Tag Archives: river cruising

CRUISING THE NILE;VISITING THE VALLEY OF THE KINGS

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Limestone escarpment in Egypt’s Valley of The Kings. Photo copyright is that of the author

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

 

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CRYSTAL CHRISTENS FIRST PURPOSE BUILT RIVER CRUISE SHIP

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The band new Crystal Bach

The Rhine at Rudesheim was the picturesque backdrop for the Sunday christening ceremony for the Crystal Bach, the first purpose built new river ship for the luxury brand. The vessel, the first of a class of four, is in fact the first purpose built new ship for the Crystal brand since the launch of Crystal Serenity back in 2003.

Crystal Bach marks the evolution of the prestige Crystal experience onto a more intimate and engaging stage for prospective guests. The all suite, all balcony ship is, quite literally, in a class of her own- at least until her three siblings come on line. Unlike most ships on the rivers of Europe, she offers truly all inclusive pricing to the top end river cruise market, and she also has the added benefit of being launched by an across the board hospitality team widely regarded as being the most accomplished in their field.

In addition, reviews for start up river scion, Crystal Mozart, have been universally favourable; not as easy a start as you’d imagine for a cruise line trying to break into the famously competitive European river cruise arena.

There’s real bustle and momentum in the Crystal universe of late, what with the launching of the line’s luxurious new air cruiser, the Boeing 777 named Crystal Skye, and the imminent major surgery about to be undergone by fleet stalwart, Crystal Symphony. The scheduled October/November refit will see the fabled ship enhanced with a series of new penthouses and penthouse suites, a completely refreshed series of dining options, including open seating in the main Waterside Restaurant, and a consequent increase in the amount of on board space, as guest numbers on board will be lower as a result of some of the smaller cabins being re-crafted into larger spaces.

Interesting times and intriguing tides. As ever, stay tuned for updates.

ABOARD THE RIVER BEATRICE ON THE DANUBE

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The River Beatrice at Durnstein, Austria

While the art of cruising down almost any river is truly relaxing, certain elements aboard some boats combine to make the experience even sweeter. Having just spent a week on Uniworld’s sybaritic River Beatrice sailing between Budapest and Passau, I came to the inevitable conclusion that the sheer luxury of the hardware and soft furnishings on board, together with the all inclusive nature of the Uniworld experience, went a huge way towards creating a level of pampered indolence that enhanced the overall vibe quite considerably.

How so? Let me run through a few salient points here…

The white. twin level entrance lobby, with its vast central chandelier, made a stunning focal point.But it was the little glass jars full of gummy bears and other sweet treats, free all day long, that gave it a kind of slightly naughty, kid-at-the-sweet- shop feel. I must have snaffled at least two handfuls of those gummy goodies, each and every day. My bad. Bite me.

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Room #317 aboard the River Beatrice

The cabins. Roomy for a river boat at some 150 sq feet; all white accents around a Savoir double bed that was a dream destination in its own right. Small marble bathroom with a strong, potent shower and L’Occitaine goodies on tap. Ample storage space, fluffy towels and bathrobes and, best of all, floor to ceiling glass doors that opened onto the scenery drifting past your window. How wonderful to nurse a nightcap there- like a little window box opening onto the stars. Snug, spotless; utterly sybaritic.

The restaurant. Open seating for all meals, served as a mixture of buffet and waiter service for breakfast and lunch, and a slightly more formal, five course affair at dinner. Menus featuring superb local produce- freshly caught fish and many fresh, local vegetables. And, quite simply, the best Wiener Schnitzel that I have ever tasted anywhere. Pre-dinner treats also appeared in the lounge bar every night.

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Partial view of the lounge on the River Beatrice, looking ft from starboard

The lounge bar; an elegant, horseshoe shaped expanse of floor to ceiling glass walls, with its own bar, dance floor, and super comfy sofa and chair groupings. The duo that played in here every night were simply the best I have ever heard on any river cruiser.

The deck furniture; plump, cushioned sunbeds with adjustable awnings overhead. Tables and chairs sprinkled along the entire, narrow expanse. Perfectly primped topiary that added a touch of raffish class to a place where every bit of furniture constituted a genuine hazard to activity of any kind. Peachy.

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Upper deck of the River Beatrice on a sunny day in Budapest

The service- right up there with any deluxe boutique hotel that you can imagine. I was totally amazed to find the lounge bar in the capable hands of a barman I remembered from the Queen Mary 2, no less. Attentive without being intrusive, genuinely nothing seemed to be too much trouble. The Uniworld staff- from top to bottom- were friendly without ever becoming overly familiar.

Little things matter; the free Wi-Fi was such a boon, as were the free bicycles that we carried along with us. And the size of the boat- long and narrow as she was- meant that we could tie up almost anywhere. Often as not, we simply rocked up in the middle of town, literally steps from all of the sweet spots.

So- to coin a phrase- these are just a few of ‘my favourite things’ aboard the low slung, highly styled little jewel box that is the River Beatrice.

Nice, no?

RIVER CRUISING THE TITAN TRAVEL WAY

P1010582.jpgOver the last few years, the growth in the popularity of river cruising has been nothing short of phenomenal. Companies such as Viking, Uniworld and AMA Waterways have raised the excellence and elegance of the river cruise experience to a level that would have been undreamed of even a decade ago, especially along the waterways of western Europe like the Rhine, Moselle, the Rhone and, of course, the Danube.

In terms of the UK market, there is no doubt in my mind that Titan Travel UK offers the most all inclusive, comprehensive and well thought out packages of any river cruise operator. They literally offer a bespoke, door to door service from first to last that amounts to nothing less than a kind of cocoon, one that smooths all the normal daily irritants of long haul travel neatly out of the way. And, while the overall price that you pay might look high at first glance, the real value becomes clear once broken down into it’s constituent parts.

The route I took was a Danube cruise aboard Uniworld’s stunning River Beatrice, sailing from Budapest to Passau, via a string of amazing stops along that mighty river. To join this cruise meant flying from Heathrow to Budapest, and then flying back from Munich a week later.

Being based in the north east of England, the journey to and from Heathrow usually throws up certain logistical hurdles. Not so with Titan, however.

I was picked up-bang on time- from own own front door by a uniformed driver in a very comfortable vehicle, and taken to Newcastle Airport. There I checked in for a short shuttle flight to London. So far, so good.

Once at Heathrow, uniformed Titan staff showed me to the car that took me to my included, overnight airport hotel. As I had an early flight to Budapest next morning, Titan included the overnight hotel stay too, as well as my hotel to airport transfers in the morning.

On arrival at Budapest, more Titan staff assisted us with our bags and our bearings, ushering us onto a comfortable coach that literally stopped at the gangway of the boat itself, right on the edge of the Danube. The entire boarding procedure took five minutes, from start to finish.

The great thing about the cruise itself is that Titan uses only the best quality river cruisers. They charter a number of the cabins on each of the top notch river cruises, and allocate these to their booked clients. Our sweep down the Danube on the River Beatrice included a choice of two or more free excursions in every port of call, complete with the use of ‘quiet boxes’ and the services of a highly knowledgeable local guide.

Uniworld is a truly all inclusive product, with all food and drink- top quality stuff, too- folded neatly into the fare. Even the breakfast buffet featured inclusive Jacquart champagne for those all important, early morning Mimosas and Bloody Mary’s. The level of service, care and attention is easily the level of a highly styled boutique hotel.

At the end of a brilliant week long adventure, we were collected from the boat at Passau for the two hour drive to Munich Airport where, once again, uniformed Titan staff whisked us through the hubbub of one of Europe’s major international airports. Hours later, after I had alighted from my return shuttle flight to Newcastle, my driver was already waiting to take me home. Painless.

What you have in effect here is a stress free product; a kind of magic ‘flying carpet’ that simply delivers you smartly, with a minimum of fuss, into the centre of everything you want to see, and then wafts you home again at the end.

For older people with perhaps limited mobility, or those unsure of the often contradictory procedures involved in international travel, Titan offers a service that is a byword for both quality and, more important, reliability. For many, this kind of calm, personal service is somewhat akin to a comfort blanket. And, for anyone travelling from another continent, this kind of all inclusive service is one that is surely worthy of your consideration.