Cigar Aficionado

Cruising the Nile on the Zahra, Egypt

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.

The dining and amenities are remarkable. On our second breakfast, the waiter asked if we wanted the same strong coffee we had the day before. And would we like our eggs the same way? The staff quickly knew our names.

The meals were spectacular, not surprising since chef Siddhartha Chowdhry, from the sophisticated and welcoming Oberoi hotels in India, has always enjoyed Middle Eastern cooking as well. Thus, on every menu at lunch and dinner, at least one Indian and one Egyptian dish were on offer. There were always at least four appetizer choices, at least two soups and five main courses, such as spiced chicken and fig dumplings, or sesame-crusted tuna. One night, the chef had an all-Indian dinner and on another there was an all—Middle Eastern. Of course, diners can opt for Western dishes as well.

One of the best aspects of the cruise, which can be taken from either Aswan to Luxor or vice versa, was the personal attention. Every day we went ashore, sightseeing with a private guide and just two other couples. This quickly made for a wonderful collegial atmosphere—six people getting to know, and enjoy, one another. We ate together, swam together, sipped wines together.

And those shore excursions! Being led into 4,500-year-old temples, examining the writings (we learned a bit about hieroglyphics), taking in the Valley of the Kings, standing under immense statues, their ancient stares peering out into infinity. We could take all the pictures we wanted in many of the temples too.

The experience was something unique in my travels, combining sightseeing with fine food, relaxation and camaraderie. I especially enjoyed those moments in late afternoon on the deck, sunning myself after swimming, looking at Nile life as it must have looked to sailors millennia back. I was not only witnessing history, I felt I was part of it.

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