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December 15, 2015

I will be honest: I was hesitant to book a cruise along the Nile. Beyond concerns about general safety in Egypt, my travel companion, Eli, and I certainly didn’t consider ourselves “cruise people.” Being told what time to eat? Group activities? Would we truly get to see Egypt or would we be carted around in air-conditioned comfort?

After many recommendations, we booked a four-night cruise with Sanctuary Retreats aboard the Sun Boat IV, starting in Luxor and sailing upriver toward Aswan. There are dozens of options for Nile cruises, but Sanctuary Retreats has a deserved reputation for luxury. Even from shore, the ship stood out: it was petite, modern, unlike the other towering barges that were tied up along the docks. I could see the white cabanas lining the top deck, the balconies outside each of the 40 staterooms. Eli and I were greeted with ice-cold hibiscus tea once we stepped aboard the Sun Boat IV, and we officially didn’t have to think anymore.

And we unofficially had Egypt to ourselves. As you may have read, there is no one in Egypt right now. By “no one” I mean very, very few American travelers. In every city in which our ship made port, hotel owners sat with me and Eli at breakfast, overjoyed to see foreign guests, and hoping we were harbingers of the return of Americans to Egypt. Tourism has been a foundation of the Egyptian economy for at least a hundred years, and that underpinning has all but disappeared since the Arab Spring.

That is also the draw of Egypt now. In Luxor—often called the world’s greatest open-air museum—we would disembark to see only a few busloads of Russians on a day trip from resorts along the Red Sea. There was no line at the temples of Karnak. When the evening lights came on along the Avenue of Sphinxes, there were just a couple of Egyptian men out front drinking tea and rolling backgammon dice. Antiquity was empty.

The first rule of cruising is that life on board and off should be easy. When a driver met us at the airport in Luxor, he knew our names. He had a car waiting. No haggling with taxis, no schlepping our luggage. When we were shown to our spotless room—efficient but nothing remarkable—our bags were already waiting. We jumped onto the beds, light-headed from the view out the floor-to-ceiling windows.

Another rule of cruising is that you cover a lot of ground. There would be unscheduled time on the ship, but from the very first morning we were down to business—the attentive staff served strong coffee and handed out an itinerary. It didn’t appear daunting on paper: sightseeing in the morning, lunch, sightseeing in the afternoon.

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So we greeted the new day with stereotypical American enthusiasm, setting out for the Karnak Temples and charging good-naturedly through the 106-degree morning. We loaded back into the ship, famished, to find a vast buffet of Egyptian meze—ful, baba ghanoush, tahini, tomato-and-cucumber salads, cardamom rice with braised okra—which we attacked before our guide got us back on the road. I consulted my itinerary for the balance of the day: Hatshepsut’s Temple, the Colossi of Memnon, then the Valley of the Queens. Our final stop would be the Valley of the Kings. I was beginning to feel daunted.

By mid-afternoon I had sweated through my clothes and the wind had come up, blasting us with sand that I continually wiped from my nose and ears. I was certain the bottom of my shoes were melting on the baking white stones. I was momentarily rejuvenated at each site, but by 5 p.m., I was bedraggled at best.

Alaa, a Nubian man with encyclopedic knowledge of the valley, was assigned to us by Sanctuary Retreats. He’d seen our kind before: eyes glazed over in the van after the Valley of the Queens. He probably knew Eli and I were conspiring to skip the next site and nap in the van, or be dropped off at the ship so we could eat canapés instead. Alaa forced bottles of water on us and urged us on.

The Valley of the Kings is a desolate, blindingly beige sun-trap hidden within the Theban Mountains. Its natural hostility was one of the reasons it was chosen to conceal the wealth and mummies of the kings. The landscape was alien, and dense with heat. Eli and I would have been terrible explorers—“Wow, it’s a bit hot, maybe we should come back later?” we would have said, then promptly fallen asleep in the shade—but that’s why you have a guide: to drive you onward.

Dropping out of the light of the valley was like dropping out of the living world. There was detailed artwork on every surface of Merneptah’s tomb, narrating his journey toward Anubis, the jackal- headed god of the dead. In his burial chamber, the ceiling was painted with white stars struck against a cobalt ceiling. This is where Merneptah journeyed into the night, into the underworld.

“All this painstakingly made art,” Eli whispered (we found that we naturally whispered in the tombs), “and then you bury it, seal it up. A little perverse, right?” I agreed. Touring the tombs is a slight violation. You are walking in a grave, somewhere you were never supposed to be. By our second tomb we were at ease with this perversity, and had solved the riddle of touring these sights: bring small change and linger. The Valley of the Kings is one place in Egypt where tipping isn’t simply a toll you endure for crossing the street. If you tip the guard, he will take you past the ropes. He will take you behind false walls, up ladders into old storage rooms covered with hieroglyphs, into chambers they are still excavating, and let you climb into a pink granite sarcophagus. If you tip the guard, he will unlock a tomb that isn’t officially open.

By the time we emerged—giddy, and bathed in dust from crawling around—the sun was starting to fade. All the tombs were closed and most of the guards had gone home for the day. The rest were dozing off in the shadows of the rocks.

“We’re the last ones,” Alaa said, gesturing around the empty site.

We asked Alaa if we could take one photo; the light was so beautiful, saturating every exposed surface in gold against the sharp blue of the sky. He said no, the official answer, then winked and told us to meet him at the exit. That was how my friend and I ended up alone in the Valley of the Kings.

But not entirely alone. There is a presence in the valley. They have been saying for a century there are no tombs left to discover, and yet these burial chambers continue to be unearthed (though most excavations stopped during the revolution in 2011 and have only recently resumed). I didn’t need radar or a computer—when the valley is silent you can practically feel them vibrating beneath the sand.

That night—after long showers and much-deserved cocktails—we watched the sun drop into the Theban Necropolis. We were setting sail again, and despite my exhaustion, I was inspired. It’s rare that mythic places look exactly how I imagined them.

Courtesy of Sanctuary Retreats

Though the sightseeing pace took an adjustment, I got that same thrill at each arrival. Very few cruises take you to the temples at Denderah, whose cerulean ceilings are the best-preserved in Egypt. Very few ships arrange day trips on a felucca—the traditional wooden sailboat that still plies the river—which we took to the Sofitel Legend Old Cataract hotel in Aswan, with its echoes of Agatha Christie and colonial Egypt. There wasn’t a single extraneous excursion on our itinerary, but I couldn’t imagine organizing and navigating it on my own.

Easy travel has such a stigma; as a traveler I’ve spent my life avoiding it. But a little ease can create space for new experiences. Occasionally you need some hand-holding from your patient guide to ensure you don’t opt out of the next stop—a site that you don’t yet know will blow your mind.

Our moment alone in the Valley of the Kings was certainly a highlight of the cruise, but all the history, all the monuments, were nearly eclipsed by the afternoon activity of the second day. The itinerary said “Free Time,” and Eli and I were committed to a long-overdue nap. We ordered two glasses of rosé, headed to the teak-lined sundeck, and commandeered two lounge chairs.

We were sailing upriver to our evening sightseeing at the Kom Ombo temple, dedicated to the crocodile god, Sobek, and Horus, the falcon god. This was one of the few times the ship cruised during the day. From our perch we watched the viridian riverbanks and mountains ripple on the horizon. We watched the palms bend, the kingfishers dive, the water buffalo graze, the egrets nestle in the reeds. There were fires in the sugarcane fields, women doing laundry on bricks at the shore, and the ever-present screaming of carefree children jumping off wooden docks. We saw all these scenes without leaving our lounge chairs.

Before our cruise, we had walked the Corniche along the Nile in Cairo. We had gazed down at the water from our hotel window. But to experience the Nile, you must be on it. The river is slow. It unwinds; it breathes. To “relax” means to become less compact, less dense. It was not until I was on the top deck of the Sun Boat IV that I was able to truly relax, to absorb the landscape, and watch the light change.

“Maybe we are cruise people?” I asked Eli. He didn’t hear me. He was sound asleep.

Four nights from $2,332 per person, double, all-inclusive; sanctuaryretreats.com.

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