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Cruising the Nile on the Zahra, Egypt

Gerald Eskenazi
Posted: March 4, 2009

When I was a little boy, growing up in my grandfather's house, I was fascinated with the cigarette he smoked. Specifically, with the picture on the pack of Camel. There, in color, was a camel, a palm tree and a pyramid: an Egyptian fantasy. I'd sneak a smoke, and imagine that I was a desert sheik. And so, seeing that scene in real life had been in the back of my mind since the 1940s.

The reality was worth waiting for.

I sailed for eight days on a new 25-suite Nile cruiser, the Oberoi Zahra, owned by the prestigious Oberoi hotel chain. If Grandpa could see me now.

From the top deck, as the river Nile glided by, with men in their traditional long flowing robes fishing along the banks, where boys tended goats, I smelled an almost sweet cigar aroma. Yes, a man was nursing a Montecristo as he lolled near the swimming pool.

For in Egypt, smoking is ubiquitous.

"There is probably no country that doesn't have a rule against smoking in public," explained the Zahra manager, Tapan Piplani. "But in Egypt, the only place you can't smoke is on public transportation."

Photo by Rosalind Eskenazi

Author relaxes in cigar bar with Romeo & Jullieta Churchill.

Thus, the boat even has a cigar bar. With its windows sweeping around 180 degrees, the bar offers a view of Nile life while the relaxed smoker is surrounded by leather-bound books by Dickens, Agatha Christie's Death on the Nile (of course), air conditioning, plush seating—and those cigars. The art deco—inspired bar is stocked with 12 varieties of Cubans—from a Trinidad Robusto Extra at 345 Egyptian pounds (about $68), down to 90 Egyptian Pounds (about $18) for a Bolivar Coronas Junior. You can also smoke on the top deck of the ship.

The reason for the pricey puffs is that there is only one place Oberoi can buy either wine, hard liquor or cigars—from the government-owned airline, EgyptAir. So you'll pay $16 for a glass of Egyptian Cabernet. Of course, it's probably the best Egypt has to offer, and as the bartender informed me, "The vines come from Lebanon." While the Cab's somewhat thin, it had a nice finish. The food and beverage director believes that in dealing with EgyptAir, the ship might pay a markup three times the normal price.

"We're going for the upscale traveler," Piplani conceded as he took me around the cigar bar. He estimates that on any given cruise, about 10 percent of the guests smoke cigars.

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