Located at the strategically vital chokepoint of the first cataracts on the Nile, Aswan has long been a vital military and trade center and a border point of sorts. To the south, lies Nubia, and beyond Nubia, Sudan; Aswan has the feel of being somehow at the limit of Egypt -- the place where Egypt ends and Africa begins.

The first cataract may be a bit disappointing if you're expecting white water rather than the sedate, smooth river. This is one of the most beautiful spots in Egypt, however. The band of verdant green that borders the Nile, narrowing from Luxor some 250km (155 miles) to the north, is just a few hundred meters wide in places around Aswan, and looking across the river, you can see the golden sand of the western desert sloping steeply down toward the sparkling blue of the water.

I find Aswan the perfect antidote to the hassle and pressure of Luxor. The people are extraordinarily laid-back, and life in Aswan slides by quietly. My advice is set a loose schedule and don't try to get too much done here. Visit the Monastery of St. Simeon and the Nubian Museum, stroll in the gardens around the Aswan Museum, and watch the boys in their toy boats catching a tow behind the ferries as they power up through the cataract. Above all, take a sail at sunset, trail your fingers in the water, and let the world slip past.

For many, the famous temple of Ramses II at Abu Simbel is a high point of their trip to Egypt. Aswan is the last staging post in getting to the temple's modern home on the shore of Lake Nasser south of the town. As the southern end of the cruise-boat route, it is also a great place to start a cruise that will take you back down the river to Luxor.