Why You Should Go To Egypt Now
BY: LAURIE WERNER
When I was last in Egypt in 2007, the security-and the tension-were everywhere. Cruising the Nile, we were warned that as we approached Luxor, the big gun would come out and they weren’t kidding: a cannon that could launch a revolution appeared next to the swimming pool. When we visited the temples at night, we went out in decoy convoys. After the Arab Spring in 2011, though, that wasn’t necessary as years of often violent upheaval reduced tourism to a crawl. But now, with several years of general stability (the result of the military taking control and the former military leader Abdel Fattah el-Sisi elected president, a whole other story) translating into a return of tourism, the epic sights of the Pyramids, Sphinx and temples along the Nile as bucket list as ever plus new archaeological discoveries, and a new museum and hotels in the works, it’s an optimum time to go. The exchange rate, triple what it was on my last visit, is an advantage too. Of course, terrorist incidents can still occur, as they do in other places around the world. One recently did, causing the military to tighten security around tourist locations.
Starting in Cairo, with tourism figures up around 50% last year over the previous year, the scene around the Pyramids and Sphinx isn’t the ghost town it was a few years ago but also not yet the mob scene that it was pre-2011. There’s not much of a wait to climb up the Pyramid steps and peek in and for an extra fee, visitors can watch the restoration process of artifacts at the glass walled Grand Egyptian Museum nearby, due to open in 2020 with all of the contents including mummies and gilded sarcophagi transferred from the current Victorian era Egyptian Museum downtown. Meanwhile, near the Pyramids in Saqqara, a hour away from the more famous Pyramids in Giza, the 4000 year old Tomb of Mehu constructed for a high ranking official in the Sixth Dynasty reign of King Titi has recently opened to visitors after decades of restoration.
On the Nile, the boats sailing between Luxor and Aswan were also largely idled following the Arab Spring upheavals due to the tourism downturn with little invested in the product. One exception was the Oberoi Philaewhich underwent a major renovation, reducing the number of cabins from 55 to 22 and increasing the space creating the largest cabins on the river, 388 square foot regular cabins and four 592 square foot suites, two of which also have a 325 square foot outdoor terrace with a whirlpool. The décor on the boat is also fresh and contemporary in the cabins and interior salons and bright in the upper swimming pool deck which also includes a dining area for lunch.
Whether taken up on this deck with its open air views or the lower level dining room, the meals on the Philae are exceptional and multicultural , a mix of Indian, reflecting the boat’s parent company, European and Egyptian with standout dishes such as a smooth, densely flavored murgh tikka makhani (chicken with fenugreek and tomatoes), beet and pumpkin ravioli with ginger and yoghurt sauce, Provencal seafood stew, grilled Egyptian beef filet tagliata and tagine fish Sayadieh, perch with tomato and bell pepper sauce. Requests are also fulfilled as long as ingredients are on hand, indicative of the fine service overall on board by the very friendly, caretaking staff. They routinely remember likes and dislikes without being reminded, made more possible by the boat’s intimate size.
Along with the boat’s staff, the excursion guides are also top notch, informative but also clear, something that isn’t always the case. So are the itinerary plans—a 6 AM departure for Luxor’s Valley of the Kings, for example, to beat the visitors from other boats heading to the tombs, from the brilliantly painted burial place of King Ramses VI to the most in demand, that of the boy king Tutankhamun which includes his mummy, deemed too fragile to transport to the Egyptian Museum. In Aswan, a destination so evocative that Agatha Christie wrote Death on the Nile while in residence at the Old Cataract Hotel there and the Aga Khan directed his tomb to be located high on the hill overlooking the river, guests travel to the temple of the goddess Isis Philae Temple and the Nubian Museum by boat, crisscrossed by feluccas, the sailboats of the area, a gentle view in contrast to, the towering, majestic temples that you see along the way.
The Oberoi Philae presents four and six night itineraries starting in either Luxor or Aswan, encompassing views of Edfu Temple dedicated to the god Horus, considered the best preserved temple in Egypt, the double temple Kom Ombo, the 200 acre Karnak Temple dating from 2055 BC and Luxor Temple dating from 1392 BC. That’s a complete enough itinerary on its own but it’s also rewarding to add on for a night or two at, as it’s now called, The Sofitel Legend Old Cataract Aswan, a 19th century palace of Moorish red and white archways, grand salons and suites that once housed a Who’s Who of dignitaries and a terrace with penultimate views over the Nile. While there, a day trip to the ancient temple complex Abu Simbel, towering in size and cut into a massive rock cliff is worth the effort.
In Cairo, the two Four Seasons hotels, particularly the Four Seasons Hotel Cairo at Nile Plaza have occupied top of the market position with locations bordering the Nile. The other location featuring some rooms with Pyramid views in the distance, The Four Seasons Hotel Cairo at The First Residence, could, like other tourism structures, use a refresh. Poised to take the top spot when it opens, presumably in February, is the St Regis Cairo decorated with fine craftsmanship such as mosaic filled bathrooms, filled with international dining spots designed to draw in locals, a steakhouse, a Sicilian-Arabic cafe and a Singaporean restaurant, and featuring opulent design details such as a sweeping, vertical chandelier containing 250,501 crystals.
Having a good travel company organize an Egyptian trip is essential even with the Oberoi Philae picking up the Nile arrangements. Heritage Toursrecently expanded into Egypt and arrange with the expertise the company demonstrates on other trips I’ve done with them in Morocco and Spain, starting with VIP arrival in Cairo International Airport and encompassing tour itineraries, restaurants and navigating Cairo’s infamous, 24 hour traffic.