I have never been on a cruise. Not a day cruise, not a night cruise, not a nothing cruise. Yes, I’ve been on boats (I actually really like boats), but never a cruise. A Nile cruise sounded different. Turns out it was.
Whereas your standard cruise kind of sounds like Las Vegas – or heaven forbid, Atlantic City – on water, a Nile cruise conjures up the gilded elegance of an Agatha Christie story. On a Nile cruise you will be conveyed to and from the ship in a Duesenberg and you will be served poached pheasant under glass on Staffordshire china and sterling silver. Hercule Poirot will be on board, accompanied by his trusty but moderately incompetent friend Hastings (do you ever wonder what’s going on there?). This, of course, means that there will be a murder, although with any luck at all, neither you nor your elegant spouse are the victim or the culprit.
It was with this very modest set of expectations that we boarded our cruise at Luxor, where we would make our way upriver to the locks at Esna, stop for the night at Edfu, and finish our trip at Aswan, site of the famous (or infamous) dam. (The British dammed the river in the late 19th Century, which provided electricity, irrigation, and flood protection. A much larger dam was completed in the 1960s which created the massive Lake Nasser and required the resettlement of people along the river. A number of archeological sites were inundated, although a few were moved to higher ground.)
Boarding a Nile cruise ship is not like boarding the Love Boat. You don’t ascend the gangplank with fanfare. Nobody throws confetti or places a lei around your neck. Captain Steuben doesn’t stand at the rail with a big smile and that captainly air of leadership and confidence.
No, boarding a Nile cruise is just weird.
The weirdness of boarding a Nile boat is partly a function of how they are docked, but also of the hard times that the tourist trade has fallen upon in Egypt. Nile boats are docked side by side, not in individual slips. On any given day, six or seven boats will be lashed to the dock, huddled together shoulder to shoulder, like Charlie’s grandparents in that small bed in Willie Wonka and the Chocolate Factory.
To get to your boat, you have to walk through a number of other boats. Given the lousy state of affairs of tourism in Egypt, the first several boats we passed through were seriously out of commission, inhabited only by sad-eyed guards whose only purpose was to prevent unauthorized detours, as if anyone would want to do such a thing. Some boats were almost completely inactive; others were undergoing some form of refurbishment borne out of what must be pure optimism. The effect was eerie – with hope in your heart for a pleasant and opulent vacation, you pass through ghost ship after ghost ship, half expecting to see Jack Nicholson peer out from a vacant cabin and announce “Heeeeere’s Johhhnnnnyyyy!!”
Finally, we reached our boat, the Amarco I, which is said to be one of the most elegant of the almost four hundred passenger vessels that plies the two hundred some odd miles between Luxor and Aswan (trips from Luxor to Cairo have been suspended until further notice).
We immediately began adjusting our expectations.
The boat could best be described as slightly chintzy Egyptian modern, whatever that means. There was a lot of gold and baby blue, and if you had an Egyptian great aunt who came into about fifteen hundred bucks, I suspect that this is how she’d redecorate her house. And she might have the same playlist – as we boarded, after taking in the room I realized what was wafting over the speakers. Is it? Was it? Yes! The theme from Titanic, played…wait for it…on the pan flute! A bad omen, for so many reasons.
Our room was just fine. It was clean, had a reasonably large bathroom (for a boat), there was a queen bed, and we had a nice big window (turns out everyone has a view), although until we pushed off, we had a very good view of the unoccupied boat next to us.
These boats are not very big. An ocean-going cruise ship is to a Nile river boat as a Hummer is to a roller skate. The passenger capacity is about 110. There are four levels plus the deck above, which has a teeny, tiny swimming pool, some tables, a bar, and some deck chairs. There’s a dining room and a lounge (where the belly dancing show, god help us, would occur on the last night), and a gym with about five stairmasters, two of which were out of order. That’s about it.
Needless to say, Hercule Poirot was nowhere in sight. Neither were the dottering but elegant dowagers I had anticipated encountering. Instead, we found a lobby full mostly of Spaniards of various ages and dress codes. One fellow astonished us over the course of the trip by wearing the same pair of paper-thin chartreuse cotton lounging pants to breakfast, lunch, and dinner. This garment provided the poor fellow with very little support and what seemed like barely any protection against the elements. I do hope he applied sunscreen down below just in case.
We checked in, had lunch, and our trusty tour guide Bob took us back out for more touring in Luxor. We returned to the boat for dinner, then realized that the boat didn’t actually start sailing until the following day after lunch. (Someday, I will start reading my itinerary.) This is a bit strange, if you ask me. What’s the point of sitting on the plane if it’s parked at the gate?
Once we pushed off the following day, though, the magic kicked in. The weather was warm and sunny, and we joined our Barcelonan travelers (there were groups from a few other places, but the boat was at least half Spanish) up top.
We had secreted aboard our bottle of duty free gin and drank illicit gin and tonics (although I ordered a beer for appearances) and watched the shore of the Nile slide by.
It was just a bit magical. The other guests, with the possible exception of the funny pants man, seemed perfectly nice. The food was pretty good, and we emerged from our voyage digestively unscathed, which always seems a worry on these petri dish-like contraptions, particularly in Egypt, where drinking a glass of tap water is an instant weight loss program.
Yes, this wasn’t so bad after all. Hercule Poirot never showed, but fortunately, his services weren’t needed.