For Alice’s family

May 2015.

Land of the pharaoh

Dear Alice,

Designing this Egyptian itinerary for you has been such a pleasure. Sifting through the names of such legendary destinations—Giza, Valley of the Kings, Edfu, Abu Simbel, Memphis—takes me back to my very first trip to Egypt, a transcendental journey through space and time that altered my sense of history, and humanity, and filled my memory (and photo albums) with images of poignant majesty and beauty. Although all true travel is ideally a learning experience, few places on this Earth are as impregnated with fascinating secular knowledge—and secrets—as Ancient Egypt, and I’m certain that you and Richard, and especially your children, will come away with insights and perceptions that will last a lifetime.

One of the most sophisticated civilizations in the history of humankind, Egypt of the Pharaohs rose up along the banks of the great River Nile, along with countless magnificent cities, pyramids, and temples. In view of the Nile’s historic, geographic, and cultural significance—not to mention the bucolic and romantic pleasures of gliding past its dramatic, ever-changing vistas—it’s only fitting that you follow in the pharaohs’ footsteps, discovering their immense legacy via a luxury river cruise. Using the same parameters that I apply to land trips, I have carefully considered, and in some cases added to, the ship’s itinerary, curating an experience that will meet with the interests, requirements, and expectations of everyone in your family. To complete your journey, on both ends of your cruise, I have arranged for expert Egyptologists to guide you to, and through, other remarkable attractions, while giving you time to immerse yourselves, and relax, in the rich colors and textures of today’s Egypt.

Day 1: Arrival in Cairo

Upon your arrival at Cairo International Airport, your Egypt tour coordinator, Mohamed, will greet your family and take you to the deluxe accommodations you requested, at the Four Seasons First Residence Hotel. After receiving a welcome bouquet and fragrant hot towels, you can repose in your plush, colonial style room overlooking the Nile. Continue to unwind at the spa, or al fresco, with some signature cocktails, while the children take a cooling plunge in the pool.

Day 2: Great Pyramids of Giza

Take your time over a delicious buffet breakfast before meeting with Dr. Zahi Hawass, former Secretary General of the Supreme Council of Antiquities, who in April 2001 was selected by National Geographic to be one of their first worldwide Explorers-in-Residence. I’m thrilled that someone of his passion and knowledge is available to provide you and your family with an introduction to Egypt. As a speaker, Dr. Hawass is dynamic and inspirational. His lecture on the theme of “Egypt: Land of Discovery” will focus on some of his own exciting recent discoveries and will be accompanied by a slide show that will really whet your children’s appetite for the marvels that your entire family will discover over the following days.

Such discoveries will begin right away with a tour of the Great Pyramids of Giza built for the Pharaohs Cheops, Chefren, and Mycerinus. Rising in breathtaking splendor out of the desert sands, construction of this complex of pyramids dates back to 2500 BC when great blocks of limestone were harvested from the surrounding Turah hills on the outskirts of Cairo. Most prominent is the Great Pyramid of Cheops, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World—and the only one to have survived intact. The oldest and largest of the Great Pyramids, it features over 2,300,000 blocks of gleaming white stone, each weighing about 2.5 tons. Its epic scale and grandeur is matched by the aura of mystery it exudes.

You will have plenty of time to soak up the timeless atmosphere, both from afar and while exploring the ancient burial chambers within. A tour of the adjacent Solar Boat Museum will follow. Here you will have the chance to view the 141-foot-long reassembled funerary barge of King Cheops. Discovered in 1954, the elaborately constructed cedar vessel has been hailed as the single most important archaeological find in Egypt since the Tomb of Tutankhamen.

To escape the noonday heat and blinding sun, I have arranged for shelter—and lunch—for you in the historic Mena House, per our discussion. Originally built as a palace for the Empress Eugenie when she visited Egypt for the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869, this exquisitely decorated luxury hotel is ensconced in an oasis of pools and lush gardens. While savoring Egyptian and Middle Eastern delicacies, you will be able to further contemplate the Pyramids before saddling up for your next adventure.

Of course, no trip to Egypt would be complete without a ride on a “ship of the desert,” i.e. a camel. Since you mentioned that the children have their hearts set on upon a camel ride, I have arranged for you all to enjoy a short but unforgettably scenic ride across the undulating sands of Giza to the Valley Temple, home of the eternally enigmatic and regal Sphinx. Among the countless myths surrounding the origins of this monumental figure, one theory suggests that workers shaped the body into a lion and gave it the face of their king, Chephren, to serve as a guardian of the necropolis. Listening to the myriad “Riddles of the Sphinx” is sure to captivate your children, and further ignite their interest in Ancient Egypt. You will have opportunity to reflect upon these and the rest of the day’s wonders upon your return to Cairo, where you can all relax amidst the comforts of your hotel.

Day 3: Luxor

After breakfast, you will fly to Luxor, where you will be greeted by your tour coordinator, Yasser, and taken to your luxurious, five-star Nile cruise ship, the Sonesta St. George. After receiving a welcome fit for a pharaoh, including fresh fruit juice and greetings from the gracious crew, you will be shown to the breezy, spacious, and beautifully furnished adjoining cabins you requested for you and the children.

Following an appetizing lunch (the food on board is consistently stellar), your guide will take you to visit the magnificent temple of Karnak. The largest religious edifice ever built, it is actually a grandiose city of temples and hallways, the oldest parts of which date back over 2,000 years. Constructed by generations of pharaohs, the entire complex is truly jaw-dropping, but most wondrous of all is the Great Hypostyle Hall. Threading your way through this stone forest of giant pillars will leave you all in awe of the political and spiritual glory that radiated with such force during Ancient Egypt’s apogee.

You will continue your guided tour of Luxor with a walk around the East Bank and a stop to visit the graceful Temple of Luxor. Dedicated to Amun, King of the Egyptian Gods, the entrance to this striking temple is known as the Avenue of Sphinxes, so named for the seemingly endless parade of statues depicting these mythical catlike creatures that line it.

After a full day, you will return early to the comfort and leisure of your floating hotel. A scrumptious full afternoon tea, served while you drift languidly down the Nile, suffused in amber light, will help you unwind. You can then indulge yourselves with a spa afternoon while the children splash around in the pool. In the evening, after dinner and the children’s bedtime, you and Richard can enjoy cocktails and time together while watching a lively performance of traditional Egyptian belly dancing.

Day 4: Valley of the Kings and Queens

Since we discussed your desire to alternate between adventurous expeditions and time for contemplation and relaxation, you will have the morning free to take advantage of the ship’s lazy riverside pleasures. After lunch, you will embark on an afternoon visit with Yasser to the West Bank of Luxor and the Valley of the Kings. A royal cemetery where generations of pharaohs were buried, this vast City of the Dead carved out of sunbaked, windswept desert rocks is impressive and humbling in scale and richness. Among the more than 60 tombs are some truly spectacular ones, such as those belonging to Seti II and Ramses II. Not only were tombs ornately decorated with chiseled sculptures and lavishly colored hieroglyphs, but they were also filled with treasures to accompany the pharaohs and their royal consorts to the afterlife. Indeed, your outing will also include a visit to the adjacent Valley of the Queens, where many queens and princesses were laid to eternal rest.

As you will discover, Ancient Egypt boasted only one female pharaoh: the immensely popular Queen Hatshepsut. The Hatshepsut Temple, located near the Valley of the Kings, was built in her honor. Rising out of the desert plain in a series of terraces, the time-ravaged but truly splendid temple merges quite magically with the sheer limestone cliffs that surround it, leaving you with the stirring sensation that Nature herself gave birth to this extraordinary monument.

Heading back towards the Nile, you will have a chance to stop, admire, and photograph the famed Colossi of Memnon, with its gigantic twin statues depicting the pharaoh Amenhotep III. During Ancient Greek times, the sound of the wind blowing through one of the earthquake-damaged statues at dawn so resembled the haunted chanting of voices that both figures gained renown as sacred oracles.

In keeping with your request to schedule some alone time for you and your husband, in the late afternoon you will return to the ship where the children will be entertained, cared for, and put to bed by the childcare staff. This will leave you and Richard free to take a romantic sunset boat trip to the area surrounding Luxor’s main souk. From here, Yasser will take you on a leisurely walking tour through the cool evening streets until you reach the main open square, home to one of the city’s most authentic and atmospheric Egyptian coffee houses. Here you can sample traditional local beverages including Turkish coffee, freshly-made lemonade, and chilled hibiscus tea (“karkady”). To complete the experience, try smoking, an Arabian water-pipe or “shisha,” filled with fragrant, sweet tobacco. Twilight is a magical time to be out and about in Luxor: the heat of the day surrenders to cool breezes, the city lights glow like fireflies, and local residents meet up to stroll and converse about the day’s happenings.

To further enhance your romantic night on the town, I have organized a Panoramic Night Tour for you both in a “caleche,” or horse-drawn carriage for two. The hour-long ride will take you past the splendidly illuminated Luxor Temple, and the moon splashed waters of the Nile, revealing lyrical facets to the city, before returning you to your ship in time for the Captain’s Cocktail Party. Over drinks and canapés, you will mingle with the ship’s staff and other guests, and receive an overview of the adventures that await your entire family over the next few days. The evening will close on an enchanted note as you tuck into a delicious gourmet dinner, lit by candles and stars twinkling in the dark Egyptian sky.

Day 5: Temples of Dendara, Edfu, and Kom Ombo

Setting off early allows you to savor the buttery morning light of the desert while idling over your buffet breakfast. You will first sail north to Qena, a vibrant market town that sits on a picturesque bend in the Nile. On the outskirts lies the Dendara Temple, which you will visit with your guide. Built to honor Hathor, the goddess of love, joy, dancing, and beauty, this late pharaonic temple, with its immense roof, shadowy chambers, and burial crypts, all elaborately decorated with hieroglyphs, is amazingly intact.

Returning to the ship, you will have time to have lunch and relax while cruising south, past Esna, to yet another miraculously well-preserved marvel: The Temple of Horus at Edfu. One of the final, grand-scale pharaonic projects, this temple, built to honor the god of the sky and war, Horus (depicted as a falcon in many fierce-looking statues), was actually reconstructed by the Ancient Greeks, which explains its pristine condition. As you wander its vast, echoing chambers festooned with carved reliefs, you won’t need to exercise much imagination to be transported back in time.

Afternoon tea will be served on board as you set sail further south to Kom Ombo, set amidst the green sway of sugar cane, where your ship will dock for the night. Here, perched spectacularly on a promontory overlooking the river, you will enjoy a guided visit to the Temple of Kom Ombo, which is rare in that it honors two gods: Haroeris, the winged god of medicine, and Sobek, the god of crocodiles. Indeed, this scenic stretch of the Nile was once teeming with these sacred river reptiles; the on-site Crocodile Museum features exhibits that will rivet your children, particularly the crocodile mummies.

The children are also sure to have fun at the “Egyptian Night” costume party held on board in the evening. Your entire family will have a chance to get dressed in traditional Egyptian “galabeyyas” and then savor a lavish buffet dinner of Egyptian specialties followed by a night of dancing to Middle Eastern music.

Day 6: Aswan

You will begin the day with breakfast as you cruise further south along the Nile. It will take the entire morning to reach Aswan, which means that you can indulge in some family down time; at the pool, spa, or just lounging around and watching the exotic riverside scenery glide by as it grows increasingly lush and green, with islands of palms rising up out of the gentle blue waters.

Once at the crossroads of centuries-old desert caravan routes, Aswan is a pleasantly unhurried market town that lies upon Egypt’s ancient southern frontier with Nubia. This is where Africa begins, and you will definitely get a sense of being on the threshold of this great continent.

After lunch on board, your guide will escort you to the Aswan High Dam, Egypt’s contemporary example of building on a monumental scale, where you will be treated to impressive views. After, it’s only a short motorboat ride to the Island of Agilka, where you will visit the alluring and atmospheric Philae Temple, devoted to the immensely beloved goddess Isis.

By now, you will surely have caught sight of—and coveted—the many swan-like Egyptian sail boats known as “feluccas.” I remember you mentioning how thrilled the children would be to take a ride in one and so they will as you set sail around Elephantine Island, site of the ancient settlement of Abu, which was once an important trading post for ivory. The island’s Nubian villages of Siou and Koti are both picturesque and offer authentic glimpses of traditional, rural life along the Nile.

Back on your felucca, you will head to neighboring Kitchener’s Island. It was named for Lord Horatio Kitchener, former Consul General of Egypt, who imported seeds and saplings from all over Africa and Asia to form the Kitchener Botanical Gardens that cover the island. The late afternoon light filtering through giant palms combined with the wafting scents of exotic blossoms and spices will make it difficult to leave. A quick visit to the Agha Khan Mausoleum followed by a late tea on your ship will bring your afternoon adventures to a soothing close

Alice, since you confessed an interest in cooking (and shopping!), I went ahead and organized a special early evening walking tour for you and Richard through Aswan’s legendary Spice Market, while the children are entertained and cared for on the ship. One of the highlights of Aswan, and one of the most fascinating bazaars in Egypt, the souk’s street stalls are rife with colors and scents that have permeated the air for centuries. There’s a real thrill in uncovering the treasures tucked away in each shop, peering into cotton sacks overflowing with fragrant herbs, roots, and dried flowers, and combing shelves stacked to the ceiling with chilies, cinnamon bark, tamarind seeds, and far more exotic—and pungent—powders and potions. This is also a wonderful opportunity to interact with local shopkeepers, who are only too happy to engage in conversation, treating you as favorite guests while regaling you with tales of the magical powers and curative properties of their wares. Laden down with stories and purchases, you will rejoin the children on the boat for a farewell dinner followed by a special live performance of traditional Nubian music and dancing.

Day 7: Abu Simbel

I know that you and Richard had your hearts set on visiting Abu Simbel and so, after a final breakfast, you will take leave of the ship and catch a quick flight south from Aswan. I have arranged for your guide, Abdulah, to meet you at Abu Simbel’s airport and escort you to the world-renowned site where Ramses II ordered that two glorious temples—both in honor of the Sun—be carved from the limestone mountains. Alice, you and your family won’t regret making this detour—I can assure you that the Abu Simbel temples are truly among the most remarkable, and stirring, monuments in Egypt. At the Great Temple of Ra-Harakhte, it’s impossible not to feel mesmerized by the four colossal statues of Ramses II rising majestically to heights of over 20 meters, their august profiles gazing out across the desert towards Eternity. Six more massive and regal standing statues guard the entrance to the Temple of Hathor, dedicated to the cow-headed goddess of love and built in honor of Ramses’s favorite wife, Queen Nefertari. That the temples have persevered to this day is a modern-day miracle. During the construction of Aswan’s High Dam, there were fears that the rising waters would wash these treasured monuments away. A UNESCO-led campaign to save them resulted in the temples being cut into blocks and then lifted and reassembled higher up the hillside.

In the late afternoon, you will board your flight back to Cairo. Your Akorn Tour coordinator will be waiting to take you to the Four Seasons First Residence, where, as you requested, I have reserved the same rooms that you occupied upon your arrival.

Day 8: Memphis and the Museum of Antiquities

Take your time to enjoy breakfast at your hotel before your guide arrives to drive you south of Cairo to the ancient city of Memphis. Dating back to 3000 BC, this legendary Old Kingdom city was founded by Menes, the king who united Upper and Lower Egypt into one great realm. During its long and glorious heyday, Memphis was not only the administrative and religious center of Egypt, but also one of the largest, most powerful, and cosmopolitan cities in the Ancient World. Due to its great importance, many pharaohs and nobles chose to be buried among the desert bluffs along with their families, employees, and sacred animals. Sakkara is the name of the vast cemetery that emerged over 3,500 years ago, which constitutes Egypt’s largest archaeological site. Indeed, as your guide will surely indicate, new discoveries are still being unearthed daily from these golden sands.

Of Sakkara’s 11 major pyramids, by far the most impressive is the Step Pyramid and your visit to this wonder will continue to keep you marveling at the epic scale and ingenuity of Ancient Egyptians. The oldest of Egypt’s 107 pyramids, it was built by Imhotep, an advisor to King Djoser and a revered priest, sage, poet, astrologer, and healer (often considered to be the world’s first doctor). Of course, in addition to these multifaceted talents, Imhotep was also an architect, designing this pyramid, which is the world’s oldest freestanding stone structure.

Alice, with your passion for cooking in mind, I have arranged for you to visit Andrea, a typical Egyptian restaurant in Cairo, where you will join women at traditional bread ovens and try your hand at making Middle Eastern pita bread. I’m sure that your children will have great fun as well, shaping the dough, loading the ovens, and flipping the rounds in the air. Aside from the treat of this authentic kitchen experience, you will be able to savor the fruits of your labor during a lunch of herb encrusted, spit-roasted chicken and appetizing mezza such as hummous and baba ghanoush—accompanied by baskets of your own handmade pitas and served in a lovely garden shaded with canopies of bright bougainvillea.

With your journey coming to an end, in the afternoon, your guide will take you on an unforgettable tour of 7,000 years of Egyptian history with a visit to the Egyptian Museum of Antiquities, home to the world’s greatest collection of Ancient Egyptian artifacts. Wandering from room to room is an adventure in itself, with the suspense building as you cross each threshold and are confronted with unsuspecting wonder after wonder. On one hand, there is the splendid (and slightly daunting) collection of Royal Mummies and the glittering, golden treasures excavated from the tomb of the mythical boy-king Tutankhamun, the sheer opulence of which will both astound and delight you, and particularly the children. But there are also countless less famous, but no less fascinating discoveries to be made: a bed, chair, and jewelry box rescued from the Giza tomb of Queen Hetepheres (mother of the Pharaoh Cheops) and the limestone sculptures of Seneb and his family, which reveal that this “guardian of the royal wardrobe” was, in fact, a dwarf. All in all, this museum does a tremendous job of bringing the pharaohs’ universe to vivid life, providing a closing chapter to your great Egyptian adventure. After lingering in the garden and gift shop, you will return to your hotel for dinner and a relaxing evening in preparation for your long journey home.

Day 9: Departure

At breakfast, take full advantage of your final chance to savor Egyptian delicacies such as fluffy pita and “fuul,” a robust paste of fava beans, before being driven to the airport to board your flight back home.

Alice, as I stated earlier, it’s been a delight to develop this itinerary for you and your family. If I can do anything more to ensure that this trip back in time will be one you will remember, and reflect upon, for years to come, please let me know.