Experiencing a Luxury Dahabiya on the Nile
We congregated in the lobby of Luxor’s Winter Palace while our guide, Adele, gathered up our crew for the adventure that lay ahead. With six other passengers and our driver loaded up we began our journey together; the start of five nights that we’d be spending with newfound friends aboard Nour el Nil, a luxury dahabiya sailing from Luxor to Aswan. More precisely, the boat trip began in Esna, a small town about an hour’s drive along the Nile River from Luxor where we would meet the boat and crew for the next stretch of our stay in Egypt.
I debated heavily on how to recap our journey on Nour el Nil. Do I share it day by day with our itinerary and highlights or do I delve into a couple of deeper posts on the overall experience, and one broad post sharing the detailed itinerary of our day-by-day in practice? Ultimately, I thought this format would be best; two bigger posts that I hope will be helpful and provide some insight for those considering Nour el Nil and wondering more about the experience on board.
If there’s something that I didn’t answer, please leave a comment below with your question and I’d be happy to share some thoughts and further insight!
Let’s start with the boat itself. We were on board Nour el Nil’s Meroe, one of a handful of boats that are part of Nour el Nil’s collection. Boats range in size, but they’re all fundamentally similar: luxury dahabiyas that sail peacefully along the Nile on a five-day journey, stopping at small villages and historic sites along the way.
Our boat was equipped with 10 berths (2 suites + 8 rooms), but only about half were occupied during our journey, one of the season’s first. We opted for a panoramic suite (about 15 – 20% more expensive than the standard rooms), which offered gorgeous Nile River views. If you’re debating whether it’s worth the splurge, it’s worth knowing that the deck and common spaces are lovely and probably where you’ll spend the bulk of your time. We did find ourselves enjoying midday snoozes though, since we were often up early in the morning for breakfast before our excursions.
The point of the cruise is to disconnect, and the deck provides a great space for daytime lounging, reading and relaxing, which were the common activities of choice by day between our stops. There’s also a chess set on board which Scott and I pretty much monopolized the entire time. If you’re a sailor, the crew is happy to let you take the helm for a bit and experience sailing on the Nile.
Downstairs, there’s a library and entertainment room available for guests, though it was used very infrequently if at all from what we saw. It’s a gorgeous space though, perfect for a nightcap or a change of scenery on board. For those that fear being too disconnected, there is WiFi on board, though it can be a bit spotty, as you’d likely expect. I purchased a SIM card at the Luxor airport upon arrival, which was a great way of having a decent amount of data for staying connected for a portion of our stay.
Time On Board vs. Time Sightseeing
You may be wondering about how time is allocated during your time on Nour el Nil. This was a big question for us and one of the areas where Nour el Nil is a bit lacking from a communications perspective for me. We knew broadly what our itinerary would be based on their website (which is beautifully done), but I was surprised that we never received a welcome packet or information on this bucket list experience. The majority of us who haven’t yet been to Egypt have similar questions: what should I pack and wear? What does the day-to-day look like in terms of time on board vs. time out and about sightseeing? Is there anything we can bring to contribute to the communities that we’re visiting?
I’ll break it to you now: information sharing isn’t much better when you’re on board and I think that’s a bit of a cultural difference and perhaps a purposeful approach. It’s meant to be relaxed, and for some of us planners that can be a bit discombobulating. Generally speaking the majority of the day is spent on board. Most days we would have a morning excursion for a couple of hours at a historic site, and generally we’d have an hour or two in the afternoon for a walk through a local village to enjoy a glimpse of local life. The balance of those two elements was great, and we enjoyed getting to dock in areas where big ships could never fathom visiting. We watched as large boats cruised by on their swift 36-hour journeys down the Nile and were very pleased with our choice of being on an intimate dahabiya instead.
An itinerary laid out in advance or even a simple chalkboard sign outlining the following day’s activities would go a long way in helping prep guests for what’s to come, from when you should plan to get up (or if you could take the morning to sleep in a bit), along with what to wear and what’s in store. It would also be interesting to know more about the small communities in advance and what supplies, if any, would be useful as contributions.
Who’s On Board?
After our Amazon River cruise during our honeymoon, we were fairly confident that our Nile River cruise aboard Nour el Nil would have us as the youngest passengers by a few decades. We couldn’t have been more wrong. We were astounded by the range of passengers aboard our cruise, and pleasantly surprised with the dynamic. Here’s a quick run down to give you an example of the kinds of folks that may be on your journey: Scott and I (early 30s, expats in the Caribbean), two guy friends traveling together from London (mid-30s), an Iranian-American family from California (30s – 60s), a French couple (early 30s), a single male traveler from India (mid-30s), and two Kiwis (late 50s/early 60s). Talk about diverse! English was the common language so the majority of us toured with Adele, our local guide, while the two Frenchies (who spoke perfect English) had their own private French guide for their tours.
I’m not sure that our week is necessarily representative of a normal week aboard Nour el Nil, but I think it’s safe to say that the type of traveler that this cruise draws means that you’ll fundamentally have some common ground with other travelers on board. Most were well-traveled with a desire for adventure and a preference for boutique experiences.
Food + Drinks
Okay, if you’ve read my hotel insider pieces on the Winter Palace in Luxor and on the Nile Ritz-Carlton you’ll know that our experience with dining in Egypt left a bit to be desired. Nour el Nil was the exception that rule. Food on the boat was exceptional; not by Egyptian standards — by any standard. One of the souvenirs we took home with us was a cookbook produced by the ship called A la Table d’Eleanor, an homage to one of the founders of Nour el Nil, Eleanor, who was on the cruise with us.
All meals are included in the price and are served family style (which is very cool, not awkward). Breakfast generally started with coffee or tea, crepes, fresh cheese and locally made jams, and guests had the option of adding on eggs as well. Lunch and dinner were both major events, and varied daily. Each meal was multi-course and had options for everyone including a few that slanted towards veg (you’ll be able to dictate any allergies or restrictions in advance). Truly, food was a MAJOR highlight for us! Cocktails were inexpensive ($3 – $4 each) and the classics are doable but don’t expect craft cocktails to make an appearance. Wines are available as well including some locally produced varieties, and even our French friends aboard the ship gave them the thumbs up.
Is This Cruise Right For You?
If Egypt has been on your bucket list, a Nile River cruise is a great way to add-on to a sightseeing adventure in Egypt. A few things to keep in mind when selecting the right cruise for you:
- Nour el Nil is a slower paced Nile River cruise. To begin with, you need to be able to allocate the time to enjoy five days on the river. Other cruises – generally larger ships – breeze through in 36 hours or so. With a shorter cruise, you’ll likely end up with one stop at Edfu and miss out on the smaller sites and the village experiences.
- You’ll go beyond Ancient Egypt. If you’re someone interested in seeing daily Egyptian life, this cruise helps highlight that. We immensely enjoyed visiting villages with our crew members, meeting local families and seeing what modern daily life looks like. Each day provided us with a contrast of Ancient Egyptian sites and modern Egyptian life experiences.
- You’ll get to know your fellow passengers. You’re not anonymous on this cruise. You’ll be one of 10 – 20 people on board so expect to mingle and get to know other passengers. For some people this is a highlight, but others may be put off by this. You’ll be eating family style, going out on small group excursions, and end up spending afternoons chatting with others on board. If you prefer anonymity, this isn’t for you.
- Communications leave a bit to be desired. If you’re a planner – and of course you’re a planner if you’re working on an itinerary for an epic trip to Egypt – then the casual attitude of the day-to-day on board Nour el Nil can be a bit anxiety-inducing. I mentioned this above, but we never received an itinerary in advance or tips/thoughts on packing, etc. and never really had a firm idea of when our stops would be throughout the day. Suffice it to say that if you’re on board, be prepared to go with the flow. Each day will take shape and your main task is to unwind and go with it. I’ll be sharing a day-to-day itinerary shortly with some thoughts on attire, highlights and general sightseeing.
All in all, Nour el Nil was a highlight for us and one of the pieces we were most anticipating for our journey through Egypt. The crew is spectacular, and their friendliness and helpfulness was the ultimate highlight. After spending five days on board, saying goodbye to the crew was the most difficult part of stepping off the ship. The experience is the ultimate exercise in decompressing, unwinding, disconnecting and being present in the moment. For many of us, that takes a bit to get used to and it’s a rhythm that feels a bit unnatural when we’re used to the go-go-go of everyday. Ultimately, we found it such an awesome way to see parts of Egypt and to get a glimpse, even for brief moments, into modern-day life in the country.
Have you been on a Nile River cruise? What did you think? Leave any comments and questions below!