RE­VIVAL ON THE NILE

As new ho­tels and cul­tural cen­tres get ready to throw open their doors, AN­THONY SAT­TIN lays out why it’s a good time to be a tourist (again) in Egypt

Condé Nast Traveller Middle East - - Contents -

As new ho­tels and cul­tural cen­tres get ready to throw open their doors, An­thony Sat­tin lays out why it’s a good time to be a tourist (again) in Egypt

Acou­ple of years ago, I climbed out of Tu­tankhamun’s tomb at mid­day to find my­self alone in Luxor’s Val­ley of the Kings, not an­other vis­i­tor in sight. Where was ev­ery­one? For the val­ley’s unique, spec­tac­u­lar and in­spir­ing tombs to be aban­doned was a sign of just how badly Egypt’s tourist trade had been hit by the Arab Spring and the events of the fol­low­ing years. But this ap­pears to be chang­ing, and we are each of us, per the sound­track to Chanel’s re­cent Egypt-in­spired fash­ion show in New York, an “Egyp­tian lover, baby”.

Go to Luxor now and you’ll be far from lonely: on a re­cent visit, the tombs in the Val­ley of the Kings were busy, the guards back to their old ways of en­cour­ag­ing ev­ery­one to move through quickly, the touts hap­pier yet just as per­sis­tent. And the re­vival is not lim­ited to Luxor: Cairo ho­tels are rais­ing their rates, a clear sign that busi­ness is be­gin­ning to boom, and river cruis­ers and beaches are fill­ing up.

Cairo has seen more changes these past eight years than any other part of the coun­try, not least be­cause of Pres­i­dent Sisi’s de­ci­sion to build a new cap­i­tal city. While the new city is un­der con­struc­tion, the old one does what it has al­ways done: it strug­gles, it morphs and comes out stronger, an ethos that a group of vis­ual artists have chan­nelled into their new de­sign store and art gallery in Gar­den City called Cairopoli­tan

( 0020-2-2793 1153, cairopoli­tan.com). Even the old is get­ting a new sheen: the most spec­tac­u­lar cul­tural open­ing will be the AED 3.6bn-plus Grand Egyp­tian Mu­seum ( 0020-2-3377 7263, gem.gov. eg) near the Giza pyra­mids. It is hoped this vast new home for the finest of Egyp­tian an­tiq­ui­ties will at­tract even more vis­i­tors to Egypt. Al­ready muchde­layed, its open­ing has now been con­firmed for early 2020. But what­ever hap­pens else­where, down­town Cairo is not be­ing aban­doned. The old Egyp­tian Mu­seum ( en­try from AED 12; 0020-23377 7263) is be­ing ti­died up while, nearby, the Maspero tri­an­gle has been lev­elled to make way for a mas­ter­plan from Bri­tish ar­chi­tects Foster + Part­ners. More im­me­di­ately in­ter­est­ing – open­ing in Fe­bru­ary – is the Tahrir Cul­tural Cen­ter ( 00202-2615 1000, auc­e­gypt.edu), an art, cin­ema and per­for­mance com­plex on the old Amer­i­can Univer­sity in Cairo (AUC) cam­pus on Tahrir Square, which will pro­vide an op­por­tu­nity for new tal­ent to tread the same boards that Oum Kalthoum, Taha Hus­sein and Naguib Mah­fouz once walked. The ex­hi­bi­tion space joins what is al­ready a rich con­tem­po­rary art scene in Cairo that in­cludes Mashra­bia Gallery of Con­tem­po­rary Art ( 00202-2578 4494, mashra­bi­a­gallery.com), Gyp­sum Gallery ( gyp­sum­gallery.com) and, most vi­brant of all, Town­house Gallery ( 0020-2-2576 8086, thetown­house­gallery.com), now fully re­opened after its main build­ing was dam­aged.

Also open­ing in Fe­bru­ary will be The St. Regis Cairo ( mar­riott.com), the brand’s de­but in Egypt. With lux­u­ri­ous rooms de­signed by Michael Graves, river views, top-end din­ing and the sig­na­ture St. Regis but­ler ser­vice, it will be a ri­val for nearby

The Nile Ritz-Carl­ton ( dou­bles from AED 899; 0020-2-2577 8899, ritz­carl­ton.com), which opened a cou­ple of years ago in the shell of the old Nile Hilton on Tahrir and is also see­ing busi­ness grow. The other big Cairo ho­tel (re)open­ing will be out at the pyra­mids. Mar­riott Mena House ( dou­bles from

“THE MOST SPEC­TAC­U­LAR CUL­TURAL OPEN­ING WILL BE THE AED 3.6BN

PLUS GRAND EGYP­TIAN MU­SEUM NEAR THE GIZA PYRA­MIDS”

“IF YOU GO TO LUXOR NOW, YOU’RE GO­ING TO BE FAR FROM LONELY: THE TOMBS ARE BUSY, THE TOUTS HAP­PIER BUT JUST AS PER­SIS­TENT”

AED 719; 0020-2-3377 3222, mar­riott.com) was orig­i­nally built in 1869 to ac­com­mo­date vis­i­tors for the open­ing of the Suez Canal and has since looked after a huge range of roy­alty from Europe and Hol­ly­wood, in­clud­ing, fa­mously, Win­ston Churchill and Lawrence of Ara­bia. Al­though the gar­den rooms are cur­rently func­tion­ing, the his­toric “palace” rooms, which look spec­tac­u­larly straight on to the pyra­mids, are the sub­ject of a ma­jor re­fur­bish­ment that will take this his­toric ho­tel up to to­day’s lux­ury stan­dards.

Luxor, which con­tains as much as 30 per cent of the world’s an­tiq­ui­ties, has been among the worst-hit by the tourist down­turn, al­though ar­chae­ol­o­gists have pro­vided a steady enough stream of new dis­cov­er­ies to keep it in the spot­light. Luxor has al­ways been on a con­ti­nu­ity and so it re­mains. The best ho­tels are still the Al Moudira

( price on re­quest; 0020-95-255 1440, moudira. com), ex­trav­a­gantly dec­o­rated, in­de­pen­dently run and one of the most in­ter­est­ing ho­tels in the coun­try; the old colo­nial Sof­i­tel Win­ter Palace Luxor ( dou­bles from AED 734; 0020-95-238

0425, ac­corho­tels.com), a grand build­ing with a beau­ti­ful gar­den; and the Hilton Luxor Re­sort & Spa ( dou­bles from AED 422; 0020-100-600 1270, hilton.com), on the Nile near Kar­nak Tem­ple.

There has been more change on the West Bank, across from the city. A short stroll from the ferry land­ing, a shop called Sa Re ( 0020-109-750 7767, sa-re.net) is sell­ing Egyp­tian foie gras – “since 2450 BC” is their strapline – per­fect for a pic­nic on a day at the tombs. The nearby Luxor Art Gallery ( 0020-111-125 8045, lux­o­rart­gallery.com) show­cases a range of works, from Wael Nour’s wa­ter­colours of lo­cal build­ings and mon­u­ments to wood sculp­tures by lo­cal artist Mah­moud Salem, and oils of lo­cal and an­cient scenes by Alaa Awad who painted some of the strong­est mu­rals in Cairo dur­ing the Tahrir protests. And west of there, near the edge of the agri­cul­tural land, you can see how ar­chae­ol­o­gists are painstak­ingly re­cov­er­ing what­ever sur­vives of the mas­sive fu­ner­ary tem­ple of King Amen­hotep III, fronted by the fa­mous and colos­sal twin seated stat­ues of the pharaoh.

Al­though there were no in­ci­dents and few travel ad­vi­sories re­gard­ing safety on the river, Nile cruis­ing was badly hit by the un­rest, and many of the 300 float­ing ho­tels that cruise be­tween Luxor and Aswan have been tied up since 2011. The best have re­mained in ser­vice, among them The Oberoi

Phi­lae ( dou­bles from AED 2,883 per night on a four-night cruise; 0020-111-974 0600, oberoi­ho­tels. com), hav­ing been com­pletely re­fur­bished in 2016. Some of the da­habiyas (lux­ury sail­ing boats) have also been thriv­ing, none more so than Nour el

Nil ( five-night cruises from AED 5,815 per per­son; 0044-20-3239 0923, nourel­nil.com). Their eigh­tand 10-cabin boats, with dis­tinc­tive red-and-white sails, pro­vide an el­e­gant al­ter­na­tive to even the most lux­u­ri­ous float­ing ho­tels and will sail you to Aswan in five de­li­ciously slow days and nights.

Fast or slow, desert or val­ley, a walk through Cairo or a laze on a beach along the coun­try’s am­ple coast­line, there’s no short­age of new and old things to see and do and never a bet­ter time to do it. Re­turn­ing to that Chanel sound­track: Egypt, “it’s not just a name, it’s an ad­ven­ture”.

From left: Al Moudira ho­tel in Luxor; art in Cairo’s Egyp­tian Mu­seum. Op­po­site, clock­wise from top left: Jan­nah Tea Bar in the Hilton Luxor Re­sort; a guard in the Kar­nak com­plex in Luxor; a cabin’s sump­tu­ous bath­room on The Oberoi Phi­lae; the up­com­ing St. Regis Cairo

From left: The The­ban Ne­crop­o­lis near Luxor; Luxor Art Gallery. Op­po­site, clock­wise from top: Pyra­mid views from Mar­riott Mena House inCairo; a guest room with views in The Nile Ritz-Carl­ton; items in de­sign store Cairopoli­tan

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