Ages ago, before I left London in September, I made a list of places I wanted to go.
Egypt was on the list.
I had done some research (OK a lot of research) on Nile cruises and I kept coming back to one: Nour el Nil. I’ll be honest — it was the red and white sails and the crystal chandeliers that got me. Sigh. Doing it for the ‘gram.
I didn’t think anyone would want to go with me to Egypt. You know…because everyone thinks it’s unsafe. I had done my own research though and I felt comfortable going. Although I didn’t necessarily want to go alone.
Luckily for me, within *minutes* of e-mailing my friends Karen and Bob about Nour el Nil, they’d said yes and we had a date and we were going to Egypt! It was kinda crazy actually how quickly it all came together. (Karen and Bob are the owners of The Frost House, a mid-century modern home in Indiana that is totally worth following on Instagram.)
I wish all travel plans with friends were this easy.
Nour el Nil is a dahabiya, a smaller sailing barge for about 40 people as opposed to the baby cruise ships for 200 that make their way down the Nile. Historically, dahabiyas were the vessels that took tourists up and down the Nile for years until the invention of the steam engine.
I feel like selecting Nour el Nil for our cruise down the Nile is one of the best decisions I have ever made. Confirmed for me shortly before we set sail when Pilar Guzman, former Editor and Chief of Conde Nast Traveler, wrote about her trip on Nour el Nil and how fabulous it was.
She was right. cruising down the Nile with Nour el Nil was also one of the best vacations I have ever had. The pace was totally my pace. One big thing a day. Maybe two. Max three. Great food. Great wine — Le Baron Egyptian sparkling wine is really very good — and great conversation. A little walking but nothing too strenuous or time consuming.
Itinerary on Nour el Nil
We did so much but yet so little on Nour el Nil. If you, like me, like to know what is going on at all times of the day, you will struggle a bit unless you are good at talking to people and getting the information you need. There is no printed agenda for the day pushed under your door every evening. There is no white board with the day’s plan in the common area. There is just your boat manager (maybe) telling everyone at breakfast (maybe) what is going to happen next and then (maybe) at lunch he’ll (maybe) tell you again. If you want more information, you will have to ask for it! I apparently became very good at this because the rest of the passengers on Malouka — our boat — would often come to me for information. “Krista, what are we doing next? You always know what’s going on!” “Well, I talked to Sawy (our boat manager) and he says…”
Hah. It was funny.
I don’t want to give away too much because who knows what will happen on your cruise, but beyond lazing around and reading 1.5 books and eating a lot of delicious food and drinking a lot of Egyptian sparking wine, here’s what happened on our tour at a very high level:
Monday: We were picked up from the absolutely stunning Al Moudira Hotel on the West Bank of Luxor in the morning and driven around 1.5 hours to Esna, where the Nour el Nil boats depart from. Once we were in Esna, our driver and the team from Nour el Nil moved our luggage to the boats and we went off with two guides to visit The Temple of Khnum.
It was a really hot day and the temple was blissfully cool. There was a lot of restoration work going on in and around the temple — watching the workers was actually pretty interesting as they passed items up and down a steep hill at the back of the temple.
Some of the columns still boasted their original colors which was amazing.
After a quick gauntlet through the market in front of the temple where everyone wanted to sell us something, we headed over to the Nour el Nil boats. There was a small moment of panic in that our luggage seemed to have been distributed haphazardly among the boats but eventually we found everything.
We quickly dropped our bags off in our cute all white rooms and went off to explore the rest of the Malouka.
The library on the boat was quite beautiful but we never really spent any time here! We spent all our time on deck.
Soon the sails were up and we were on our way, cruising down the Nile. We had a wonderful lunch on board and then visited a local village later in the afternoon. For some reason, I didn’t take many pictures in the village but that’s okay because that means it will be more of a surprise for you!
Tuesday: On Tuesday, we had the option of going for an early morning walk in the local countryside and watching the camels at work in the fields. A lot of people chose to sleep in instead but I had a great time doing this. I loved watching all the animals and the people. (The trails were a bit muddy though so as I mention below, proper footwear is essential!)
Once the camels were loaded up with sugarcane, we followed them to the sugarcane barge which was in the process of being filled.
The barge was a beehive of activity so early in the morning. It was a bit of organized chaos!
We spent a while chatting with the guests on the other Nour el Nil dahabiyas along with our crews and watching the activity before heading back on board for breakfast.
Later in the morning once everyone was awake and fed, we took a meandering walk to El Kab and toured a few of the tombs. We were some of the only tourists there — it was amazing. The engravings are truly magnificent and in pretty excellent condition considering some parts of El Kab are from 3000 BC!
After a leisurely lunch and some more cruising, we headed to the Temple of Edfu, one of the most well-preserved Egyptian temples. It was truly stunning. All in all, this was a really action-packed day. I was actually worried that every day would be like this — I like a bit more downtime — but as it turned out, I had nothing to fear.
Wednesday: Wednesday was apparently a pretty chill day because I did not take a lot of pictures of anything but water and boats. I think we went for a walk in the morning because I also took some pictures of plants. I skipped the main evening walk once they said it would be about two hours long and just planned on chilling on the boat with a few others. But then Captain Hamdi took us on his own personalized tour of our docking area for the evening, cracking us up with all his jokes along the way. I think it was nice to have such a chill day like this after the previous day’s activities.
Thursday: On Thursday morning, we got the official version of the tour of the tombs above that Captain Hamdi took us on the night before. It wasn’t half as entertaining — Captain Hamdi is a ham — but it was still informative and interesting.
Later in the day, we stopped at a local village for some tea and shisha. Afterwards, a bunch of guests went swimming in the Nile but I decided to stay on the boat and just watch everyone go swimming. (The current is pretty fast and by all reports, in late March, the water was COLD.)
The light on the Nile is truly fabulous and we enjoyed another beautiful sunset, sad that we only had two more evenings on the boat together. What I found amazing is that everything went so quickly but yet so slowly. How is that possible??
Friday: On Friday, we visited Kom Ombo, also known as the Crocodile Temple.
It is seriously amazing to me that these structures are still standing over two thousand years later.
After a quick tour of the Crocodile Museum — lots of mummified crocodiles at all stages of life — and some more sailing, we docked for the evening. After a lovely farewell dinner and saying goodbye to everyone, we packed our bags and went to sleep on the Malouka for the very last time. (Unless that is I can find some people to go with me for a second trip!)
Saturday: After an early breakfast on Saturday morning, we left the boat around 9 am. Nour el Nil arranged our transfer to The Sofitel Old Cataract where we spent a few hours drinking coffee and taking picture while we waited for our flight back to Cairo. In hindsight, I wish we had stayed a night at The Old Cataract. OR if that wasn’t feasible, I wish we had taken an earlier flight to Cairo. We lost a few hours here. It was a very relaxing few hours though — we were too templed out to see anything else in Aswan at this point.
OK, now that you know about the itinerary, here are a few more logistical and operational things you should know about Nour el Nil.
Rooms on Our Nour el Nil Dahabiya, Malouka
The rooms on our dahabiya were very simple. They are nicely decorated but they are fairly basic. To be fair, the photos online on Nour el Nil’s website show them at their very very best. I thought the bed was super comfortable — big cozy duvet and great high mattress — but some on our boat people found the mattress too hard. If anything, I think I could have done with nicer pillows. (Note that the bed in my room was “matrimonial” — i.e., two twin beds pushed together. I know this can really annoy some Americans but it doesn’t bother me.) The bathroom is actually a decent size for a boat and there are a lot of mirrors — something I think most hotel rooms lack! If I lived on this boat, I would probably re-tile and re-grout the bathroom. In general, I didn’t spend any time in my room except at night and one short nap I took one afternoon so you should be fine. But if you are looking for The Ritz, this isn’t it. And if you’re used to US cruise ships with their evening turn down service, this isn’t it either. One thing about the hot water — there was one morning where I took a shower later that everyone else on the boat and didn’t have the hottest shower because of it. The rest of the cruise was totally fine but I made it a point from then on to take showers at times when I guessed there would be plenty of hot water.
Food & Drinks on Nour el Nil
I loved loved loved the food on our cruise — my review of the food is overwhelmingly postive! On the Malouka, we had Chef Hashem who was in the Army for many years. I thought his food was excellent. The Egyptian fish and chips was a fun highlight, as was the falafel lunch we enjoyed on the low seating one afternoon. I thought the food was really healthy — lots of vegetables and salads if you wanted them. Plenty of meat for the meat lovers. The lamb moussaka one evening was particularly good.
I think I mentioned earlier (maybe like three times already?) my love of the Egyptian sparkling wine on Nour el Nil, Le Baron. We later encountered it in other hotels in Cairo so you can look forward to it on your trip to Egypt. On the boat, although wine and beer are available, the crew is limited in what mixed drinks they can provide. Consider bringing a few bottles of duty free booze with you. One of our fellow travelers brought some Scotch whisky that was particular popular one evening. And one afternoon, the crew made us cocktails out of the random assorted alcohol that our fellow passengers had brought along. We christened one Brazilian caipirinha-style beverage “The Malouka” after our boat. I came back from my nap one afternoon to find everyone drinking fresh Bloody Marys made with real tomato juice. The crew has access to plenty of fresh fruit and herbs so honestly, as the sun starts to set, get creative with your cocktail making!
Note that there are surprise snacks! But you have to know to ask for them. We were huge fans of the popcorn as well as the peanuts from Esna — once we discovered they existed. You can also get cheese and olives. I was so surprised one day when I saw one of our British passengers stretched out like a pasha, eating from a plate of cheddar!! I was like “Where did you get the dairy products???”
There was one vegan on our cruise and she was well-catered for. At breakfast each morning, she got huge platters of amazingly fresh looking fruit. I sorta wonder in hindsight if I could have asked for anything more interesting for breakfast. I stuck with a cheese omelette most days and it was very good. A few passengers became huge fans of the “Spanish omelette” — really just an omelette with peppers and onions. In short, you won’t go hungry at breakfast but don’t hesitate to ask for something you want. Thinking back, I probably would have asked for my own big fruit platter with my breakfast and shared it with the table. The OJ at breakfast is particularly delicious. And the coffee is really good too — just make sure you let the French press sit for a while before you push it down. I’m all about the French press but it seemed to be new to some of our fellow American travelers.
Weather & Packing for Your Nour el Nil Cruise
It will be very cool in the evening!! You may be surprised by this. I packed a lot of summer dresses that I never wore because after 5 pm, I needed layers. I lived in two hoodies I picked up at the last minute at Uniqlo before leaving London and two long dresses I bought from Boden.
I brought a pair of old New Balance sneakers and in hindsight, I wish I had brought some sturdy high-top sneakers or hiking boots like these modern Forsake hiking boots. The crew will take you for walks most days and it can be either a bit muddy or sandy or both. My socks were always totally dirty inside and out by the time I got back to the boat BUT the crew actually cleaned them for me!!??? (I don’t believe laundry service is provided generally but apparently they will clean your socks if you leave them in your shoes!) The crew will also clean your shoes. Amazing.
Definitely bring a good hat because you will out in the sun a lot while you are touring around. I recommend a roll up hat like this one so it’s easy to pack. Sunscreen is also a must.
You will have some downtime most days after lunch and before dinner. Bring a few books or your Kindle. I spent a lot of time on deck, just reading and watching the Nile go by. It was lovely. I want to do it again.
One last thing — you may want to bring small gifts for locals you encounter. We learned for example that some locals like pens…apparently they are a bit expensive in Egypt? I also wish I had brought some sort of American candy for the kids we encountered.
Service on Our Nour el Nil Cruise
I thought service on the boat was excellent. One afternoon, I admired the kohl on Alberto’s eyes and he offered to apply some for me the next day. (Apparently Chef Hashem is the kohl expert. He can also give you a haircut if you need one.) Everyone on the Malouka was very sweet and attentive. Maybe because I had been traveling for six months by the time I got to Egypt, but I asked everyone’s names and by Day 2, I knew most of the crew. This is a very simple thing that I suggest you do…getting to know the crew makes the cruise so much more enjoyable and interesting. Captain Hamdi was particularly fun to get to know…such a positive, happy person. The world needs more Captain Humpty Dumptys! (His nickname.)
Money on the Boat
Bring a lot of cash. You’ll want to tip at least 100 euros for each person in a cabin per Nour el Nil’s recommendation. I tipped a bit more because I thought the service was excellent and I’m American and it’s hard for me not to tip. And then you’ll need to pay your bar bill. Karen, Bob and I split many of our drinks but we uh still drank a lot of Egyptian sparkling wine which was 500 Egyptian pounds a bottle in early 2019. In hindsight, I wish I had brought about $500 USD in Egyptian pounds with me so I didn’t have to run to the cash machine to pay my bill at the end. On the night before the end of the cruise, I asked for an approximation of how much I owed. Then many of us went to the cash machine in Kom Ombo. (Lots of people piled into the back of a covered pickup truck but I shared a tuk-tuk with one of the guys from my boat along with someone from Nour el Nil.) The ATM at the last cruise stop at the Crocodile temple in Kom Ombo is about a 10 to 15 minute bumpy drive from where the boats dock. The cool thing is that you actually get to see a town along the Nile but it’s still sort of a pain of a ride. (Although maybe the view from the back of the pick-up truck isn’t as good as the one from the tuk-tuk.) When we went to the ATM, the queue was pretty long and one of the two ATMs ran out of cash. It was basically an hour that I would have rather spent on the boat!
The ATMs by the dock at the Temple of Edfu are MUCH more convenient so get money from there if you need to a few days earlier. It’s a very very short horse & buggy of ride or taxi ride from the dock. We had our driver take me to the cash machine on the way back from the temple. So tip #1: Get money in Cairo or Luxor. Tip #2: Get money in Esna. Tip #3: Get money at one of the cash machines by the dock at the Temple of Edfu. Tip #4: Try to avoid waiting until Kom Ombo to get money.
Note you might be limited in how many Egyptian pounds you can take out. (3000?) But just try again and it may let you take out the same amount a second time. (That’s what a few people on the Malouka said worked for them.)
I’ve just told you to bring a lot of cash but here’s the thing…there’s no safe in the room on Nour el Nil. There was a nightstand drawer in my room that I could lock but it was fairly basic. I trusted the crew implicitly but you may want to consider a money belt or Pacsafe. Most passengers just left their stuff in their rooms but I tended to carry my passport and wallet with me everywhere because that’s just how I am.
Other Amenities on our Nou el Nil Cruise
Note that we traveled in a group of four Nour el Nil dhabiyas. There was a shop on one of the boats with really beautiful jewelry and clothing — another reason to bring more cash — and there was also the option of getting a massage. I wish these things had been better advertised because we didn’t figure this out til the 2nd to last night on the cruise.
Nour el Nil: My Ultimate Review
Nour el Nil is a wonderful, wonderful way to experience The Nile — again my review of Nour el Nil and our dahabiya exerience is overwhelmingly positive. We passed a lot of the bigger boats (or well, they passed us) and we felt very very lucky to be having such an intimate experience on our dahabiya. You will too. You should go!