On Viking’s Nile River Cruise, Exploring Lively Villages and Ancient Marvels

The cacophony of motorbikes weaving among pedestrians on the unpaved streets of Esna, a village south of Luxor, is unceasing. Makeshift fruit stands and pita carts are crammed together cheek by jowl on the roadside. The warm, bready scent of the grilled dough wafts down the block. As I stroll the markets, jolly shop owners hawk the village’s signature colorful tunics and galabia dresses. If Esna is known globally at all, it’s for the eponymous ancient red stone temple on the banks of the Nile. On my first trip to Egypt, this stop is an unexpected and delightfully local change of pace from places like Luxor and Aswan. Viking’s new Nile cruises on board its sleek, just-launched ship Osiris, named for the Egyptian god of the afterlife, make a point of stopping at these lesser-known destinations alongside the greatest hits. With travel to Egypt back in a big way, even Nile veterans like Viking know their offerings need to stand out.

Camels in front of the Khufu and Khafre pyramids at Giza

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The banks of the Nile near Aswan

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I step into a shop and eye a few of those galabias down the back. The jolly owner puts on his business face, and the two of us ping-pong figures back and forth until we settle on $40. The price is probably still too high, but I walk out empowered. Haggling takes me outside my comfort zone, and that felt good. In fact, since arriving in Egypt I have noticed myself becoming more intrepid, more the traveler I always want to be. It may be that the comforts of the purpose-built ship—including a plunge pool, a roof deck, and an indoor-outdoor café—provide such a solid base for adventure. Or it may be because, when given access to these off-the-beaten-path experiences, you want to go all in and take everything you can from them.

So at Luxor and the Valley of the Kings, I sign up for a sunrise hot-air-balloon excursion. Our guide says the views of the valley’s undulating rock formations and the temple ruins that once served as preparation areas for the burial of pharaohs are not to be missed. We leave for the valley before dawn, crossing the inky black river in a small boat. The only light in the starless sky is from a thin wedge of crescent moon; the only sound is the chug of our motor, followed by the 4 a.m. call to prayer. As the first sunlight begins to seep onto the horizon, our hot-air balloon starts to inflate. Soon the flame is roaring at its base. Our group climbs into a basket the size of a Volkswagen, and suddenly we’re floating away. The ascent is so smooth and calm, it feels as seamless as dreaming. We float over banana trees and along the edge of the mountains, glowing and resplendent in the golden dawn. Later that day, we depart for Qena, a small city north of Luxor often overlooked by tourists that is home to the grand temple of Dendera. Every square inch of it—the walls, ceilings, columns, and numerous chapels used to house offerings to the gods—is covered in breathtakingly intricate hieroglyphics. The thousands of carvings on the temple ceiling are more vibrant today than they have been in centuries, thanks to a 16-year-long restoration project to remove soot and grime and return the hieroglyphics to the original turquoise blue applied by ancient artisans. The painted carvings depict everything from stories of the gods to the phases of the moon and the zodiac. Our guide makes sure to point out each of our star signs.

A Nubian family outside their home in Aswan

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The Great Temple of Ramses II

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On the last evening of the voyage, I sit on my suite’s private veranda as we head back to Luxor. I watch the thick vegetation dotted with royal palm trees and neon-pink bougainvillea fly by on the riverbank. Occasionally, we pass groups of children splashing in the river. A henna-colored sunset dip-dyes the sky, and the mineral scent of the Nile drifts up from below. All I can think is how fortunate I am to have had an opportunity to travel this way, to have been an infinitesimal part in the teeming life along the Nile for a few brief moments.

Twelve-day sails on the Viking Osiris start at $6,499 per person

This article appeared in the December 2022 issue of Condé Nast Traveler. Subscribe to the magazine here.

Karen J. Simmons

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