Editors' Note: Grand Circle is not currently sailing in Egypt in 2016.
Even as an experienced river cruiser in Europe and the U.S. -- and despite several previous visits to Egypt -- my Nile River cruise on Grand Circle's River Anuket offered unforgettable memories.
For me, the trip's great moment came as we approached Kom Ombo, north of Aswan. As I stood on the top deck, the Pilot (there is no Captain) brought the River Anuket out of the main Nile channel and around in a great slowly curving arc to rest against the mooring along the terraced eastern embankment. Vendors watched from their riverside stands, and looming above on a low bluff, strategically placed overlooking a bend in the river, the temple's great pylon (gate) took on added color from the late November sun. It was a magnificent scene, and created an image in my mind that will always remain a treasure.
The boat itself was purpose-built for the Nile in 2001 by Grand Circle Travel. It carries 138 passengers and is five decks high, including the Sun Deck and pool terrace at the top. Like all the Nile cruisers, its basic dimensions are a result of the need to fit through the river locks at Esna, sort of a "Panamax-East" requirement. Additionally, with the exception of a few classic paddlewheel steamers still in use privately or as luxury boats, most of the Nile boats have the same high, square profile that makes them resemble a floating Holiday Inn Express. That said, the River Anuket really distinguishes itself both in its interior decor and its setup as a comfortable base for its American passengers.
For Grand Circle, this operation is an extension of their past efforts in Europe and elsewhere. From its beginnings in handling travel for AARP and the "over-50's," the company has spread out, and owes its emergence as a ship owner/operator to a commitment to guarantee a quality product. The Egypt program, combining a stay in Cairo with the Nile cruise, grew out of extensive discussions with GCT's alumni, the Inner Circle, past passengers who are passionately loyal and always make up a strong percentage of program participants.
One distinguishing factor in all Grand Circle Travel operations, impressively evident in the Egypt program, is the company's use of Program Directors. These individuals function as guides, cruise directors, social staff and team leaders for groups of passengers. They are natives or long-term residents, university-trained in history and culture, fluent in English, socially adept and quick-witted, experienced, and knowledgeable. They are with you from first day to last, leading excursions and answering questions, sharing hosting and lecture duties aboard, and always available. They are invaluable in a location as exotic as Egypt, where most us can neither read (by the way, it's right to left) nor speak the language.
Another worthwhile carryover from other Grand Circle programs is the "Discovery" concept, whereby each excursion, event or experience helps enlarge both your knowledge and enjoyment of the trip, helping you better understand the place, the people, the culture and maybe even yourself. Some are personal, like my "moment" cited above, or are small-scale events and excursions (see Entertainment), but it is the major shore excursions -- both included and optional -- that have the biggest and most immediate impact.
The moment I described at the beginning was a personal one; a sort of private "Discovery"; as it turns out, almost every passenger had one or more. Together we had a series of equally impressive scenes and moments that resulted in a shared and valued experience for all of us. Lastly, for me this journey changed my ambivalence about river travel. This experience made me realize what I have been missing, and I'm very grateful to have made the discovery.
River Anuket Fellow Passengers
An all American group from every point of the compass, the guests are mainly upper 50's to early 80's though younger travelers -- one couple from Hawaii in their 40's and a woman in her late 30's traveling with her 70-something father -- were made welcome, despite the line's over-50 focus.
Most of the passengers were retired, or at least semi-retired, with backgrounds in education, government, business or the professions. Married couples predominated, though there were some widows, singles and friends traveling together. They were one and all "curious" about the world, and loath to miss any opportunity to learn or participate. Most had done at least one other river cruise or GCT program previously and I met one couple that has taken 10 in the last five years.
River Anuket Dress Code
Daytime called for casual shorts or trousers, with most of the ladies feeling more acceptable in slacks. Comfortable walking shoes were mandatory and a hat and some sun block were always useful. In the evening, khakis and open-necked or polo shirts were fine for men; slacks and slightly dressier tops or casual separates did well for the ladies. One smart and useful addition for everyone was a light jacket or windbreaker for cool early-morning or evening excursions.
River Anuket Gratuity
The ship encourages pooled tipping, at a suggested rate of $5 to $7 per passenger, per day to cover waiters, cabin attendants and the other staff; this is to be placed in an envelope and dropped in a box at reception. You are expected to tip separately for the Program Directors, Grand Circle's unique combination of tour guide, cruise staff and team leader. Those tips are generally at a rate of $4 to $6 per passenger, per day, and are presented directly to the individual.
Next: River Anuket Cabins