Exploring Luxor & The Valley of the Kings With Silversea
Sunday, April 12, 2015
Aaron Saunders, Live Voyage Reports
This afternoon, I sat sipping tea on the outdoor terrace at the Sheraton Luxor, gazing out on the beautiful Nile River that exists as one of the most famous (and indeed, only) waterways in Egypt. And truth be told, I felt a little angry. Not at the tour, or at Egypt – but at our so-called “news” that we have in North America.
This tranquil paradise was the so-called “deadly” Middle East. This picturesque landscape, where nothing more than the wind and the buzzing of the bumblebees on the flowers next to me could be heard. Yet, in the distance, I could see dozens, maybe hundreds, of laid-up riverboats; riverboats that used to ply the Nile and which now sit waiting for the tourists to return.
Silversea’s Silver Wind came alongside in the dusty port of Safaga, Egypt just before 07:00 this morning as we ended our long stretch of days at sea and began our first explorations in Egypt. As a port of call, Safaga isn’t much. An industrial port littered with dusty trucks and half-completed buildings and machinery, most of the passengers that come here will do so by one of the few small ferries that dock not far from our own berth. So why do cruise ships stop in Safaga if there’s nothing to do? One word: Luxor.
Situated 200 kilometres to the west, the ancient city of Luxor is one of Egypt’s “must-see” destinations. Located along the Nile, Florence Nightingale one described Luxor as “the deathbead of the world” – though her dreary statement is actually a complement. Not only does Luxor boast the amazing Luxor Temple that was built by Amenhotep III (1390-1352 BC) and Ramses II (1279-1213 BC), it also serves as a great jumping-off point to another Egyptian treasure: The Valley of the Kings.
Silversea offers guests an optional tour from Safaga to Luxor and the Valley of the Kings. Priced at $299 per person, it’s a massive 13-hour exploration that includes Luxor Temple, lunch at the Sheraton Luxor, a guided visit to the Valley of the Kings, and photo-stops at the Temple of Hatshepsut and the pair of statues that now stand alone in a farmer’s field that are collectively known as the Colossi of Memnon. They are the only remains of the former Temple of Amenhotep III.
As we began our dusty drive from the pier in Safaga and made our way into the bleak and otherworldly mountains just outside of town that are only notable for their near-total lack of vegetation and plant life, I was impressed as much by the logistics of this Silversea excursion as I was by the landscape. In fact, I think this was the most involved shore excursion I’ve ever participated in.
Here’s how it worked: we had two air conditioned Mercedes coaches carrying about 22 guests apiece – roughly half their total capacity. Each coach had a guide, a driver, and a special armed guard from the Egyptian Tourist Police who would be ensuring our safety both on the coach and at our designated stops.
Both coaches were escorted by the Egyptian Tourist Police, and we travelled in a convoy: one car, one coach, one car, one coach. Behind us was another support vehicle, and a third coach: a completely empty coach manufactured by European bus company Setra that sported a sign in the window that simply said “Backup” with the Silversea logo above it. That’s right: an entire coach followed us around for an entire day just in case one of the two busses we were using broke down. Considering how remote many of the roads we were travelling were, that’s a very prudent and reassuring step.
On our three-hour drive into Luxor, I also realized something else: security here is tight. There’s a Police Checkpoint nearly every five kilometres once you get off the freeway, which is also bookended at both ends and in the middle by additional checkpoints. But these aren’t like the land-border crossings you might be used to at home; instead, these are ramshackle and – in some cases – hastily-constructed structures, all staffed by a dozen or so machine-gun wielding members of the Egyptian constabulary. Look closer: there’s also snipers positioned in turrets about 15 feet off the ground. Flak shields and bulletproof-vests litter the ground, along with dozens of empty glass bottles of Coca-Cola. Keeping the peace is a thirsty business.
While the structures may not look all that serious, security is a serious issue for the Egyptians. As tourists, the arrival and departure of our coaches had already been pre-arranged and vetted by the authorities, so other than having to slow to a crawl and endure hundreds of speed bumps (they’re as common in Egypt as tombs and pyramids), we weren’t inconvenienced at all. Others weren’t so lucky: I saw one regular commuter bus pulled over on the side of the road with a harried-looking driver using his iPhone as a flashlight to illuminate the engine access panel at the rear of the bus for five very serious, very armed, guards.
I could write a small book on what we saw today. This is my first visit to Egypt, and it absolutely blew my mind, and from the Luxor Temple to the Valley of the Kings to simply crossing the Nile River, which is absolutely gorgeous, if perhaps totally unsafe to drink or bathe in. History jumps out at you everywhere. It’s amazing how much of Egypt’s history you’ll know and recognize when you’re here – though the actual experience of standing deep underground in an ancient tomb in the Valley of the Kings is something otherworldly.
This tour also showed me what a beautiful country Egypt is. It’s completely and utterly fascinating. Sure, there’s parts of it that may not be safe to travel to at the moment – but Luxor isn’t one of them. There’s European families here with their kids on holiday! At no point in time today did I ever feel unsafe – and I’d come back here in a heartbeat.
Rather than blather on about my Silver Shore tour experience today, let me show you instead:
Sadly, I was unable to take photographs in the Valley of the Kings. Cameras aren’t allowed on the premises, so everyone had to leave theirs on the coach. But descending into the tombs was like being in an Indiana Jones movie. I wish I had a better, smarter analogy, but I don’t. It’s pretty much just like that – except without being chased by a giant boulder.
The drive back to the ship was a long one, clocking in at 3.5 hours due to traffic, the now-ubiquitous roadside checkpoints, and a lengthy section of highway that had recently been paved and was now covered in fresh oil that even managed to reduce Egypt’s zippy traffic to a crawl. The other thing I realized about Egypt’s highway system on our drive back: nothing is easily accessible. Besides the checkpoints, even just getting to the pier itself required two U-turns and, yes, another roadside checkpoint at the dock gate.
So: you have two coaches filled with approximately 60 guests’ total. They’re happy, but very weary. They’ve been out for over 13 hours, and they’re eager to get back onboard and find some dinner. On any other line, you’d do just that: disembark the coach, head up the gangway, swipe your keycard, and go in search of food.
Not on Silversea. Tonight, we had a welcome fit for royalty as we stepped off the coaches, with our Butlers (including my own, the fabulous Reynaldo) holding an oversized banner that said, ‘Welcome Home.’ Cruise Director Colin was there to personally greet guests, and refreshing towels and champagne were available as we swiped our keycards in and returned our passports to the ship for clearance formalities.
I took the aft staircase up and walked forward to my suite, where my Butler, Reynaldo, emerged from the forward staircase just before I reached it. As if on cue, he opened my suite door for me and led me around to the dining table, where my Pommery champagne waited on-ice, along with some fruit-and-cheese kabobs to tide me over until my room service dinner arrived from the kitchen. Reynaldo took my order, and fifteen minutes later, I had a three course dinner waiting for me.
The 13-hour tour was time well spent to visit something as magical as Egypt’s Valley of the Kings. Impressively, it’s not what I’ll remember most about today. Silversea managed to top Tutankhamun himself with the welcome we were all treated to tonight.
A welcome fit for a King.
Silver Wind Middle East Adventure
|April 5, 2015||Muscat, Oman||Embark Silver Wind||19:00|
|April 6||Day at Sea|
|April 7||Salalah, Oman||13:00||23:00|
|April 8||At Sea|
|April 9||At Sea|
|April 10||At Sea|
|April 11||At Sea|
|April 12||Safaga, Egypt||07:00||21:00|
|April 13||Aqaba, Jordan||09:30||21:00|
|April 14||Transiting the Suez Canal|
|April 15||Port Said, Egypt||08:00||17:00|
|April 16||Ashdod, Israel||08:00||23:00|
|April 17||Haifa, Israel||07:00||18:00|
|April 18||At Sea|
|April 19||Kusadasi, Turkey||08:00||17:00|
|April 20||Piraeus (Athens), Greece||07:00||Disembark; Live Voyage Recap|
Our Live Voyage Report aboard Silversea’s elegant Silver Wind continues tomorrow from Aqaba, Jordan, where we’ll visit the ancient ruins of Petra! Be sure to follow along on twitter by following @deckchairblog or the hashtag #LiveVoyageReport.