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Aswan: Best for sailing

The Nile is navigable for some 600 miles south of Cairo. Beyond that point, granite rocks and islands force the water into a series of rapids; for millennia, the spot marked Egypt's southern frontier with its rivals, the Nubians. Aswan started life here, as a garrison town on the tip of Elephantine Island, before spreading on to the east bank, where it faces the sands of the Western Desert.

The setting seems stark in the midday sun, but when the sun drops and the light shifts, a form of alchemy transforms the scene into one of sensual beauty. 'Sundown is my favourite moment to be on the water,' says Jelal, one of Aswan's many boatmen. 'This is when the colours come out: the black of granite, gold of sand, and the red sunsets we have here.'

Jelal is a Nubian, one of the people who lived in southernmost Egypt and northern Sudan until the 1960s, when the Aswan High Dam flooded their land. He and his family moved north and now make a living from the river. At sunset, with a warm wind blowing off the desert, we sail Jelal's felucca, the open boat that more than any other evokes the romance of the Nile. We pass the café-lined waterfront of the modern city and the ancient ruins on the southern edge of Elephantine Island, and then cut between rocks and islands, disturbing egrets and herons in the rushes. Next we turn north, floating past the fragrant botanical garden of Lord Kitchener's Island and the domed tomb of the Aga Khan, high on a sandbank to our left. Then, the view changes.

Tied up on the east bank are boats - from simple feluccas to massive floating hotels - preparing for their next journeys.

'What really excites me,' says Jelal, waving to a friend who is climbing a mast to tie up his sail, 'is to make the journey from Aswan to Luxor.' One of the most romantic on earth, the trip can be done either by felucca or, for more comfort, in a two-masted, luxury dahabiya. For three to five days, the boat is carried by the current and pushed by the winds, stopping perhaps at temples and the camel market at Daraw. Passengers jump off to walk on the desert sands that edge the water in some places, or to drink tea with farmers at a village café. And all this interspersed by hours adrift on the river, planks and ropes gently creaking in the wind, the water dark and cool, the night sky clear above.

Further information

  • Jelal the felucca boatman, 00 20 12 415 4902
  • Nour el Nil's dahabiyas are the best on the river (from £878 per person for five nights, full board;

Luxor: Best for history

For 300 years, from around 1300 BC, Luxor was a great city, the New York of its day, capital of an empire that stretched into Syria and down to Sudan. Goods were traded from here all the way across the Mediterranean, and Amun, the great god of Luxor, was revered throughout the region. The kingdom's pharaohs - including Tutankhamun - built magnificent temples to their deities here. The east bank of the Nile, where the sun rises, became the 'land of the living'; the west bank, where the sun sets, the 'land of the dead'. When the power seeped away, Luxor disappeared beneath mud and sand, only to be uncovered in our own age. An embarrassment of pharaonic riches was revealed on both sides. 'You need time to see all there is here,' says Mohamed Rehim, one of the city's most respected guides.

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