One of the best ways to discover the sites of southern Egypt is by taking a cruise on the Nile River! You will see grand temples and incredible sunsets all while cruising down the lifeline of an ancient culture.
ALL ABOARD! Well...maybe not, since we took our Nile River cruise during COVID-19 in January 2021. Cruises were operational, but options were limited. Check out this post to see more information about our experience traveling to Egypt during COVID-19.
A cruise never appealed to us before, but after researching Egypt and reading positive reviews we decided to book one through Memphis Tours. Now my perspective has changed; it was FANTASTIC!
Below I cover helpful tips, my review of the MS Sonesta St. George I, and the sites covered on the cruise itinerary.
There are a few options to choose from when considering the right cruise for your trip. Evaluate your budget and itinerary to decide if a luxury, mid-range, or budget cruise is best. Whatever you decide, a relaxing ride on the Nile River is a must do in Egypt!
Take a peaceful ride in a felucca, a traditional Egyptian boat with a canvas sail, if a large ship doesn't appeal to you. A shallow-bottomed dahabiya, or passenger boat, is also popular among tourists.
The two most popular departure points are Luxor and Aswan. Sailing from Cairo is possible, but only a handful of companies operate out of the capital. Cruises typically begin on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays. I recommend planning the rest of your itinerary around the cruise dates.
Cruises from Luxor to Aswan are 5 days/4 nights and cruises from Aswan to Luxor are 4 days/3 nights. There are also week-long options. One route goes from Luxor to Aswan and back to Luxor for 7 days/6 nights. Another runs from Aswan to Luxor and back to Aswan for 7 days/6 nights.
Brad and I decided on a cruise from Luxor to Aswan with a Monday through Friday schedule. The route was ideal for our two-week itinerary in Egypt. The first week we explored Cairo and Sharm El Sheikh before flying into Luxor a few days before the cruise departure.
Before You Book
Egypt has affordable cruises, but it's good to understand what exactly is covered in the cost. An all-inclusive package usually doesn't cover alcoholic drinks. Even WiFi and bottled water can have a surcharge. Check if excursions are included and whether airport/hotel transfers are offered. Ask plenty of questions, read reviews, and shop around for the best price.
Booking your cruise through a reputable tour company will be the best overall value. After days of research, we booked our cruise with Memphis Tours. I was impressed with their excellent communication via email, flexible cancellation policy, and stellar reviews on Tripadvisor.
Our tour guide, Ahmed El Prince, was professional, friendly, and knowledgeable. He planned our itinerary and knew the best times to beat the crowds. Prince covered ancient Egyptian history, deciphered scenes on the temple walls, and allowed us plenty of time to explore the sites on our own. Normally he has tour groups of up to 30 people, but due to the pandemic we had him all to ourselves. Our private experience was unforgettable and I highly recommended him!
MS Sonesta St. George I Review
We got picked up at our hotel, the Hilton Luxor Resort and Spa, by a Memphis Tours transport at 11:30 AM. I instantly felt a wave of relief as we made our way to the dock. The hard work of planning the trip was over and it was time to let Memphis Tours handle the rest!
Upon arrival, we were greeted with a refreshing iced hibiscus drink. The porter took our bags to our cabin while we discussed the plan for the afternoon with a Memphis Tours representative in the lobby.
The classic interior design definitely reinforced the five-star luxury of the ship! The beautiful chandelier, multi-colored marble, and plush furniture exuded elegance. Hand-painted murals of lush landscapes framed the staircase connecting the decks. Ooh la la!
I always assumed cruise ships had tiny rooms making you feel like a sardine in a can, but I was relieved to find the opposite to be true. We had plenty of space and didn't feel claustrophobic at all especially with the breeze flowing in off the Nile River. The cabin was actually bigger than some of the hotel rooms I've stayed in.
The MS Sonesta St. George I has 47 deluxe cabins, 9 presidential suites, and 1 royal suite. We opted for a deluxe cabin with a sliding glass window (there are no balconies). I was blown away by the gorgeous wood paneling, brass light fixtures, and baby blue accents!
Our room had a stocked mini-fridge, electronic safe, closet with shelves, hairdryer, kettle with tea/coffee, and LED TV. The comfortable king bed was actually two twin beds pushed together. Two WiFi passcodes were given during our stay each with a data cap of 1 GB. There was no heat in the room, only A/C, but blankets were available upon request.
The clean bathroom had one sink and wood floors. A basket with plenty of toiletries was provided along with fresh white towels. Brad and I both had a good laugh after seeing the jacuzzi shower. It came with a set of instructions, HA!
We were a bit intimidated by the multiple jets, steam controls, and massage options. However, the steam feature actually came in handy to de-wrinkle my clothes since irons aren't allowed on board for safety reasons. There was plenty of hot water and the pressure was superb.
My favorite place on the ship was the sundeck complete with a large pool and hot tub surrounded by canvas cabanas. Relaxing on the plush loungers with a glass of rosé in hand as we cruised down the Nile River was a dream!
Brad and I played cards during afternoon tea which was served every day on the sundeck. We munched on tiny baked goods while watching kids play on the shoreline. The slow pace of the water revealed breathtaking views of Egypt.
We never felt hungry on the MS Sonesta St. George I! The chef and staff make sure to accommodate every palate with an impressive variety of food.
Surprisingly the ship offered a buffet during breakfast and lunch even though there were approximately 20 passengers on board. The chef really went above and beyond to make us all feel special. Dinner was four courses with a few different menu options.
• Breakfast - A selection of fresh pastries, fruit, potatoes, sausages, and yogurt. Waffle and omelette stations, a cereal bar, and Egyptian specialties. Complimentary juice, coffee, and tea.
• Lunch - A selection of vegetables, dips, artisan breads, and soups. A mix of pasta, beef, chicken, and fish dishes. International flavors and mouthwatering desserts. Soft drinks and alcohol were an additional charge.
• Dinner - Choice of a starter, soup, entrée, and dessert from a small menu. Usually the entrée was a choice of beef, chicken, or fish with sautéed vegetables and potatoes. Water was an extra charge, so we often brought our bottled water with us that we received each day for free in the room.
The four-course dinners were underwhelming for me in terms of flavor. I regret not asking the waiter for his input and recommend asking questions to avoid confusion. However, mid-week we had a delicious Egyptian themed buffet. Brad had no complaints about dinner, so maybe I was too picky!
I enjoyed the tasty breakfast and lunch buffets the most. One day we had lunch on the sundeck with fresh shawarma buns, YUM! I often ate a light breakfast followed by a huge lunch which consequently required an afternoon nap.
Entertainment and Staff
The MS Sonesta St. George I has lively entertainment every night after dinner in the lounge. There was a belly dancing show, captain's welcome cocktail party, galabeya party, and Nubian folkloric show. The lounge is the perfect place to grab a cocktail and mingle with other guests. After a few sangrias, I was persuaded to join a game of hot potato!
Egyptian hospitality is some of the best I've ever experienced and the staff catered to our every need. The dining service, managers, and crew were all friendly and welcoming. We made sure to show our gratitude for these hardworking people with a customary cash tip at the end of the cruise.
Cruise Itinerary and Sites
Each ship is aesthetically different, but most follow a similar itinerary to include the main attractions. Tour companies and guides will also affect the overall trip. The following schedule is what we experienced on the MS Sonesta St. George I with Memphis Tours.
Every day we received an itinerary sheet in our cabin detailing the timetable for the following day. The sheets outlined meals and activities. The days often began bright and early with a wake-up call!
Day 1: Embark and Visit Luxor (East Bank)
After check in, we freshened up in our cabin before heading to the dining room for lunch. Prince met us in the lobby and we drove to the east bank to visit the following temples.
• Karnak Temple - Constructed during the Middle Kingdom (2030-1650 BC) up until the Ptolemaic Period (332-30 BC), Karnak Temple is a feast for the eyes with hieroglyphics and statues at every turn! Highlights include the Avenue of Sphinxes and Great Hypostyle Hall consisting of 134 columns in 16 rows.
• Luxor Temple - First commissioned in 1400 BC, by Amenhotep III, the purpose of the temple was the rejuvenation of kingship and a possible place of coronation. Granite statues of Rameses II (who eventually completed the temple) and an impressive obelisk adorn the front entryway of the pylon.
Afterward, Brad and I explored the ship before dinner. We watched an entertaining belly dancing show before going to sleep.
Day 2: Visit Luxor (West Bank) and Sail to Esna
Rise and shine! I made sure to drink an extra cup of coffee during our 6:00 AM breakfast. An early start was a great way to beat the crowds! We took a shuttle to the west bank to see the following sites with Prince.
• Valley of the Kings - Based on the recommendations of Prince, we explored the rock cut tombs of Rameses IX (KV 6), Merenptah (KV 8), Rameses III (KV 11), and Rameses V/VI (KV 9). A tomb was constructed up until the pharaoh's death and no expense was spared. The elaborate craftsmanship of this impressive necropolis is extraordinary!
• Mortuary Temple of Hatsepshut - On the other side of the Valley of the Kings is a remarkable temple constructed during the Middle Kingdom for Hatsepshut. Three colonnaded terraces connected by ramps which seem to progress into the surrounding limestone cliffs form a jaw-dropping entrance.
• Colossi of Memnon - Even though the gigantic twin sandstone statues of Amenhotep III were badly damaged in an earthquake, beautiful details still remain. Weighing 720 tons each, the 60 ft high statues were originally placed at the entrance of the pharaoh's mortuary temple.
We returned for a late lunch and sailed to Esna for the rest of the afternoon. Brad read a book on the sundeck while I took a snooze in the cabin. We enjoyed a few drinks during the captain's welcome cocktail party before dinner.
Day 3: Sail to Edfu, Kom Ombo, and Aswan
After breakfast we took a horse-drawn carriage ride to the first stop of the day in Edfu.
• Temple of Horus (Edfu) - Commissioned in 237 BC, by Ptolemy III, the temple is one of the best preserved monuments that showcases popular characteristics of Egyptian architecture. The original roof is still intact! Nearby the inner hypostyle hall is a room filled with detailed instructions for making elixirs, perfumes, and remedies.
We returned to the ship to have lunch on the sundeck. The rest of the afternoon we sailed to Kom Ombo before visiting the following temple in the evening.
• Temple of Sobek and Haroeris (Kom Ombo) - The temple is known for its rare dedication to two gods: the crocodile god Sobek and falcon god Haroeris (Horus the Elder). Crocodiles were raised and worshipped in a small pool near the rear of the temple. As you exit, visit the crocodile museum to see mummified crocodiles, statues, and carved stelae.
Egyptian night was our favorite! We feasted on a delicious buffet full of traditional delicacies before participating in the galabeya party. The ship sailed overnight to Aswan.
Day 4: Visit Aswan
Brad and I headed to a dock with Prince to board a motorboat after breakfast. The short ride on the water was a fun way to arrive at our first destination. Later we drove to an ancient granite quarry.
• Temple of Isis (Island of Philae) - The Ptolemaic Period temple had to be moved block by block due to the flooding of Lake Nasser to its current location on the Island of Agilkia. Scenes on the temple walls depict Isis bringing her husband/brother, Osiris, back to life and giving birth to her son, Horus, in the marshes.
• Unfinished Obelisk - Aswan was an important area in ancient Egypt because it was the closest source of granite to make objects such as obelisks and statues. The abandoned obelisk partially carved into the bedrock is helpful to understand the techniques used by artisans. The obelisk would've been the largest ever made in Egypt if it wasn't for the crack!
We made our way back to the ship for lunch before visiting the last site on the cruise itinerary.
• High Dam - Although not an ancient monument, Egypt is proud of its rock-filled High Dam which was created to regulate the flow of the Nile River. Built in the 1960s, the dam's effects are two-sided. Agricultural yields and electricity production increased, whereas thousands of Nubians were displaced and the aquatic ecosystem suffered. This is the reason you won't see crocodiles swimming in the Nile River since they now reside in Lake Nasser.
We returned for dinner and got lost in the rhythm of the Nubian folkloric show complete with drummers and twirling dancers.
Day 5: Disembark in Aswan
Packing our bags was bittersweet. After breakfast, we deposited a cash tip for the crew and settled our surcharges before leaving the ship. Although the cruise was over, we had one last adventure in Egypt ahead of us!
We booked an eight-hour excursion to Abu Simbel during our final day. Check out this post on southern Egypt for more information. Afterward, we were taken directly to the Aswan airport for our flight back home to the United States.
• Temple of Rameses II (Abu Simbel) - Commissioned in 1247 BC, the temple façade proclaims the pharaoh’s greatness with four colossal seated statues each approximately 65 ft high. Step inside the equally impressive interior complete with mirroring Osirian pillar statues of Rameses II. Grand painted reliefs show the pharaoh riding his chariot into battle against the Hittites.
• Temple of Nefertari (Abu Simbel) - Rameses II and his wife, Nefertari, are of equal proportions on the temple façade reinforcing her importance during his reign. Square pillars with carved images of the goddess Hathor guide visitors to the main shrine. Colorful reliefs show Nefertari making offerings to the gods and playing a sistrum (a sacred instrument in ancient Egypt).
A trip to Egypt is bound to be unforgettable no matter how you choose to plan it. Our Nile River cruise aboard the MS Sonesta St. George I was a relaxing way to explore the sites of southern Egypt. Optimize your time and leave the logistics to the tour professionals for a stress-free experience. Bon voyage!