Egypt’s Historic Hotels
We visit some of Egypt’s most Prestige Historic Hotels.Via Magic Carpet Journals. Story and Photos by M. Maxine George
I have been very fortunate to have the opportunity to stay in three of Egypt’s most historic hotels and visited the fourth historic hotel for a banquet. As you will have seen, my tour of Egypt began by staying at the Marriot’s Mena House Hotel, in Giza, this time. I was thrilled to know I would be returning to there again.
I was first introduced to the Mena House Oberi Hotel, as it was known then, when our group had lunch there on our way to the Pyramids, during my first visit to Egypt. Seated in the Moorish dining room, we could see the top of Cheops, over the trees in the park-like grounds. A pre-arranged menu was served. Our group were seated at two tables. We Canadians were at one table. A group of Americans were at the other. Before leaving home, our group had all been given specific travel health instructions regarding drinking the water and what not to eat while traveling. (Don’t drink anything but bottled water, don’t eat raw vegetables, salads or fruit you don’t peel yourself.) We were surprised to see we were each given a plate of watermelon slices. That was also on our no-no list. We were all careful not to eat any of it. Much to our surprise we saw the Americans at the other table cheerfully eating their juicy, red mouth-watering watermelon. Here, I may comment that they did not appear to have any problems with the Pharaoh’s revenge, during our remaining days together.
The Cairo Marriot Hotel 1998
Also, on my first visit to Egypt, thirty years ago, I stayed at The Marriot in Cairo. I was told then that it had been built around a previous palace for the visit of the Empress Eugenie, wife of Napoleon III, who came to stay there when she stayed in Cairo on her way to attend the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869. She stayed there for a week and also stayed at the Mena House in Gaza. They say that the road to the Pyramids was also built for her visit. Prior to that the Khedive Ishmail, Pasha of Egypt, and his family had lived in the palace. One of the last events he held there was the wedding of four of his children. The guests included nobility from all over Europe and the wedding celebrations went on for four days.
My experience there was a little different. We arrived there in the evening after our flight to Cairo from Canada. Six Canadians came in on that flight. Our guide very efficiently handled our arrival through the airport and took us directly to the hotel, hot and tired. Mootaz went, with our passports, to register us at the hotel. My fellow travelers and I got to know each other while we waited, and waited, and waited some more. Finally, Mootaz, our guide returned to report that the hotel was over booked, but not to worry they were offering us alternative accommodation, The Presidential Suite. Sure enough the six of us were taken to the 19th floor, to the lavish Suite 1900.
The Old Cataract Hotel, Aswan
Although one might think The Old Cataract Hotel was built as a palace, it was purpose built in 1899 to accommodate wealthy tourists, by the English company, Thomas Cook and Son, which was Europe’s first travel agency. Over the years since, it has hosted many of the world’s rich and famous. Kings, Queens, Presidents and Prime Ministers, celebrities of all stripes have stayed there when they visited Aswan. Among the names that unquestionably will be recognized are Czar Nicholas II and Princess Diana. Winston Churchill enjoyed his sojourns there for many years. There is an elaborate suite named after him. (One of the priciest in the hotel now.) He spent some time there to rest up after the Cairo Conference during WWII. Henry Kissinger and his contingent of American negotiators resided there while they helped negotiate the end to the Yon Kipper War in 1973.
Sofitel’s Old Cataract Hotel was home to Agatha Christie while she was writing her book, Death on the Nile. She used the hotel as a setting for part of her novel. Some of the movie was filmed there too. The door of her room now has her name emblazoned on it.
Wings have been added over the years and a complete renovation was finished in 2011. The hotel is exotic, but exudes a coziness that is hard to believe in such a prestigious establishment. I soon felt that I could have enjoyed staying right there. No wonder Agatha Christie was inspired to write her book while there. I too could cheerfully have remained there to write. The zebra striped chairs near the main desk seemed to encourage me to come sit and relax for a while. The reading room drew me to it with books, magazines and newspapers set out for guests to use. Oh yes, I could have stayed there for an extended visit. It is comfortable with an informality that was both charming and classy.
Our accommodation in the New Wing was spacious, luxurious and comfortable. The impressive, double bathroom was one of the best I have seen in my many travels throughout the world. A private, double balcony offered the opportunity to relax and enjoy the view. Looking out over the river I could see the white Mausoleum of the Late Aga Khan up on a hill. It brought back memories of sailing across the river during my first visit to Aswan.
My special time at the Upper Cataract Hotel was when we had breakfast the next morning. Marion and I sat out on the balcony in the dining area. The balcony looks out over the landscaped grounds and onto the widest part of the Nile, and Elephantine Island. The view was genuinely interesting and beautiful. The river seems to have some activity on it at all times. Feluccas, the sailboats of the Nile, often can be seen navigating through the water. The gentle breeze, that wafted off the river, was refreshing.
The breakfast buffet had good choices and the service was excellent, with a chef ready to meet any special requests. I had a good laugh at the juice bar. Signs proclaimed the various choices: Regular fruit juices, orange or melon, or an Energy juice, a Detox juice or an Anti aging juice. Needless to say I returned to the table with each of the last three. None of this orange or melon juice for me! The power drinks will do me nicely.
The Winter Palace, Luxor
Lastly, but by far not the least, was the Winter Palace in Luxor. It opened in 1907, and is part of the exclusive Palace Hotels of the World. It is a Sofitel property. Lord Carnarvon was a frequent guest of the hotel. He was the sponsor of Egyptologist Howard Carter, noted for the discovery of King Tutankhamen’s famous tomb. The announcement of that discovery was made from the staircase in the lobby of the Winter Palace. A deluge of international press and visitors from foreign lands converged on the hotel to keep abreast of the most current news coming from the now famous tomb. The hotel’s bulletin board was used to pass along notices of the progress in the unveiling of the tomb’s contents.
This hotel had been closed during WWI and was used as a hospice for convalescing military personnel. There have been additions, restorations and renovations over the years. It was also another home to Agatha Christie while she was writing her book Death on the Nile.
Our banquet at the Winter Palace was sumptuous and impressive. Floral arrangements graced the table, set under Moorish chandeliers. The long table was elegantly set for what was to be our final dinner together as a group. The food and service was top notch.
Egypt has been a top tourist destination for generations. Unfortunately in 2011 civil unrest in the form of the Arab Spring took place. People demonstrated in the streets to topple an unpopular autocratic government. They were able to force Mubarak to resign after thirty years in power. At first the military took control, then Mohamed Morsi, a conservative from the Muslim Brotherhood, was elected president. His leadership led to another series of protests. Then, in 2015, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi was elected president. His leadership has been peaceful.
Another catastrophe befell the tourist trade when a chartered airliner crashed in the Sinai Desert while on a flight from Egypt to Russia. It was believed to have been a terrorist attack.
Tourism dropped to an all-time low during the period of unrest and hit a further low after that plane crash. During that time many of the hotels in Egypt took the opportunity to renovate and upgrade their properties. Egypt now prioritizes safety. There is a large security presence and check points are located outside all places tourists may be visiting. I noticed that in comparison with my previous visit thirty years ago, the entrances to all the archaeological sites and major tourist attractions that we visited, have been redesigned with safety in mind. There is comfort in the knowledge of those safety measures. I am happy to be able to report that tourists are now returning to Egypt in ever increasing numbers.
We visited Egypt during a heat wave, but I found that the only time it was uncomfortable has been when we stood for a long while in the direct sunshine. Hats are a must and loose, cotton clothing helpful in the heat. All our accommodation had air-conditioning, so our visit has been undeterred by the heat. Our time in Egypt left me with the desire to return again soon.
Story by M. Maxine George. Pictures by Maxine George and Julie and Mario Bergeron
Last updated January 19, 2021 by Matthew George – Webmaster