For the longest time, I didn’t realise exactly when this latent wanderlust that would dominate my life kicked in exactly. But recently I realised that I actually can put an exact date on it, after all. After all these years, it’s a bit like closing a circle.
Of course, I knew that it began with the SS.France, the ship I fell in love with as a nine year old kid. She was a ship that I never even dreamed that I’d set eyes on, let alone get to sail….
But life is a strange, quirky lady, and she often throws you a curve ball when you least expect it. For the SS.France, after a five year lay up in Le Havre, would return to service as the SS.Norway, the first true all singing, all dancing mega cruise ship.
At age 22, I made it my mission to sail on my dream ship. And yes, I did sail her. And she changed my life forever.
I found this couple of wonderful, almost sinfully evocative photos of the newly wrought SS.France arriving in New York on her maiden voyage on February 8th, 1962.
And that day, even though I was only two years old- and as clueless as any two year old should be- is the day that all of this began to take shape.
I mean, look at her; she’s proud, beautiful, so perfectly poised. A last, defiant burst of swagger in the face of the all conquering jet age. Typically, the New York press tagged her as ‘an eighty million dollar gamble’ on that cold February afternoon in 1962. Her owners, more sanguine, called her ‘the last refuge of the good life’.
Me? I call her magnificent, awe inspiring and exhilarating. She took me on a dance, and I folded like so much wet cardboard. ‘Smitten’ does not begin to cover it….
Now, I’m lucky enough to have been on many other ships. Famous ships. Bigger ships. Arguably more luxurious ships.
But- and this is a remark considered through the prism of almost four decades of sea travel all over the world- I will never sail on anything as spellbinding, mesmerising and damned, downright, drop dead gorgeous ever again.
Luxor at dawn. The call to prayer of a local muezzin rouses me from a deep, dreamless sleep aboard my river boat. Padding out onto the terrace in my bath robe, I catch the first, pale wisps of daylight as it begins to steal across the muggy air. Against it’s backdrop, a brace of balloons loft gingerly into the ether, seeming to hover in place like a pair of bloated fireflies. Below me, the still, silent water turns a shade of shimmering pink as the first rays of the rising sun spill out across it. The air, heavy and still, is filled with expectation and promise, much as it has been in this self same spot for literally thousands of years.
An hour or so later, and I’m in a blissfully air conditioned motor coach that rattles, shudders and honks it’s way through the street life and agitated sales merchants of ancient, once mighty Luxor. We are on our way out of the city, to an appointment with one of ancient Egypt’s mightiest, must-see attractions; the fabled Valley of The Kings.
The statistics alone are awesome enough; some sixty-two tombs of the pharaohs of ancient Egypt have (thus far) been discovered in this silent, sprawling city of the dead that ranges along the west bank of the River Nile. Perhaps upwards of another four hundred remain as yet undiscovered, crouching in ageless, sullen silence among the vast sea of rock formations that litter it’s expanse.
The actual, physical site is a soaring, rugged range of jagged limestone escarpments, defiles and winding pathways that floods across your line of sight like some ancient, archaic moonscape, set below the duck egg blue blue canopy of an almost cloudless sky. It is dotted here and there with small, black holes that gradually morph into a series of yawning entrance chambers upon approach. Each and every one of these is a mute, majestic invite to enter and commune with the spirit (and spirits) of old Egypt, right up close and personal.
In Egyptian thinking, the living lived, loved and prospered on the east bank of the River Nile, itself the very source of all life across the kingdom. The dying could expect eventual immolation somewhere on the west bank, in varying degrees of penury or splendour and, more often than not, according to their perceived rank in the prevailing pecking order.
Naturally enough, for the pharaohs themselves that meant a measured, magnificent interment for all eternity in one of those magnificent limestone chambers, hewn out of the stone, dust and heat at an often astronomical cost in both lives and loot. And, contrary to popular belief, a deceased monarch’s slaves, flunkies and more personal servants were not sealed into the tomb with him at burial; this seems to have been a bit of wishful thinking on the part of Hollywood.
The actual sensation of entering an Egyptian tomb is almost impossible to properly describe; it’s a hallowed procession, from daylight into gradually encroaching semi darkness. Around you, floor to ceiling carved hieroglyphics in various states of preservation- ranging from the truly magnificent through to partially mutilated- tell the story of the late, celebrated occupant, and his hopefully anticipated passing on to a joyous afterlife.
Above your head, great, still partially coloured frescoes of soaring vultures still hover in place, frozen in time and place for millennia. The heat, and the crescendo of awed babbling from a conga line of open mouthed, slack jawed tourists, builds like a gathering storm. Your feet clop dutifully along miles of raised duckboards that collectively bear the imprints of literally millions of visitors. The very air itself feels almost thick and fine enough to taste.
At the very centre of this compelling, slightly claustrophobic passage lies the mute stone sarcophagus that once contained the mummified remains of the pharaoh himself. Though most of these now reside in the famous Egyptian Museum in Cairo, a few still moulder in their original tombs, shrouded in swathes of brittle, blackened bandages. The achievement of reaching this inner chamber-the true ‘Holy of Holies’ is at once both sombre and satisfying.
If ever mute stone could speak to the future, then each of these great, limestone chambers to the afterlife would form a chapter of a book so compelling that it would be as impossible to put down, as it would be to ever fully comprehend. Though we did indeed go deep underground, I was conscious that we were barely scratching the surface of this timeless, constantly unravelling tale.
Not all of the tombs are on an epic scale. The most famous of them all-that of Tutankhamun- had to be completed at breakneck speed, pun wholly intentional. The unexpected death of the boy king at the age of just eighteen meant that his tomb needed to be completed many years before anyone even thought that construction would have to start. The result is a small, relatively modest tranche of immortality, much like some small summer cottage located at the approach to a grand stately house or palace.
The actual designation of young Tut’s resting place is KV-62. It’s discovery by Howard Carter in November of 1922 made world headlines, and the glut of historical treasures and artefacts that poured from it like an oil spill at the time made both it-and, by default King Tut himself-the stuff of modern legend.
Today, you can walk into it for a supplement of around two hundred Egyptian pounds- around £10 UK or around $12.90 USD at current exchange rates. In truth, there is very little to see these days, but the sense of just being there- of standing somewhere so historic and monumental-is truly mind blowing. Anyone who has ever visited Pearl Harbour, or gazed upon the petrified effects salvaged from the wreck of the Titanic, will recognise that self same feeling at once.
Of the main run of tombs out there, the visitor’s ticket that comes included as part of your tour price gives you access to a total of three in all. Sometimes, these will be at the discretion of the tour guide leading your group (and, incidentally, ours was superb) but, at other times, you will simply be allowed to wander as you wish, on your own, with a set time allotted to return to your original pick up point.
The sights, sounds and musty smells of those tremendous, borderline terrifying temples to the hereafter flowed unchecked through my mind, much like the Nile of old, as the air conditioning of our coach kicked in with a merciful purr, and a torrent of cold, sweet water slaked my by now monumental thirst.
Prim, proper and perfectly poised against the sun splashed Luxor quayside, the M/S Tulip greeted her returning guests with cold drinks, hot towels, and a bountiful buffet lunch served downstairs in the main, air conditioned, window walled dining room. As I settled in for the soup course and tore at warm, sweet bread, the Nile outside started to swirl, hiss and gush past our windows. Donkeys stood in the shade of barely swaying date palms, while water bearers and trinket sellers made their last desperate, impassioned pitches to the few remaining passengers still standing outside on the upper deck.
They faded like dots into the distance as we achieved mid stream. much as the entrances to those awe inspiring west bank tombs had faded into the heat haze as we regained the east side of the Nile, and the realm of the living. And, as I contemplated an afternoon of glorious winter’s sunning on this ancient, spellbinding river, I realised that I had seldom, if indeed ever, felt quite as alive as I did right then.
For those of you asking who I travelled with on this trip, it was arranged from the UK by a company called Discover Egypt. You can see their website at; http://www.discoveregypt.co.uk
Royal Caribbean International has placed a formal order for a sixth Oasis-class vessel with delivery aimed for in the autumn of 2023, it has been confirmed today.
The new, as yet nameless vessel will be built at the famed French shipyard of Chantiers De L’Atlantique at Saint Nazaire.
The news comes as speculation continues that at least one of this gigantic class of vessels will eventually be dispatched to the Far East. Today’s announcement now makes that move look more likely than not.
It’s also a staggering statement of intent, as these groundbreaking new vessels continue to arrive at quite a rate of knots. Royal Caribbean’s previous landmark achievement in completing the six-ship Vision Class in the mid to late 1990’s look positively tame by comparison. And even the subsequent Voyager class only ran to a five unit build.
This is yet another surge of forward momentum from this vast, maritime juggernaut of a company. Right now, Royal Caribbean International looks to be quite literally unstoppable.
Israeli niche cruise operator, Mano Cruises, has just unveiled it’s new flagship, the 41,000 ton Crown Iris.
The much travelled ship (she began life in 1992 as the Royal Majesty) has benefited from an extensive refurbishment over the winter that entailed enhancements to all cabins and suites on board, as well as new decor and soft furnishings across many of the public areas on Five Deck.
Five restaurants are available for around 1400 passengers on a series of sailings from the port of Haifa. These range from two, three, four and five night ‘taster’ cruises to full, ten to fourteen day Mediterranean itineraries. The inaugural cruise is a fourteen day voyage to Greece and the Eastern Mediterranean, scheduled to sail on March 3rd.
Nothing structural seems to have been done to change the vessel, other than the addition of a small, spiral water slide to the smaller, aft pool on the upper deck. That same upper deck now features new outdoor furniture as well.
Crown Iris takes over the role of the Golden Iris, fondly remembered by many as the Cunard Princess. The company has retained that ship, though it intends to try and charter her out in the foreseeable future. For now at least, Mano Cruises remains very much a one ship operation.
For many, a cruise on the Nile is, quite simply, the trip of a lifetime. In terms of getting right up close and personal to one of the most amazing and storied civilisations of the past, it ticks just about every box that you could possibly dream of.
You get to see and savour those incredible sights from a safe, comfortable base that feeds you, accommodates and cossets you, and then delivers you into a whole raft of stunning historical hot spots. And you get to see those sites in the company of some highly qualified, hugely knowledgeable guides whose collective expertise alone is arguably worth the journey.. For sure, there’s a lot to be said for taking such a safe, comfortable way to see the ‘greatest hits’ of Egypt in such a quiet, elegant, Olde Worlde kind of style.
But there are some things that you should prep for before you go; things that might, if taken heed of and allowed for in advance, actually enhance the quality of you trip even further. So, without further ado, let’s look at some of them….
DON’T DRINK THE TAP WATER. EVER.
No ifs, no buts, just don’t. Don’t even use the stuff for brushing your teeth, either. Instead, always use bottled water and, when doing so, first ensure that the seal of the cap isn’t broken, either.
Want ice in your drink? First, check that the ice on board has actually been made from bottled water, rather than the stuff emanating from the taps. It takes no time at all to ask, and you might just save yourself from a whole world of pain and discomfort.
DO EXPECT THE UNEXPECTED….
Don’t just make the blithe assumption that your river boat will be patronised solely by passengers belonging to the Anglo-Saxon speaking races. Interest in Egypt is universal, and people from all corners of the globe share that same curious, almost reverent sense of wonder that brought you there in the first place, too.
On our recent voyage, we had small groups of Chinese, Japanese, Americans, French, and even a few Australians on board. In general, the different nationalities stuck together on board at mealtimes, and during free time in the lounge, or out on deck. There was very little real crossover-cultural or actual-between any of them.
This is not as surprising as it might seem; after all, each group had its own, dedicated tour guide on board. Each of these was fluent in the national language of the group and, because of his (or her) knowledge and depth of experience, their accessibility and ability to communicate, each nationality naturally enough tended to pivot around their own guides. This isn’t snobbery, and certainly not a racist thing; it was simply a practical way of making the best of your time, both on board and ashore.
Because the river boats sometimes cater for several different nationalities at once, there’s an obvious need to provide at least some kind of comfort food for each one. Conversely, there are always going to be some people who, quite unsurprisingly, want to try some of the more staple local Egyptian local dishes.
On the other hand, the river boats are relatively small, as are the galleys that turn out each of the three main meals for up to 180 guests per day, not to mention the crew. The ability to collect and collate fresh supplies as they sail up and down the Nile is pretty limited; the local infrastructure is inadequate to support the moving of such quantities.
So don’t expect the wealth of taste and choices that you would find on, say, a Royal Caribbean cruise. There simply isn’t the space or the scope to create it.
In general, breakfast, lunch and dinner are buffet self service, though sometimes for dinner you will be offered the choice of a main course that you usually pick out on the previous lunchtime. Typically, these revolve around beef, chicken or fish.
You’ll usually sit for all three main meals at tables assigned to your tour group for the entire duration of the trip. When sailing the river on sunny days, sometimes a lunchtime buffet up on deck will replace sit down lunch in the dining room. And afternoon tea, complete with the gorgeous biscuits, cakes and crepes for which the Egyptians are rightly known, is definitely not to be missed as you cruise the Nile. It’s an indulgent little bit of down time and-should you need an excuse-just consider it as a rightly earned reward for all that dutiful traipsing that you did ashore, earlier in the day.
EXPECT QUIET NIGHTS…..
If you’ve come here hoping to find a late night party boat, you’ve probably come to the wrong place. Egypt is a cultural binge where the emphasis is on feeding the mind and soul, rather than potentially hammering the liver. In general, bars on most river boats are empty by eleven o’clock at night, though you can usually order drinks via room service if you feel the need.
The size and scale of the river boats means that you can forget the glitzy casinos and fast paced floor shows, as well as the cosy piano bars found on the big, ocean going cruise ships. Most after dinner conversation revolves around recounting the visual highlights of the day over a couple of nightcaps.
Again, this should hardly be surprising. Many tours necessitate an early morning start just to avoid the extreme excess of Egypt’s mid day heat. And, if the sheer intoxication of all that fabulous history all around you isn’t enough-then, in all honesty, you really probably shouldn’t be here at all.
So; there we have it. Just a few tips from my personal point of view, and gleaned from conversations had with others. Just come with an open mind, and go home with a heart and soul filled with wonder.
EDITOR’S NOTE: I travelled with Discover Egypt on this trip. If you’re liking the look of this adventure, you’ll find their website at: http://www.discoveregypt.co.uk
The Nile at twilight; a small boat emerges from the forest of reeds that throng the river bank. On board, two teenage boys cast nets into a river already tinted a shade of burnished rust by the setting sun. From somewhere behind them, the asthmatic braying of a donkey cuts through the air like a buzz saw.
Stage left, and a cluster of squat, feathery date palms stand like blackened ramparts against the sky. A hawk soars overhead in the warm evening currents, looking for any unsuspecting prey that might have scampered down to the river’s edge. Meanwhile, the muezzins’s evening call to prayer echoes across the water as the minarets of a mosque, it’s ochre base tinted rose red by the sunset, splinters the skyline off to port.
A herd of cows grazes indolently at the water’s edge, no longer fearing attacks these days from the flotillas of Nile crocodiles that once used to cruise these same waters like so many predatory U-boats. The building in 1960 of the great High Dam at Aswan effectively banished these great, freshwater assassins-the single most fearsome predator on the planet- back behind the safety of it’s immutable concrete barrier.
There is more. Clusters of single story adobe buildings made of mud brick huddle around open spaces at the water’s edge, with groups of playing children shouting and waving as the river boats pass by. A cart, heavily overladen with cut sugar cane, clops by at a crawl. Here and there, car horns toot impatiently at who knows what. In random sentry towers strung out along the waterfront, soldiers lounging idly out of the openings take long draws on sparking cigarettes at the start of yet another, interminable evening shift.
Here and there, bridges vault the width of the ancient river, and electricity pylons stand at attention like petrified giants of old. It’s sedate, serene, utterly spellbinding stuff.
Our boat swishes downstream with an aloof, indifferent stance that echoes to perfection the progress of royal barges belonging to Akhenaton, Cleopatra, Rameses the Great and a whole host of other long gone pharaohs that once held sway across this timeless, legendary land. I find myself musing idly as to whether Tutankhamun himself felt the same sense of rare, detached wonder as I did right then as he gazed at this same, immutable scene. Certainly, it has changed very, very little indeed since his days.
Beyond all of this, ranges of low, rolling limestone hills stand, smooth and sharp etched against the flaring umber twilight. They resemble nothing so much as slumbering, mythical monsters of old. Here, in this land of legend, lore, and often very liberal interpretation, the line between truth and fantasy is sometimes as finely drawn as the strands of a spider’s web.
Beyond this natural barrier of reeds, trees and stone lies an embarrassment of scenic glories that still staggers the human heart and mind with it’s sheer scale, symmetry and magnificence. The tombs, monuments and ageless, immutable majesty of ancient Egypt constitute what is, collectively, the greatest single archaeological theme park anywhere on the planet. Nothing else on Earth even begins to compare to it.
This, then, was the promise that lay beyond the padded loungers and gently swaying parasols that lined the sun deck of the M.S. Tulip, our very own ‘royal barge’ for the week. Along her flanks, the age old River Nile hissed and swished by, fanning out in her wake to form an unbroken thread that joined us directly to that fabulous, storied past. Ahead lay what can only be described as the adventure of a lifetime; Egypt, up close and personal.
Consider this intro as your personal invite to join me for the rest of the journey……