How people are travelling is changing. Previously if you wanted to see sights in a foreign country you either had to go it alone or for those not comfortable navigating on their own, join a large bus tour. Those aren’t the only options anymore. With new standards in place for travel and the desire to be in a group of your own for health reasons - private tours have become that much more popular. There are so many companies that offer personalized, private tours. These are some of the benefits:
EXPERIENCE: Travelers are now looking for a more authentic experience that can be achieved with a private tour. If you are in a small group of your own or even travelling solo, having a personal, local guide makes all the difference. Guides will share their culture, customs and background with anyone who is interested. This makes for a far more fulfilling tour. Of course you see all the sights and main highlights but you see them from a local’s perspective with all the interesting folklore and insider facts included.
FLEXIBILITY: Being in a small group or on your own gives you far more flexibility. Is the weather not cooperating at the beginning of your tour – then you can ask to leave something on the itinerary until later in the day when the weather is improved. See something along the trail that interests you – you have the option to make changes to your plan based on your own interests.
CUSTOMIZATION: Many tour operators will have suggested itineraries however if your tour is private it can often be customized to include other areas of interest. Since you are not dealing with a large bus load of people, it is much easier to visit additional locations where you decide how much time at each spot.
If you are looking to understand a destination at a deeper level than think about booking private tours. It really can change your entire vacation experience. I specialize in creating customized experiences so contact me to ask about what options may be available for your next trip. Reach out for a complimentary travel consultation.
Many people have ideas of places they want to visit or bucket list destinations that are on that “some day” list. The only way to make those dreams come true is through planning and hard work to make it actually happen.
It is never too early to start planning a dream vacation. Particularly if the trip is costly. It may require you to start putting aside funds early to reach the goal for making the trip. For instance, my family often decides on our travel goals 2-3 years out. We begin the preliminary process of understanding what the general costs would be for our family of four to take a specific trip. Once we understand how much money is required, we started putting money in a savings account on a monthly basis so that we have the funds allocated when it comes time to start booking – we also include any extra streams of income such as income tax refunds, part time job income, etc. Having funds available is the #1 reason why people don’t go on their vacations of a lifetime. Just like any other major purchase in your life – you need to plan for it.
Once you have decided on a specific destination. Start collecting data – read travel blogs, gather inspiration from Instagram, Trip Advisor, save magazine articles and talk to people that have already been there. Make sure to keep all this information in one place so that when you are ready to book, you can discuss with your travel agent your ideas for the trip.
Get some professional advice. The best thing you can do when planning a big trip is to work with a travel agent. They are going to know things that you don’t and can help to make sure you have a trip of a lifetime. You don’t typically purchase large items such as a car or house without consulting an expert so why wouldn’t you follow this same process for a signficant trip? They are a wealth of knowledge and can save you both time and money.
It is time to stop thinking about it and start putting the wheels in motion. The world is a big place and there is no time like the present to start planning.
Call me to start the discussion about your dream vacation.
With the internet providing a vast amount of knowledge about destinations and many tour operators selling direct to consumers, some people are feeling confident that they can book their own vacations. Why should you use an agent? There are many reasons.
VALUE: The best value for your travel dollar. Agents inform you about all your choices, let you know about special promotions and can advise on the quality of a particular product. We work for you, not the supplier. Our only objective is to get you the best value and satisfy you completely.
PEACE OF MIND: Experience problems during or prior to your trip? Agents assist you in resolving concerns. They are your advocate and can help with navigating vendors and understanding your options. Agents can resolve issues so you can continue on your trip.
ONE STOP SHOPPING: An agent can create a full package for you and work within your outlined budget. They will also provide costs in your currency (or identify upfront if they aren’t) so there will never be surprises with exchange rates. They will think of all the necessities and ensure you never have anything left undone.
PROFESSIONAL: Travel Agents work with people to understand their individual needs and desires. Our job is to make sure you get to where you need to go, at the best price and in the most pleasant way possible. We get to know you and what you value in your travel experience.
EXPERT GUIDANCE: Agents can provide assistance with understanding a destination – best times to visit, when you will have challenges with weather, is there a major festival taking place, will things be closed due to holidays? These are all important factors to understand to make the most of your holiday.
Next time you are planning a vacation, discuss it with an agent. With travel becoming more complex nowadays why not work with someone who knows the industry, vendors and promotions available. Your time is precious and your money is valuable – ensure you put both in good hands.
Reach out for a complimentary 30 minute travel consultation:
After leaving Puerto Montt, we were supposed to have 2 sea days sailing approximately 1300 kms south through the Chilean Fjords (Tierra del Fuego) and then through the Strait of Magellan on our way to Punta Arenas. Due to high winds and heavy seas after leaving Puerto Montt, our captain opted to wait out the storm for approximately 12 hours to avoid the 30 foot waves that we would have encountered. This resulted in an additional sea day and also meant that we would be forgoing our port of call at Punta Arenas. Although we had planned to celebrate a significant birthday for Kim at a local restaurant in Punta Arenas, we appreciated the captain’s focus on the safety and comfort of the passengers and crew.
While we were at sea, there was still lots to do on board the Celebrity Eclipse. We actually slept in a bit on first sea day after leaving Punta Montt, not waking until just after 8:00am. We arrived at the Oceanview Café for breakfast at 9:00am and had to circle the eating area a few times before we could find a table. The restaurant was unusually busy this morning and we took turns going to the buffet for fear we would lose our table. We kept this in mind as we would be having several more sea days before we finished our cruise.
We always enjoy a few sea days on a cruise as it gives us an opportunity to rest and relax and to enjoy the various amenities on the ship. This particular cruise had contracted a guest lecturer who gave relevant talks about the geography of South America with a particular focus on the glaciers, fjords and climate of the South American Patagonia. I attended all of the lectures and found them quite informative as they gave me a real appreciation for the areas that we were visiting. They were organized such that a given lecture described the area that we would be sailing through the following day. This included descriptions of the glacier formations sliding between the mountain peaks that we would see as we passed through the Chilean Fjords as well as the islands and inlets of the Strait of Magellan, which was widely used as the main sea passage between the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans before the Panama Canal was built.
As well as attending the guest lectures on our sea days we spent time exploring different parts of the ship. One day we took a behind-the-scenes tour of the ship’s galley located on the 3rd deck. What was most amazing is how small the galley is given the 2850 passengers and 1270 crew that it feeds. Equally amazing is how organized and pristine the area is. The galley is divided into sections that are dedicated to specific dishes and/or menus (breakfast/lunch/dinner). All of the counters and appliances are sparkling stainless steel; a must in order to maintain sanitary conditions as the galley is inspected on a regular basis.
We also visited 2 of the specialty dining rooms aboard the Eclipse - Q-Sine and Tuscan. Q-Sine is a very eccentric animated dining experience, reminiscent of something you might see at a specialty restaurant on a Disney Cruise. The dining room itself is cheery and brightly coloured, but the main feature is the table setting. As the experience begins, the luminated table becomes an animated 3D seabed complete with coral, flora and sea critters. Your dinner plate becomes a solitary island where a lobster and little chef perform a tug-of-war which the chef eventually wins. While we didn’t get to eat at this restaurant, this seems like a great place to spend an evening that would be enjoyable for the whole family.
The second restaurant that we toured was the Tuscan Grille. This is a totally different experience from Q-Sine, being much more traditional and with wooden arches, large wine cabinets and a wonderful sea view at one end of the restaurant. The menu is distinctly Italian, with a focus on mouth watering steaks and a great wine list. We did end up eating at this restaurant a couple of times. We booked a table to celebrate Kim’s birthday (on the day we were supposed to be in Punta Arenas). Kim selected the lamb in phyllo for her meal, while I enjoyed a deliciously marbled steak with side of potato. The restaurant was featuring a Surf and Turf lunch on the day that we would be sailing through the Drake Passage, so we decided to book a window table for that as well.
One of the other unique experiences aboard the Eclipse was the opportunity to participate in a glass-blowing class. While this was an add-on cost, it was a one-on-one experience with a glass blower who would assist you through the process. You also got to keep the product of your hard work! Kim booked a session, which takes place on one of the outside decks. Since we were sailing through the Strait of Magellan at the time, the outside temperature was quite cold. She persevered through the chilly winds and the endless blowing and turning of the glass in the furnace and produced a beautiful blue glass water tumbler.
By the end of our 3rd sea day, we had explored most parts of the ship, attended the nightly live entertainment in the theatre and were well rested and ready for our next port of call - Ushuaia, the most southern city in South America.
After leaving Santiago on the evening of January 5th, we sailed for a day and a half (more than 1,000 kms) south along the Chilean coast, arriving at Puerto Montt just after 8:00am on January 7th. After our usual buffet breakfast in the Oceanview Cafe, we went to pick up our tickets on Deck 4 at 9:00am for the tender that would take us to the port pier. We thought we had given ourselves plenty of time as the ticket distribution was scheduled to start at 9:30. We were shocked to find an endless line of waiting passengers that extended the entire length of the ship! It seemed like forever before the line in front of us finally started to move.
We received our tickets for tender number 19 and waited for nearly an hour before we were finally able to disembark. We had booked a tour of the area that was scheduled to depart at 10:00am. We didn’t arrive at the pier until 11:00 and still had to wait for 2 other couples to join our group of 10 before our 12-passenger van was able to leave. Our group was accompanied by a driver and a local guide who admitted to us that this was her first tour. While she was very nervous at the beginning, she persevered through her initial jitters.
Puerto Montt is the capital of the province of Llanquihue and has a population of 250,000. The main industry is salmon farming followed closely by agriculture and tourism. It is strategically located at the southern end of the Chilean Central Valley and is a gateway to the Andes mountains and Western Patagonia. The sky was overcast and the air chilly as we drove away from Puerto Montt and headed 45 minutes to the northwest. Our destination was a viewpoint beside Llanquihue Lake in order to observe the peak of Osorno Volcano, one of the most active volcanoes in the Chilean Andes. The volcano was discovered by Charles Darwin and last erupted in the 1869. Unfortunately, the low-lying cloud obscured Osorno’s summit so we were only able to see the base of the volcano. This part of Chile is known as the “Magic of the South” because the nearly 200 days of annual rainfall contribute to the lush vegetation and greenery that blanket the countryside.
We continued another 20 minutes west to Petrohue Waterfalls situated between Llanquihue Lake and Todos Los Santos Lake. Our driver parked the van and we walked the short distance to the falls, following a boardwalk and lava rock path. Petrohue appears more like a rapids than a traditional waterfalls. The fast moving Emerald green water flows through craggy lava rock formed by the volcanoes. The brilliant emerald colour is caused by a weed which is reflected through the water.
After spending some time walking along the falls and observing the birds and wildlife, we walked back to the parking lot where we boarded the van and drove another half hour to an observation deck overlooking Todos Los Santos Lake, also referred to as the Emerald Lake. We were served a light lunch of empanadas and wine. The area around the lake is surrounded by 3 volcanos, Cerro Tronador which is dormant, as well as Osorno and Calbuco, both of which are considered active. Calbuco has the most recent eruptions, occurring in 2015.
On our way back to Puerto Montt, we stopped at a small town called Puerto Varas. The town, with a population of around 40,000, was founded by Germans in the 1850’s as part of a colonization project and their influence is evident in the architecture and food throughout the area. It is referred to as the “City of Roses” because of the abundance of plants and flowers lining the streets, boulevards and parks.
We arrived back at the cruise terminal in Puerto Montt at 5:15pm and were tendered back to the Eclipse in time to drop our day bag in the stateroom and proceed to dinner. During dinner, the captain announced that there was a severe storm approaching and as a result we would be staying in port for the next 12 hours. This meant that we would miss our next port of call - Puerto Arenas. As disappointing as it was to miss out on a visit to Puerto Arenas, allowing the storm to pass would mean not having to endure 80 km winds and 30-foot waves. We spent the evening attending the live show in the theatre and relaxing with a glass of wine on our balcony.
Continue to Day 5, 6 & 7 - click here
We started our last day in Santiago with a buffet breakfast at the hotel just before 8:00am. After breakfast we checked out of the hotel and got ready for our 8:30 departure. Our bags were loaded into the luggage compartment of the coach since we would be dropped off at the cruise port at the end of our day.
We would be spending most of today in the coastal part of Valparaiso Region, but before heading out of the city, we did a quick panoramic tour of downtown Santiago. The downtown comprises of beautiful Colonial architecture, with magnificent detailed porticos on many of the older buildings. Sadly, the political protests that had occurred over the past few months did not exclude these historic structures as many of them were covered in graffiti. Because some of the traffic lights had also been destroyed, there were volunteers at several of the intersections who were directing traffic.
We finally made our way out of Santiago and headed Northwest towards the coastal port of Valparaiso approximately 130 kms away. There are two key agricultural valleys on the route between Santiago and Valparaiso. One consists of avocado plantations, apple orchards, peach orchards and walnut plantations. The other, Casablanca Valley, is considered the “Napa Valley” of Chile, as vineyards border the highway on both sides for many miles.
We arrived in the port city of Valparaiso at 11:00am under mostly overcast skies. We drove through the town on the narrow winding road that follows the coast. Valparaiso was once considered the “Jewel of the Pacific” because of its importance as a major sea port. Prior to the building of the Panama Canal this port was the main stopover for ships crossing from the Pacific to the Atlantic via the Straights of Magellan. Because of its historic quarter and colourful buildings stacked along the cliffsides, it has been declared an UNESCO World Heritage Site. There are no major job-producing industries in Valparaiso other than the port and the naval base, so tourism has come to play a major role in the city’s economy.
As the coach wound its way up the steep hillside towards the crest of the town we marveled at the narrow houses stacked all along the hillside, many protruding over the cliffs and supported on one side by stilts. The coach stopped at the top of the hill and we disembarked to take in the brilliantly painted houses and myriad murals that decorate the streets. We walked back down the hill towards the centre of town snaking back and forth through narrow streets and alleyways.
Partway down the hill we stopped at a small cafe to have a light lunch and then took an ancient funicular the rest of the way to the main square at the port. We spent some time wandering through the market inside the square that was filled with vendors and artisans selling handmade crafts, fresh fruits and vegetables and a variety of other sundry goods.
Finally, we reboarded our coach and headed out of Valparaiso, passing by its prosperous sister town, Vina del Mar. While Valparaiso is a historical city with no sustained industry other than the port, Vina del Mar boasts an oil refinery and casino and is resplendent with beautiful gardens, beaches and high-rise apartments. Despite the close proximity between the twin cities, they do not share resources, so they are economically divided.
Leaving Valparaiso and Vina del Mar behind, we headed back to the Casablanca Valley where we stopped in to visit Casona Veramonte, one of the many wineries in the area. Being on the main highway between Santiago and Valparaiso, this was a more commercialized winery than the one we had been to in San Estoben. There were quite a few tour buses that had stopped here when we arrived and the expansive wine store sold a plethora of non-wine items and souvenirs. Nonetheless we sample some Sauvignon Blanc, Carmenere and Cabernet Sauvignon before we reboarded the coach and drove the 45 minutes on our final leg to the port of San Antonio and our awaiting cruise ship.
We boarded the Celebrity Eclipse around 4:00pm and enjoyed a welcome champagne in the Martini Bar before heading to our cabin on the 8th deck. We just managed to drop off our carry-on bags before we were summoned to the Muster Station in the Murano Restaurant for the standard briefing on safety procedures. We then went back to our stateroom to unpack our suitcases then proceeded to the dining room for our 6:30 seating. Kim ordered prime beef and I had the Celebrity Spaghetti Bolognese. After dinner and an exhausting day we made ourselves comfortable on the balcony of our stateroom and enjoyed a glass of wine under the Chilean skies.
Continue to Day 4 - click here
Our 2nd day in South America was filled with bright sunshine and clear, blue skies. We were picked up at our hotel just after 9:00am and climbed into a 14 passenger van where we were greeted by our driver Jorge and our guide Hector.
As we made our way out of the downtown area, the evidence of the political protests which had been going on for months, and which we had witnessed the day before at Plaza Italia, were on full display. Block after block of beautiful Colonial architecture had been defaced with anti-government grafitti. Hector explained that while the protests had been going on for months, for the most part they started out peacefully and would gradually turn violent in isolated places, like Plaza Italia, after the police arrived. While the protests were primarily aimed at the sharp increase in transit costs, there was also general unrest regarding the inequality of wealth in Chile. According to Hector, because voter turnout in Chile is low, the President was elected by a small group of the population who represented the upper class. Compounding the unrest is that much of the infrastructure in Chile - roads, water, electricity - is privately owned by the same people who elected the President.
The graffiti became less pronounced as we travelled out of the downtown area and we soon found our way on the main highway heading north, out of Santiago in Chile’s Metropolitan Region and towards the north eastern part of the Valparaiso Region. Our drive took us along the foothills of the Andes which is one of the reasons that this area is typically very dry. Apparently, the humidity from the Pacific, about 130 kilometers west of our route, is blocked by the coastal mountains. The area has an abundance of acacia trees which thrive here because their long root system can absorb what little water there is in the ground. As we approached San Estoben, Hector pointed out the peak of Anconcagua, the tallest mountain in the Andes (6900 meters) about 60 kilometers to the east in Argentina.
Our morning excursion was to a winery and archaeological site in the town of San Esteban. As we turned off the main road and onto the local road leading up to the winery, we passed through an old neighbourhood consisting of houses constructed from adobe - mud and straw covered in plaster and paint. The dusty road led us up an incline bordered by vineyards on each side. The vineyards were separated from the road by a row of rose bushes. The roses attract bees and keep bugs away from the vines while allowing natural pollination to occur. Owls nesting in burrows throughout the vineyards help to control rodents that might otherwise damage the plants.
Our van pulled into a small, empty parking lot protected from the sun by large, leafy trees. After leaving the van, we walked up a meandering dirt path that led us through the vineyard which blanketed the side of a steep hill from the base to the peak. Patches of dry brush and tall, prickly cacti were scattered throughout the vineyard, a reminder of the dry climate that dominates the area. As we reached the crest of the hill we had wonderful views of the Aconcagua Valley. This is also the main site of the Paidahuen National Monument and an opportunity to see ancient petroglyphs that date back nearly 1000 years. These petroglyphs are scattered about the hilltop all along the path leading from the vineyard.
After spending some time taking in the views and admiring the petroglyphs, we retraced our steps back through the vineyard to the winery. In a secluded clearing beside the winery, a large table had been set up for our small group to enjoy a lunch of fresh made empanadas and taste some of the fine wines of the area. Our wines consisted of 3 varietals - a Sauvignon Blanc, a Cabernet Sauvignon and a Carmenere. All of the wines were very good but my favourite was the Carmenare, a wine for which Chile has become renowned. Carmenare is a dark-skinned grape that was imported from France in the 1850’s before the phylloxera epidemic wiped out most of the vineyards in France. While nearly all of the other grapes recovered in France, Carmenere did not, and was thought to be extinct until it was rediscovered in Chile in 1991 and has become one of that countries premier wines.
We finished our lunch and wine tasting then loaded back onto our van for the 1 1/2 drive through the scenic Andes mountains. Our drive took us along the Paso Internacional Los Libertadores, the main transport route out of Chile into Mendoza area of Argentina. The drive has spectacular views of the mountains and valleys with breathtaking hairpin turns (29 of them!) as we approached the Portillo Ski Resort and Laguna Del Inca near the Argentinean border.
The resort hotel seems to be the only structure in the area and sits at the southern end of the lagoon. The lagoon itself is a serene lake, bright blue in colour and surrounded by a backdrop of magnificent mountains. We walked down to the lagoon and sat on the bank admiring the peaceful calm that permeates the area. After spending some time at the lagoon, we walked back up to the resort where we had a light lunch at a lakeview table in the hotel dining room. The hotel is at 2875 meters above sea level and provides panaromic views of the lake and mountains that surround it.
Following our lunch, we drove back to Santiago which took roughly 2 1/2 hours where we were dropped off at our hotel. After freshening up, we walked to the Eladio Restaurant which was about 1 kilometer from our hotel. Kim enjoyed Chilean Sauvignon Blanc to complement her breaded steak stuffed with cheese and ham. I enjoyed Cabernet Sauvignon and a delicious strip loin steak with frites. We walked back to our hotel and prepared for our departure from Santiago the next day.
Continue to Day 3 - click here
The first day of our South American journey was a bit of a whirlwind. It started just before midnight which was an hour later than the scheduled departure time of our flight from Toronto’s Pearson Airport. The 9 1/2 flight aboard the Air Canada Boeing 777 to Santiago, Chile was a bit choppy due to turbulence but the seats were quite comfortable, even in Economy class. We landed in the Chilean capital of Santiago just before noon on January 3.
Having passed through immigration and collecting our luggage, we hailed a cab to our hotel. The 1/2 hour cab ride to the NH Collection Plaza Hotel in the Las Condes area of downtown cost 27,000 Chilean Pesos ($45 CDN). The hotel’s location is in a great spot with a modern indoor mall just over a block away and dozens of restaurants and bars within walking distance.
We checked in at the hotel and after organizing our bags, we relaxed for an hour before a quick tour of the city. We purchased tickets for the Turistiko Bus (hop-on, hop-off) at the mall and boarded the bus just outside the hotel. Perched on the second floor of the double-decked bus, we toured through several districts along the Mapocho River, which flows from the Andes and divides the city in two.
The hop on hop off bus eventually took us to a second bus before arriving at the gates of the Metropolitan Park of San Cristobal Hill where we took the Teleferico de Santiago (cable car) to the top. A late afternoon haze hung over the Andes in the background but afforded great views of the city lying along the valley. The prominent Gran Torre Santiago, the 2nd largest skyscraper in Latin America, towers above the cityscape like a giant obelisk. Leisurely walking around the observation deck at the top of San Cristobal Hill and taking in the magnificent views while enjoying ice-cream seemed like the appropriate way to unwind after our long journey from home. After spending about an hour at the top, we took the cable car back down the mountain in order to make it to our 6:00pm restaurant reservation.
We looked for a cab at the entrance to Metropolitan Park where we had been dropped off, but to no avail. I ended up walking a couple of blocks away through the mostly residential area before I located one and then we drove back to the park to pick up Kim. As we navigated the busy streets towards the restaurant, our driver indicated that there were major protests happening at the Plaza Italia. The protests had been going on for a couple of months and were driven in response to increasing Santiago Metro fares. Plaza Italia, which we had to pass through to get to our restaurant, is centrally located and is a demarcation point between the affluent neighbourhoods to its’ East and impoverished neighbourhoods to its’ West. It is a gathering point for celebrations, festivities and, in this case, social protests.
Our driver told us it would be too dangerous to cross through the plaza to get to our restaurant and he needed to bypass it, suggesting we find a restaurant closer to our hotel. We agreed and as we passed by the Plaza, we could see hundreds of people shouting and carrying placards and banners in the Square. The traffic was backed up significantly as we inched along passing the Plaza on our right. At one intersection, a fist fight broke out between a couple of protesters who seemed to be part of the same group. We finally made our way around the chaos and arrived safely at our hotel.
After paying our fare and exiting the cab, we walked across the street to a casual Italian Restaurant with an outdoor patio. We enjoyed a delicious pizza and shared a bottle of Chilean Sauvignon Blanc, while we chatted about our eventful day. Having been on a plane for nearly 10 hours prior to our arrival, we happily had an early night and sound sleep at the hotel, anticipating our 2nd day in South America.
Continue to Day 2 - click here
Our final days in Egypt were spent resting and relaxing by the Red Sea. After many busy days of touring the country our next 4 days were spent laying by the pool and enjoying the sun. The hotel that we stayed at was an all-inclusive property so all our meals and drinks were included which made it easy to make decisions each day and we could really just relax, sleep and read books.
The food at the hotel was a buffet setup. After a few days it does tend to become a little bit repetitious. One evening we did have a made to order dinner at the Italian restaurant which gave us a bit of a change. The service was very good and the food tasty so we were generally happy. One evening we also took an Uber to a small town about 30 minutes from Hurghada to have a change of pace. We enjoyed a stroll on the shoreside boardwalk and dinner on the patio. Everything was super fresh and it was a wonderful evening.
One day we planned a half day excursion with one of the companies that roams the resort offering activities. We chartered a private boat for a morning of snorkeling. The water in the Red Sea is crystal clear and has amazing shades of blue. We were taken for a ride, approximately 30 minutes out, to a reef where we were given snorkel gear. We popped into the water from the back of the boat with a guide. He slowly worked his way through the water showing us so many kinds of fish, coral, plant life and other sea creatures – it was amazing. Below is a video that shows our highlights from Hurghada but also includes footage from under the water while on the snorkeling trip. It is some of the best snorkeling we have ever done.
One day Denis also went golfing at a course in the area. In Egypt starting early is really necessary due to the heat. He enjoyed a morning of golf and had the course almost to himself. The scenery is pretty spectacular.
At the end of four days, it was unfortunately time to return home. Our adventure in Egypt was everything we hoped it would be – an education in history and culture, awe inspiring due to the incredible structures and a truly magical experience that should be something everyone enjoys. We know we will definitely be back.
Our second day in Alexandria started with one of the most famous sights located in this city – the Library of Alexandria. Interestingly the current library is a very modern building. The first library was founded by one of Alexander the Great’s generals named Ptolemy I back in 283 BC. Since Alexandria was the main port there were international ships coming from all different countries so the rulers took it upon themselves to “request” books from the ships that would come in and they would either keep them or sometimes copy them to put in their centralized knowledge centre. The museum was a place for studying and over 100 scholars lived there to write, lecture, research or translate and copy documents. It has been estimated that at one time there were over a half million documents within the premises. There are several stories that have been recounted about the fire that ultimately destroyed the library but one of the more popular, points the finger at Julius Caesar. In 48 BC Caesar was cut off by an Egyptian fleet at Alexandria and in retaliation ordered the ships in the harbor to burned. Unfortunately as a result the fires also spread onto land and eventually burned the library to nothing taking with it ancient history, literature and learning.
The existing building wasn’t completed until 2002 even though reviving the library was originally proposed in the early 1970’s. Now the beautiful and modern building is a library, a cultural centre and even houses a school for training professional staff to work in libraries in Egypt and the Middle East. The inside is absolutely stunning with multiple levels and slanted huge windows from floor to ceiling on one side. You can find books by authors from all over the world – we even located the Canadian authors section.
The library houses both permanent and guest exhibits and collections on a variety of topics and interests. Some are included with your admission and others are at an additional cost. The facility houses many research centres and there is cutting edge technology at this site as well. One example is a table that show the human body and all it’s inner workings for medical students to use. And during our tour we were informed that you can access millions of complimentary books from their online archive just by registering for a membership. They believe in sharing all their resources and a large project is ongoing to place all their materials online. This is not your average library – it is an incredible site to see and really must be toured with their guides.
We spent a couple of hours exploring the library and then we were off to visit the Roman Amphitheatre located in the centre of Alexandria. This amphitheatre dates back to the 2nd century and was found by some workers sent to clean up the area during the 1960’s. The amphitheatre has a diameter of 33 metres and consists of 13 rows made from European white marble however the columns were made from granite that was transported from Aswan. Unfortunately, during one of the major earthquakes in the area much of the amphitheatre was damaged. Based on the size of the structure it is suggested that it was built for meetings of important figures and officials and likely not for theatre or concerts. For it’s age and the fact that it was covered by sand and gravel for so long, it is in really great shape and is the only one of it’s kind in Egypt.
After wandering around the Roman structure, we drove around the city taking in the sites, sounds and smells of this vibrant city. The bustling markets, the stunning architecture, the mobile tea carts, the friendly people are all what contribute to this amazing city. We loved everything about it and will definitely be back.
Our touring was topped off with a massive lunch at a BBQ restaurant and then it was time to head back to Cairo. The drive seemed shorter on the way back to the airport where we dropped off Karen and Geoff at their hotel for the night. We had a later flight to take us on to Hurghada for a few days of rest and relaxation.
We had a quick hour-long flight, we were picked up by our driver at the airport and whisked off to our seaside resort. It had been a long but certainly enjoyable day.
Continue to Day 11 - click here.
Our first day in Alexandria started with a wonderful breakfast on the outside roof patio at our hotel. The beautiful breeze from the sea was very welcome after having spent the rest of our trip in the desert regions. Alexandria overall has a Mediterranean feel and was much cooler in temperature. We were very excited to explore this beautiful city.
Our first stop was at the catacombs located in the middle of the city. Upon arrival at the site you have no idea what actually lies underground. After a quick look at the artifacts spread around the entrance, we listened as our guide wove the tale of this fascinating site. This massive burial site was found accidentally in 1900 when a cart accidentally fell into a pit and magically led to the discovery under the ground. The underground tunnels date back to the Greco Roman period and at the time of the 2ndcentury was dug down 35 metres (115 feet) and consisted of three levels. It was likely originally a private tomb but over the years was later converted to a public cemetery and could accommodate more than 300 corpses. Unfortunately we were not allowed to take any pictures underground.
We entered via a spiral staircase that brings you down into a large area with benches and we were told by our guide that many people would come first to have a burial feast, then again 40 days later and then annually on the death anniversary. There are several burial chambers each holding a sarcophagus. There are also many shelves built into the rock that house coffins. The carvings and symbols inside are in several different styles including Greco-Roman, ancient Egyptian and Pharaonic. After exploring a few of the passageways and learning about the different symbols inside we surfaced to the top and started on our way to our next stop.
The Citadel of Qaitbay is a stunning fortress built on the sea dating back to the 15th century. It is built upon the site of the famous Lighthouse of Alexandria which was one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. Unfortunately, the lighthouse was destroyed over the years due to several earthquakes. The original building constructed on this spot in the 14th century was destroyed in the 1800’s and the existing building was rebuilt around the turn of the 20th century. Many of the stones and columns came from the original tower that was there originally. Inside is a mosque and naval museum. There are some lovely mosaics on the floor but inside there is not a lot to see. The outside views however are spectacular. We walked around the entire structure including climbing up to the top to see the sea. It was incredible and we could have hung out there all day!
We then stopped for lunch at a wonderful restaurant on the water and had a fantastic fish lunch. It was so fresh and super tasty. A fantastic way to spend an hour enjoying the breeze and a stunning view. And we also then stopped at the Starbucks on the main street – and you wouldn’t know that you were in Egypt. It is one of the most consistent brands I have seen everywhere across the world.
Our last stop for the day was the El-Montazza. Located here is a beautiful palace that was built in the late 1800’s but is not open to the public. You can wander the well-maintained gardens in the park that surround the palace. We also walked out to the end of a breakwater where we could enjoy the waves crashing in front of us. The views in Alexandria are really very beautiful and it was so very nice to be by the water.
After returning to the hotel we had a rest and then headed up to the roof patio to have drinks and dinner. It was a wonderful evening – our last with Karen and Geoff. It was an evening of singing, dancing and wonderful company. Such a fantastic end to the day.
Continue to Day 10 - click here.
After a busy day in Aswan, it was time to check out from our Nile cruise and move on to the next city. But first our day started with a very early morning so we could drive to Abu Simbel. The drive took approximately 3 ½ hours and was through nothing but flat, dry desert. The village is located on the western side of Lake Nasser near the border with Sudan. Suffice to say there was absolutely nothing to be seen during the 300 kms except one very small road side stop called the Oasis - aptly named. For this drive we had two drivers in case something was to happen to the first since there is nowhere to stop for assistance. Now that I have experienced this drive I definitely recommend to clients that they take the quick flight from Aswan to Abu Simbel. Our guide spoke to us as we approached the temples and let us know about why this site is one of the most fascinating in Egypt.
The Abu Simbel temples are an UNESCO World Heritage Site and are part of the collection of temples known as the Nubian Monuments. They date back to the 13th century and were commissioned by Ramses II. The massive temples were built to commemorate Ramses’ victory at the Battle of Kadesh and are basically a tribute to himself and his Queen – Nefertari.
There are two temples on the site – the Grand Temple and the Small Temple. Both are incredible to see. As the names imply the Grand Temple is larger and took almost 20 years to build. All four of the large statues on the outside are huge depictions of Ramses himself – reaching 20m (66 feet) in height. Around his legs are smaller statues of his wife, mother and daughters. The interior is amazing with a triangular layout and each room decreasing in size until you get to the sanctuary. The hall has massive columns and carvings on the walls that show battle scenes. Once inside the sanctuary you can see four statues cut into the wall – Ramses and three gods. An interesting fact is regarding the position of the axis of the temple that allows twice a year - in October and February the rays of the sun to come through the sanctuary and illuminate all but one of the statues – the god of darkness. Check out my video below that is filmed from outside the temple and also from within the sanctuary.
The columns and carvings are in impeccable shape and this is even more amazing once you understand that the temples were actually abandoned and over time became covered by sand. They were eventually discovered by a Swiss orientalist who after many attempts was able to have the temples dug out and successfully entered inside. In the late 1950’s the Aswan High Dam was being constructed and it was apparent that many of the Nubian monuments were in danger due to the rising waters of the Nile. It was publicized that relics from this ancient human civilization were under threat and international donations were collected to fund a solution. It became clear that the temples would need to be moved. During 1964 to 1968 the entire site was dismantled, lifted and moved to a new location 65m higher and 200m back from the river. The blocks weighed an average of 20 tons and were painstakingly moved and reassembled in the new location. It is really hard to believe that such a challenge was even able to be completed.
The Small Temple is not really small – since the statues out front are still 10m (33 feet) tall. These are of Ramses and his wife Queen Nefertari. And interestingly they are the same height which was unusual since Ramses typically made statues depicting himself larger than any other. The inside has pillars and drawings depicting the queen, Ramses and many different gods.
After wandering both the temples for a couple of hours, we had an interesting exchange with a security guard who asked if we would like to hold his machine gun for pictures! We politely declined but to make sure we didn’t insult him we did take a photo with him and also gave him a gratuity so he remained content. Our guide then took us to a lovely spot for lunch where we enjoyed the coolness of the inside seating.
Our lunch was delightful and just what we needed before the long ride back to Aswan where we would catch a flight to Cairo. This was going to make for a very long day with tons of driving since upon arrival in Cairo we were picked up and our driver took us onward to Alexandria. I must say that it was a very quiet ride since we were all very tired and mostly slept along the way. We arrived into Alexandria at 1:00am which was still very much awake due to Ramadan festivities. We fell into bed at the Alexandria Windsor Palace Hotel looking forward to exploring Alexandria the next day.
Continue to Day 9 - click here.
Our 8th day in Egypt was spent in ancient Aswan, the southern-most city in Egypt with a population of approximately 300,000. This city is considered to be one of the driest, sunniest and hottest places in the world and as such, our early morning excursion began at 7:00am to try and avoid the mid-day heat.
Our morning destination was the famous Aswan Quarry, the preferred source for granite throughout Egypt in ancient times. The quarry, which is now an open-air museum and archaeological site in the city of Aswan, was a short 5 minute drive from where our Nile Cruise ship, the MS Farah, was docked. The entrance to the museum is at one end of the quarry and opens into a large square at the bottom of a sloping, rocky hillside. A worn path and stone steps carved into the rock that wind around the slopes of the quarry form the trail that guides you through this ancient site.
Partially carved stone blocks are scattered all along the trail, but the highlight of the museum is the massive ‘Unfinished Obelisk’ which lies on an angle along the slope of the quarry and can be seen from virtually every vantage point on the trail. It was never finished because as it was being carved from the quarry bedrock, it developed cracks and was therefore abandoned. This obelisk, had it been completed, would have stood 138 feet tall, weighed nearly 1,200 tons and been one third taller than any other obelisk in ancient Egypt. What I find mindboggling is that the obelisks that we had seen a few days earlier in Luxor, each weighing up to 500 tons, had been carved here in Aswan some 3000 years ago and transported nearly 250 kilometers to their final destination.
It was 9:30am when we shuffled down the last portion of the quarry trail towards the exit of this ancient site, yet the temperature had already reached 38 Celsius. The reflection of the sun against the quarry rock intensified the sweltering heat and I couldn’t imagine what it would be like visiting the quarry in the afternoon. We left the quarry and boarded our air-conditioned van for the half hour drive south to our next destination - the Aswan Dam and Lake Nasser.
The Aswan High Dam was constructed during the latter part of the 1950’s to control the seasonal flooding of the Egyptian Nile River Basin. Previously, irrigation of the farmlands along the banks of the Nile River, which flows from Sudan in the south and then northward through Upper and Lower Egypt before it empties into the Mediterranean, depended solely on natural flooding. The problem with natural flooding is that some years there was too much water which would destroy crops, while other years, there wasn’t enough water which resulted in droughts. The building of the Aswan High Dam resulted in the creation of Lake Nasser, stretching 479 kilometers to the south with a width of 16 kilometers at its widest point, making it one of the largest man-made lakes in the world. The dam, and the associated reservoir formed by Lake Nasser, allows controlled flooding to take place throughout Egypt’s Nile basin while also generating hydroelectricity contributing to Egypt’s agriculture and developing economy.
One of the key cultural features at the Aswan High Dam is the Egypt-Soviet Friendship Monument, erected when the dam was completed to commemorate the cooperative effort between Egypt and the (then) Soviet Union during the dam’s construction. This magnificent sculpture reaches 70 meters high and represents the five petals of the lotus flower. The sculpture features an observation deck near its summit offering spectacular views of the dam and lake.
Following our brief visit to the dam, we boarded a boat that transported us on the lake to the small island of Agika to visit the Philae Temple. Originally built during the reign of Ptolemy II, the Philae Temple is dedicated to the goddess Isis and its walls contain scenes from the Egyptian mythical story of Isis, including bringing her husband Osiris back to life, giving birth to Horus, and mummifying Osiris after his death. While the temple is currently situated on Agika, it was originally on a different island, but when the Aswan dam was being built, there was fear that it would be submerged. The Egyptian government, in conjunction with UNESCO, drained the water around the original location and moved the Temple, stone by stone, to Agika.
After exploring the Temple, accompanied by running commentary from our guide and Egyptologist George, we boarded the boat to take us back to the entrance to the dam. On our way back to Aswan we made a brief stop at a store specializing in Egyptian Cotton where I purchased a high-quality tee-shirt embossed with an ancient Egyptian astrology chart. We ventured next door to an Essence shop where we enjoyed tea and received complimentary massages comprising a variety of essential oils. Blissfully relaxed and pleasantly fragranced, we left the shop and drove a few more minutes back to Aswan and our Nile cruise ship for lunch and a refreshing swim.
By 2:00pm we were ready to do some more exploring in the area around Aswan. George had arranged for us to sail down the Nile towards Lake Nasser on a covered, open-air boat that picked us up at our ship. We cruised lazily up river in the mid-afternoon sunshine, enjoying a variety of light snacks and beverages that had been provided by the tour boat. Every once in a while, we would pass an iconic felucca gliding gracefully across the water, its single sail filled by the light breeze. At one point, we spotted a caravan of about a dozen camels and their riders slowly making their way along the rocky bank between the river and the mounds of sand dune to the west.
We sailed for about an hour, passing in and out of small tributaries noting the oasis-like islands covered in lush grasses, palm trees and colourful plants. We eventually stopped at a small, sandy cove where the captain beached the boat, so we could get out and spend some time swimming in the Nile. The water was refreshingly cool and surprising deep just a few meters from shore. A few of the brave amongst us (I not being one) climbed atop the boat’s roof and jumped off the stern into the welcoming water below. We spent about half an hour frolicking or floating in the river as the late afternoon light shimmered against the water’s surface.
Back on the boat, we air-dried in the warm breeze and continued sailing for another 15 minutes before docking for our second-last stop of the day. We exited the boat and spent a leisurely 20 minutes walking through the Aswan Botanical Gardens which featured native plants and wildlife from the area.
Our last stop of the day was at a traditional Nubian village perched on a hillside on the west bank. We wandered through the village as George pointed out some of the key cultural and historic features. We passed through a courtyard and entered a small, one-room school house where we were treated to a lesson in Arabic and Nubian.
We continued walking through the village and passed several small markets. George had arranged for us to have tea and snacks in one of the homes that overlooked the river. The home was the residence to an extended family which consisted of 3 generations. Along with a variety of birds that were perched around the house, the family had also made pets of several crocodiles that were kept in shallow pools.
It was finally time to head back to Aswan, so we descended the steep slope of the Nubian hillside back to our awaiting boat. The ride back took about one hour but allowed us to have an unobstructed view of the sun as it slowly sank beneath the sand dunes to the west, casting brilliant hues across the water. We arrived back at the Farah shortly after 8:00pm and headed directly to the dining room for a late dinner of rice, mixed vegetables and beef kofta.
Continue to Day 8 - click here.
After a quiet and restful night docked near the city of Edfu, we woke early and met for a buffet breakfast in the MS Farah’s main dining room at 6:00 am. Today we would be spending a couple of hours at the historic Temple of Edfu before sailing on to Kom Ombo, about halfway between Edfu and Aswan.
We disembarked from the Farah and prepared to board our transport to the Ptolemic Temple of Edfu, on the west bank of the Nile, in the ancient city. Normally we would be transported to our destination by air-conditioned van. Today we deviated a bit and instead of boarding a van, we were loaded onto horse-drawn carriages for the 20-minute ride through the narrow streets of Edfu.
The Ptolemic Temple of Edfu was built between 237 and 57 BC during the Hellenistic period and is dedicated to the Egyptian God Horus. It is one of the best preserved temples in the world and provides a perfect example of how Egyptian temples were structured. It consists of a courtyard, a garden with columns, an anti-chamber and an inner chamber that is considered the most holy part of the temple complex and which represents an extension of Egyptian heaven. The entire temple is covered in carvings and elaborate hieroglyphics that depict ancient scenes and inscriptions from the sacred drama - the age-old conflict between Horus and the trickster, Seth.
After about an hour and half, we met our “drivers” at the temple entrance and mounted our carriages for the ride back to the Farah. We set sail from Edfu at 9:30 am and as such, spent most of the morning and early afternoon on the pool deck swimming and lounging under the hot Egyptian sun. At about 3:00 PM we docked at Kom Ombo, about 65 kilometres south of Edfu on the Nile, and prepared for a late afternoon visit to Kom Ombo Temple.
Kom Ombo is an agricultural town famous for the Temple of Kom Ombo, a Graeco-Roman temple built during the 3rdCentury AD. The temple is actually a double temple, dedicated to both Horus, the falcon-headed God and Sobek the crocodile God. Sobek is associated with Seth, the enemy of Horus, and this temple was his sanctuary. At one time the Egyptian Nile was infested with crocodiles and many were kept captive in Kom Ombo Temple. Mummified remains have been found throughout the cemeteries in and near the temple and at the Crocodile Museum. While many areas of the original temple were destroyed, it is possible to discern how the massive blocks were attached. The inscriptions on the walls depict the first Egyptian calendar, a variety of medical and surgical tools as well as a birthing chair.
Even though we began our visit of the Kom Ombo Temple at 4:00 pm (in order to avoid the mid-afternoon heat) the temperature was still sitting at 44 degrees Celcius by 5:00 pm. We returned to the ship and had a refreshing swim in the pool before preparing for our special al Fresco Egyptian dinner on the top deck of the Farrah. The crew were dressed in traditional Egyptian attire, and as guests, we were encouraged to do the same. We were able to purchase some inexpensive garb from the ship’s store specifically for the occasion. Tables were set up on the top deck and a variety of Egyptian food was laid out on kiosks at the back of the ship. Following the feast, we gathered downstairs in the lounge for an Egyptian style party with music and dancing. It was a great way to end another day of exploring the mysteries of the Nile.
Planning a trip to Egypt? Reach out for expert advice and assistance with your holiday planning.
Continue to Day 7 - click here.
Our 5th day in Egypt was one I had been looking forward to for months! I mentioned in an earlier blog our trip to visit the Pyramids of Giza was one of the BIG days on our journey. Today was another one of those BIG days - a hot-air balloon ride over the famed Valley of the Kings at sunrise!
In order to be “in the sky” at sunrise, we had to leave the MS Farah at 3:30am and drive over to the west bank of the Nile river across from the Ancient city of Thebes (now Luxor). As was the case in Giza, ancient Egyptians typically buried their dead on the west bank of the Nile and lived on the east bank.
We first boarded a small bus to take us to the boat launch where we would cross the river. Once on the other side it took about 20 minutes to drive to our meeting spot near the Valley of the Kings. It was still quite dark when we arrived, and while most of the 30 or so balloons were being unfolded on the ground, a few were already attached to their baskets. The flames from the propane tanks heating the air for the balloons were filling the desert sky with an eerie orange glow.
After about 30 more minutes, our balloon was filled and ready to load up with passengers. Our basket held 12 people on each side plus the pilot and crew. While it was a bit of a squeeze, the visibility was good on all sides. The thick braided ropes anchoring us to the ground were released and we floated gently upward into the murky, pre-dawn sky. Looking out at the horizon, it was amazing seeing another dozen or so brilliantly coloured balloons, all at different altitudes, seeming to hang motionless in mid air.
We had started a couple of kilometers downwind of the Valley of the Kings, and were being guided towards it by a gentle breeze. The sun was just breaching the horizon to the east. Over the next few minutes, the desert floor below changed from black to deep purple to bright orange and finally to gleaming gold as the sun crested the distant hills. From our vantage point, 1500 meters in the air, we had unobstructed views of the Valley of the Kings and surrounding area below us, including the magnificent Habu Temple which is the mortuary temple of Ramesses III. We continued to “sail” over the Theban Necropolis for about 45 minutes before descending gently onto the windblown desert sands to the west of the Valley of the Kings.
Upon landing, a van picked us up and drove us to a small cafe in a nearby village, where George (our tour guide and Egyptologist), met us and took us to the entrance of the Valley of the Kings. Here we boarded a small tram that drove us about 3 minutes and dropped us off near the entrance to the tombs at the base of Al-Qurn, the tallest peak in the Theban Hills. While there are 63 tombs in the Valley of the Kings, not all are open to the public. Even the tombs that are open to the public rotate as to when they can be accessed. Currently there are 11 tombs that can be visited at the site (8 are available on the regular entrance fee and 3 require an additional fee). We visited 3 of the tombs - Ramesses IV (2nd discovery), Ramesses IX (6th discovery) and Ramses III (11th discovery).
The tombs were constructed over a period of 500 years from the 16th to 11th century BC, and despite being vandalized by grave robbers over the centuries, they have stood the test of time and remain in remarkable condition. Each of the tombs that we visited was elaborately decorated with colourful hieroglyphics. The tomb of Ramesses IV has a large passageway and detailed hieroglyphics that depict the Book of the Dead. The tomb of Ramesses III is one of the largest and best preserved tombs in the Valley of the Kings. The tomb of Ramesses the IX is one of the simpler tombs, but also has one of the largest entrances of any tomb in the Valley.
In total we spent over an hour exploring the 3 tombs and finally succumbed to the intense heat of the late morning desert sun. Before leaving the area of the Valley of the Kings, we visited the magnificent mortuary temple of Queen Hatshepsut, one of the most impressive temples in all of Egypt. Hatshepsut was the first female ruler of ancient Egypt and while she initially was acting as regent for her young stepson Thuthmose III she eventually reigned as a male Pharoah and was depicted as such in statuary and reliefs. Her reign was one of the most peaceful and prosperous in Egyptian antiquity.
Following our vist to the Valley of the Kings, we stopped briefly at an Alabaster shop where we were shown a variety of handcarved pieces made from white, green and brown varieties of the stone. Craftsmen were busy shaping the gypsum into ornaments and statues then shining light through the translucent stone to display the warm glow and dancing colours that emanated through the alabastar.
Our final stop before heading back to Luxor and the MS Farah was at the Medinet Habu Temple. We had seen this temple from the hot air balloon in the morning and now we were going to get an inside view. The Habu Temple is the mortuary temple of Ramesses III was the administrative centre of ancient Thebes and is surrounded by massive wall. The temple itself is the second largest ancient temple discovered in Egypt and while it was used for mortuary rituals it was also used as a place of worship to the sun god Amun. The temple is nearly 500 feet long and sits in a precinct which is approximately 700 feet wide by 1000 feet long. The walls of the precinct are extremely well preserved and covered in intricate hieroglyphics and carvings. The temple also boasts huge columns though many at the back of the temple have been cut down over the centuries.
As the afternoon sun climbed higher into the sky, the temperatures rose proportionately and it was approaching 40 degrees celcius. We finished up our visit of the area around the Valley of the Kings and headed back to Luxor where we boarded the Farah, had lunch and headed up to the pool deck. The Farah set sail around 2:00 pm and we spent the afternoon swimming and lounging on the deck. As we sailed south towards Edfu, several small boats would approach the Farah, sail alongside and throw products they were selling up to the pool deck. If you decided you wanted to buy their wares, you would toss money down to the boats. If you didn’t want what they were selling you would throw the products back down to them.
We continued sailing south and passed through a set of locks at Esna which we were able to observe from the pool deck. After passing through lock we continued sailing towards Edfu. Shortly after sundown we headed to the main lobby where the Farah was hosting a complimentary cocktail reception before dinner. After dinner we relaxed and lounged until the Farah reached Edfu at around 10:30 pm, then headed for bed to rest for our next day in Ancient Egypt.
Planning a trip to Egypt? Reach out for expert advice and assistance with your holiday planning.
Continue to Day 6 - click here.
Sharing Our Travel Dreams
Sharing our personal experiences onboard and on the road, along with tips and insight for creating memorable vacations.