Enchanting Egypt

Ginny Weeks returns to Egypt to take a traditional tour of the Nile. Published on MSN Travel.

My boyfriend and I arrived in Luxor first thing on a very hot April morning and made our way to our hotel, past miles of neat banana and sugar cane fields. As we drove along the road, farmers were out early tending to their crops and fearless donkeys plodded alongside huge lorries and tractors carrying massive loads of dried sugar cane.

We were staying at a hotel called Al Moudira. As first impressions go, it was pretty impressive. The reception opened out into a large open courtyard, bordered with the most exquisite antique doors and shutters saved from a regal house in Cairo that was being knocked down.

The hotel has over 50 rooms, each hand painted in different themes by a local Egyptian man and a Lebanese artist. One extraordinary example had stars painted all over the ceiling, a water fountain in the middle of the room and a sunken bathroom with huge stained glass windows.

What was awfully sad – but wonderful for us – was that the place was completely empty. We were the only guests there and for two days we had the place to ourselves. After going to visit the Valley of the Kings (including the Tomb of Tutankhamun, which now houses a rather glittery replica mummy) we would return by lunchtime and laze by the pool all afternoon. In the evenings we feasted on the simple but delicious Lebanese food.

On our final evening we took a short taxi ride to the guest house Beit Sabee, owned by a company called Nour el Nil who also owned the boat we were to sail on the Nile the next day. A small, family-run business, the staff and owners couldn’t have given us a nicer welcome. The place epitomised ‘cheap and chic’ with its wonderful French style – think blue shutters, white linen, wicker furniture and simple furnishings. It also had the most astonishing view from the roof terrace with metropolitan Luxor on one side and the desert mountains on the other. We spent the night drinking beer and talking to two French archaeologists, who were trying to find a secret tomb in the mountains. With the sun setting and the warm desert breeze keeping us cool it was all a bit Indiana Jones but in a really good way.

Up early the next morning we made our way to the merchant town of Esna via a few hotels to pick up the other guests who would be joining us on a six-day sailing trip on the Nile. All we knew was that our boat was called ‘Meroe’ and could accommodate up to 20 guests. It was the largest of Nour el Nils’s fleet of four boats. After a brief tour of the Temple of Khnum, a tall temple nine metres below street level, we made our way through the dusty streets to the boat.

Meroe was stunning – a gorgeous mix of traditional Nile sailing boat or dahabieh and five-star luxury. As we sat on the loungers on the huge wooden deck, sipping freshly made lemonade and cooling off under the white linen roof, the boat pulled away so smoothly we hardly noticed.

We were staying in one of the panoramic suites which are situated at the back of boat and have floor-to-ceiling glass windows which give you the prettiest view of the river. The air-conditioned bedroom, which was a generous size, was in an elegant and luxurious colonial style, completely white with Egyptian cotton bedding and a silver chandelier.

The idea of staying on a boat with a group of strangers was a slightly unnerving one but we couldn’t have been luckier with our fellow travellers, who were a happy, interesting bunch. They consisted of a Colombian family – the mum was an interior designer, the daughter worked for Tiffany designing handbags and one son worked in the stock market in New York while the other son was a film director from Miami. There were also two immaculately turned out older ladies, one Egyptian, one Swiss, who kept evening conversations interesting with tales of their glamorous lives. Half way through the trip we were also joined by a sweet young French couple and their little baby boy.

We spent the next few days lazing about on the boat, lounging on one of the many day beds while the river, with its ever-changing scenery, drifted by. The staff, always attentive to our needs but never over the top, provided a steady stream of delicious meals, drinks and snacks, all sourced from local farmers and markets. One of my favourite times of day was around 4pm when, without fail, tea and date cakes would be served.

Aside from eating, reading and chatting, everyday there would be somewhere to go and explore, be that a local village, a museum or an ancient burial site. Without ever feeling overloaded with information, our guide talked us through each place with such detail and knowledge that we came away feeling as if we had learned huge amounts about Ancient Egyptian culture. It was truly fascinating.

As the days passed the landscape changed as we moved further down river. Perfect, jade green fields where donkeys and buffalo cooled off on the river banks turned into desert and sandy dunes. On the last day the desert breeze coming off the mountain was warm but we cooled off with a swim in the Nile.

On our arrival in Aswan the staff gathered to say their goodbyes. It felt really sad to be ending our adventure; it had been wonderful to see a different side of the Nile, away from the steam cruisers and back to tradition.

Back on dry land we spent one night in Aswan at the famous Old Cataract hotel, a Victorian palace made famous by Winston Churchill, who used to holiday there. Sitting on the edge of the Nile, it must have one of the best views in Egypt; from our room we could see out to Elephantine Island (which has an ancient village), the desert and the Nile. That night we had a sumptuous French dinner in the 1902 restaurant beneath the hotel’s iconic Arabian dome.

On our final day we took a taxi back to Luxor and spent a relaxing day and night at the Winter Palace, a hotel built in 1886 by British explorers with sprawling tropical gardens and a very lovely pool.

That last night we felt as if we’d been away a month, our bodies and minds so rejuvenated by the wonders of Egypt, both modern and old. We would definitely return.

Ginny Weeks travelled with Egypt Air.