Every river has a story to tell, and the Nile is no exception. Sail its waters on a blissful river cruise, and you'll see ancient landscapes that have changed little since pharaohs ruled the land. Boys bathe their donkeys in the river, farmers tend their land with hoes, and families live along the banks in traditional mud brick houses, just as they have done for 5,000 years.
Huge ocean liners and modern pleasure crafts have no place on the slow-paced Nile. Instead, the waterways are graced with traditional feluccas and the sailing vessels used to ferry tourists around. More than 280 ships are moored in the waters between Luxor and Aswan, the site of the nation's best-preserved monuments. Cruising is the easiest way for tourists to engage the Nile and the famous temples and tombs that straddle it: Luxor, Karnak, Kom Ombo, Edfu, Dendera, and the Valley of the Queens and Valley of the Kings.
River cruise ships were limited to touring Luxor and Aswan as a result of security concerns that followed a terrorist attack at a temple near Luxor in 1997. But they are now open for business, though a heavy security presence remains part and parcel of the region. There have been no terrorist incidents along the Nile in more than a decade (although that cannot be said for the rest of the country.)
The mighty Nile runs 4,184 miles in length and winds through nine nations, from Lake Victoria in Uganda to the Mediterranean Sea near Alexandria, Egypt. Unlike most rivers, it flows south to north. It doesn't take more than a quick look to appreciate its value. Against its banks lies the nation's breadbasket: fields of corn, alfalfa, wheat, sugar cane and sesame. That constant throb you hear, like a heartbeat, is the sound of irrigation pumps. Not surprisingly, agriculture is the region's second-largest industry, after tourism. Move away from the Nile, and all that is left is desert.
Historically, the Nile has had three seasons: flooding, farming and harvesting. Since the Aswan High Dam opened in 1971, the river depth has been regulated, depending on the needs of navigation and irrigation.
Today, Nile river cruises, lasting three to seven nights, are a component of most package tours to Egypt.
Best Time for Nile River Cruises
The best time to go on a Nile cruise is between October and April. It's not too hot, which is important since you'll be hopping on and off to visit temples along the way. The heat in Aswan and Luxor is intense, and it's not recommended that you travel during the peak summer months from June through August. The average temperatures hover over the 100 F (40 C) mark, and it's even hotter when you're inside some of the tombs. Plus, there's not a lot of shade around.
Nile River Cruise Lines
Although the river boats that cruise the Nile tend not to vary in size, there is a fair amount of variation in quality. Not all the major river cruise lines offer a Nile itinerary, but try Uniworld or Avalon Waterways.
Companies with more upscale offerings include Grand Circle Travel, Abercrombie & Kent, Movenpick, eWaterways, Sonesta Nile Cruises, Nile Exploration and Travcoa. If you're considering a splurge, check out The Oberoi Philae Nile Cruiser, which will be re-launched in 2014.
Nile River Itineraries
You can choose from a few basic itineraries along the Nile.
At a Glance: This three-night cruise usually departs from Aswan and sails to Luxor. You will visit the High Dam, the Unfinished Obelisk and the Temple of Philae in Aswan before docking at Kom Ombo, Edfu and Esna and reaching Luxor. There you'll visit the west bank to see the Valley of the Kings, the Valley of the Queens and the Temple of Queen Hatshepsut.
Mid-length: A slightly longer four-night option leaves from Luxor and sails to Aswan. You will see all of the above, and also visit Luxor and Karnak temples, take a felucca ride to the Botanical Island or a Nubian village, and see Elephantine Island and the Tombs of the Nobles. For those who would like to extend their stay to see Abu Simbel, this is the cruise for you.
Weeklong Trip: You can also do a seven-night trip, either from Luxor to Aswan or Aswan to Luxor. This itinerary includes all of the above, but it's divided over a week for a more relaxing trip.
Nile River Cruise Port Highlights
Valley of the Kings: In ancient times, when a man became King, the first order he gave was "Make my tomb!" So it's no surprise that the tombs at the Valley of the Kings, constructed at some point during Egypt's New Kingdom period (3,500 to 3,100 years ago) are eye-poppingly impressive -- and that's after all the finery was stolen by opportunistic gravediggers. The standard admission ticket buys you entry to three of 63 tombs. Ask your guide for recommendations of the best ones to see.
You can also pay extra to visit Tutankhamen's tomb. Although the treasures buried with King Tut are displayed at the Egyptian Museum in Cairo, the tomb provides a glimpse of what is left of Egypt's most famous icon, the teenage king whose death remains a mystery. Inside, there is a sarcophagus, with mask in place; painted walls showing his beautiful sisters and 11 baboons; and a mummy with a sunken brown face and each toe intact. Seeing it adds real flesh and bone to the murals and finery in the other tombs.
Karnak Temple: This is the largest place of worship in the world. It took 1,300 years to build this 42-acre temple, and you can see the one-upmanship between a succession of pharaohs as you wander through it. The bigger and more elaborate the temple, the more religious and, thus, more popular the king. The farther you step into a temple, the farther back you go in time. Look out for the statue of one of sun God Ra's incarnations -- a scarab beetle -- which symbolizes eternal life. Supposedly, if you walk around this bug three times, you're granted health, wealth and many children.
Philae Temple: Built to honor the Goddess of motherhood, Isis, this was the last ancient temple built in the classical Egyptian architectural style. Construction began in approximately 690 B.C. The temple was moved from its original location on Philae Island to its new location on Agilkia Island after the flooding of Lake Nasser. Don't miss the Sound and Light show at night, which is much less tacky than Giza's pyramid offering. Note also the reuse of the temple as a Christian church, with crosses carved into the older hieroglyph reliefs and images of the Egyptian gods carefully defaced. You'll also spot graffiti dating from the 1800's.
Luxor Temple: Above the upper part of Luxor temple is a sacred mosque, built before the sand was swept away, and on the outer walls you can faintly make out a painting of the last supper among the hieroglyphics, from a time when Christians were banned by the Romans from building churches. It's easy to spot Mani, the Egyptian god of fertility. He stands proudly displaying his, ahem, equipment. Interestingly, the carving is darkened in a certain area, where women hoping to become pregnant have eagerly stroked it!
Edfu Temple: Dedicated to Horus, the bird God of protection, Edfu is a Ptolemaic temple built in classic pharonic style (237 to 57 B.C.) and is one of the best-preserved temples in Egypt. Start with the first pylon with its two magnificent falcons, and admire the carvings inside that illustrate the Festival of the Beautiful Meeting, in which the statue of Horus joined the statue of Hathor at her temple in Dendera.
Kom Ombo: Dedicated to the gods Sobek (the crocodile god) and Haroeris (the winged god of medicine and one of the oldest incarnations of Horus), Kom Ombo temple is known for its wall reliefs, which show ancient surgical and dental tools. You can also see ancient crocodile mummies in The Crocodile Museum.
For more on cruise destinations in Egypt, see our Nile River Cruises page.
Nile River Cruise Tips
Extending Your Trip: The city of Cairo is not usually part of the cruise itinerary, but many tour operators build in pre- or post-cruise stays in the city. Cairo can be fairly frenetic, so perhaps stay in Cairo before you board your cruise, and visit the Great Pyramids of Giza, the Egyptian Museum and the bustling Khan el Khalli bazaar, and enjoy your leisurely cruise afterwards. You can also add on a relaxing break in the sun on the Red Sea after your cruise.
Most cruise lines will offer an add-on excursion from Aswan or Luxor to Abu Simbel http://en.egypt.travel/city/index/abu-simbel, arguably the most evocative of all the ancient Egyptian relics. Archaeologists say the sheer scale of the statues in the Great Temple was meant to scare potential enemies as they traveled down the Nile from more southerly parts of Africa.
What to Pack: Don't forget bug spray, tissues, a small flashlight, a hand fan, binoculars, hand cleanser, sun screen, a hat and anti-diarrhea medicine. Take sensible walking shoes; the surfaces at the monuments can be hilly and sandy, and a lot involve steps or uneven stone flooring that date back centuries. For more packing tips, see the Top 10 Must-Pack Items for an Exotic Cruise.
Dress Code: Dress not just for the heat, but for the culture. This is a conservative, Muslim culture and should be respected accordingly. Women should refrain from wearing short shorts, see-through clothing or swimwear when on shore excursions. In mosques, for example, women and men should wear clothing that covers both their legs and upper arms.
Money Matters: Always carry small denominations of the local currency, the Egyptian pound. It's customary to tip toilet attendants, and if you don't have change, you may be denied use of the facility. While U.S. dollars and other "hard" currencies are generally accepted, you can change money at the visa offices in the airport arrival hall. Keep in mind that paper money gets very tattered and torn, especially the smaller notes, and may be refused.
Shipboard Life: Don't expect glitz like casinos or Broadway-style shows on a Nile River cruise. Dining is typically a buffet affair for breakfast and lunch, with a sampling of entrees served at dinner. Ships will often host a djellaba party, with passengers dressing up at dinner in traditional Egyptian robes (which you can buy at one of the local markets during your port stops), and other entertainment includes belly-dancers and performances by Nubian dance troupes. Be prepared to get involved! The top deck is the place to sunbathe, read, take a dip, enjoy a beverage and ponder the view -- get in quick to book a "dinner under the stars" with your cruise companions. The ships do have lounges where port talks, lectures and crew shows are staged. Of course, there is also bar service, but, due to a high alcohol tax, drinks can be expensive and are not usually included with dinner.
Health Issues: Tour operators recommend that passengers not drink the water onboard, even on luxury ships, but bottled water is provided. If you think you will want extra water, it's a good idea to stock up on bottled water and soda from local merchants. You should also carry a water bottle with you on shore excursions, as it is easy to become dehydrated due to the heat. Also, avoid raw vegetables, peel fruits before eating them, and don't swim in the Nile or its canals because of the risk of exposure to bacterial and other infections.
Bargaining Rules: In this economy, just about everything is negotiable. This is especially true with the vendors, who sell all manner of souvenirs near the monuments' docks. Their pitches seem benign enough, but they can be aggressive once they have your attention. A general rule of thumb: Offer half the asking price to start, and don't hand over any money until your purchase price has been settled and the item is in your hand. Also, take care to study your change. Pound notes and the much smaller piaster notes look similar. A good word to learn is la, which means no.
Daytripping: Some ocean cruise lines, such as P&O and MSC Cruises, offer day trips to Luxor and Aswan when their ships dock in Safaga on the coast of the Red Sea. It's an alternate way to visit some of the famous temples while seeing more than just the Nile.
For more travel advice, see our slideshow, 11 Tips for Making the Most of Your Nile River Cruise.
-- by Emily Payne, Cruise Critic Contributor