The Nile: even Cleopatra wasn't pampered like this
The Nile cruise is one of the world's travel highlights. But Oberoi's new boat offers a very different take on this classic tour, says Katy Guest
Sunday 03 February 2008
As a small child, my little brother used to ask, "If God can do anything, why can't He make snow warm?" We never did receive a satisfactory answer, but I thought of that paradox again as I lay on the deck of Oberoi's new floating hotel, sipping an ice-cold beer and idly gazing towards the stern. At the rear of the sundeck, behind the shimmering pool, cold steam was pouring from a shady trellis. Cold steam. On a 35C afternoon. If God is planning a cruising holiday, He would do well to come and take some tips from the Zahra.
There are cruise ships; there are luxury cruise ships, and then there is the Oberoi group's new super-dooper Nile cruiser, the Zahra. Do you aspire to a life in which you are greeted with a smile and a jasmine-scented cold flannel? Do you prefer your masseuses hand-picked from Thailand, "because they are more beautiful"? Do you like to be wafted to sleep on a soft scented pillow of lemongrass oil and Nile breezes? Then this cruise ship is for you – even if you are not a god. So lavish is it that even its view of the world is superior: guests see the Nile and the Egyptian sky through blue-tinted windows.
When they built the Zahra, the aim was to position it about 10 steps ahead of other luxury cruisers such as Mövenpick's Royal Lotus, the Sun Boat IV or Oberoi's own Philae, a floating gentlemen's club in grand colonial style that looks as though Agatha Christie has just stepped out for a quick murder. Zahra is the same size as a standard luxury cruiser, but with half as many rooms: 25 regular suites, plus two grand suites about the size of football pitches. All have picture windows that gaze disorientingly on to the passing Nile (and, disconcertingly, enable passing goatherds to gaze in). For a maximum of 54 passengers, the Zahra has up to 84 staff. This is not the place to come if you don't enjoy service so attentive that it borders on the obsessive.
On board, the Zahra even smells expensive. As it moves with unlikely speed between Luxor and Aswan, it docks at its own private moorings far away from the diesel fumes of cruising hoi polloi. The perfume of the dark wood decking around the midnight-blue-tiled pool mingles with the scented oils in the spa. The cigar lounge is delicately scented with Havanas and leather-bound books. Even the gym smells upliftingly clean as you power along on the rowing machine, smugly watching the Nile speed by.
In the restaurant, chef Siddhartha Chowdry uses the finest local ingredients, bakes his own bread and rustles up superb curries. He strolls between the tables, bashfully batting away enraptured tributes to his lentil dahl, and takes requests. Our appeal for authentic Egyptian food resulted in a feast fit for Rameses, topped by desserts with names such as Mother of Ali and Fingers of Zenab. We felt like pharaohs.
Awakened by the gentle swish of the bow-wave the following morning, crawling out from between the crisp Egyptian cotton sheets is not easy – but it is worth it. The resident Egyptologist, Ahmed, is a neat, straw-boatered local genius, on whom Agatha Christie's Poirot could have been modelled. He waits each morning with his pointy stick to whisk us away in our air-conditioned A-Team van to receive the wisdom of the ancient world. Not for us the crushed tourist hell of the high noon Valley of the Kings: the Zahra times its visits to fall just ahead of the cruise flotilla, meaning that in the tomb of Tutankhamun we were surrounded by ancient mystery – not by other tourists.
It was the same in the other tombs, where the ancient paintings look as if they were painted yesterday. It was the same among Karnak's pillars and statues, and at the temples of Dendara and Hatshepsut. The body of Queen Hatshepsut was identified only this year by archaeologists, who discovered that she was shockingly obese. Whisked back to the Zahra for another of Siddartha's three-course lunches, we understood how that might happen.
With a belly full of stuffed vine leaves as the sun sinks over the minarets, as ibis bed down in the palm trees and the lights twinkle around the pool, it is easy to feel like the Queen of the Nile on board the Zahra. But don't invoke any ancient curses by imagining yourself an Egyptian goddess – even if you have discovered cold steam.
HOW TO GET THERE
Cox & Kings (020-7873 5000; coxandkings.co.uk) offers an 11-night Nile cruise on the Oberoi 'Zahra' from £1,795 per person. The price includes three nights in a Pyramid-view room at the Oberoi Mena House, one night at the Intercontinental CityStars, and seven nights on board the Oberoi 'Zahra', return flights, transfers, b&b in the hotels, full board on the cruise and all excursions.
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