The Nile River is full of a variety of cruise ships: large tourist vessels, midsize hotel boats, luxury vessels with gorgeous decor and air-conditioning throughout, some even with swimming pools on top. They all travel between Luxor and Aswan in three or four nights, on itineraries packaged with land exploration that may include time in Cairo as well. But my friends and I wanted more time on the river itself, and something more intimate—like the kind of wooden boat Cleopatra might have sailed on. That’s why we booked a Nile cruise on a dahabiya.
A dahabiya is a great way to experience the river and the sites along its banks, as long as you are willing to forgo some higher-end luxury trappings for a more local, rustic experience.
What is a dahabiya?
The word dahabiya is derived from the Arab word for “gold,” highlighting its ancient royal origins. The wooden sailboats, with only two decks and shallow bottoms, have been an option for travelers on the Nile since the 19th century and are based on designs that go back millennia.
The company my friends and I chose for our Nile experience was Nour El Nil, which has been around for more than a decade and operates seven dahabiyas with distinctive red-and-white striped sails fore and aft. The company was the brainchild of three partners: a Parisian interior designer who does the decor, a Mexican-born businessman, and an Egyptian sailor who oversees construction of the vessels.
Their boats have 8 to 12 cabins (accommodating 16 to 24 passengers), and they sail under wind power when the weather cooperates and are pulled by a small tugboat when there’s little breeze (which happened frequently on our sailing).
Nour El Nil has gained a reputation as a luxury operator, and in some ways it is, but in other ways the experience is on the rugged side, appealing to travelers like me with a sense of adventure.
The opulence is in the small-ship and small-group experience, with everyone dining at a long table on the open deck, waving at one of the 13 crew members for a drink, docking at historical sites and villages that larger ships can’t access, and exploring ancient ruins with expert guides.
The onboard experience
We were five couples traveling together for a friend’s birthday celebration. Our boat was the 12-cabin Adelaïde, and we shared it with 12 other travelers.
Most of the time, we found ourselves lounging on the plush, colorful, fabric-covered chairs, sofas, and daybeds on the open deck, which is shaded by tarps and festooned with chandeliers for an environment that is practical, with a touch of class. Unlike the hotel ships with indoor dining rooms, the deck was our dining space and lounge. This is where you catch views, feel occasional breezes (including from ceiling fans), admire the sails, spend time chatting or reading or playing games such as Scrabble and Hearts with your sail mates. If you’re me, it’s where you might stretch out in the hammock and fantasize about Agatha Christie’s Death on the Nile (written at the famed Old Cataract Hotel in Aswan) and imagine backstories for your fellow passengers—which in our case hailed from the United States, Germany, France, Poland, and Brazil.
The cabins are all on the lower deck, with soft white linens, chandeliers, and Old World–style artwork, windows with sliding shutters and screens, and a mirrored bathroom reminiscent of nautical heads (the shower had no curtain or door, so the bathroom got wet when you used it). The boat also has two “panoramic suites,” each with floor-to-ceiling windows and an indoor sitting area. There aren’t private balconies as on some of the hotel ships. Portable air-conditioning units kept the rooms cool, though they get turned off in the middle of the night when the boat cuts its main generator to save on gas (ceiling fans and lights, on a separate system, remain on).
Sense of place was a constant. Our Egyptian crew, dressed in flowing galabiyas of various hues, sometimes struggled with English but were always willing to figure out what you wanted. If the fabrics on deck were end-of-season dusty and faded, they matched the colors of desert. Other views were surprisingly green riverbanks and mangroves, and as we lazed around with cocktails, we enjoyed watching village life go by: water buffalo wading in the river, fishermen angling in their small boats, farmers in carts pulled by donkeys. Sometimes, we’d hear calls for prayer ring out from minarets.
You knew it was mealtime when a crew member walked around the ship ringing a little bell. We were served family-style on a table set with textiles and pottery, with a delicious menu based on whatever was fresh and available from farmers and fishermen along the route. One day that might be lamb, another roasted ducks or fried Nile perch. There was an array of flavorful vegetable stews, whether eggplant, okra, or zucchini. And bowls of tahini, french fries, and flatbread were constants on the table.
All meals were included in the price of the trip, but booze cost extra. Still, it was a bargain: a gin or vodka tonic made from local liquor was less than $2.50, a bottle of local wine was about $13 ($19.50 if you wanted to upgrade to a bottle imported from South Africa).
Another bargain: massages for about $44, delivered by a crew member in the ship’s little used indoor lounge on the cabin deck.
Ancient sites and shoreside activities
Of course, a very nice boat experience is one thing, but if you’ve come all the way to Egypt, you also expect to tour ancient historic sites and learn a thing or two. Nour El Nil’s contract Egyptologists deliver small-group tours with aplomb. For us English speakers, there was Adel Abu ElHagag, an expert on hieroglyphics who was determined to teach us to recognize the symbols for Cleopatra, among others.
While hotel ships follow a set route (you’ll see them docking at the same sites at basically the same times), our dahabiya cruise was a tad more improvised and able to include key sites on and off the standard tourist path. Our small boat could tie up to a tree, so shoreside exploration went beyond the river cruise norm, and with no printed itinerary, every day brought a sense of adventure. Crew leant a hand as we sometimes walked the plank or up dirt hillsides. Sometimes, we walked across two other Nour El Nil boats that we at times sailed with in a convoy.
For instance, the typical Nile cruise does not visit El Kab, the site of colorfully painted tombs and temples where Adel read hieroglyphics detailing the life stories of nobles and priests. “It’s like buying confession,” he said of the artistic depictions, dating from 1550 to 1050 B.C.E. “What you did in your life. Did you look at your neighbor’s wife?” But we also hit main sites such as the temple to the falcon god Horus in Edfu.
Some of my friends would say a highlight of the dahabiya cruise—and definitely not offered by the larger river ships—was swimming in the Nile. I am too much of a germophobe to try that.
My magical moment came one day in the early evening, when about 15 of us passengers disembarked at a narrow point in the Nile River near the temple of Gebel el-Silsila and its sandstone quarry that provided much of the material for several of the temples and tombs we’d see on our trip. We passed through a dusty brick village and walked higher into a moonscape of imposing sand dunes to watch the sunset. Biblical stories came to mind, even though our trek of a few miles crossed a small piece of the Nubian Desert, not the Sinai. The off-the-beaten-path setting was breathtaking in its sparseness, especially as the sun, a fiery orange orb, dipped below a distant dune. This is the way to cruise the Nile.
How to book
Nour El Nil is one of a few companies offering a dahabiya experience on the Nile. The seven boats range from 16 to 24 passengers. Wi-Fi, meals, and shore excursions are all included; alcohol and tips for the crew are not (I spent about $140 on tips).
Cairo-based Nile Dahabiya Boats has four 10- to 15-passenger boats doing a three- or four-night route between Esna and Aswan, double occupancy fares from $360 per person.
Luxor and Aswan Travel represents 11 dahabiyas, fares from $835 per person for a three-night cruise.