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★★★★☆

“Wonderful sights, country in transition”

Written on: 01/05/2013

Our trip involved three nights in Cairo based at a hotel near the Pyramids and then seven on the Royal Viking boat from Luxor to Aswan and back. The organisation was through Discover Egypt. This was very satisfactory with smooth transfers and arrangements at all times.

Our previous experience on cruises has all been on ocean-going larger vessels so this was an interesting contrast. Our mid-deck cabin on the Royal Viking was spacious in traditional wood-pannelled style and had a good sized bathroom, though storage was a little cramped. It was good to have an opening window to lean out as well as look out over the Nile. The cabin was well looked after by the two cabin stewards.

We missed lots of places and nooks and crannies to go to on board, but the sundeck was very pleasant and the main and really only social space apart from a lounge bar where the mostly homespun, low key entertainments took place, including a jolly galibiya dress-up evening. The "swimming pool" was really just a plunge pool but useful nevertheless to cool down in as temperatures hit the high thirties during the week.

The trip included several excursions which were led by very knowledgable and enthusiastic guides. The passengers were divided into two groups and both guides, Hussain and Radwan, were highly and rightly praised. These tours often required early starts, but were neatly arranged to get everyone back in time for lunch and to avoid the real heat of the day. The tombs and temples were really stunning. Having seen Greek and Roman temples before we were bowled over by the beauty and wonderful state of conservation of the Egyptian monuments despite their mostly being 1000+ years older. The other highlight was drifting along the Nile and seeing the timeless scenes along the banks.

Meals were always by buffet with a reasonable selection, though this was often rather bland, certainly very edible but hardly cordon bleu given the five star status. The best exceptions to this were the local Egyptian dishes somethimes served (not often enough). Soups were always rather watery. There wasn't much of a selection of fresh fruit despite the piles we could see in local markets and coffee was disappointing - Nescafe sachets plus hot water for breakfast. Cleanliness was good however and no-one seems to have had any major tummy problems.

Egypt is in an uncertain phase at the moment since the Revolution. Two aspects underlined this. Firstly, there is a great dearth of tourists. Whilst this made it pleasant for us visiting the great sights, it was sad to see the majority of Nile cruise boats empty and forlornly tied up three or four deep on their moorings in several places. We were told tourism is 90% down in the last two years. As a result the local hawkers who have never been shy of doing all they can to get a sale are now totally "in your face" and incredibly persistent, so that you run the gauntlet every time you stop and venture off the boat or tour bus.

Secondly, those of us who went on the optional 3-hour trip to Abu Simbel via army-protected convoy were prevented from returning for about 6 hours by a roadblock caused by a local dispute. No-one in authority seemed initially to be willing, able or basically around to "negotiate" our way out for most of that time. Demos and roadblocks are common in Cairo but this was the first time it had happened so far south. Despite this we certainly didn't feel directly threatened in any way and Hussain, our guide, did a great job of calming everyone down, keeping us informed and somehow rustling up lunch for everyone.

Overall then, this trip was a great EXPERIENCE. It wasn't a particularly relaxing holiday but then that wasn't the point. The arrangements were very smooth and the boat perfectly adequate with all its staff doing their best for the passengers.