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A Nile cruise is one of those journeys you feel it imperative to take, at least once in a lifetime. Easy to say, but how to choose among the some 240 riverboats said to ply these waters, nearly all of them in just the 124-mile stretch between Luxor and Aswan? Trips generally run for three, five, or eight days, with long periods spent tied up at night or at the ports of Luxor and Aswan, as well as at one or more of the most important temples lying between those cities.

Types of Riverboats

The boats are graded by the Egyptian Ministry of Tourism using a new system conforming to international standards, from 5 stars down to none, and you get what you pay for. (The old system was based on facilities available, the new one adds quality of service to that.) Some ships are affiliated with hotel chains (Movenpick and Oberoi, for instance), others with tour companies, such as Wings Tours, Abercrombie & Kent or Thomas Cook. Usually, you fly from Cairo to Luxor or Aswan and board your boat directly from the airport. After the cruise, you fly back to Cairo from the other city. There is the train, with an overnight sleeper, if you feel in an Agatha Christie mood -- but the glamour is long gone, say friends who have taken it. Since it's overnight, you see little of the intervening distance, anyhow.

Stops for Sightseeing

The itineraries of the vast majority of ships are the same, including these stops, whether southbound or northbound: Luxor, Edfu, Kom-Ombo, Dendera, and Aswan. Then there's a side trip to Abu-Simbel, south of Aswan and beyond the High Dam there, so not on the same boat or, perhaps, on any boat, but by plane or bus. I have dealt with Aswan and Luxor in separate articles, but will touch on Edfu and Kom-Ombo here, as they are almost as important as the major destinations in any case.

The Temple of Edfu is dedicated to the falcon-headed god Horus, and is said to be the best preserved of all Pharaonic ruins. Its foundation laid in 237 BCE, the buildings taking 200 years to complete. Note the two giant Horus falcons (about 12 feet tall) at the entrance of the main temple. Inside are several depictions of festivals, including a mock battle and the wedding visit of the god Hathor from down river. Be sure to check out the Sun Boat, too.

At the Temple of Kom Ombo, dedicated to the gods Sobek (the crocodile god) and Haroeris (the winged god of medicine), note the wall reliefs showing ancient surgical and dental tools. Look for one of the "Hearing Ear" shrines here, with depictions of human ears through which prayers could be heard. This temple is about 215 miles north of Aswan, and has twin sanctuaries, one for each god. Note the frequent repetition of the Egyptian ankh, the symbol of life, representing the heart, often held in the hands of supplicants as well as pharaohs. Many of the reliefs here were carved during the reign of Ptolemy XII (between 80 and 50 BCE). There is an awful exhibit of mummified crocodiles in a chapel built under the Roman Emperor Domitian that you can easily avoid.

A Five-Star Cruise

The M/S Tamr Henna ("Henna Flower"), one of four ships owned by Wings Nile Cruises, has been newly refurbished, and in fact was rededicated at the start of my trip. It was launched in 1999 and renovated once before, in 2005. I enjoyed my status as an "inaugural" passenger with a standard large cabin, boasting twin beds, huge picture window and easy chair, plus television (yes, they have CNN), private bath, a phone, and fridge. The rate for this type of cabin was $440 per night, all meals included, during high season (October to April), less other times of the year. I visited several elegant suites, including 302 (Royal), 309 (Executive or Honeymoon) and 312 (Jacuzzi), the latter having its bed facing the window so that you can watch the scenery directly before you as you glide by. There's a health club in which you can lie in the whirlpool bath, getting a kind of massage from the throbbing engines as you look aft. There is a large pool on the sun deck. The boat offers programs for 3, 4 and 7 nights. The ship sails every Saturday from Luxor on 4-night cruises to Aswan, every Wednesday from Aswan on 3-night cruises back to Luxor, and of course, 7-night cruises from Luxor to Luxor every Saturday.

During my five-day, four-night cruise, I had every meal on board, and was delighted to discover that the dining room featured a special pasta chef at whose station you could order various types of dishes custom prepared with your own choice of seasonings or sauces. At every meal there was a buffet, and at dinner a choice of entrees. Unlike the old-fashioned routine on many ships, you can sit where you like and therefore did not have the same server at each meal. Since tips were included in the fare, this didn't work hardship on the staff, who, I was told, divided the tips proportionately. On two occasions, lunch was served on the upper sun deck instead of in the main dining room. On a brief inspection of the kitchen, I concluded that I would give it three stars, and was happy to see the boat had its own bakery.

I was allowed to visit the bridge briefly and noted that there were no charts, maps or other evidences of guidance, nor did I see such modern instruments as Loran or radar, though there was radio, which was used often. On inquiring, I was informed that the river captains are a very specialized breed, that they keep in touch with each other regarding matters such as sand bars, shifts in currents and the like, and that each knew the relevant parts of the Nile "as intimately as the backs of their own hands." And if most of the boats confine themselves to the stretch between Luxor and Aswan, the captains have undoubtedly pretty well memorized the route, I guess.

The only area in which I found the ship lacking was that it was impossible to exchange money aboard, or even to break down large Egyptian notes into smaller units, all such requests at the front desk being referred to "the shop downstairs," where they denied all knowledge of exchange activity or said "come back tomorrow". So bring your own Egyptian currency, including small denominations for tips ashore, or look for ATMs (as we all did) on your excursions from the boat.

Guides

You should try to get the best guide available, as you will rely on him (almost always a man) to get you to your targets daily, to explain them adequately (or better), and to answer your questions throughout the trip. I felt fortunate to have as my guide a marvelous interpreter of all things Egyptian, Walid Ekram Helmy, a freelance tour guide hired by Wings for the group I was with. Possessing fluent American-nuanced English, though he has never been to the United States, he said, Walid also had a good sense of humor and a strong sense of leadership and the ability to keep discipline within the group of some 30 fidgety people I was with. His shipboard lecture concerned Alexandria, which we were not visiting, but is nonetheless a fascinating place for anyone interested in ancient history. Walid has degrees in sociology and anthropology from Ain-Shams University and in Egyptology and Guidance from Helwan University, both in Cairo, of which he is a native. Helwan is the leading university for tourism studies in Egypt. You can contact him directly at tel. 011/20 2419-0382 or at walidekram@hotmail.com.

Resources

An excellent travel organizer in Egypt is Wings Tours, one of the most efficient such organizations there, with experienced guides and meticulous service. Their American office is in Maryland. Contact them at tel. 410/771-0925; www.wingsegypt.com.

You can get more information on Egypt from the official site of the Egyptian Tourist Authority at www.egypt.travel.

Talk with fellow Frommer's cruisers on our Egypt Forums.