The Best Way to Experience Egypt Is By Boat

Steam Ship Sudan
Olivier Romano

My alarm pierces through the silence, jolting me out of a deep sleep. I blink, trying to shake my slumber-induced stupor and adjust to the blackness of the room when reality hits me: I’m in a ship cabin. I stumble over to the window and slide the shutters open to marvel at the sepia-toned landscape floating by. Palm trees are lined along the riverbed, stretching skyward against the undulating outline of mountains framed in the distance. I’m officially in Egypt, cruising down the Nile.

Egypt is one of those destinations that’s always seemed out of reach somehow. I’d learned about the north African nation’s illustrious history through textbooks, lectures, and lesson plans. I’d studied Egyptian mythology in college, memorizing the fables of sun god Ra, goddess Isis, and falcon-headed Horus. I’d soaked in documentaries about the real-life pharaohs like King Tut, Khufu, and Cleopatra. And, of course, I’d poured over photographs depicting its iconic sites and monuments, ranging from the Pyramids of Giza to the Valley of the Kings. Still, it always felt worlds away; almost cartoonish, or like some elaborate work of fiction. But as I stare out onto Egypt’s spellbinding shores, it all finally starts to feel real.

I’m sailing aboard the Steam Ship Sudan, a historic vessel built by the legendary Thomas Cook at the dawn of the 20th century. Its original purpose was revolutionary during its time, connecting the cities of Aswan and Cairo. It successfully reduced the epic journey to just 20 days, and attracted hordes of eager travelers during the height of the Belle Époque chapter of European tourism.

Steam Ship Sudan
Steam Ship Sudan at sunset Olivier Romano

Today, it’s one of the oldest and most storied steamships still operating on the Nile. Recently renovated, the vessel continues to capture the same luxurious experience that harkens back to a glamorous bygone era. Boasting 18 air-conditioned cabins and five stunning suites (with one more on the way), the ship is outfitted with classical décor to transport its passengers to yesteryear, replete with wood-paneled interiors, gilded furniture, and two airy decks that offer unobstructed panoramas of the ever-changing scenery. Passengers can book their SS Sudan adventure through Original Travel, a London-based luxury travel company that recently launched in the United States; it’s built a reputation for creating tailor-made itineraries packed with plenty of perks, like a global network of local concierges.

Over the years, the ship welcomed countless esteemed guests, including celebrities, dignitaries, and royalty. But its most famous was arguably Agatha Christie. In fact, the ship’s most lavish accommodation is dubbed the Agatha Christie Suite in her honor. She was so enchanted by the vessel during her voyage, it inspired one of her most famous mystery novels, Death on the Nile. Although she changed the name to SS Karnak in the book, the celebrated work cemented the ship’s legacy in the minds of thriller lovers and movie buffs the world over. And now, the SS Sudan is poised to become one of Egypt’s hottest attractions once again, thanks to next year’s highly anticipated remake from 20th Century Fox, starring blockbuster actors Gal Gadot and Armie Hammer.

Camel resting in the sand in Egypt
Camel resting in the sand in Egypt Ian Centrone

In my cabin, I start getting ready for the busy day ahead, the first of a six-night itinerary. Our agenda kicks off with a strong start, exploring the splendors of Luxor, a city on the east bank of the Nile in southern Egypt. Situated on the site of ancient Thebes, the region once served as the pharaoh’s capital during the height of their reign from the 16th to 11th centuries B.C. It’s just after lunch when we dock and exit the ship, the sun already stifling with temperatures soaring well above 110 degrees.

Led by Waleed, a seasoned local guide and Egyptologist, our group spends the afternoon wandering through Luxor’s top archaeological sites, including the Temple of Karnak and the Temple of Luxor. The ruins are brought to life through perfect illustrations depicting the pharaohs and their gods, and Waleed eloquently explains every nuance. It seems almost unbelievable how well-preserved many of the sites are. After hours in the sun, it’s time to return to the ship and sail toward Qena―an exclusive route that only a handful of ships are granted access.

The next morning, we prepare for an early start in a feeble effort to beat the heat. We have a two-hour drive ahead of us, with the sacred city of Abydos serving as our final destination. The site is celebrated for its temple bas-reliefs, which mark the birth of Ramessean art. The most impressive highlight is the Temple of Hathor in Denderah; an isolated, nearly perfectly preserved temple sitting in a vast desert on the banks of the Nile. Inside the sprawling structure, breathtaking cartouches, ancient hieroglyphs, and elaborate stelae adorn every surface. The most awe-inspiring are the ceilings, almost illuminated in original bold pops of blue, which were once hidden by layers of soot and ash dating back hundreds of years. After Waleed’s abbreviated but gripping history lesson, we capture some photos before making our way back to the ship for an overnight stay in Luxor aboard the ship.

Author Ian Centrone exploring Karnak Temple
Author Ian Centrone exploring Karnak Temple Ian Centrone

By day three, we’ve all grown accustomed to the itinerary’s rhythmic pattern. Wake up early, fuel up on breakfast, explore the sites of the day, return for lunch and a nap, then enjoy the evening’s lineup of activities, which typically include dinner aboard the ship and a night of revelry. Sometimes there’s even an evening excursion, depending on our location. The entire crew is impossibly helpful; our guides are incredibly knowledgeable and patient; each meal far exceeds my “cruise ship cuisine” expectations; and the majestic SS Sudan quickly feels like a home away from home, as well as a cherished sanctuary from the harsh summer heat. Somehow, every passing day proves to be more astonishing than the last, as each of the Egyptian adventures I’d envisioned in my mind slowly but surely become my reality.

During the course of the week, we spend hours ambling along timeworn wonders. One afternoon is dedicated to the spellbinding Valley of the Kings (home to Tutankhamun’s Tomb), while the next is spent exploring the Temple of Edfu (one of Egypt’s best-kept temples, which was once buried in the sand before being excavated by French Egyptologist Auguste Mariette in the 1860s). Some evenings, our group has the opportunity to meander through the colorful night markets on land, bartering with local merchants for our very own Egyptian treasures, like hibiscus tea and alabaster vases. But every day, I’m reminded how lucky we are that this remarkable culture and its timeless beauty has been preserved for all of us to appreciate, thousands of years later.

On one of the last nights, the gracious crew sets up a special screening of one of the countless Death on the Nile remakes (this one happens to be a recent 2014 retelling starring Emily Blunt). My fellow passengers hail from all over the globe: honeymooners from Boston, a family from England, lots of French couples on a romantic holiday. As we all settle into our leather-bound chairs with cocktails in hand, I realize there’s no other way I could ever dream of seeing this bucket-list destination than by sailing up and down the lifeblood that enabled the ancient civilization to prosper.

And I can’t help but laugh to myself at the scenario at hand: sailing along the Nile, while watching Death on the Nile, aboard the very ship that inspired Christie’s original Death on the Nile masterpiece. With all eyes glued to the screen, the gravity of it all hits me, as each of the iconic sites we’ve witnessed over the past few days start to appear on screen. It’s all a magically meta experience as I reflect back on a once-in-a-lifetime, week-long adventure that I know I won’t soon forget.

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