By Nick Parkins
The Red Sea has always conjured up magical visions for the aspiring tourist. In years past most visitors were attracted by the monuments and antiquities of the ancient Pharaohs of Egypt. More recently the trend has changed to accommodate diving enthusiasts who wish to explore a wealth of underwater riches.
Many coastal resorts have been constructed to meet an increasing demand, and for those wishing to explore a little farther afield, there are many opportunities to cruise the Mare Rostrum – commonly called the Red Sea because of its seasonal blooming bacteria.
A Red Sea cruise aboard Thomson Holiday’s ship Celebration balances the freedom to roam with affordable excursions and a luxurious onboard lifestyle.
After a swift and easy transfer from the airport at Sharm el-Sheikh, we were soon boarding the Thomson Celebration courtesy of a welcoming crew.
On Board the Good Ship Celebration
With our luggage politely brought to our door via the ship’s cabin staff, we were able to explore the numerous distractions on offer from the Meridian restaurant, with a variable selection of five-course delights, to the Lido buffet, to the a la carte dining at Mistral’s Restaurant.
Evenings are filled with entertaining distractions including Hemingway’s casino and lounge, which offers roulette, stud poker and blackjack and for those craving their five-a-day healthy alternative, vending machines selling fruit.
Professional Broadway-style reviews offer a home-from-home feel for those lucky enough to reside in the West End of London. Quiz, comedy and late night dance can be found at Liberties, with Horizons lounge offering a soothing tempo of classical and midnight jazz.
The second day: With the Rose Red City of Petra lying in wait, it was time to relax, but excursions continued regardless with 4×4 desert runs and mud packs and bathing in the region’s natural spa, the Dead Sea. Planning our next move was going to prove tricky, but with two pools and ample deck space available, there was plenty of time to ponder the days to come.
The Rose City of Petra: Lost in Time
With the early morning sun rising beyond the port of Aqaba, our convoy departed the Jordanian coastline on its winding path toward the six-mile return walk through the Bab as-Siq (or gateway to the gorge).
On arrival, the Siq itself – cast as a dramatic cleft in the rock – tempted us downwards with every turn of every corner until suddenly, by design, it fell away to reveal the forbidding (and apparently not so lost) Temple of Petra.
The Nabataeans (a tribe of pre-Roman Arabs) carved their capital in the sandstone canyons. The Treasury or (lost) temple was no exception, remaining to this day the most awe-inspiring of first impressions and – within the fictional realm of Indiana Jones at least – the resting place of the Holy Grail.
Nomadic bedouins meander the natural yard in which the great temple holds court, offering a variety of barter goods, from books to Papyrus, and what can only be described as ornaments of male fertility!
Inside, the temple with its simplistic square box design, provides archetypal proof that on this particular occasion – beauty is most certainly skin deep.
Are we there yet…?
Immediately beyond and continuing on an ever-descending gradient towards the great amphitheater lay a number of significant tombs, including the Streets of Facades with their warren-like appearance, thought to ease in social communication in the ‘next world’ – and the Corinthian Tomb designed on the Treasury.
Lining the route bedouin suggest a means to lighten the load for the uphill return journey that has been gnawing at the back of the mind since the start. With surreal joviality they coin phrases from the best in British cockney slang, offering boxes of genuine rocks from underfoot for ‘Asda price – cheap as chips guv’ honest!’
The tour continued on to the Colonnaded Street – the main thoroughfare of Petra – fortuitously terminating in sight of a waiting ambulance.
“If you had longer” suggests our guide, “you could take in the Monastery.”
“It’s only a further three hours and 1,000 steps,” he assures us, pointing a casual finger to the nearby summit.
“Is that snow?” I thought to myself, wiping a well trodden path and accompanying mirage from my glistening brow.
Fortunately our scheduled hotel was waiting, with its selection of fine food.
I looked at the camels taking on a luxurious line in comfort. Following tales from my friend of their Tunisian one humped-cousins and a suitably ‘ruptured’ groin, I shook my head and thought, “It’s a nice day – I think I’ll walk.”
The Great Pyramids of Giza & the Egyptian Museum
Following a day’s rest, we arrived fully refreshed at Port Sokhna for a date with the Pharaohs.
Boarding our latest convoy, we were presented with the opportunity of purchasing tickets for touring the Pyramid of Khafre and mummified artifacts of the Egyptian Museum.
Apparently with the pretext of saving time in – what turned out to be – non-existent queues. Delaying our purchase until safely on-site proved a profitable choice, saving 50% on ticket costs.
A Blending of Cultures
As we entered Cairo the pyramids began to rise behind (what appeared to be) the backdrop of a half finished residential wasteland; it was hard to imagine exactly which civilisation came first.
Continuing along the Nile’s path we happened upon the financial heartland of Cairo; with our guide proudly presenting a waterfront apartment grossing an amount close to the gross national product of some Third-World nations.
Perhaps most startling was the proximity of it all. Pharaoh’s on the doorstep. Beats Jehovah Witnesses I mused…
The Bowels of Khafre
For those wishing to venture inside the last standing wonder of the ancient world, be warned, entering the pyramid is not for the faint of heart. If claustrophobia doesn’t get you, then watch your back. The tunnel involving some 100 meters (328 feet) of inclining/declining ladder work – and set as it is for the average pygmy tourist – stands around 3 to 4 feet, and is barely wide enough to accommodate parallel inward and outward traffic.
Adequately lit by a form of mild mannered lighting, the tunnel when crowded often becomes dark and disorientating. Once inside, the tomb itself is surprisingly disappointing. A strategically placed bedouin briefly describes the resting place before ushering you to the exit with an outstretched palm; whether my empty pockets will in some way warrant a curse of some form or other remains to be seen.
How does the Sphinx Smell?
The answer: It doesn’t. According to legend, its nose was shot off by Napoleon and the British ran off with its beard. However, sketches of the Sphinx drawn in the early 1700s show both these features were missing long before.
The Egyptian Museum offers a fascinating foil with its range of historical and absorbing artifacts, featuring sarcophagi and statuettes and dedicated rooms of mummified remains and housing the petrified corpse of the longest serving of Egyptian Pharaohs, Ramses II.
It is also home to Tutankhamun’s death mask and priceless dirty linen – with Cairo’s curators airing a pair of the boy Kings’ decidedly grubby and overly large Y-fronts on display.
Unfortunately, cameras (as with inside the Great Pyramid) are restricted – to beyond the Museum’s gates courtesy of some rather exuberant perimeter fencing.
Valley of the Kings
Two days before returning to port were spent in Safaga; with opportunities to snorkel the Sol Y Mar reef, or stay dry aboard a semi-submersible with stopover in Hurghada. For those with any energy left – a hauntingly early 6:30 am start to Luxor and the equally haunting Valley of the Kings await.
Built on the site of Thebes are the ancient burial grounds of countless Pharaohs, including Ramses II and Tutankhamun, and the majestic temples of Karnak. Despite the relocation of many of the resident ancient artifacts to the Egyptian Museum, there is plenty to see.
The Valley is has helpful signs with new walkways for weary legs, making exploration easier; while in the tombs themselves cameras are once more forbidden.
And the most popular of graveyard hangouts, King Tut’s final resting place, is surprisingly sparse in comparison with his next door neighbours, because of his hasty burial.
The longest day of them all finished with an appropriate homage to weariness, with the long ride home. That said, the hypnotic majesty of ornate hieroglyphs continued to resonate, unscathed as they were through the passing millennia.
It was the perfect way to end an unforgettable, absorbing and colorful adventure in a mysterious land.
The Egyptian Museum: Be sure to browse the Museum’s shop for mementoes of your visit!
Buying tickets: Purchase tickets for attractions on-site for substantial savings.
The Rose City of Petra: Good shoes and plenty of water; oxygen tent (optional)
For a full itinerary of available excursions, please visit Thomson Holidays.
Nick Parkins is a freelance writer based in the UK whose work appears in print and web-based publications. You can read more of his work on 1stword.eu.
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