cereals, fresh fruit, a variety of rolls and breads, eggs cooked to order, and just about anything that was requested. Lunch, the main meal, was served at open-seating tables. Dinner was an adequate buffet. Mineral water was always available. Service was always pleasant, if not always speedy.

If you go

To book your own passage, both Sheraton and Hilton have toll-free numbers: Sheraton, 800-843-6453; Hilton, 800-445-8667.

Although neither offers packages that include hotels in Cairo or Luxor, both have special city packages that can also be booked through the international reservation number. A travel agent can also book them for you at no additional cost.

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