Times On Line

PURE white egrets stand stock still in the reeds. On the bank a brown humpbacked cow chomps intently in the shade of a date palm. Below, two fishermen in a tiny rowing boat gently draw in their nets. Then a pied kingfisher races by inches above the rippling, khaki water.

There is a Spanish couple silently turning the pages of their books on the sun deck above, a German man is looking intently through his zoom lens.

The barman brings me a pot of mint tea. No piped music, no green nylon grass, just the sound of the breeze, a teak deck and a wicker sofa with bleached calico cushions to lean back on and enjoy the view.


Alexander the Great is an unexpected oasis of tranquility on one of the busiest tourist beats in the world, the temples and tombs scattered along the banks of the Nile from Luxor to Aswan. Last year 8.6 million tourists descended on Egypt, 840,000 of them from the UK. And in January this year there were 78,000 British visitors, twice as many as in the same period last year, partly due to a leap in value of sterling against the Egyptian pound.

With the inevitable increase in holiday packages and scores of cruise boats jostling for position on the Nile, it is a revelation to find a vessel that has turned its back on the pack- ’em-in philosophy, yet still presents good value.

Alexander the Great was a standard 60-cabin boat that has been stripped out and refitted as a 30-cabin floating boutique hotel, furnished with understated elegance. In the dining room, enough tables for two can be found for all and dinner is waiter service, with five courses and several choices. Not only that, they offer Egyptian dishes such as spicy green molokhia soup and stuffed pigeon for dinner, and ful (fava beans) and tamiya (fried bean patties) for breakfast - rightly judging that their passengers are sophisticated enough to be interested in sampling local cuisine.

If you’ve never been on a Nile cruise, all this won’t sound revolutionary, but the norm is uninspired, international food and shared tables. Cabins are small, with minuscule shower closets - and five-star decor means smoked-glass mirrored ceilings, fake marble and gilt galore in public areas.

So it was a breath of fresh air stepping aboard at Luxor into Alexander’s light, uncluttered reception with its pale walls, stylish sofas and sculptural flower lamps — very boutique, so far. Our cabin, called Linen Twins, was also in minimalist style, with subtle textures and wood laminate floor. In the bathroom was a fixed shower as well as a bathtub and towelling robes. I told my partner Michael, who had never been to Egypt before, how spoilt we were.

Other cabins, all of identical size and layout, have jazzier names - Jungle Paths, Like the 70s, Journey to China, but are equally light and sleek, with flashes of colour in throws or headboards, an op-art cushion here, a quirky ostrich-shell lantern there.

 

I’d have been happy to lie down in Linen and watch Egypt slip by through the huge windows, but there were laden buffet counters to be tackled and archaeological wonders to behold. Lunch was a feast - chefs tossing pasta and carving lamb, gorgeous salads and fresh fruit, all delicious and meticulously prepared - and gave us a chance to see our shipmates. Children under 12 are not allowed, and there were only 27 of us on board - nine Italians, a French couple, an American couple, three Germans and five Spaniards. The three British couples were travelling with Discover Egypt, the only UK tour operator to offer Alexander, for the first time this year.

Our cruise included guided tours of the usual sights: Luxor temple and Karnak, the Valleys of the Kings and Queens, up to Edfu, then Kom Ombo and Aswan with its High Dam, unfinished obelisk and the Temple of Philae. Where our cruise differed from most is that rather than being herded about in a group of 20 or more we had our own guide, Walid, for six of us. It made a huge difference - less hanging around, being able to get up close to the breathtaking carvings and hear his commentary in crowded sites. And there was no visit to a hard-sell papyrus factory or perfumery.

There is one Nile cruise tradition that style-conscious Alexander has not dropped - the Galabiya party. On one night guests are chivied into “Egyptian costumes”, available at tourist markets along the way, and invited to play silly games after dinner, such as wrap your partner up like a mummy using flimsy loo rolls.

Why? I asked Mr Sharif, the boat’s manager. “People expect it on a Nile cruise,” he sighed. “But I wish we could come up with something more intellectual for after-dinner than games. ”A challenge when there are five different languages. So, half the guests ignored the event, the Italians joined in with gusto, so did Michael, and after two games the lounge returned to normal.

Cruises on Alexander start from Luxor on Tuesdays, and our charter flight brought us in on Monday, so we had a relaxing overnight and first morning at the timeless Old Winter Palace with its lush garden, now a Sofitel hotel. We loved its 1886 restaurant, named after the year the hotel was built, with its liveried waiters, gilt mirrors and chandeliers.

Our cruise ended in laid-back Aswan, where our package took us to the best hotel in town, the Old Cataract Hotel (also a Sofitel), famed for its views over the Nile and old world atmosphere - a tall Nubian in a fez works the antique cage lift.

To enjoy the hotel fully, book a deluxe or higher-category room - the Standard and Superior rooms are “unmodernised”, though spacious by modern standards. Both hotels are in perfect positions and peaceful. I found them charming, but those in search of power showers, plasma screens, wi-fi and spas must wait until 2008 when makeovers are complete.

Meanwhile, the mix of four days on a 21st-century boat, topped and tailed with last reminders of the Victorian dawn of tourism to Egypt, is a winning one.

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