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Cruising the Nile

A new vessel updates the ageless pleasures of monument-hopping on the Nile.

Smooth sailing past and present: a traditional felucca shares the river with Oberoi's Zahra.
Courtesy Oberoi Hotels & Resorts
By John Cantrell

Ever since Thomas Cook booked his first parties of foreign visitors on Nile steamers, in 1869, a trip along the river has been right up there on the traveler's checklist with an African safari and the grand tour. And with good reason: even in crumbling ruins, the tombs and temples that the ancient Egyptians created remain beyond what any contemporary culture might hope to create today. Twenty-five years ago, soon after college, I made my pilgrimage, joining three other backpackers in renting a beat-up felucca, one of the small wooden sailboats that have been slipping across the Nile's slate-blue waters since Moses floated off in his bulrush basket. With a pair of local men aboard to negotiate our vessel's swallowlike sail, we tacked back and forth from shore to shore, site to site, as we covered the stretch where the greatest concentration of treasures is located: the 100 or so miles between the cities of Luxor, little more than an hour's flight south of Cairo, and Aswan, farther south and just above Egypt's border with Sudan. By day we stopped at dusty villages hazy in the heat, and by night we moored and slept on the cool water under a billion or two stars. The entire five-day journey might have cost each of us $100, including food, but even though it wasn't grand, it was so grand an experience that I couldn't imagine topping it.

NILE HIGH

Don't be confused by the fact that you're gliding along the world's most famous river, taking in views like nowhere else on earth, on a vessel that would rival anything Cleopatra could have conjured up. "It's not a cruise that we're selling," P.R.S. Oberoi tells me late one afternoon during the inaugural run of the Zahra, his brand-new, $10 million Nile cruiser. At seventy-nine, Oberoi, whose father founded the Oberoi Group, is the Indian Aristotle Onassis, a charismatic and cunning magnate whose Delhi-based company owns or runs thirty-one upscale hotels in Asia and the Middle East. "It's more like a luxury hotel that happens to move."

By his decree, the Zahra is the Nile's uncruiser. With just twenty-seven cabins (half or even a quarter of what many other Nile cruisers have) and a minimum required stay of seven nights (rather than the usual three to five), the Zahra is Egypt the easy way—uncrowded and calm, and distinctly different from the rest of the country, where the sights and smells of poverty and difficult conditions predominate. During the boat's seven-day journey from Aswan to Luxor (or vice versa), there's usually just one excursion off the vessel per day; not only does that jaunt tend to be a short two hours or so, but it's timed so that the company's Mercedes vans deliver guests to, say, the temple at Edfu well before or after the crowds have arrived from other boats. Similarly, when the Zahra reaches a destination, it often ties up at a private dock, away from other cruisers. So leisurely is the overall program that on a couple of days the Zahra doesn't sail at all; sitting still would be a problem on a lesser boat, but this one is a destination in itself.

ALL DECKED OUT

Launched last October after two years of design and construction, the Zahra does not look, from the outside, that different from some of the other upmarket boats on the river. (All told, there are more than 250 passenger cruisers working the route, but many are substandard, aimed at package-tour travelers.) With yachtlike lines, an all-white exterior (except for rows of blue-tinted windows) and no balconies off the guest cabins, the five-deck, 236-foot-long craft is buttoned up and dignified—as she should be, being named, after all, for a sultan's daughter.

Inside, however, Sultan's little girl is an up-to-the-second, worldly beauty. From the teak flooring, imported from Costa Rica and now surrounding the top deck's thirty-four-foot-long pool, to the guest cabins' cabana-sized, mosaic-tiled bathrooms, shipped intact from Italy, she looks every glossy inch the product of a very rich family. The lobby is a two-story, glass-walled, white-marbled expanse with minimal furnishings except for a statement chandelier made of diagonally crisscrossing strips of translucent acrylic. The equally capacious bar next door and the restaurant downstairs at water level are so current—with floor-to-ceiling leather-clad columns and fiery-orange votives, vases and accent pieces—that if they were on land, they'd be behind a velvet rope and filled with scenesters.

Up a set of glowing, clear glass stairs that runs from top to bottom (and that I never once climbed in seven days without encountering a staffer on his hands and knees polishing) are the twenty-seven guest cabins, which include two one-bedroom suites. Done in cocoa browns (the desks and wicker chairs) and honeyed beiges (the walls, bleached wood floors and upholstered king beds), these quarters are warm in tone and generous in size, too; starting at 323 square feet, they are, in fact, the largest cabins on the river. In the wall of closets facing each cabin's bed, a flat-screen TV provides a connection to the outside world, as does Wi-Fi throughout the boat, but the window of the adjacent sitting area, nearly as big as a sliding glass door, delivers the real thing. Scenes Biblical and beautiful scroll by and, when the river narrows, almost drift into the room.

Since the 1990s, Oberoi has been operating Nile cruisers at the top of the market, including the 116-passenger Philae, one of the poshest afloat. But in their decor, the company's handful of boats have generally harked back to the Victorian era, the pioneering age of Egyptian touring. The fifty-four-passenger Zahra, however, is anything but a quaint old boat out of some period mystery like Death on the Nile. Crimson flower petals blanket the surface of the water in the white marble tubs of the spa; the trellis shading part of the sun deck periodically shoots a cool mist onto those sitting in the chaises and chairs below. The Zahra is Style on the Nile, and if that comes with a price—a one-week booking is north of $11,000 per cabin, double occupancy—you get the chicest passage possible in return.

You also get a correspondingly high level of security, enough to satisfy most Westerners' concerns. It's been more than ten years since the last large-scale attack on visitors to the Nile region. After that, Egypt instituted stringent security measures that remain in effect today, and numerous guards, police officers and soldiers are present at all major venues. Still, no matter the show of force on land, it's comforting to know that your accommodations on the water are also well protected. Armed security men travel aboard the Zahra, and for part of the trip a machine gun is mounted on the top deck—and it's not there for skeet shooting.

TUT-TUT

During the week's cruise, as the ship proceeded north from Aswan to about thirty miles beyond Luxor, my fellow passengers and I visited seven crypts over the course of two outings, one to the Valley of the Kings and another to a nearby "workmen's village" where those who'd built the nobles' tombs once lived. We toured six shrines—Philae, Kom Ombo, Edfu, Medinat Habu, Karnak and Luxor (all among the greatest hits along this part of the river)—and perused the contents of two museums. From Aswan, I also took an optional half-day excursion by plane down to Abu Simbel, just north of the Sudanese border, where Ramses II's colossal statues of himself and his queen, Nefertari, have stared across the Nile's waters (here Lake Nasser) since around 1250 B.C. Despite this rather light touring schedule, in the end it was plenty; by the fifth day, even the on-board Egyptologist, who escorts Oberoi guests on every excursion, was beginning to run out of new things to say about Tut I, Tut II, Tut III.... And I didn't blame him. The forest of 134 densely carved stone columns standing in one hall of the immense temple complex at Karnak—each shaped like a giant papyrus plant, about thirty-three feet around and sometimes over seventy-five feet high—represents a sight beyond words. And yet seeing it, being stunned into silence by it, was just another ten minutes in Egypt.

But more than the "T 'n' T," as I started to think of the tombs and temples that blew me away whenever I left the boat, or the multiethnic meals that awaited us when we returned (strong but not too spicy Egyptian mezes, followed by Indian curries so creamy they put me to sleep), it was when the Zahra made its stately, smooth passage along the river that the trip stirred me the most. As we sailed north one warm, clear morning, I stood on the top deck in a stiff breeze and saw, miles away, the precise lines that even stronger winds had carved in the enormous brown sand mountains paralleling the river's green edge. And in the squint-inducing sun of an afternoon, I was hypnotized by the amazing and amusing juxtapositions that are everywhere in Egypt. Tumbledown cinder-block houses with half-thatched roofs—and giant satellite dishes on them. Twenty-story electrical towers—with camels tied up beneath them.

Best of all, at dusk the water goes still. Swallows fly low and slow, then drop into the reeds. Muezzins call from the spires of mosques rising over towns whose lights start to flicker orange upon the water. Feluccas dash for home—and somewhere along the river the grandest tour in the life of a traveler has just begun.

Seven-day voyages from $11,000, double occupancy. For more information: 800-562-3764; oberoizahra.com.

Published on 9/12/2008
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