Barefoot Traveller



There’s at least one place in the world whose legendary allure hasn’t been exaggerated, where the sands of time and tradition mix with fresh winds of the modern world. That’s Egypt.

At Luxor, Aswan and Abu Simbel the desert blows its hot breath over temples and tombs stretching back 5,000 years. Today, Cairo stands astride the Nile and two worlds, one foot planted by the great pyramids of Giza, the other in front of humming computer terminals in world-class hotels and offices.

Getting There: We had a choice of Egypt Air and British Air, and happily chose the latter. The British Air Club World, or business class, is superb, far better than first class on many other airlines. Boasting huge cushioned, reclining seats, personal TV screens, great food and service – it was a joy. And for the long haul from the U.S. to London, then changing planes to Cairo, comfort is king.

The Country: Egypt reaches out its hand to the millions of tourists who flock to see King Tut’s relics in the Egyptian Museum of Cairo and to cruise the Nile. And many wealthy residents of other Arab countries flock to Cairo to spend their petro-dollars in pastimes not available at home: casinos, discos, bars and all-night cabarets featuring belly dancers.

With an estimated 60 percent of its people dependent one way or another on tourism, the Land of the Pharaohs is becoming more and more like a theme park: EgyptLand. About 250 hotel boats cruise the Nile. Visitors from around the world sip local Stella beer from the shaded top decks and gaze at life on the Nile that goes on much as it has for centuries. But that’s changing too, as factories spring up along this river lifeline through the desert, and vast farms turn the land green, irrigated by pumps sucking up water that few visitors dare drink.

In Cairo, one can taxi to the outskirts of town to behold the wonders of the Sphinx and pyramids, sights that have struck awe in visitors centuries before Napoleon beheld them.

Tips: At Cairo’s Egyptian Museum, as at all the main sites, the rule is to get there early to beat the high tide of tourism. Another reason to rise early: Egypt tends to heat up as the hours pass, especially during the unspeakably hot summer. True, prices dip as the mercury climbs in late spring and summer, but unless you’re on a rigid budget, late fall, winter and early spring are best. Tomb-trudging when you’re wilted can spoil one of the great travel experiences the world has to offer.

Another tip: Bargain for just about everything from buying a trinket to taking a camel ride, even hiring a cab. It’s usually expected, except in hotel shops. Otherwise you’re liable to pay far more than the going rate. By all means fend off the swarms of peddlers you’ll find at every tourist attraction. Buying on the fly, with little idea of a fair price, tourists are sheep to be shorn. If a vendor tells you it’s “free,” don’t believe it. Don’t get in a taxi or on a camel without knowing the price first. And don’t even think about drinking the water. Try Stella beer or delightful kerkardi, made from hibiscus flowers.

For most, the easiest way to see Egypt is by tour. Still, you can save a heap of Egyptian pounds if you’re willing to make your own airline deal, drive a hotel bargain, hire taxies or negotiate a hard bargain with the captain of a Nile cruise boat. Driving in Cairo is a dare-devil exercise. Trains run to Luxor and Aswan, but most tourists, with little time to spare and unwilling to solve the ticket puzzle, take a jet.

We opted to let Abercrombie & Kent do the heavy lifting. A&K is high-end and while you can do it cheaper, you can’t do it better. When I saw some of the filthy Nile boats floating by I was glad I was on Sun Boat IV. We ate well and were ensconced in what many say has long been Cairo’s best hotel, the Marriott. Our guide was not only certified but also an Egyptologist who teaches history at the American University. As an Egyptian she also gave us deep insights into the customs and daily life.

Hotels: The newest addition to Cairo’s excellent stable of hotels is the Four Seasons Cairo offering a high level of elegance now generally lacking around town. On the boutique side, with 273 guest rooms, it has views not only of the river but the pyramids and Cairo’s zoological and botanic gardens. There’s every business amenity known to the corporate world, plus spa, limo service, Mediterranean restaurant serves dishes with North African flavors and influences from Lebanon, Morocco and Italy, a far cry from the usual bland “international” dishes one finds in hotels. The presidential suite is immense.

Cairo’s most famous hotel is the Mena House, a former hunting lodge in the shadow of the great Pyramids. It also sports a large swimming pool and golf course. Converted into a hotel when the Suez Canal opened, it’s a Moorish delight owned by the Egyptian government and well managed by the Oberoi chain. Even if you’re not staying here, you ought to top off a morning at the pyramids with lunch at the Khan el Khalili restaurant or outdoor Oasis Club, taking a table with a pyramid view. The Moghul Room has a fine reputation for Indian food. The only downside of the Mena House is that it’s about a 20-minute ride from town and rush hour traffic in summer is enough to roast a mummy. The Mena House has 500 rooms, but make sure you get one in the older wing with pyramid views.

The Cairo Marriott, a former palace on Gezirah Island, was built as a royal residence to mark opening of the Suez Canal in 1869. It offers Nile and city views from its twin towers, but it’s best to avoid the tower closest to one of Cairo’s busiest and noisiest bridges. The 1,250-room hotel is huge but has an uncrowded feeling, with its pleasant Garden Promenade Café with blue umbrellas, large pool area and six acres of gardens. This is a graceful place, featuring a casino, night club, pub, bakery, steak house, and an American burger and Tex-Mex joint. Anchored nearby is its Marina barge, where you can choose your seafood from a bed of ice, then watch felucca sailboats go by while you eat. The Marriott’s downside is that you need a taxi to get anywhere. And the bathrooms are tiny.

The Semiramis Inter-Continental is a big, busy world-class hotel. It’s got about everything you could wish for, but looks pretty much like every other Inter-Continental. And what it does, it does well. There are 11 restaurants, ranging from superb French cuisine at The Grill to the Italian Spaghetteria and Los Amigos Tex-Mex. It’s also minutes from the Egyptian Museum, Some standard rooms suffer from traffic noise and small bathrooms. It’s worth it to take a more expensive club level suite with knockout views of the city and Nile, plus advantages of a separate check-in desk, business center and lounge amenities.

At Le Meridien, all 279 rooms have balconies and splendid Nile views. The French management is adding an 870-room, 39-story tower, featuring a revolving rooftop restaurant and multi-thumbed food court and a marina and jet skis for guests to skim around on the Nile. Le Meridien has 11 restaurants and bars. The pool is so close to the water people say “It’s like swimming in the Nile.”

The graceful Old Cataract Hotel in Aswan, which opened in 1899, has a smashing view of the Nile and Elephantine Island. The hotel was featured in Agatha Christie’s “Death on the Nile,” and was a location for the film. Boasting a classic combination of Victorian and Moorish architecture, the old girl is in good shape and a delight to visit. The manager, a Frenchman named Antoine Lhuguenot, is a stickler for service and superb food, both Egyptian and French. He also bars camera-totting tourists who might disturb guests. Get a room overlooking the Nile and damn the cost. Don’t go to the ugly New Cataract Hotel by mistake. Of the 131 rooms, 35 face the Nile. One of them is No. 339, a gorgeous suite that goes for $350 a night and worth every penny.

The Aswan Oberoi occupies a choice spot out on Elephantine Island, away from the action of town but with marvelous views. Unfortunately, the hotel, with its obtrusive design, has been compared with an airport control tower. Its spa includes a pit where one is buried up to the neck in sand as a warm form of relaxation.

In Luxor, the classic Old Winter Palace is still the grand dame of this tourist mecca, a proud citadel on the main thoroughfare. In fact, half its rooms look out on the river and its felucca and cruise boat traffic. No. 346 has French doors opening up to the panorama. Unfortunately, Nile side rooms are also invaded by street traffic noise, made worse by the Egyptians’ penchant for incessant hornblowing. Rooms on the garden side, such as No. 364, offer peace, quiet and a lovely view of the expansive greenery. Although the place is an exquisite national treasure of a bygone era and its public areas a delight to behold, some of its rooms rated “deluxe” are shockingly threadbare and badly in need of upgrading.

Cruise Boats: All Nile cruisers are not the same. Some, like the Abercrombie & Kent vessels, are Cadillacs of the waterways, offering cleanliness, comfort and excellent food and service. Others, frankly, are dirty scows. Inside, some stink of cigarette fumes. Abercrombie and Kent bans smoking except on deck. A&K offers Nile cruises as part of its overall Egyptian tours, which also include the flight south to the classic giant statues at Abu Simbel, not part of many tours. A&K’s tours include visits to the Giza pyramids, the Egyptian Museum and many tombs, other pyramids and temples. The popular 11-day Nile Explorer tour includes four nights on the Sun Boat IV. But for a few hundred dollars a person more, you can have the huge presidential suite, with its forward-facing windows.

You can sign up for cruise-only tours with Oberoi, Sheraton and many other lines. The Oberoi Philae Nile slightly resembles an American paddle-wheel riverboat, and its cabins boast the novelty of balconies. It was named the top Nile cruiser after being launched in 1996. It has 58 cabins and offers cruises of four to six nights.

Shopping: Cairo is a shopper’s delight, with a dazzling choice of fine silver, gold, turquoise, alabaster, amber, brass and copper, woven goods, carpets, papyrus, camel bone necklaces, water pipes, spices, ceramic vases and mother-of-pearl inlaid chess sets. All top hotels have shops where you can browse in air-conditioned comfort, but a fun buying experience is a day at the ancient Khan El Khalili Bazaar, a maze of narrow lanes. One trustworthy silversmith is Saad of Egypt, with sterling jewelry at good prices, where cartouche medallions can be made to order. Saad also has a shop at the Ramses Hilton. At the Bazaar, the best place for lunch is the famous Naguib Mahfouz Cafe. The rule is to bargain, even at the swank jewelry shops along Pyramid Avenue, like the Khattab Center Bazaar. Ask 15 to 20 percent less than the price tag. It’s best to have a local advise you on fair prices.

Restaurants: The Grill, at the Semiramis Inter-Continental, offers a sedate night out in lovely surroundings with matchless French food and service, overlooking the Nile and lights of Cairo. The young chef is Laurent Petit, from Normandy and Paris’ Bristol Hotel, The Moet et Chandon Champagne may be tempting, but goes for $40 a flute. We chose a starter of pan-fried scallops with exquisite sateed endive, then tender Red Sea bass in a cream sauce and superbly prepared artichoke hearts, then veal medallions in a rich, wonderful dark sauce. We topped it all off with a warm and wonderful crisp apple tart cooked with Scotch whisky, topped by vanilla ice cream. Dinner for two, including appetizer, soup, entrée, cheese course and dessert, not including wine: about $150, plus tax. The best deal is the fixed menu, which on our visit included foie gras, chicken timbale, salmon, apple tart and coffee, for about $100 for two, plus tax, without wine.

The Nubian Village at Le Meridien is a brightly painted room down near the pool, with large windows overlooking the Nile. Despite a name suggesting dishes from the Nubian region of Egypt, the menu here is Egyptian and Lebanese, and well done. Outside, a woman bakes round, hollow loaves of bread in a traditional oven. We started with a traditional mezze: chunks of bread dipped into an array of bowls containing yogurt, hommus, tehina (sesame paste flavored with cumin, pepper and lemon) and babaghanoug (puree of grilled eggplant, sesame paste, lemon and spices. Then came stewed lamb knuckle with garlic and coriander on a bed of fresh bread and rice. The dessert was mehalabeya, a pudding of sweet, finely ground rice, with nuts. Stella beer here was about $3, about half the price most hotels charge. Lunch for two, without wine: About $45.

Tuscany is a pleasant, dimly lighted corner deep in the bowels of the Marriott. We had a tasty mozzarella salad, white bean soup, risotto and very tender osso bucco, which we jokingly told our friends was camel. Dinner for two: About $70. The high Egyptian import tax makes wine very expensive. The local white is undrinkable and the red barely so.

Even if you don’t stay at the Old Cataract in Aswan, book an unforgettable dinner in its theater-like “1902” dining room. It’s like a page out of an Agatha Christie novel, without the bloodshed. We passed up such delicacies as “King Farouk roast pigeon,” “Winston Churchill beef filet flambéed with whisky” and “Agatha Christie roast rack of lamb,” named in honor of past guests. Hungry for Egyptian dishes, we sampled a stunning array, starting with the cool dips, then a spicy meat kabob, fresh fish and tangy shrimp gumbo. Dinner for two, including appetizer, entrée and dessert, on the French menu, without wine: About $70. (Barney Brantingham)