In the last couple of years, far-flung destinations have been effectively off the table. But now the world is reopening. As more countries drop onerous entry restrictions, my thoughts have turned to places formerly beset by overtourism, like Egypt. Before my recent trip there, acquaintances told me that the Nile Valley was near the top of their bucket lists, but they were waiting for “a more opportune time” to visit. For me, the prospect of seeing some of the world’s most famous and impressive ancient monuments without the usual crowds was too tempting to pass up. The minor effort of clearing a few additional pretrip hurdles — assembling vaccination records and taking a rapid PCR test — was amply rewarded. Our two weeks in Egypt were stupendous.
The centerpiece of most Egyptian itineraries is a three- or four-night cruise between Luxor and Aswan aboard a luxury riverboat. A Nile cruise has ranked among the world’s great travel experiences ever since Thomas Cook pioneered them in the late 19th century. A travelogue published in 1911 declared that “the Nile is the most picturesque river in the world, because the whole of Egypt is, as it were, on its banks.” This is still substantially true today, as becomes obvious with a glance at a satellite image of the country. The Nile nourishes a thin ribbon of green bounded by the golden sands of the Sahara. And yet many stretches of the river remain remarkably unspoiled. A cruise takes its passengers past mud-walled farms shaded by date palms, old villages punctuated by minarets and galabeya-clad fishermen in wooden rowboats. These scenes have changed little in the century since that travelogue was written, or indeed within the past two millennia.
I last cruised the Nile aboard the 27-cabin Oberoi Zahra, an experience that I enjoyed immensely. However, I wanted to compare the Zahra to the 40-cabin Sanctuary Sun Boat IV, which was renovated just before the pandemic in 2018.