A trip to Egypt, for me, was always one of those complicated things. It's a destination that I have always read and heard so much about, whether in school books or movie depictions of Ancient Egyptian times. But it sits in such an unfamiliar region of the world to me and owns such a complicated history of political upheaval and military dictatorships that I didn't really know how to go about a journey to Egypt that I could feel completely comfortable with.
But that's the point, isn't it? We're never going to feel completely at ease with any place we might travel these days, are we? So, you either get busy traveling . . . or miss out on some of the great experiences available in this world.
Viking River Cruises' "Pathways of the Pharaohs" itinerary proved to be the perfect way to see all the highlights of Ancient Egypt while putting me at ease about my safety. I think a cruise tour is the perfect introduction to Egypt or any place that you might otherwise feel a bit apprehensive about.
Here is why . . .
The Program Director. Our leader on this trip was Mohamed Osama, an Egyptologist who has been leading tour groups in his country for 22 years. We would not have known where to really start to get the most out of our 12 days in Egypt. Luckily, it was all planned out for us, and Mohamed turned out to be the most excellent guide to show us the incredible sites. But the best part is how much he knows about Egypt, especially the history of Ancient Egypt, and how he could explain it to us in an interesting way.
Our group was completely enthralled by the stories of the famous pharaohs, gods, queens and other characters from many thousands of years ago, as well as discussions of important events in the modern history that are still at work shaping the culture and political structure of the country to this day.
Mohamed was extremely flexible is adjusting his conversations to fit the needs of our group of 29 Americans and Canadians. He also offered a complete rundown of how our day would proceed and a look ahead to the next day on the itinerary. After the first couple days, it was obvious how much we would come to rely on his presence -- some became a bit spoiled and harassed him at every turn for the most minute items, in fact. I'm not sure how he handles this while still smiling all the time.
Mohamed also did a wonderful job helping us navigate the nuances of everyday life as a tourist in Egypt. I'll give you examples as I go along with the journey as it unfolded. Hint: You need to be aware about the public toilets, helpful staffers at the sites and what it means to accept a shop owner's business card.
The Historic Sites. The Viking Cruises itinerary starts when you arrive in Cairo for three days of activities. We arrived late on a Friday and went straight to our hotel on a shuttle bus (this is when we first met Mohamed) to check in for the weekend. The next morning, we were off and running with our Egypt exploration, and we hit the big icons of Cairo right away.
Our hotel was the Sofitel El Gezirah located right on the Nile River, which was awesome. We couldn't believe we were in Egypt and about to start this incredible journey. Cairo is a modern and busy city, with 20 million of the nation's 90 million people packed into the urban centers. We saw Hardee's, Papa John's, TGI Friday's, KFC and Pizza Hut and many other brands you would see around the U.S.
The important archaeological site of Saqqara, home of the famous Step Pyramid, was our first stop. We had arrived to the Sahara! This is one of the most extensive dig sites in the country and is the burial location for Memphis, the capital of Ancient Egypt. The Step Pyramid, which you can't get close to because of extensive scaffolding and ongoing restoration work, is the oldest pyramid of the 123 in Egypt.
Ready for a video break? See our trip here . . .
At the Great Pyramid, you can pay an extra fee to take a walk up the long passageway to the tomb high up into the center of the legendary structure.
Also, when you go to the restrooms in Egypt, you'll either see an attendant, or one might follow you in. Attendants might hand you some toilet paper or a paper towel after you wash your hands or do nothing at all. Regardless, a tip of one Egyptian pound (the equivalent of about 10 cents) is expected. Mohamed also made this clear and handed out a stack of five of these hard-to-acquire coins to each Viking guest on the first day of the program.
On Sunday, we went to the Egyptian Museum. This place houses an immense number of relics and statues, including hundreds of mummies of humans and animals. An additional fee of about $5 is required for each camera or device that you plan to use in the museum to snap pictures. Inside, you can also access a mummy room (humans) for an additional fee. The animal mummy room is free. The room with King Tut's jewels and funeral mask is free to browse but no photos are allowed, even if you paid the camera fee.
And so it continued. One fabulous new experience after another.
After Philae Temple, we toured the Nubian Museum, and in the evening, we enjoyed a sunset ride on the Nile in a traditional Felucca boat, which has triangle sails. Crew treated us to a relaxing ride past top sites near the river in Aswan, as well as a few songs (we all had fun singing along).
A daytime visit precedes your check-in at the ship, and a light-and-sound show at night gives you a second chance to view the site before leaving Abu Simbel the next morning. Photos are prohibited inside the two temples, but you'll get plenty of good shots from outside. The structures are notable for their tall statues of Ramses II and Nefertari at the entrances of each temple. Note: This site is an entirely open area in full sunshine. Be prepared with sunscreen, a hat and water.
Sailing continues past the fortress site, and Omar el Khayam anchors for a visit to -- wait for it -- yes, another temple. Amada Temple was moved as an entire piece (on rails) about four miles farther away from the Nile because it contains well-preserved colorful carvings on plaster that could not be cut. It is a stunning site reached by a small-boat ride from the ship to shore. You'll also visit the Temple of Derr during this stop, which requires a little bit of walking along sandy desert shoreline and a path between temples. You can hitch a ride on a donkey cart ($1) if your feet are getting tired. You also can hold a crocodile, cobra or scorpion if you like. Vendors there are peddling this option for a buck or two.
The final stop on Lake Nasser the next day visits three temples, reached again by boat ride to shore at Wadi el Seboua. The main Wadi el Seboua Temple has six sphinxes at its entrance and is majestic for its location tucked between the edge of the Western Desert and Lake Nasser. Another stroll for about .6 miles (or donkey cart ride) brings us to the Temple of Dakka and Temple of Meharakka, which is unique because it has no carvings or much else interesting going for it. I would definitely say that we were all templed-out by this time in our journey.
After a stop for lunch at an Aswan hotel, we were off to the airport for our return to Cairo. We had a goodbye dinner at our accommodations, the Intercontinental City Stars, and all went our separate ways to get some rest before our flights home.
The Ships. Viking Cruises does not own the MS Mayfair or MS Omar el Khayam. The line leases cabins on the boats that are owned by the Egyptian government, so the experience is different from what you might know from a Viking River Cruise on the Rhine or Danube in Europe. They are fine, I would say, for what they are needed to do. Mayfair (150 passengers capacity) is five decks tall, with cozy rooms and a fantastic sun deck. I would spend most of my time up there on its lounging mats in the shaded areas on turf grass, dipping into the pool and two hot tubs. Mayfair has no elevator, gym or spa. An elliptical machine and exercise bike are located on the sun deck, and we had no problem getting in a workout using our handy exercise bands, too.
Omar el Khayam is a bit bigger (160 passengers on six decks), with large rooms that all have balconies. The ship also has a big pool and two hot tubs on its massive sun deck. We couldn't use our balcony on this ship because of the swarms of insects (bring bug spray). This ship has a large fitness center with plenty of equipment and two treadmills, as well as a full-service spa offering reflexology, facials and full-body massages. You have a bit of free time on the ships during the program, and I used it to grab a refreshing nap or workout and get my sleep and eat meals mainly. The vibe is very relaxed onboard, and many people like to check out the shop on each ship that sells scarves, clothes, jewelry and souvenir-type items.
Each ship also hosted an "Egyptian Night" with Nubian dancers for entertainment during which audience participation is greatly encouraged. One performer -- a chief-like character-- on Mayfair puts on an improv act using passengers that is so hilarious you'll have a sore face from laughing so hard. The ships also host an afternoon tea time on the sun deck, with tasty pastries -- and even crepes! When we were cruising, each ship had only about 50 to 60 passengers onboard (33 percent capacity). Dozens of other ships sat anchored in ports all along the Nile, inactive for years since the 2011 revolution and waiting for cruisers to return. Your fellow passengers outside the Viking group will probably be English, German, Australian and Japanese. We also found the sites we toured to be light on tourists. This made it a pleasant experience to visit the sites without throngs of people all around. But it's because many European tourists have not been quick to return to Egypt since the uprisings of five years ago, according to people we spoke to in Egypt. These same people and many others told us how much they love Americans and wanted us to tell everyone to come to Egypt. There you go!
It was nice to not be overrun with people at the sites, to be able to explore them at a leisurely pace and ensure you can get good photos. But I can also see how the slowdown in tourism creates a hardship on the economy and the lives of residents.
You get intermittent Wi-Fi service (included) on Mayfair, but there is no Internet connectivity on Omar el Khayam.
Both Colleen and I actually lost weight during our trip, which I would guess has never happened before. We also were warned that we would get sick when traveling in Egypt. I was steadfast in my belief that it wouldn't happen to me. I only drank bottled water and used bottled water to brush my teeth. I also brought along protein bars and some other packaged snacks from home to supplement my food needs while we were out touring each day. But I did indeed come down with a case of "mummy tummy" as did at least 20 others in our group of 29. We each were struck at different times during the nearly two weeks and with various ailments (stomach, fever, cold, sinus) that affected us for a day or two. This seems to be a typical problem for travelers, and I am at a loss for telling your how to avoid it. But I just sucked it up and rested in my room for a day -- eating bananas and bread and drinking water and a special tea the ship's staff brewed for me -- and I bounced back quickly.
Your safety and comfort is a priority for Viking and the Egyptian government. Western tourists are treated extremely well, so you can put your mind at ease if you have any concerns about this when weighing whether you should take a cruise in Egypt. We had a security detail (well-armed) with us at all the sites; he traveled with us on the shuttle buses.
Your program director will schedule a stop at an ATM during your trip and escort you and give any help you might need to withdraw extra money. This comes in handy because you'll find that you need extra cash to tip crew on the ships (cash only) and your security guard and bus driver as well as any other people along the way. Note: Tipping is a big deal in Egypt, and you are not-so-subtly reminded of who you should be tipping. Mohamed also did a great job of telling us who already has been tipped by Viking for certain services and how not to get duped into tipping these people who would seek to double dip. Haggling, too, is part of any shopping experience, and Mohamed told passengers what the items were actually worth (and cheerfully consoled those who had "made a merchant very happy" by overpaying).
The nights you stay at hotels in Cairo at the beginning and end of the trip include meals -- breakfast and dinner buffets -- and the facilities are quite luxurious. You'll also be treated to a couple buffet lunches at hotels during your days touring in Cairo and Aswan.
I hope this review was thorough enough to be helpful and give you an idea why you should consider a Viking Cruises trip for a journey to explore Ancient Egypt. We enjoyed it more than I expected and learned so much about the history of a country and region that I had been woefully uneducated about.
I love when trips can lead to revelations. That's why we do this, right?
Till next time, thanks for reading.
Viking Cruises hosted me on its "Pathways of the Pharaohs" journey. All opinions you see here, as always, are my own.