Downey Duck Egypt/Red Sea

Egypt and the Red Sea have always been on our back-burner, but we were never sure it was a safe place to go. After participating in a familiarization trip, we know it's as safe as or safer than other destinations.

Our flight leaving Pittsburgh experienced a 20 minute "ground freeze" while President Obama arrived for the local AFL-CIO meeting, and the Egypt Air flight left JFK one hour late because we were #17 for take-off. And I thought flying was down! I was concerned about our carry-on luggage, but this was not an issue at all. We carried on two items each, and were allowed two check-in two pieces weighing 50 pounds each. The economy seats seemed a tad larger than other international flights we've been on, with a little more legroom. There were no seat-back TV screens, so we watched three bad movies and ate two OK meals as we flew non-stop to Cairo, the largest city in Africa. Egypt has a population of 75 million, rising each minute, and is 90% Sunni Muslim. Most women wore scarves and very few were completely covered.

At JFK and everywhere along the way, we were met and escorted by a representative of Learning Through Travel or the Emperor Fleet. We were like ducklings following our guide Manal in Cairo and Luxor. Manal really knows her stuff, including how to haggle and what price to offer. She's a gem.

Arriving in Cairo, we were taken to the Mena House Oberoi Hotel, right next to the three great pyramids, including Cheops'. We were introduced to Egyptian cuisine, really different. Even the ice cream was a different consistency, more like custard. Over the course of our two weeks, we learned to embrace buffet meals where we could pick and choose and actually see what we were about to eat! Most of us had stomach issues at some point during the trip. We did not drink tap water anywhere, but bottled water is cheap.

But the pyramids, the Sphnix, and the Egyptian Museum of Antiquities were fantastic, and the camel ride (my first) was a hoot. We also went to the Khan El Khalili Bazaar, where we were warned not to stop or talk unless we really wanted to purchase-the vendors try to get the tourists to say something so they know what language to speak, and they can speak most languages.

While we were touring, our dive luggage headed for Hurghada via truck, so we wouldn't have to pay overweight fees on the domestic flight from Cairo. Unfortunately the wake-up call was at 1:30am to catch the 5am flight. Since we couldn't board the liveaboard until late afternoon; they put us on a day boat for a 2 tank trip, so we loaded our dive gear into baskets and boarded the boat. There are a lot of day boats that go out from Hurghada, so we had to be careful to re-board the same boat. The fish mostly looked familiar, but had different color schemes. The second dive I counted 19 lionfish. We boarded the Emperor Superior around 5pm.

The Superior is a good-looking wooden boat, with large, comfortable sitting and dining areas. The cabins, except for the two in the bow, are nice sized with two side-by-side twin beds; the bow cabins have bunk beds; they try to only put one person in those. There was adequate storage space. The bathrooms had small, separate shower areas, and plenty of counter space. The dive deck is large, but there are two rows of tanks facing each other with not that much room between them, so it can get congested, especially with the crew trying to help. The dive entry area was big enough for several people to don fins at the same time. Nitrox is included on the Superior and the tanks are DIN, with convertible inserts available. Fills were quick and right on the money. The camera table is tiny, with small cubicles above. One DSL takes up all the space, so the three coffee tables in the lounge area became camera tables.

All meals were buffet. Breakfast consisted of cereal, toast, eggs,and meat. Lunch and dinners might have fish, pasta, chicken, and/or beef, soup, salad, rolls, vegetables, and some type of dessert. Several types of cookies, hot water, tea, cocoa, sodas, and instant coffee were always available. Wine and beer were extra. Although not all the food was to my taste, I didn't go hungry.

The diving ranged from good to way cool; likewise the visibility ranged from a not-so-good 40 feet to a spectacular 100'+, sometimes during the same dive. We did 4 dives most days, starting with a wake-up call at 5:30am, 6am dive, breakfast, 10:30 dive, lunch, 2:30 dive, 7pm night dive, and finally dinner. I didn't like the early start, but long intervals between dives were great, and 4 dives a day are enough for me, especially since dives lasted 60-80 minutes. During the week we saw several crocodile fish, numerous lionfish, pipefish, a couple Spanish dancers and their eggs, clown fish of various kinds, many turtles and eels, Napoleon Wrasse, and of course colorful reef fish. We dived a couple wrecks, including the Thistlegorm, with trucks, motorbikes, and even a locomotive engine. Although the diving mostly didn't strike me as spectacular, it was never boring; the less traveled divers were constantly enthralled. Most dives were from the Superior, although a few required inflatable rides. One diver, while stepping down into the inflatable, slipped, fell, and broke her leg. She was transported to a hospital where she had surgery. She was treated well there, and is also now an enthusiastic supporter of DAN.

Between dives there were plenty of places to hang out-the lounge, the sundeck one level up, or the covered fly bridge; it was pretty neat coming up from a dive with a view of the Sinai Peninsula. The Superior can handle 20 divers; with the 13 of us it was exceptionally roomy. We were allotted two large bath towels, two smaller towels, and one beach towel for the week. There were two showers on the dive deck, not always warm, but there was plenty of hot water in the cabins. Bath soap was provided but not shampoo.

Reluctantly leaving the Emperor Superior, we took a 5 hour bus ride to Luxor, where we checked into a fancy hotel overlooking the Nile River. We toured the Valley of the Kings , the Avenue of Sphinxes, the Karnak Temple, the tomb of King Tutankhamen, seeing his actual mummy, and the Temple of Queen Hatshepsut, considered one of the finest buildings in Egypt. It was all pretty amazing, even in the 100+ degree dry heat. We had a buffet dinner on the Royal Lily, one of the many Nile River cruise boats.

We spent one final night at a hotel close to the Cairo airport after flying from Luxor to Cairo. Another early wake-up call ensued to arrive in time for our 9:15am flight, only to sit for 5 hours while they found us a plane that worked. Some passengers missed their JFK connecting flights, but our flight back to Pittsburgh was also delayed-one of the few times I've been happy about a delayed flight.

So would we go back to Egypt? You bet, in 2012, with a few tweaks on the itinerary (no 1:30am wake-up calls!), and an added Nile River cruise. You're welcome to join us; just call us for details.