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Home > Virtual Cruises > Exotic Mediterranean on Azamara Quest
Exotic Mediterranean on Azamara Quest
Day 1: Trip Planning, Arrival in Istanbul
Day 2: Kusadasi/Ephesus
Day 3: At Sea
Day 4: Cairo, Egypt
Day 5: Jerusalem
Day 6: Haifa
Day 7: Limassol, Cyprus
Day 8: At Sea
Day 9: Sorrento
Day 10: Debarkation in Rome
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Day 4: Thursday, Cairo, Egypt
Cairo, EgyptThe Egyptian ports, Alexandria and Port Said, are both a huge draw for this cruise and are somewhat of a hassle for cruisers. Most cruise passengers on their first visits to Egypt want to see the Great Pyramids of Giza and the artifacts of pharaonic times located in the Egyptian Museum of Antiquities in Cairo. However, the neighboring cities of Cairo and Giza are easily a three-hour -- if not longer -- drive from either port. Although the ship is in port from 7 a.m. until 10 p.m., a day trip to the pyramids is an exhaustingly full day with at least six hours of driving in total.

To somewhat solve the problem, Azamara (and other cruise lines sailing this route) offers an overnight tour to Cairo and Giza that leaves from Alexandria, first thing in the morning, and returns to Port Said late the following night. This cuts down driving time to three hours a day and gives guests more time to visit additional Egypt attractions, such as the ancient ruins at Memphis and Saqqara. However, the tour cost is $475 per person (based on double occupancy, hotel included) -- a hefty price to pay, considering you've already paid for food and lodging as part of your cruise fare. For the price of this two-night excursion, you could, instead, book a seven-night cruise to Alaska or the Caribbean on a more mass-market line.

When preparing for this cruise, I was torn. I definitely wanted to do an overnight tour to see as much of Egypt's ancient treasures as possible, but I really didn't want to fork out nearly $500 for the privilege. So I went to Cruise Critic's Middle East boards to find out how other travelers handled this problem and learned that independent tour companies offered quite similar trips for significantly less money. That seemed like a good compromise to me, so I emailed the companies most recommended on the boards, including Casual Cairo, De Castro Tours, Ramses Tours and Nile Blue.

I'd like to say that I got quotes from multiple agencies and did a lot of comparison work, but in reality, one guide was booked and two didn't answer. The only offer I received was from De Castro Tours, which offered a two-day tour visiting the Egypt Museum, Mohamed Ali Mosque, Giza and Saqqara. The price ranged from $325 per person for a two-person tour to $225 for a 12-person tour, and included hotel in a five-star Giza hotel, lunch the first day and entrance fees for main attractions. Already, this was a much cheaper price than the ship's tour, with a much more intimate group.

In order to get a better price, I posted on Cruise Critic's Azamara Roll Calls forum to see if anyone wanted to join the tour. Two other couples and a family of four signed on, and we picked up a final couple onboard. In fact, we could have added several other couples we met onboard, but decided to keep the total number to 12.

If you've considered doing an independent tour like this but have been hesitant, I can tell you without hesitation that the De Castro tour was a fabulous and well-run trip. Our group was met outside security at the Alexandria port by a company representative. He led us to a 16-seater mini-bus, with air-conditioning and little bouquets of flowers, tucked into the backs of each seat. As a nice touch, the bus had a cooler stocked with water and sodas that we could drink with no extra charge.

In addition to our guide, Dalia, and a driver, a representative of De Castro and an armed guard (supplied by the tourist police) rode with us. At various times in Cairo, we actually had a tourist police escort. I didn't get the sense we were in any danger, but as tourism is an important source of revenue for Egypt, it seems like they're covering their bases by keeping travelers well-protected.

The ride from Alexandria to Cairo is not very scenic, with the most interesting sites being beehive-shaped bird houses for pigeons that dotted the landscape. Halfway there, we had a break at a rest stop, which had a snack bar, toilets and an ATM. Although you'll get differing opinions about whether or not to take out Egyptian money, I highly recommend doing so here. Many of the optional, extra-cost attractions on the trip -- such as the Mummy Rooms at the museum, a tour into one of the pyramids and a visit to the Solar Boat Museum -- must be paid in Egyptian pounds. Most other costs -- such as dinner, the Sound and Light Show and souvenir purchases -- can be paid for in any currency. Plus, if you end up with extra pounds, you can always use them to tip the guide or re-exchange them into your home currency.

Our first stop was the Egyptian Museum of Antiquities, which houses a vast collection of sarcophagi, statues, mummies and the treasures found in King Tutankhamen's tomb. Dalia did an excellent job of taking us through the highlights by giving us the history and background of what we were seeing -- then giving us free time to explore on our own. Not on the highlights tour, but still not to be missed, are the two Mummy Rooms where, for an extra $20, you can see actual mummies -- unwrapped at the heads, hands and feet. It's fascinating to see them (some still have hair and eyelashes!) and read about how they died or how long they lived. It's totally creepy, and it's hard not to imagine them waking up and chasing you around -- like in some horror movie.

We had lunch at a restaurant called The Place, overlooking the Nile. The buffet was nothing special -- the food was neither particularly well-done nor strikingly Egyptian -- but the location was scenic and much nicer than dining in some touristy hotel restaurant that caters to busloads of tourists. After a visit to the Mohamed Ali Alabaster Mosque -- which was neither as beautifully decorated nor as historically significant as the mosques in Istanbul -- we arrived at our hotel, Le Meridien Pyramids. The five-star hotel -- according to Egypt's rating system -- was a great home base. It had a fitness center, a pool, multiple shops and restaurants. From there, we could see the pyramids looming in the distance.

We dined at the hotel's alfresco Nubian Village restaurant, where we had authentic and delicious Middle Eastern food. A woman was actually sitting by a fire, baking the most scrumptious bread (which we used to mop up yogurt and eggplant spread). A cheesy bread dish -- Egyptian pizza, perhaps? -- had us fighting for seconds. One of the other members of our group dared to order shanklish -- a not-so-adventurous salad, in general, but in Egypt, you're not supposed to eat uncooked vegetables or drink tap water in order to avoid stomach problems.

Our evening entertainment was the Sound and Light Show at the pyramids, an optional activity for an added cost of $30. We'd been warned to expect kitsch, but the show was a big hit with Rachel and me. In essence, the production introduces visitors to pharaonic history and the pyramids by projecting slideshow images and lights on the area temples, the Sphinx and the pyramids themselves. The hour-long presentation is "narrated" by the Sphinx itself, who speaks in first person with a Charlton Heston-esque voiceover -- reminiscent of some old sci-fi movie -- with bombastic music playing in the background. The over-the-top narration kept us in stitches, but the production was actually quite informative. If nothing else, it's a chance to see the pyramids at night, from the perfect viewing distance to see all three, plus the Sphinx. Oh, and did I mention the Scottish bagpipe and drum band that marched through the audience as the opening act? Yeah, it was that kind of night.

We hit the road at 7:30 a.m. sharp the next morning in order to be among the first groups to arrive at the pyramids. Our visit to the pyramid complex had three stops. First, we parked by the two biggest pyramids, those of Cheops and Chefren, where we took pictures, ventured inside a pyramid and visited the Solar Boat Museum. Although there's nothing much to see inside Chefren's tomb (and you can't take photos), there was something utterly surreal and very exciting about actually standing inside one of the Great Pyramids. Our second stop was at a viewing area to take photos, and the third was a visit to the Sphinx.

If you fear the Pyramids won't live up to the hype, it's not true. Standing by the actual pyramids is quite a thrill, and the three tombs are as impressive and imposing in person as they are in books and movies. To give you a sense of how big they are, I clock in at six feet tall, and the top of my head comes up to maybe the top of the second row of stones forming the base of the pyramid -- and rows of tour buses are like Matchbox cars next to the Great Pyramids and hardly block your view at all. If you're concerned about the rumors you've heard about aggressive touts and vendors, I'll tell you that I didn't find them to be as in-your-face as I expected. Sure, men will come up to you selling postcards, camel rides and all manner of souvenirs, but you can easily walk away without immediately coming upon the next vendor.

Our final stop was at Saqqara, one of the earliest pyramids, featuring a step design, instead of smooth sides like the Great Pyramids. Apparently, it took some time to develop the pyramid design and associated engineering -- a nearby pyramid we didn't see is called the Bent Pyramid because the architects started the project with too steep an angle and had to switch to a new design halfway through. The Saqqara pyramid was not quite as impressive as the greats, but the area was also a lot quieter and less touristed.

We left Saqqara around noon to return to the ship. As departure wasn't set until 10 p.m., I was initially disappointed that we weren't stopping at other nearby attractions, like Memphis. But even after rejecting a sit-down lunch option in favor of takeout from a gas station's mini-mart/cafe, we still didn't arrive back at the ship until 5 p.m., and I was grateful to have time to relax before another long day of sightseeing.

And therein lies the one tradeoff between choosing an independent excursion and a ship's tour. Although our private tour was more intimate and half the price, the ship's tour actually visits a few more attractions because it has time on its side. If there's traffic out of Cairo, the ship will delay its departure until the Azamara buses have returned. If an independent tour misses the boat, guests will have to make their own travel arrangements to the next port -- not something easily done in Egypt, especially if your next port is Israel -- so tour operators are extra cautious about returning on time.

But aside from that, I would highly recommend the independent tour experience. The smaller group size makes for terrific group camaraderie, and you have more access to the guide to ask questions. Plus, you certainly can't beat the price. But regardless of how you go, a trip to the pyramids is a once-in-a-lifetime experience that's well worth the time and money you put into getting there.

All images appear courtesy of Erica Silverstein.
Day 3: At Sea red arrow Day 5: Jerusalem

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