Egypt in Style

Abercrombie & Kent takes travel to Egypt to the next level

By: David Swanson

The temple of King Ramses II at Abu Simbel was impressive, but the box lunch was almost as remarkable.

Okay, I exaggerate. At the end of an eight-day itinerary, the difference between an Abercrombie & Kent-escorted trip to Egypt and its competitors came down to more than a box lunch.

Abu Simbel is a climactic point for many visitors to Egypt. Located 175 miles south of Aswan, the pharaoh’s temple is fronted by four 65-foot-high statues of Ramses II, while inside are corridors and rooms adorned with some of Egypt’s most spectacular paintings.

We are fortunate to be able to see the awesome temple at all. When Aswan Dam construction was projected to cause the flooding of Abu Simbel in 1968, the temple was relocated 700 feet up the hill from the Nile. The phenomenal, four-year project was an engineering fete.

Abu Simbel is also perhaps the most complicated portion of any tour operator’s Egypt itinerary. There are few accommodations in this remote settlement, and none that are up to the requirements of the average luxury traveler. For most of the year the number of Egypt Airways seats to Abu Simbel is not enough to meet the demand, so daytrips that depart Aswan by bus at 3 a.m. are popular.

Abercrombie & Kent, which counts its Egypt operation as its largest destination management company, does Abu Simbel differently.

On a December trip, our group had seats on the packed flight from Aswan. On arrival at Abu Simbel at 9 a.m. the first flight of the day we were escorted straight to an A&K coach, departing the airport 15 minutes ahead of buses for the other passengers on our flight. On the short drive to the temple, we were staggered to see coming toward us the convoy of coaches departing for the drive back to Aswan. I counted 20 buses, then 25, plus taxis, then lost track as they disappeared in the driver’s rear-view mirror.

Where there had been hundreds of tourists only minutes before, we had the temple virtually to ourselves for a quarter-hour before the other plane passengers pulled into the parking lot.

Chalk up one for the “A&K advantage:” a private fleet of buses handling only A&K clients.

Before entering the temple, our Egyptologist guide Sonia El-Masri briefed us on what to look for inside, urging us not to miss the left wall where Ramses II is painted smiting an enemya form of early animationand noting the amount of graffiti we’d spot.

“Everyone sailing up and down the Nile left their name,” she apologized.

We had two satisfying hours at the temple before the flight back to Cairo, which made a scheduled stop in Aswan where most passengers de-planed. A few minutes later, while we were still on the plane, an A&K rep delivered box lunches to our group boxes filled with sandwiches, fruit, drinks and snacks, allowing us to have something resembling a meal rather than waiting for a meager plate of airplane food. The other passengers looked on, hungrily.

American travelers are returning to Egypt. Arrivals from the U.S. for 2006 were on track to surpass the record numbers of 2000. But many tourists have concerns about travel to the Middle East, and this has lead many to book Egypt with a well-known brand such as A&K. Although the privately held company will not release figures, company spokesperson Pamela Lassers says A&K is having a banner year.

“We had more people travel to Egypt last year than ever before up 23 percent from 2005,” said Lassers. “And 2007 is up considerably as well.”

Rami Girgis, Egypt destination specialist for A&K, says the company has a staff of 408 in Egypt, including the crews on its three Nile-cruising boats. One of A&K’s advantages in Egypt is having seven individual offices spread around the country.

“We have offices in Luxor, Aswan and Abu Simbel,” says Girgis. This allows for A&K to have its own bus and driver in Abu Simbel (no other tour operator has a DMC there) and for the box lunches to be delivered to the plane in Aswan, but it can also make an important difference in an emergency.

The operation also handles high-profile visitors to Egypt. While staying at the Four Seasons Nile Plaza in Cairo, I learned that actor George Clooney was also there to give a speech at the American University his ground arrangements were handled by A&K. Egyptologist Sonia El-Masri was the guide for Vice President Dick Cheney’s high-security tour through the Valley of the Kings.

The company maintains a close relationship with the Egyptian government, which allows insider access that other operators don’t have.

“No other company has private access to the Egyptian Museum,” says Girgis. “Our clients on the Pharaohs and Pyramids and Splendors of the Nile tours get into the museum two hours before it opens to the public.”

The company’s FIT travelers can arrange (for a fee) to visit Nefertari’s tomb in the Valley of the Queens possibly the finest in Egypt, but not currently open to the public. A&K can also arrange for distinguished lectures; on our tour, Professor Gaballa, the former secretary general of Egypt’s Supreme Council of Antiquities, helped us put Egypt’s rich history in perspective around a conference table one evening.

A&K’s team of eight hand-picked Egyptologists are another reason for the company’s success. Guides like El-Masri make Egypt come alive through artful narrative and by sharing practical insights at notoriously hassle-prone tourist sites, like the Pyramids of Giza.

“Do not get on the camels,” El-Masri commanded, before allowing us to get off the bus at Giza. “If you want a photo with a camel, talk to us and we’ll arrange it. But do not get on one. It’s not how much they charge you to get on the camel, it’s how much they charge you to get off we don’t want to have to look for you in Saqqara.”

I stopped to take photos of camels, cautiously, and noticed an A&K staffer following in my footsteps, handing out small tips to camel owners. And soon enough it was easy to pick out the tourists who were not on El-Masri’s tour.

They were the ones atop the camels, haggling with the camel owners for the return of their cameras.


Abercrombie & Kent
1520 Kensington Rd., Ste. 212
Oak Brook, Il 60523