Sail Through History—On the Nile Like the Pharaohs Did, in Scotland Like Queen Elizabeth

·4 min read
Photo credit: DYLAN CHANDLER
Photo credit: DYLAN CHANDLER


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Dahabiyas are descendants of pharaonic vessels.

There has not recently been a better time to plan a trip to Egypt than now. ­Cairo’s much-delayed Grand Egyptian Museum, the 120-acre, $1 billion home to many of Egypt’s most prized antiquities, opens in November (inshallah). And there’s no more magical add-on than a three-to-five-day sailing on the Nile, between Luxor and Aswan, in a traditional dahabiya. These small flat-bottomed, two-masted wooden vessels plied the river during the 19th-century heyday of Egyptian travel (the English writer Amelia Edwards wrote a book about her 1873 voyage) and were themselves descendants of pharaonic vessels.

Photo credit: Courtesy of Nour El Nil.
Photo credit: Courtesy of Nour El Nil.

Of late there has been a flurry of new luxury dahabiya operators. Nour El Nil, co-owned by French interior designer Eleonor Kamir and local boatmaker Memdouh Sayed Khalifa, is a standout. “The largest of their six-boat, 8-to-12-cabin fleet is the Adelaide,” says Jules Maury, of Scott Dunn Private; it features two “panoramic” suites. The dahabiyas are rustic, without private balconies, pools, or spas, “but it’s all very charmingly Egyptian,” she notes, “with low-slung chairs on covered decks and local food.”

Photo credit: Dylan Chandler
Photo credit: Dylan Chandler

Dahabiyas may sail right past some landmark sites, such as Esna or Edfu, because the focus is less on checking temples off your list than on the experience itself: picnics on small islands, desert walks, moorings in quieter areas where larger vessels aren’t allowed—the eternal, moving beauty of rural Egypt. You can book individually with Nour el Nil or charter an entire boat; likewise with the Dahabiya Zekrayaat, operated by Nile Dahabiya. Egypt expert Jim Berkeley of Destinations & Adventures also recommends the charter-only Zein Chateau, operated by A&K offshoot Sanctuary. “Dahabiyas,” he points out, “are configured for spending a lot of time on deck. You can thumb your nose at the big cruise boats because you’re so much cooler.”

Photo credit: Courtesy of Nour El Nil.
Photo credit: Courtesy of Nour El Nil.

T&C TIP
If you’re time-pressed or want traditional comforts, swap the languorous romance of a dahabiya for a more conventional vessel. Good choices: the Oberoi-operated 27-cabin Oberoi Zahra, Uniworld’s 42-stateroom SS Sphinx, or the 41-cabin Viking Osiris, which makes its maiden voyage in August.

Queen Elizabeth chartered the Hebridean Princess—twice.

Photo credit: Courtesy of Hebridean Princess
Photo credit: Courtesy of Hebridean Princess

A 130-mile-long island chain off Scotland’s west coast, the Outer Hebrides form one of Europe’s wildest, least-trafficked corners, with empty white sand beaches, craggy coves, traditional lifestyles, and exceptional wildlife (sharks and otters, puffins and petrels). St. Kilda, abandoned almost a century ago, is a UNESCO heritage site. It was Queen Victoria’s fondness for Scotland that kick-started tourism here in the 19th century, and Elizabeth II feels much the same. She chartered the Hebridean Princess (look for the warrant displayed above reception), flagship of Hebridean Island Cruises, one of the largest operators, for a family vacation to mark her 80th birthday in 2006, and again four years later. The ship operates like a floating country house, with 30 staterooms, as do its sister ships, including the brand new Lord of the Highlands, whose maiden voyage was in April.

Photo credit: Andrew Milligan - PA Images
Photo credit: Andrew Milligan - PA Images
Photo credit: Andrew Milligan - PA Images
Photo credit: Andrew Milligan - PA Images

Other choices: Ken Grant co-owns and runs the Majestic Line of converted fishing boats and offers 10-night itineraries for up to 12 passengers, as well as charters. The crew is largely Scottish, and each boat has a chef onboard who buys local produce and often gets seafood from the fishing fleets trawling these waters. Red Moon, a four-berth boat crewed and owned by Mary Waller and Scott Atkinson, out of Skye, has itineraries that also include the Inner Hebrides (it’s booked for the rest of this year but has availability in 2023). Know that the boats here are all more Princess Anne than WASP princess: high-end but no-­nonsense, well equipped but unfussy, unconcerned with anything as mundane as thread counts—just like the upper-class Brits, who form their core clientele.

As for Scotland’s notoriously fickle weather, don’t worry: The Outer Hebrides sit under the warming Gulf Stream, which gives them balmy summer days when the light lingers until midnight. “And even if the mist is hanging around the hills,” says Grant, “it’s ethereal.”

This story appears in the Summer 2022 issue of Town & Country. SUBSCRIBE NOW

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