The dahabieh Meroe, by Nour El Nil, the most beautiful boat on the Nile. Since the revolution in Egypt tourism has drained away. Nearly all of the large boats which ran between Luxor and Aswan are tied up, rafted out seven or eight deep along the shoreline – we counted more than forty in Luxor alone. Only a handful seem to be operating and, with a couple of exceptions, even the most elegant and luxurious of the modern boats are more akin to floating boutique hotels, and the worst floating blocks of flats. Many shabby and unloved.
Meroe is so different. Elegant and spacious, she is one four boats built by Eléonore, Enrique and Mamdouh as a reinterpretation of the traditional dahabieh, and sails between Esna (just south of Luxor) and Aswan. The journey takes a heavenly five days, leaving on Monday and arriving at Aswan on Friday evening, and you leave the boat on Saturday morning. There is no motor, you sail up river with the kindly warm northern wind, taking you away from the bustling north along the Nile to experience the history of the Pharaohs.
Meroe takes 20 guests (or up to 30 with children) in beautifully appointed cabins. We took one of the two panoramic ones in the stern, where you could lie awake when the sun came up and watch pairs of black and white kingfishers dive into the water from their perch on the rail outside your windows. Whilst the cabins are beautiful, it is the main deck where you spend your time, comfortable and spacious and at just the right height to see the landscape. The shallows along the Nile, the sandbanks and reed beds – all are alive with bird life.
Everything you could wish for is provided on board, and the crew look after your every need with enthusiasm and humour. It is like travelling on your own private yacht and all the passing cruise boats take pictures, envious of your luxury.
We have our own private guide, a graduate in Archaeology and Egyptology from the University of Cairo, who leads us through the history of Egypt with visits to all the intriguing sites on the way upriver. The temples at Esna, Edfu and Horemheb; the Noble tombs at El Kab; the pharaonic quarries at Silsileh, and finally Kom Ombo. All were deserted apart from us, the tourists really have abandoned Egypt.
One day we stop and swim (walk up the bank, and swim back to the boat – swimming against the current requires the strength of an Olympian), or take the helm of the small felucca that we carry. Wherever possible we moor up on an island, or alongside a beach, so we can walk for an hour or so, seeing the countryside and meeting the local farmers gathering their crops or tending their animals.
The wildlife is astonishing – we are so silent and have such a shallow draught that under Mamdouh’s skilled captaincy we can nearly touch the bank as we drift along, and we startle herons, egrets, bitterns and the sacred black ibis; beautiful brown cattle graze at the side and tethered buffalo cool off, imitating hippos as they bathe in the water.
Eléonore is French and spends her time between Luxor and Paris. She ensures meals reflect local traditions and are outstanding. No request is too much trouble and the atmosphere is relaxed – incredibly relaxed yet the service never waivers. One of the guests is an Egyptologist from Barcelona, who broadens our knowledge and experience, whilst teaching us the mythological properties of Egyptian Stella beer. In the evenings we eat on deck under chandeliers, the sun having turned the sky red, silhouetting the palm trees which line the banks. The egrets roost precariously in the reeds and the Nile falls silent.
We came in mid-November 2014, the weather beautifully warm for either lying on deck, or visiting the tombs. The crowds have not yet returned but we felt completely safe wherever we went, enjoying the privilege of seeing Egypt as deserted as Florence Nightingale would have done. We read reviews and looked at the articles listed on the Nour El Nil site. They are all true – it really is the most magical trip.
Dahabieh Meroe by Nour El Nil. There is no loud music and no television. The very best boat on the Nile. Accept no substitutes.
They also have a wonderful bohemian hotel in Luxor, on the West Bank. Beit Sabee has 15 rooms and provides bed and breakfast – taken on the roof. They will also provide lunch and dinner. See the Beit Sabee post.