Forget the paddle steamers and big ships – the only way to cruise up the Nile and see the splendours of ancient Egypt is on a dahabiyya, a traditional 19th-century luxury sailing boat
Ever since Agatha Christie set one of her iconic murder mysteries on a Nile steamer in the late 1930s, we British have been intrigued by the idea of a cruise up Egypt’s famous river. The Nile is, in fact, the longest river in the world, and numerous companies now offer trips along its waters in big ships and multi-berth river boats.
There is really only one way to see the Nile in style, however, and that is on a dahabiyya. Dahabiyyas were the 19th-century luxury wooden sailing vessels favoured by elegant upper-class travellers who were doing the Grand Tour in the early 1800s. A few years ago, an enterprising Egyptian company called Belle Epoque decided to revive them, in all their burnished mahogany glory, and had six dahabiyyas built to the original model – with various key modern adjustments. Now, there are around 50 dahabiyyas floating beautifully up and down the Nile between Luxor and Aswan, but the original six that are owned by Belle Epoque – four of which are run by the family-owned, upmarket UK operator Bales Worldwide – remain the most luxurious.
I have just returned from a stunning week of cruising on one of these beautiful boats and I felt that the experience just had to be passed on.
We arrived early Saturday evening, frazzled and sweaty from our travels, only to be whisked across the river at Luxor to the private mooring where our dahabiyya, Musk, was waiting in splendour. A key attraction with these vessels is that they are small and all have their own private moorings, far away from the cramped, overcrowded moorings for the bigger boats, which have to tie up sometimes 10 abreast to the shore. Artes the houseboy greeted us promptly with chilled flannels and thirst-quenching glasses of hibiscus tea.
We were then shown to our cabins, extraordinarily roomy, luxurious affairs, with full air conditioning, giant bathrooms with properly flushing loos, walk-in showers and plenty of hanging and storage space. The style throughout the boat was very Orient-Express - we kept expecting Poirot to pop up at any point. It was all polished woodwork, with delicate framed water colours, fine pieces of carved furniture and tasteful soft furnishings. Crucially, there are only six cabins on each dahabiyya, meaning that there is a maximum of just 12 guests – and there are 12 members of crew, too, which means that the level of service is extremely attentive.
Dinner was taken upstairs, outside on the main deck (most Nile river boats have enclosed restaurants), sitting in huge rattan chairs arranged round a meticulously laid central table. The tables can be divided up if guests prefer, but our group was highly sociable and part of the fun of such cruises is the chance to mingle with other guests. The food was quite delicious – and problem-free. Many a trip to Egypt has been plagued by gippy tummies, but all fruit, vegetables and salads on these boats are washed in mineral water, while the ice cubes are made of mineral water too.
The food, in fact, was a highlight throughout. It was fresh, delicious and typically Egyptian, with gently spiced lamb dishes, babaganoush, kofta kebabs and tagine stews as well as a wide range of tasty soups and excellent breads.
Day two dawned, and breakfast was taken on deck again – a light, refreshing combination of juicily fresh fruit including melon, mango and pomegranate, great bowls of natural yoghurt, croissants with fig jam and fluffily light cheese omelettes. We then took off ashore to visit the fascinating tombs in the Valley of the Kings and the giant Karnak Temple with its majestic columns, ram’s-headed sphinxes and seemingly still fresh hieroglyphics.
Each day passed with a gentle combination of early morning visits to the various awe-inspiring sites of ancient Egypt – carefully planned to beat the midday heat – followed by lunch, afternoon siesta in our ice-cool cabins (or up on deck with a good book if we could bear the heat), then evening drinks around 7pm, followed by dinner. All the while, we could watch the banks of the Nile and all its activities softly passing by in slow motion, the dahabiyyas only reaching speeds of around 10 knots per hour (half the speed of the bigger ships). And each evening, we moored far away from the crowds on an island or quiet bank, guaranteeing an undisturbed night's sleep and uninterrupted river views from our cabins – rather than views straight into the next boat’s rooms.
Lovely on-shore excursions were arranged, too. As well as the must-see visits to all the temples at Luxor, Kom Ombo and Philae and the High Dam at Aswan, we also had a memorable starlit evening sitting on huge cushions on a bank of the river, smoking from a hubble-bubble pipe and being regaled with tales of the Nile by Abou Shanab, the moustachioed captain – ably translated by our entertaining guide, Mustafa. We were also one night carefully escorted round the souks at Aswan, the best market in Egypt, where we gingerly negotiated purchases of pungent spices and jewel-coloured cotton scarves. On our last night, we dined ashore on a private island in amongst the lush Nile vegetation.
By the end of the week, we were all deeply relaxed, inspired by the wondrous ingenuity and vision of the ancient Egyptians, and possibly even a little fatter – having indulged with relish in all the dahabiyya’s culinary delights. But we also realised we had experienced something truly special – a Nile cruise as it would have been done and should be done today, budgets allowing. It was a genuinely magical seven days.
To extend the stay further and in a similarly stylish, luxurious vein, book into Villa Belle Epoque in Cairo. This is the city’s first boutique hotel, which just opened earlier this summer and is owned by the same company that owns the dahabiyyas. A ravishing plantation-style 1920s townhouse in the leafy southern Cairo suburb of Maadi, it is perfectly placed for excursions to the Cairo museum (where you can find many of the artefacts that have been removed from the temples and tombs) and the pyramids at Giza.
An eight-day cruise on the Musk with Bales Worldwide (0845 057 0600; www.balesworldwide.com) costs from £1,345 per person including return flights with BMI (www.flybmi.com), transfers, a week's full board cruise (including soft drinks, wine and beer), all tipping, a dedicated guide and sightseeing.