The adults yearn for ancient sites but the children want the beach. Jeremy Seal finds a way to keep everyone happy.
Inflatable Santas and sleighs, plastic trees and tinsel wreaths cram the foyer of our Nile cruise boat but it's the Christmas crib that stops us in our tracks. Apparently fashioned out of prawn crackers, it looks less like a stable than a cave, with something suspiciously stone-like at the entrance.
"That would be Easter," a scandalised Anna whispers. Our 12-year-old has clearly been paying attention in RE. "They've only gone and got his birth and death mixed up." To which a gleeful Lizzie, 8, adds: "And the farm animals are all from Madagascar."
The plastic giraffes, elephants, lions and herds of stampeding wildebeest that surround the nativity scene make us fear for the infant Jesus but not for our holiday. Christmas promises to be a lot more fun as well.
Egypt, it so happens, has quite a strong hand in fun; a winning one, even, when it comes to visiting families.
Brochures make much of the country's main attractions - pharaonic monuments, biblical landscapes, crossover cultures - but the truth is that nothing endears Egypt to visiting youngsters quite like the mild, often playful, sense of chaos that prevails.
It might be a shaming admission, this, but one that those intent on visiting Egypt with children would do well to note: the grand tomb of Rameses III at Luxor's Valley of the Kings, with its engraved vignettes from more than 3000 years ago, leaves less of an impression on our daughters than that gloriously wonky crib. The vast columns of Karnak Temple's Hypostyle Hall might have rendered their parents speechless but Anna and Lizzie are more taken with the spectacular towel sculptures - camels, crocodiles, cobras and a particularly artful giant scorpion - that greet them every evening in our cruise boat's cabin.
Nor is any obelisk ever going to hold a candle to the sumptuous and bizarre creations - cream-cheese dolphins and melon-cut bunnies, as well as pastry reindeer and palm trees - that grace the on-board buffet on Christmas Eve.
A friend back home had warned us against making the standard assumption about our children's behaviour; a school project on Howard Carter or a passing interest in Cleopatra is no kind of preparation for the heat, crowds, accented commentaries and plain hassle that trailing around Egypt's antiquities tends to entail. "One pylon in," the friend promised, "one statue of Horus and they'll be turning fractious."
We plan our holiday accordingly, the two generations taking part in tough horse-trading to negotiate a settlement. The parents will have their time in Upper Egypt, getting their hit of antiquities, as long as the children get their spell on the beach.
Until last year, this would have meant submitting to the delay-prone military convoy whereby all visitors were ferried between the Nile Valley and the Red Sea. With the recent lifting of that particular aggravation, amid a general easing of the region's security situation, our two-centre arrangement merely entails a straightforward transfer across the Eastern Desert.
Our cruise boat, the TuYa, which we board at Luxor, combines the fittings of an Edwardian farce - panelled corridors, sweeping staircases and chandeliers - with the lines of a container ship. It is the upper deck, with a pool and tea terrace, that transforms it into an improbable triumph. From the loungers we watch orchards of mango trees, date palms and minarets slide past. Turbaned villagers water their cattle at the banks, fishermen drag nets through the shallows and a youth practises kickboxing moves.
The crew turn their backs to the setting sun, lay out prayer mats and kneel towards the direction of Mecca.
Early one morning we ride by horse-drawn calash through Edfu's market. A veiled woman carries her purchases - a slaughtered rabbit, a live chicken, eggplants - in a slatted crate balanced on her head. Beyond the gauntlet run of proffered galabiyehs (cotton gowns) and alabaster sphinxes rises Egypt's best-preserved ancient temple. We have time to enjoy the exquisite hieroglyphs that honour the falcon deity, Horus, before the girls first ask when we are going back to the boat.
So the parents get to see almost all the sights on their checklist, including Kom Ombo, the river-bank shrine to the crocodile deity, and the lovely temple of Isis, which was moved to the island of Philae to save it from the floodwaters of Lake Nasser. It's only when we arrive at modern Egypt's great monument to engineering, above Aswan, that the strain begins to show. "It's a dam, dad," Anna says. The pay-off, it seems, is overdue.
By the time we have transferred to our seaside base at El Gouna, all palm trees and domed villas amid a wilderness of beachside lagoons, the girls have drawn up an impressive list of their own: snorkelling, camel rides, a visit to the aqua park.
So New Year's Day finds us floating face down among the parrotfish and the corals of the Red Sea reefs. We put Lizzie on the back of a camel and tumble down yellow water rides with names such as the Flying Carpet Slide.
It might have felt like a craven surrender to philistinism; instead I persuade myself that the girls might one day recall Karnak's ancient thickets of stone columns, with their lotus-flower capitals, and realise that their parents had a point. But not just yet.
Back at the hotel, Anna orders a poolside mocktail, which goes by the name Shirley Temple. "My kind of temple," she says.
Qatar Airways has a fare to Luxor for about $1890 from Melbourne, flying to Doha (about 14hr), then Luxor (3hr 15min). Sydney passengers pay the same and fly Jetstar or Virgin Blue to connect in Melbourne. This fare allows you to fly out of Cairo. Most other airlines and fares will take you to Cairo first. Australians require a visa for a stay of up to 30 days.
Bunnik Tours has a 12-day Discover the Pharaohs tour including three nights cruising on the Nile. It costs from $4533 a person twin share, including return flights from Australia to Egypt, accommodation, internal flights and transfers, guides, entrance fees and some meals; see bunniktours.com.au.
Abercrombie & Kent has a range of customised private journeys in Egypt, including a nine-day tour with four nights' Nile cruising, from $5395 a person, twin share. Or for supreme privacy, the company's newly restored dahabiya, Zein Nile Chateau, operates chartered seven-night Nile cruises for parties of up to 12, from $44,890, including excursions, beverages and meals. See abercrombiekent.com.au.
Things to do
Aswan is the best place to organise a trip on a felucca. These open sailing boats can be hired for romantic camping expeditions downstream as far as Kom Ombo. Those with a greater insistence on comfort might prefer to limit themselves to one-hour felucca rides, which cost about £E73 ($13), among Aswan's granite river islands.
Many of the marine-rich reefs that make the Red Sea such a favourite with divers lie so close to the surface as to also make for exceptional snorkelling. This is especially so at the low-key divers' resort of Sharm El Naga (phone +20 10 123 4540, see sharmelnaga.com), near Hurghada, where the coral reef runs right up the beach to create the ultimate snorkellers' nursery. A day pass costs £E54 and you can hire snorkel gear for another £E27.
Dive boats leave for the offshore islands and reefs from most resorts. Easy Divers, in El Gouna (phone +20 65 358 0027, see easydivers-academy.com), offers snorkellers two-hour trips (£E73) or full-day excursions (£E218, including lunch and equipment).
Jungle Aqua Park is on Safaga Road, Hurghada; admission is about £E182 a person (under 11s, £E91).