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Safaga, a working port on the coast of the Red Sea, brings you close to what may be the world's greatest open-air museum -- the temples and tombs of Luxor (what was ancient Thebes). "Close" is the important word here, however.
The bus ride from the Red Sea port to inland Luxor, which is in the Nile Valley in central Egypt, is 3.5 hours each way, making for a very long day. (Full-day shore excursions run 15 hours or more, and nearly everyone falls asleep on the bus ride back to the ship.) That's why several lines also offer Luxor and the Valley of the Kings as an overnight option from Safaga. Experiencing Luxor's bounty can easily fill two days or more.
As a tourist destination in and of itself, few cruise passengers choose to stay in Safaga, unless they're really into diving or windsurfing.
With steady thermal winds blowing year-round, it's not surprising that Safaga's claim to fame is hosting the 1993 World Windsurfing Championships. Divers also come here for spots not yet spoiled by crowds. Not far offshore, the Red Sea's world-renowned turquoise waters are home to stunning reefs teeming with marine life.
At the port, most memorable are the rugged desert cliffs that end right at the sea. Their reddish hue makes for a pretty view, but at the same time, your ship will be surrounded by ugly industrial vessels that serve the port's primary function of hauling phosphate from local mines. Located on the western flank of the Red Sea, Safaga is also a port for ferries to and from Saudi Arabia, across the way.
The town, about 1.5 miles from the port (cabs are rarely available unless you arrange them in advance) is a dusty, rough-and-tumble kind of place with a few unimpressive shops and banks and not much else. It's not a charming place. North of town is a beach strip, with clean beaches and moderately priced hotels that attract tourists -- many from Germany -- with their diving and windsurfing centers.
But if your goal here is Luxor -- and it should be -- you're in for a special treat. Amazingly, Luxor has been drawing tourists since the Greek and Roman periods. And, when you get there, your eyes may just pop out. You might have trouble convincing yourself that you're really in Egypt and not, instead, watching an Indiana Jones movie.
Important to know: To enter the Nile Valley, you have to go through border stations, and buses and taxis are required to travel this route, with police patrol, as part of a convoy. (Your bus will also have a plain-clothes security guard with a gun under his dark suit.) This is the result of terrorist incidents in the 1990's, including the 1997 shooting of terrorists in Luxor at the Temple of Hatshepsut. It also explains why your shore excursion to Luxor will probably require you to leave at the crack of dawn – the first convoy departs at 7 a.m. And don't forget your passport; you need to carry it ashore in Egypt.
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Other Africa Cruise Ports:
Alexandria • Cairo (Port Said) • Cape Town • Durban • Luxor • Safaga • Saguenay • Tangier • Tunis (La Goulette)
Arabic, but English is readily spoken by those in the tourist trade.
Currency & Best Way to Get Money
The Egyptian Pound is the currency, and $1 U.S. equals about 5.69 Egyptian Pounds. (Check XE.com for the latest currency rates.) Most souvenir shops are happy to take U.S. dollars. Bank branches (Banque Misr and Banque du Caire) in Safaga have ATM's, which dispense Egyptian Pounds. Exchange traveler's checks on your ship or at hotels and banks. Credit cards are widely accepted at shops and restaurants.
Where You're Docked
Port Safaga is mostly an industrial port, located about 1.5 miles from the town of Safaga. There are no tourist facilities at the port.
Taxis are not readily available at the port, nor are they in town. If you do see one, you can flag it down, as in other cities, but if you want to take a taxi, it is best to arrange one in advance through your ship. The ride to town should cost less than $4. Taxis to Hurghada are about $20 each way. Taxis to Luxor can run $100 or more each way and must be arranged in advance, due to requirements that they travel in police convoys.
Watch Out For
Avoid aggressive souvenir vendors, especially in Luxor. It is best to say a firm “no” when offered merchandise on the street. If you don't, expect to be pestered for several minutes.
The grandeur of Luxor Temple (open daily, 6 a.m. to 9 p.m.) will amaze you, particularly since the well-preserved temple of ancient Thebes doesn't leave much to the imagination, in terms of how it looked at its height. Located in what, today, is the center of the city, the temple was constructed in the 14th century B.C., and several pharaohs -- including King Tut -- added their own touches. Ramses II added a statue of himself and two huge obelisks, one of which was traded to France in the late 1800's and now stands in the Place de Concorde in Paris. (It was traded for a French clock, which never worked.) Alexander the Great and various Roman leaders also left their mark. A mosque was added to the interior courtyard in the 13th century.
Karnak Temple (open daily, 6 a.m. to 5:30 p.m.) is a magnificent temple complex with several sanctuaries. Also housed there are obelisks, built and enlarged over a period of 1,500 years and dedicated to the Theban gods and great pharaohs. You enter on an avenue of ram-headed sphinxes that will likely have your jaw dropping before you even see the Great Court with its 134 huge columns. A nighttime light and sound show is popular with visitors who overnight in Luxor.
The Valley of the Kings (open daily, 6 a.m. to 4 p.m.) is located on the west bank of the Nile River (across from Luxor on the east bank) and is an isolated, mountainous area where the great pharaohs were laid to rest in tombs dug into barren cliffs. It's about a 15-minute walk to reach the tombs -- often very hot in the desert climate. But, most tours include tickets to trolleys that take you closer to the site. (Be aware, though, that walking is still involved, and some of the tombs have steep steps on sloping pathways as entrances.) Your entrance ticket allows you a chance to visit the chambers of three underground tombs; you have to purchase a separate ticket (for about $1) if you want to see the tomb of King Tutankhamun (King Tut), but be aware that, of all the tombs, this one is the least attractive, with few of the exquisite paintings you'll find in other tombs. There are more than 62 tombs that have been excavated, but only about eight -- which vary -- are open to visitors at any one time. The tombs date back some 3,500 years and are tributes to the ancient Egyptian belief in the afterlife. They contain colorful hieroglyphic texts and images of the kings. They once also contained gold, jewelry and other things thought to be useful in the afterlife -- including everyday household items -- but these have all been moved to museums, as anyone who has seen the traveling King Tut exhibit can attest.
Editor's Note: It's estimated that only one-third of Egyptian antiquities have been discovered. Who knows what the rest of the desert sands are hiding.
Been There, Done That
Safaga is famous for windsurfing, with the nearly constant warm winds attracting surfers, especially in spring and fall. A popular place to surf is Tobia Island, a white sand island less than two miles from shore. There are a number of windsurfing vendors in town, including Tornado Surf at the Holiday Inn Safaga Palace. Beginner courses are available. Rental of windsurfing equipment is $80 for five hours, and courses start at about $189 for a six-hour lesson.
There are several dive operators in town, offering dive excursions to reefs that include the sheer walls of Abu Kafan; Panorama, which boasts huge coral formations; and Middle Reef, with hard coral gardens, rated some of the best in the Red Sea. Creatures often seen include barracudas, tuna, manta rays, reef sharks and sea turtles. The dive operation at the Lotus Bay Beach Resort and Gardens is called Barakuda Diving Center and has six boats, all with spacious diving platforms. They leave at 8:30 a.m. daily and return by 5 p.m. Night dives are also regularly offered. A full-day excursion with two dives is priced at about $59. Divers who are prepared for a poignant experience may want to visit the wreck of the Salam Express, an Egyptian passenger ferry that sank on its way back from Mecca in 1991 (a major disaster in which some 300 passengers perished).
Thirty-six miles to the north is Hurghada, a town offering similar diving and windsurfing attractions, but with a much more developed resort atmosphere. (Shore excursions are offered there, including day trips to fancy resorts.) Hurghada also serves as a launching point for desert safaris by Jeep or camel.
Mediterranean cuisine and fresh fish are popular food choices. The Coral Beach café at the Holiday Inn Safaga Palace serves sandwiches and grilled entrees, while the Diver's Snack Bar features pizza and pasta (open late morning to sunset). Another good lunch spot is the Al Fresco Pizzeria at the Lotus Bay Beach Resort and Gardens, specializing in freshly baked pizza.
The best shopping opportunities in Safaga are the hotel gift shops, but don't expect to find much more than postcards and T-shirts.
Staying in Touch
There is a business center at the Holiday Inn. In the town of Safaga, there is also an Internet cafe off of the main waterfront road.
Tip: A big plus of taking a tour in Egypt is that guides have to be licensed and have degrees in archeology, Egyptology or related fields. They tend to be treasure troves of information.
A standard Luxor and the Valley of Kings tour visits Luxor Temple, Karnak Temple and the Valley of the Kings and includes a buffet lunch at a downtown Luxor hotel and usually a stop at a gold shop and papyrus art factory. Day tours leave around 6:15 a.m. (so your bus can join the 7 a.m. convoy) and don't return until around 9 p.m.
A Red Sea Snorkeling tour is usually about a four-hour offering that gets you under the sea. A boat takes you to an area -- just off the coast, near Tobia Island -- that's renowned for its intriguing coral formations and tropical fish, including blue-spotted stingrays and grouper.
The Sights of Hurghada is a four-hour tour by bus that takes you to Hurghada, a small fishing village that has recently been transformed into the foremost resort area on Egypt's Red Sea Coast. It's about a one-hour drive from Safaga. You will tour the resort's major attractions, including the fishermen's area, where the craft of boat building is still practiced; the old harbor "Hadaba" aquarium, with a decent collection of Red Sea flora and fauna; and El Dahar (Old Town), including the market.
A daytrip to the Soma Bay Resort allows you to enjoy white sand beaches and turquoise waters, located about halfway between Safaga and Hurghada. Palm trees line the bay, and the desert is nearby. Silversea, for one, offers this option with a choice of staying at the resort all day or returning to your ship for lunch.
For More Information
On the Web: www.touregypt.net
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Independent Traveler Message Boards: Egypt
--by Fran Golden. Boston-based Golden, whose contributions to Cruise Critic include features, ship reviews and port profiles, is also co-author of Frommer's Alaska Cruises & Ports of Call.