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River Tosca


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A Nile River cruise has long served as a bucket-list fantasy; even Cleopatra enjoyed her time lolling in splendour as her barge passed her kingdom's already ancient wonders. And, now that Uniworld has brought its brand of luxury cruising to the already-crowded Nile riverboat field, you too can feel like a pasha as experienced tour guides show you the best of Egypt.

Walking into River Tosca, you immediately sense that she's a step up from the other 399 ships licensed to ply the Nile. Beyond the marble floors and chandeliers, there's a rich attention to detail that's carried through all of the public rooms. Shishas (water pipes), lanterns and colonial-era prints add an exotic flair to Uniworld's usual tasteful, upscale décor.

Outside the ship, Egypt can assault your senses; unlike most river cruising destinations, the country is poor, and vendors can be aggressive, which is why the River Tosca offers a welcome respite from the chaos. The mostly Egyptian staff is eager to please, and your Egyptologist guide is always on hand to explain the intricacies of the country, both ancient and modern.

With a packed itinerary, however, you won't be spending too much time onboard. Each of Uniworld's Egypt offerings is heavy on sightseeing trips that are included in your package, and the staff get you up early to avoid the midday heat. You could stay in your room and miss a temple (or two), but you may kick yourself later.

Plus, the hot afternoons are a perfect time to unwind, either in the small pool or with a cup of mint tea under the covered portion of the top deck. Most of River Tosca's affluent clientele have put in as many miles on their body as stamps in their passports; many preferred to nap or get massages in the ship's compact spa. Outbreaks of "mummy tummy" were not uncommon; taking the time to rest, along with some pills from the front desk, restored most passengers within a day or two.

And having that type of service available while navigating Egypt is what sets River Tosca apart from the competition. As the country's revolution continues, travel in Egypt comes with a certain amount of unpredictability -- so it's nice to know that your River Tosca experience will remain smooth sailing.

Egypt is a Muslim country, and while swimsuits, tank tops and shorts are fine for the ship's top deck, women will want to cover up when touring, especially in Cairo. Bring a scarf that you can drape over your arms when entering religious sites and avoid skirts above the knee. Dinners are country-club casual, with most women wearing dresses or pants paired with nice tops. Women won't need heels. Men wore collared shirts and slacks. Everyone should bring comfortable shoes for touring.

At least once during your cruise, River Tosca hosts an Egyptian night, where those onboard are encouraged to wear galabeyas, beaded tunics or headdresses. You can buy these outfits in the ship's store or from street vendors, or bring one from home.

The River Tosca price includes shore excursions, all of which are aimed at showing you the very best of ancient Egypt. You'll receive a packed itinerary that has at least one outing a day on it, and possibly up to three. The ship automatically sets your wakeup call, as early as 6 a.m. on some days, so you can sightsee before it gets too hot out. While these activities are optional, you'll want to push through the exhaustion to get the most out of your time, as there's nothing better than seeing these sites with a trained Egyptologist.

Egypt's revolution has affected some of the excursions that River Tosca offers, for both good and bad. On the positive side, you'll find almost no crowds at even the most famous sights, such as Luxor's Valley of the Kings, Temple of Hatshepsut and Temple of Karnak. But, the smaller numbers of tourists on the Nile means that Egyptian police no longer patrol the stretch of Nile between Luxor and Dendera, necessitating a long van ride to the Temple of Hathor instead of a mellow cruise. And street and shop vendors are noticeably more aggressive.

River Tosca has several optional tours, which you sign up for at the beginning of your trip. In our tour group of six, everyone paid the extra for the flight down to Abu Simbel, the famed temple built by Ramses II, which turned out to be money well spent. The extra excursion to the Luxor Sound & Light show garnered more mixed reviews. (Most Uniworld Egypt tours already include the Sound & Light show at the Giza pyramids.) Those who were spending extra time in Egypt were also given the opportunity to book a day trip to Alexandria.

Besides the shore excursions, there's no entertainment or onboard lecturing during the day. While a few guests passed the time playing cards, the games in the library sat unused. You're constantly learning about Egyptian history during the day, so most people used their downtime to relax and recharge. Happy hours were sporadically attended.

Every other night, River Tosca either brings local entertainers onboard or has its staff members sing and dance with the guests. During a recent voyage, a belly dancer and a Sufi whirling dervish performed near Luxor, and Nubian men danced and sang traditional songs when the ship was tied up near their native lands in Aswan.

On the ship's Egyptian-themed nights, the staff put on their galabeyas (loose tunics worn by Egyptians to beat the heat) and performed for the guests after dinner. On one of these nights, an impromptu dance party broke out after an impressive display of drumming, with guests getting down to songs from the 50's, 60's and 70's. But, on a subsequent evening, people were too tired to boogie, and the party petered out after the performance.

River Tosca has a pool on its top deck, but it's too small for anything but a simple soak. Think of it as a great place to cool off or enjoy the stars above. While the size felt adequate on recent cruises, where capacity was less than 20 percent, it could get crowded if the ship is full. The top deck also features first-class sun loungers, both shaded and open, and a covered area where you can watch the river pass by without fear of sun poisoning.

On Deck 4, the ship has a small gym with treadmills, elliptical machines and weights. There's also a TV that you can watch while you exercise. Keep in mind that the ship's excursions involve a fair amount of walking, so you may be able to stay fit without hitting the gym.

The spa consists of several treatment rooms and, during a recent voyage, a very skilled masseuse who has been trained in both Thai and Western-style massage. There are no salon or nail services onboard.

You enter the ship on the second deck, where there's a hotel-style front desk with a concierge available 24 hours, as well as a beverage room with free coffee, tea and bottled water. The second deck also holds a sizeable lounge, where drink specials are offered every day for the hour before dinner.

Adjacent to the lounge, there's a small library with paperback books, a flat-screen TV and several board games made from inlaid stone (chess and Backgammon). Large coffee table-style books about Egypt are strewn among the public areas for passengers to pick up and browse at their leisure.

Downstairs on Deck 1, there's a small boutique near the dining room where you can pick up sundries like sunglasses or lotion and buy small souvenirs or outfits for the ship's Egyptian-themed Galabeya parties. While the prices there are more expensive than what you'll find on the street, several passengers enjoyed the hassle-free onboard experience.

River Tosca would be a tough journey for the disabled. There's no elevator onboard, and there are steps to the dining room.

River Tosca's dining room is on its lowest public floor, in a well-appointed space that continues the ship's dedication to understated luxury. While the tables are set for larger groups, you can choose your own tablemates.

Both breakfast and lunch are served buffet-style at set times, usually one hour before your morning excursion departs and 30 minutes to an hour after you return. Offerings range from Western favourites like omelettes and sandwiches to Egyptian-style meze (salads) and hot entrées like Nile perch.

An afternoon tea with cakes or finger sandwiches is served around 3:30 p.m. daily under the covered portion of the top deck. During one session, the chef gave cooking lessons to those who were interested in Egyptian food.

Dinner is served around 7 p.m., after a happy hour in the lounge. You're greeted by the serving staff and chef as you walk in, and you're allowed to choose your own table. While there were a few bumps in service, due to the language barrier, the waiters are friendly and eager to please. They're also observant: when one waiter noticed my love for mango, he made sure I had fresh mango juice every morning.

Evening meals consist of a four-course set menu with several options, including vegetarian entrées and a "chef's choice" with recommended wines. (Unlike other Uniworld cruises, beer and wine are not included on River Tosca.) Sample dinners included asparagus soup, surf and turf, and baked Alaska. On my 12-day trip, an Egyptian buffet with specialties -- such as vine leaves, kebabs and lamb moussaka -- was served twice. One night, dinner was served upstairs under the stars for variety.

Some Uniworld veterans felt that River Tosca's food didn't live up to what you'd find on the line's European cruises. I found it a step above what you'd find in an average resort hotel and appreciated the chef's ability to introduce Egyptian flavours to unfamiliar palates. I also liked how the ship worked to accommodate individual tastes. If nothing on the menu appeals to you, you can always order steak or chicken with fries -- and ice cream for dessert.

For those who miss meals, there aren't too many options. Coffee, tea and bottled water are available 24/7 from a serving station near the lobby, and the rooms have mini-bars. While room service isn't advertised, the staff made sure that those suffering from "mummy tummy" had broth or food delivered to their cabins.

Very rarely do a ship's cabins inspire superlatives. But even Uniworld veterans raved about how spacious and luxurious River Tosca's rooms are. And, while many small ships eschew the towel animal tradition, the River Tosca staff delights with fabric creations that include swans, pyramids and scorpions.

River Tosca offers four categories of suites, plus the Presidential. The suites are the same size with the same amenities; the line says that the room's position on the ship determines the price.

The standard 335-square-foot suite comes with a king-sized bed that can be separated into two twins, a desk and chair, two armchairs and a side table, a full-sized closet, an iPod alarm clock and a flat-screen TV with satellite channels. All rooms have floor-to-ceiling windows with luxe treatments, as well as tasteful wallpaper and Egyptian-themed prints. While the ship advertised free Wi-Fi on its Web site, it was down on a recent cruise, so the staff provided, on request, USB sticks that connected you to the Internet. The voltage in the room is 220, but there's one 110 outlet in each stateroom.

The bathrooms are as big as, if not bigger than, ones you'd find in a luxury hotel. Each contains both a tub and a shower and is stocked with thick, white towels, slippers and a hair dryer. River Tosca uses the same linens and plush bathrobes that you'll find on other Uniworld ships. Shampoo, body lotion and conditioner are provided. One quibble with the toiletries: The ship uses Egyptian products that have olive oil as their main ingredient, which may be great for thick hair -- but not so much for thin hair like mine.

The ship has two Presidential suites on the fore of the third deck. They each consist of two full-size rooms for a total of 651 square feet. Instead of carpet, the bedroom floors are wooden, covered by silk rugs. The sitting rooms have sofas, coffee tables, two chairs and flat-screen TV's. There's also a small balcony with two chairs and a large window with retractable shades (which most people would keep down, as the view faces the crew's deck).

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