Hip sailing by the ancient world

Cruising isn't just for older travellers. On the revamped Sun Boat IV you can float down the Nile in hip boutique style, taking in some of Egypt's greatest sites along the way, says Aoife O'Riordain

So there we were, standing around the dining room with our 18 new best friends. My husband looked vaguely ridiculous, swamped by a navy kaftan with elaborate gold frogging on the front. I had compromised with a chiffon scarf fringed with gold discs tied around my hips and liberal use of black eyeliner. If we had known about the galabiyah party, we might not have signed up for the Nile cruise. But sometimes you just have to go with the flow.

I had never really thought of us as ideal candidates for a cruise. Apart from being about 30 years too young, the long time spent on the water, the too-brief visits to dry land and the communal nature of life on board had never appealed. But then we decided to fill a big hole in our travelling CV and visit Egypt. With barely a week to spare and a long list of ancient sites to see, three nights on the Nile followed by a few days in Cairo made sense. Besides, maybe a river cruise would be more of a cruising-lite version.

Luxor was our starting point, the beginning or the end of the line for the 300 or so craft that ply the route between it and Aswan further upstream. We had to walk through one unremarkable vessel to get to the Sun Boat IV - our home for the next three nights - and it felt like stepping out of a Ford into a Mercedes.

The five-deck Sun Boat IV is the plushest of the four boats owned by upmarket tour operator Abercrombie & Kent. It was relaunched late last year following a refurbishment by one of Egypt's most lauded interior designers, Mohammed Noaman. The result is Art Deco-inspired, but it's more of a homage, so if you're looking for the Agatha Christie experience in all its teak and steamer-chair glory you might be a tad disappointed.

The refit is also clearly an attempt to persuade some of the boutique hotel generation that cruising might not be quite so naff after all. It is easy to see where the reported $1m (£510,000) has gone, from the teak floors to the Murano chandeliers. The 40 cabins, for 80 passengers, continue the theme with picture windows, plasma TVs and small bathrooms with walk-in showers.

However, we were not just there for the on-board facilities. Our three-night trip, visiting the main sights - including Karnak and Edfu - was the shortest itinerary on offer, so our guide, Amr Kazziz, was quick to get our group of 10 off the boat and to the first site of the day.

A guide can make or break a holiday, but when Amr ushered us into a shady spot for our first lesson in Egyptology, I knew we were in good hands. One of a troupe of dedicated Egyptologists of whom A&K is justifiably proud, he was armed with an encyclopaedic knowledge of the ancient world and a canny ability to gauge our collective boredom threshold.

Sprawling over 100 acres and the product of 1,300 years and some large Pharaonic egos, the complex of Karnak is bettered only by the Pyramids. As we leaned, slack-jawed against one of the hundreds of stone pillars of its Great Hypostyle Hall, Amr gave us a crash course in basic hieroglyphics, which stood us in good stead for the rest of the trip.

We were back on the boat by lunchtime, then off again to the temple of Queen Hatshepsut and the Valley of the Kings with its legendary tomb of Tutankhamun on the Nile's west bank. But things soon slowed down. After our onshore visits, we would retire to the glorious top deck to enjoy the gentle rhythm of the river and watch farmers on the fertile banks cultivating bananas and sugarcane by hand, a scene that can't have changed much since Pharaonic times.

Edfu, almost halfway between Luxor and Aswan, was, as Amr explained, a near textbook example of an Egyptian temple. We had the place to ourselves and wandered around to the haunting sound of the muezzin calling the villagers to morning prayer. Amr diplomatically put the lack of tourists down to luck and the quiet time of year (November). But at every site we visited, the military presence was strong - a constant reminder that for many would-be visitors Egypt's troubles are too recent.

Soon the feluccas and boats on the river became more plentiful, heralding our arrival at Aswan. But there was one more treat in store. "ABT," said Amr as we chugged across Lake Nasser, just outside town. Philae and its Temple of Isis may have been yet "another bloody temple", but its romantic setting on an island, illuminated by the setting sun, would have been a shame to miss.

On Sun Boat IV we saw a lot in a short period of time and in spite of ourselves we even found some new friends. I'm not sure that I will ever be a convert to communal dining and after-dinner entertainment, but ask me in 30 years and I might feel differently.

THE COMPACT GUIDE

HOW TO GET THERE

Aoife O'Riordain travelled as a guest of Abercrombie & Kent (0845-0700 611; abercrombiekent.co.uk).

Its Nile in Style itinerary offers three nights' bed and breakfast in Cairo at the Mena House Oberoi, three nights' full board on the Sun Boat IV and one night in Cairo on the return journey.

Prices are from £1,475 per person, based on two sharing. This includes return flights from London, all sightseeing from the cruise and two half-day sightseeing tours in Cairo.

FURTHER INFORMATION

The Egyptian State Tourist Office (020-7493 5283; egypt.travel).

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