Feb 25, 2019

Luxurious and Historic Egyptian Hotels


Fairfax writer, Alison Stewart recently travelled to Egypt and shares her luxury Scenic Special Stays.

The grand old historic hotels strewn like pearls along the Nile Valley owe much of their lustre to Egypt's archaeological and strategic signifi cance. Giza's Mena House, Luxor's Winter Palace and Aswan's Old Cataract – all built to enable the pursuit of treasure after the Rosetta Stone's discovery in 1799 unlocked the mysteries of hieroglyphics – are treasures in themselves, linked inextricably to momentous events in the country's history.

Constructed for the late golden age of the Grand Tour, they were present for the unearthing of fabled antiquities such as Tutankhamun's tomb. They were there during the decline of the Ottoman Empire, the rise of British influence, the building of the Suez Canal, the declaration of the country as a sovereign kingdom, the strategic construction of the Aswan High Dam, the two World Wars, and the birth of the Arab Spring. They have welcomed kings and princes, fortune hunters, writers and politicians, celebrities and charlatans.

It's 25 minutes' drive to Giza through a chaotic traffic system, the workings of which are as mysterious as the Sphinx. Marriott Mena House on the edge of the Sahara is the most downstream of the Nile Valley's three gems.

It is only when we gather on the terrace for drinks and canapé, however, that the true significance of the Mena House's address – 6 Pyramids Road – becomes apparent. Rising majestically above us in startling proximity, the Great Pyramid of Khufu and its smaller brother, the Pyramid of Khafre.

Joining us on this terrace is a ghostly parade of the famous, the notorious and the noteworthy – Prince Albert Victor of Wales, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Winston Churchill, the future King George V and Queen Mary. Scenes from films such as Valley of the Kings and The Spy Who Loved Me were filmed here. Mena House carries a sombre antipodean link – Australian troops requisitioned the hotel during World War I and again in 1939, when it became a hospital for wounded troops.

Progressing upstream, we fly for one and a half hours to the ancient Egyptian capital of Luxor. Our resting place, the high Victorian Sofitel Winter Palace. French doors from my balcony open to the most romantic of vistas – the broad current of the Nile River, laced with lazy feluccas.

Across the fabled water is the equivalent of a gourmet feast – the tombs, temples and monuments of the West Bank Necropolis, including the Valley of the Kings and Valley of the Queens.

It was from the hotel's grand staircase that British archaeologist Howard Carter announced his discovery of the exquisitely preserved tomb of Tutankhamun. Again, there is a roll call of famous names.

Perhaps they enjoyed the afternoon tea ritual of Egypt's last king, King Farouk. Or dined on tender grilled lamb and chicken in the fragrant gardens.

Reluctantly we leave, sailing south along the Nile to Aswan's Sofitel Legend Old Cataract. We aren't disappointed. And the pleasure is to be found not only with the beautifully renovated historic hotel built on a buttress of pink granite overlooking the sacred river, Elephantine Island, Khnum Temple and the Aga Khan's tomb, but also with the town of Aswan.

Egypt's southernmost winter resort, 380 kilometres from the Sudanese border, inhabits a green sliver of Nile valley, shouldered by Nubian desert. Here, the desert stands in contrast to the tumble of frangipani, bougainvillea, mimosa, sycamore, African mahogany and flame trees.

The Old Cataract takes its name from the meeting of the river with the granite barrier that creates the Nile's first and northernmost cataract. A favourite place for the British aristocracy during colonial times, it was where Agatha Christie wrote Death on the Nile. A similar honour roll of guests stayed here, including Tsar Nicholas II, the Aga Khan III, Princess Diana, and that royal with an eye for indulgence, King Farouk.

Only on a Scenic journey to Egypt are you lucky enough to experience all three of these lavish hotels.

This article originally appeared in the Traveller section of The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age.