As our boat maneuvered into position to dock at the Nile River port of Edfu, I watched from the top deck with amazement. It's not so much that we docked, but how we docked. We just tied up beside another river cruise boat and attached a walkway between.
As we disembarked to begin our exploration of the Temple of Horus, we passed through the lobby of one ship after another; a total of four I counted this day, until we reached shore. It's confusing, entertaining, and just the way things are done on a river cruise on the world's longest river.
And, it is just one of the more unusual experiences on a river cruise that you just won't get on a big boat cruise on the world's great oceans.
Nearly 300 passenger boats are licensed to carry overnight passengers on the Nile River, most on a five-day schedule moving from Aswan to Luxor, or the reverse. As the boats meet each other, they emit a delightfully cheerful yet somewhat chirpy blast of their horns that is whimsical and festive. Passengers on the top deck of both ships wave enthusiastically as they pass. That was unexpected.
Passing through the complex engineering of locks and dams near Esna that manages the flow of the Nile is another of the more unusual experiences on a river cruise. Sure, traffic backs up on the river and you don't move for a while, but it's interesting to watch the process from the top deck.
The Nile River is wide and smooth, lined with fields of sugar cane and colorful Nubian villages. We saw farmers loading their harvest on the backs of donkeys and primitive wagons that certainly exhibited the fact that we weren't at all in Kansas anymore. Children, and sometimes adults, waved and called from the banks. Fishermen work their nets and felucca boats fan their sails under skies that are perfect blue.
The intimacy with rural life and the people who live or make a living on the river was one of the unexpected pleasantries for Kim Beard of Ankeny, Iowa when she and her husband cruised the Seine from Paris through Normandy.
"We saw so many people fishing and camping on the river or working the fields," she said. "We could see their homes and the rural lifestyle from a perspective that most travelers never experience. We cruised slowly past the remains of bridges destroyed in World War II and under the new bridges built as replacements. It was sobering and so interesting."
Riverboats designed for cruising are usually no more than three or four levels and usually carry around 100-150 passengers. The size of the boats allows them to stop at the tiniest of little towns along the river. The Thames Magna Carta barge cruise stops at the creepy hotel that was the setting for Rocky Horror Picture Show in Windsor and a historic little boat builder's carving shop that's been on the banks of the Thames for generations.
Many people who enjoy river cruises speak to the easy access to the port city. You don't need a water taxi to reach the shore, or a bus to reach town. You simply walk down a gangplank and you're there, particularly in Europe.
"Since European cities were by and large built right on the waterways, the old city centers are right there," said Amy Eckert of Holland, Michigan. That means the historic sites, the cathedrals and museums, the old shops, and cobble-stone streets are an easy walk from the ship.
And once you get there, along with your limited number of shipmates, your presence doesn't detract from the beauty of the city or the experience. It's not like thousands of passengers from multiple mega-ships descending on one port of call only to rinse and repeat the next day.
Where a mega-ship has multiple dining rooms and non-stop food, most river cruise boats have just one indoor dining area. Most ships offer open seating, so you can sit with whomever you want. With about 100 people on board, there's a good chance you'll get to know everyone on a first name basis and dine at their table during the cruise. The crew also knows you on a first name basis, thus in a position to provide personalized service.
Unfortunately, unlike mega-ships where you can grab something to eat somewhere 24 hours a day, most kitchens/dining rooms on a river cruise are not open except during the designated meal service.
River cruises are the fastest growing segment of the very popular cruise industry and an experience of a lifetime for many who have enjoyed them. As soon as you book your cruise, remember to buy travel insurance to protect this investment.
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A Midwest farm girl at heart, Diana Lambdin Meyer caught the roaming bug early in life. Diana married well - to a photographer who also has the travel bug and whose work in still and video complements her words. Now based in the Kansas City area, Diana is a member of the Society of American Travel Writers who makes a full-time living on the road and at the keyboard. Read about Diana's adventures on her blog, Mojotraveler or follow her on Twitter or Google Plus.
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