Malcolm Oliver, TravelPage.com, European Cruise Editor
In December 2005, I undertook a 7-night Egyptian Nile river cruise package (boat/flights). This was a voyage from Luxor to Aswan, and back, on the Domina Prestige 'Emilio' river boat. The following review mainly focuses on the boat itself, which was our home for a week. Please note, as a keen ocean cruiser, I find it impossible not to draw comparisons between my Nile experience and ocean cruising. Although a Nile cruise is a very different and very unique experience.
Although a considerably smaller vessel than all cruise ships, Nile River boats are probably bigger than you would expect riverboats to be. Emilio is 72 meters long, 12.2 meters wide and has five decks. She has 3 engines (480 HP) and two generators (412 HP). The many other boats that I saw on the Nile (there are approximately 300) seemed to have a similar hull design and internal layouts. However some are in better condition than others, with some offering a more upmarket product. Interestingly they often dock along side each other, so you have to walk through each foyer of each boat, to reach the shore. This allows one to at least compare the foyers of the different boats.
All Nile boats are rated at 4 or 5 stars by the Egyptian tourist board. Although any form of grading is very subjective, I suspect that some older boats would not score 4 stars in most people's opinion, when compared to the best boats.
Our boat was about 18 months old, and owned by an Italian hotel chain. It was generally in pristine condition, although if you looked closely you could already see some scuff marks on the walls and a few minor carpet stains from her constant weekly punishment. At this rate I guess that as early as 2008 she will probably be looking rather tired, unless a refit is undertaken.
The boat carries 140 passengers spread over three passenger decks, the lowest deck (deck one) being the crew deck. On top of the upper deck was the 'Sun deck', for sunbathing etc. The boat had a crew of around 85.
Being a relatively new ship, the internal design and quality of décor was not unlike that of a very tasteful modern cruise ship. On entering the vessel, there is a two-story atrium with a 'Titanic' style grand staircase, illuminated by a large chandelier. A reception desk and a small gift shop selling jewellery, books and postcards etc., were positioned in the lower foyer. There was also a seating area with comfortable chairs and a coffee table. Notice boards (one of the prime methods of communication onboard) occupy a central space here too. There is no daily 'News sheet' delivered to your cabin as is the norm with ocean cruises, but one was not really needed. Life is simpler onboard the Emilio.
The upper balcony of the atrium had a second gift shop (formerly a hairdressers) selling traditional clothes (or should I say tourist versions of traditional clothes) ornaments and postcards etc. A piano (which was never played on our cruise) and a sofa, coffee table and a few armchairs, also occupied some space.
There are two main public rooms. The first is a rather tasteful lounge, accessed from the foyer. This was a multi-purpose venue used for meetings, discos and occasional entertainment. It had atmospheric lighting, charming decor of brown and blond woods, with illuminated glass panels depicting musical instruments. There were many comfortable chairs and coffee tables. At the rear there was a bar and a small dance floor. One half of the room was non-smoking. It was never over crowded at any time during the cruise.
The other main public room was the dining room. Once again this was an attractive room, with small windows only just above the water line. It was interesting to watch the boat's wake lap against the windows at times, giving the impression of rough seas, although we of course never felt any movement at all on this calm river. The dinning room had a mixture of tables for four, six and eight. You are assigned table for the week, which was allocated to you on arrival. The dining room operated a self-service buffet system for all three meals per day.
There was a very small gym, massage and steam room, but I emphasize the word 'small'. The gym had just two items of equipment, a treadmill and a bicycle. Massages could be booked at additional cost. Several passengers told me the male masseur was very good.
Emilio has 72 cabins, all outside facing. There are 52 doubles, 8 small singles, 10 triplets and 2 suites. The cabins had a high standard of decor and fixtures and fittings exactly as you would expect on a new ocean cruise ship. Nearly all cabins have 'French Windows', which can be slid open. There was not a veranda as such, but a rail (Juliet balcony). There were two chairs and a table, to relax with a view and take advantage of the room service meals, if required. The size and layout of the basic twin cabin was very similar to most modern cruise ships 'standard ocean view' cabins. There was moderate draw and closet space (although coat hangers seemed in short supply), but it is worth remembering that few people would bring many heavy or formal clothes. There was a safe, telephone, a mini-bar fridge (with minimal stock) and a TV. I must say it was quite difficult to find English-speaking TV programmes, and reception could be variable, but who needs TV when the Nile is passing outside your window. The cabin decor was extremely tasteful with dark woods. The sound insulation was very good. The air conditioning worked very well on the cold setting (ideal for summer) but did not seem to generate any heat, which would have been useful for the occasional cooler winters evening.
All cabins had private bathrooms of a high standard of finish, with toilet, sink, bath and half-glass shower attachment. The water pressure was very good and the toilet was a conventional 'water closet' type and not the 'barking dog' (vacuum) variety. We were advised not to drink the tap water. One had to purchase mineral water onboard the ship.
A very small charge was made if you wanted a cabin on the uppermost deck (deck 4) as these offered slightly better views.
The cabin stewards were very efficient, kept the cabins clean and made a selection of towel animals, which were left in the cabin to please the guests. They did make it very clear that they were working very hard and would require tipping at the end of the cruise, without actually saying so.
Just two public rooms may sound limited, but they proved to be perfectly adequate. A Nile cruise is all about the excursions to tombs, temples, and just enjoying the scenery from the Sun deck.
The Sun Deck covers the full length of the ships 'roof' so to speak and has a sort of green anti-slip covering that looked like Astroturf. It was the perfect place to watch the banks of the Nile pass by, plus the many boats on the Nile.
The Sun Deck had a very small pool (not suitable for serious swimming) and a Jacuzzi. On our cruise both were filled with very cold water, even though the air-temperature was warm. In fact I wonder if the boat is capable of heating the water in the pools at all? The Sun deck has sufficient loungers and upright tables and chairs for all of the passengers. The bar was under a canvas cover, as were some of the tables and chairs. The bar served tea, coffee and alcoholic drinks. There was also a table-tennis table at the rear of this deck. Unfortunately loud-speakers on the railings often carried the tones of 'Celine Dionne'. Now I happened to thank that Celine Dionne (or 'Sea lion Dieing' as one passenger referred to her) is a brilliant singer, but I do not need to hear her constantly while tying to relax and watch the Nile pass by.
The boat is graded as five Star and I would agree that the décor, cabins and condition of the vessel deserved this rating. However, the food and service fell a little short of the mark.
Although the service from waiters was very friendly, it was rather slow at times.
On a couple of occasions, I saw crew members directly handle food, which they were serving, with their bare fingers. However, on all other occasions disposable gloves were worn. For the record a small number of guests did get stomach upsets during the cruise, which generally lasted 48 hours.
These may have been due to a number of factors, including air-borne viruses. Of course the buffet-system of dining can unfortunately assist in the spreading of germs. Air travel, excess sun and alcohol may also have played a part. I understand that such stomach problems are not unusual in Egypt, whether you are on a boat or in a hotel.
The food, which was always served buffet style, was certainly NOT five star. It was simply, plentiful and perfectly adequate, but it was not 'fine dining' by any means. The buffet area was quite small and queuing to collect your meal is not a five star experience to my mind, either.
The selection on offer for lunch and diner was reasonable, and often included rice, potatoes, chicken, fish, beef and vegetables. Garlic was often used for flavouring. More exotic dishes such as shrimp and calamari were sometimes featured. A soup was offered daily, but unfortunately this was normally the tasteless 'dishwater' variety, although two during the week (Tomato and Pumpkin) were very good.
A chef often cooked fresh pasta while you waited, but the results lacked flavour. The salad bar selection was reasonable (although there are doubts about the safety of salad abroad) although it was claimed that the kitchen staff washed all salad in mineral water. The bread was always fresh and tasted good. There was always a small range of cold sweets, but unfortunately these did not always taste as good as they looked. On a couple of occasions, a Chef cooked fresh pancakes, while you waited.
Breakfast always had a Chef cooking fresh fried eggs, scrambled or omelettes, with ingredients of your choice. These were very good. There was always the option of yoghurt, fruit, cereal, toast and croissants. There was never any British style sausage or bacon on offer, but hey this was Egypt after all.
On a positive note, no one went hungry. Everyone could find some food on offer to suit his or her tastes. I also understand that special diets could be catered for if advance notice was given. The staff were very flexible and altered the meal times to fit in with our excursions. For the 'Abu Simbel' day trip, we were provided with a reasonable packed lunch, prepared on the boat. We even got to tour the kitchen during the cruise. It was surprisingly small, yet appeared to be very clean and tidy.
Alcohol is expensive in a Muslim country. Only Egyptian Red, White and Rose wine (Obilisk) were available on the boat. It was £10 GBP a bottle and not very good at all. French sparking wine and Champagne was also available at ridiculously high prices. Imported Beer and Egyptian beer was available. The Egyptian larger (Sakkar) was pretty good, but oddly no cheaper than the imported one.
The waiters, bar staff and receptionists were all Egyptian. They all spoke good English (possibly with exception of the Captain) and were very friendly. My only complaint is that they could be a little laid-back at times, for example: On one occasion I went to the sun deck bar, and found both of the bar staff playing a game of ping-pong. I attracted their attention. One of them indicated to me that he would first finish the point they were playing, before serving me!
The boat does not offer much in the way of formal entertainment. There was a 'belly dancer' and a 'whirling dervish' who performed a short 'set' with a small live band on two evenings. There was a fancy dress party where the guests were expected to wear traditional Egyptian costume and most did. There was of course some disco music of offer most evenings, and this was mainly of British origin. It is very surreal cruising down the Nile at night while dancing to the Bee Gees. There was also an informal chat with the Reps about modern Egyptian life. Personally I would have liked a more structured programme of entertainment and events. However, the real onboard entertainment is just watching the Nile passing by form the Sun deck. It is surprising just how green and lush the banks of the Nile actually are.
The itinerary and excursions (most of which were included in the price) were excellent. The organization of the entire week was excellent as were the excursions themselves. You were assigned a guide on arrival at the Airport, who travelled on the boat, for the week. All spoke excellent English. Alaa Ezza and Mohamed were exceptionally good.
Although I have written this lengthy piece about the boat, the main reason that people go to Egypt, is to experience the history, the boat may well be a secondary consideration. However, I will say that the comfort and protection that a boat trip offers from enthusiastic locals hassling you to buy their goods, is most welcome.
The Esna lock was fascinating. Our boat joined 32 others that were waiting to pass through. Locals came out to the Nile boats in little wooden rowing boats, attempting to sell goods to the passengers.
I'd particularly recommend the optional excursion to Abu Simbel (from Aswan). The bus version is half the price of the flight and its only 2.5 hours by road. The Philae 'Sound & Light' show was very good and arguably better than the more crowded Karnac (Luxor) one. Ballooning over Luxor was excellent, although a little short at only 45 minutes in the air.
Additional Expenses - Bottled mineral water, soft drinks and alcohol are all sold on the boat at additional cost. Unfortunately this also applies to tea and coffee at £1 GBP, which I think is a little mean. However you could have free tea or coffee at breakfast and at 4.00pm on the Sun deck. These items are paid for on a tab system, which you settle up at the end of the week by cash or credit card.
There are also the two shops, the masseur, the occasional photograph and some optional excursions all on offer to temp you. Many of the goods onboard were generally priced at western prices, but at least you had some assurances about the quality of the goods and the shopping is both hassle and barter free.
It is customary to tip the crew and guides at the end of the cruise. This is done by placing Egyptian currency into Envelopes, and posting it in a box on the reception.
Security - Two members of armed 'Tourist Police' were present on our boat, although they were rarely seen in the public areas. All of the tombs and temples also had armed security as a response to terrorist attacks in recent years. Some tourists might feel intimidated by the armed presence, but I felt reassured, after all it was a necessary fact of modern life. When I did venture out on to the streets on my own, I felt perfectly safe, although the street vendors were always very enthusiastic to make a sale.
Egypt is a truly fascinating country, with over 3000 years of history seeping from every wall. The boat, itinerary, guides and excursions were all excellent. The only flaw in the overall experience was the mediocre food, but most passengers were not there for culinary reasons. It's easy to be critical of any holiday, but all in all, this package (flights, boat, food and excursions) was excellent value for money. The real highlight is the experience of visiting many of Egypt's tombs and temples, which were simply wonderful.
In many ways a Nile river cruise is comparable to an Ocean cruise. Arguably the constantly changing scenery was more interesting than endless sea and the ports of call more fascinating than some ports visited by cruise ships.
I fully recommended the 'Domina Prestige Emilio' and this itinerary, regardless if you have been on a ship or boat before.