Elegance in Egypt – History and Luxury Combine

Farouk's Palace in Alexandria, Egypt - Photo by Elaine L. Mura
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When thinking about elegance and luxury in Egypt, the average traveler probably focuses on the glorious history of the pharaohs, who spent their lives in opulence and planned to carry their every indulgence and lavish life styles with them right into the next world. But let’s move the eons up a few notches and take a peek at more recent centuries – and even decades – which serve as treats for the rich, the powerful, the well-heeled, and especially the very lucky.

Egypt is the home to a multitude of lavish spots meant to appeal to anyone seeking the deluxe amenities in life. Hotels like the Nile Ritz Carlton and the St. Regis in Cairo and the Four Seasons in Cairo and Alexandria go for upwards of $300/night – with the “cheaper” Kampinski and Sheraton Cairo approaching $200/night. But, for the true traveler, none of these 5-star plus-plus accommodations can hold a candle to a hotel which doubles as a historic star, the Cairo Marriott. Built in 1869 and originally called the Palace al Gezirah, this sumptuous resting place was constructed 150 years ago by Khedive Ismael as a guest palace for foreign royalty and VIPs visiting during the Suez Canal’s inauguration celebration. Even though the Prince and Princess of Wales deemed the palatial accommodations “uselessly extravagant,” the guests must have been suitably impressed. Only ten years later, in 1879, the palace was seized by the government for unpaid bills and remained in limbo until it was nationalized in 1969 during Nasser’s regime. When the Marriott hotel chain took over in the 1970s, they added the two Nile-facing towers and restored life to this national treasure. The center piece of the trio remains palatial and currently houses the reception area and several chic bars, elegant restaurants, and stylish, refined parlors to rest your weary bones after a day of serious sightseeing.

But this glorious guest house was not Khedive Ismael’s only bid to knock-your-socks-off luxury. It seems that he had a special affection for another royal visitor, the Empress Eugenie, wife of Napoleon III. He built a new road from Cairo to Giza and a little “hunting lodge” at the foot of the pyramids so that the empress could travel easily, rest comfortably, and have lunch in style while visiting these famed landmarks. Eventually, this “lunch stop” became the historic Mena House in Giza and, following a string of owners, was also acquired by the Marriott hotel chain.

We can’t leave Cairo without at least mentioning one of the palaces which makes Cairo so special. Flipping a coin is probably the only way to decide which of the many palaces which dot the city to select. Located on the northern tip of the island of Rhoda is the Manial Palace – not the oldest and not the most unusual of possible choices – but high enough on the WOW index to be worth a mention. The palace was constructeed between 1899 and 1929 and seemed to grow like Topsy. It was built for Prince Mohammed Ali Tawfiq, a descendant of Egypt’s famed ruler Mohammed Ali and the uncle of King Farouk. The complex contains five separate building in different styles. Upon entering, the first view is of a mock medieval gateway with a Moorish tower attached to a Turkish-tiled mosque. Steps away is the Hunting Museum with over 100 tattered and moth-eaten mounted animal heads, all displayed along a dusty, dreary hallway. Despite this less than auspicious introduction, the main residence more than makes up for any earlier grim impressions. Decorated in a mélange of styles – but still lavish and dotted with colorful tiles, fountains, and paintings – you can almost sense the ghostly presence of past royalty. Just behind the residence along a path lined with exotic trees is the final building – Mohammed Ali’s throne room. Dominated by a huge golden sun disk in the ceiling, the royal route wends through huge paintings of nobility and ends with the imperial velvet throne. He was not of royal blood, but he was one of the most powerful men in Egypt at this time. Although Mohammed Ali Tawfiq never attained the Egypt’s top spot, he was able to hold his own court right here. Up a dramatic winding staircase are huge chambers designed to impress the supplicants seeking an audience with the almost-king.

But Cairo is not the only site where luxury and history combined. Let’s move on south, where the Winter Palace Hotel dominates the Luxor coastline. First begun in 1886 in collaboration with Thomas Cook and Sons, the stunning Winter Palace finally opened its doors in January 1907 – and celebrated with a picnic at the Valley of the Kings. Talk about the party like no other. But this architectural masterpiece was to remain below the radar for the next 15 years. It wasn’t until 1922 – when Howard Carter put it on the map by using the Winter Palace balcony as a podium to detail the steps leading to his discovery of Tut’s tomb for excited newsmen – that the world took notice. Besides balconies facing the Nile, the hotel features a huge, well-manicured garden that offers fountains, statuary, flora, and fauna for its patron’s enjoyment. And don’t forget a massive swimming pool to cool off body and soul on those scorching Egyptian summer days.

Continuing on south, the intrepid traveler arrives at Aswan – and a true pearl of architecture and history. Originally named the Cataract Hotel – and currently going by the name of Sofitel Legend Old Cataract Hotel – history thrives in this beauty’s bones. Built by Thomas Cook and Sons in 1899 just after the Cairo-Aswan railway was completed in 1898, the Cataract was designed by the same architect who worked on the Mena House in Cairo. It was here that a little-known event made archeology buffs around the world shudder and scratch their heads. While digging up and leveling the land in preparation for beginning the project, the construction crews came across nearly 200 mummies buried in the earth – and destroyed them with shovels so that they could get back to the job of building a hotel.

This hotel has hosted dozens of famous guests, including Tsar Nicholas II, Winston Churchill, Princess Diana, and hosts of VIPs and celebrities from government, the arts, and the cinema. But by far the most famous resident of all wrote “Death on the Nile” while staying at the Cataracts for almost a year in 1937– British mystery novelist Agatha Christie. Her wicker chair is displayed in the corner of the lobby, and at least one photo displayed along the Cataract’s wall of fame confirmed Christie’s meeting with Churchill. When the 1978 film was eventually shot in the hotel, the Cataract’s claim to fame was cemented around the world. Is it any wonder that some rooms go for $5,000/night – and others cost $10,000/night? Don’t be too disappointed if you are unable to book them; they are often taken. But at least you can dine in the famed 1899 dining room – if there is space.

Not all famed historical and magnificently opulent hotels are in Cairo and to the south. Several historic treasures still exist – albeit sometimes looking a little like a bedraggled Grand Dame – in Alexandria. What better place to choose for a vacation than the warm and inviting Mediterranean coast? One of these swanky havens is relatively new – but set right next to King Farouk’s palace – which places it in a very classy neighborhood. Surrounded by lush gardens and cooling sea breezes, the Helnan Palestine Hotel, originally known as the Palestine Hotel, was built in 1964 in just six months by order of Egyptian President Gamal Abdul Nasser.

The speed was mandatory, as the hotel was built to house all the Arab royalty, heads of state, and dignitaries who attended the Second Arab League Summit. It was at this meeting that the group approved the establishment of the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) – hence, the hotel’s name. The land around the hotel was part of El Montaza. Farouk’s summer palace, and covered 350 acres of garden and intricately designed hidey-holes for quiet contemplation (and a picnic or two today). Helnan took over the hotel management in 1987. But the Arab League Summit was not the only important event to grace the Palestine. When the new Library of Alexandria was opened in 2002, the invitees – who included presidents, royalty, and international celebrities – stayed at this hotel. In fact, guests included the queens of Spain and Jordan. Unfortunately, the gardens are currently in disrepair as multiple construction crews tear existing foliage down to make room for new roads. Sic transit Floria.

Dahabeya in Full Sail

Finally, I’m going to add a deluxe accommodation which I hope will make history – at least for tourism. Drifting down the Nile is a very special moment in anyone’s life. And what better way to appreciate the fascinating trip than in a dahabeya, the traditional Nile wooden sailing boat. Of course, today’s  yacht is a new and improved design which holds not seven, but 17 passengers and at least a dozen crew. The well-buffed wooden deck glistened, and the carefully crafted furniture reflected the sparkle of the water, with every burl, knot, medullary ray, annual growth ring, grain, and variation and distortion in the coloring literally glowing in the Nile’s golden sun and silvered moon. Each cabin is perfectly fitted out and suitable for the elegant traveler. With its two large sails unfurled, the ship assumed a mythic qualify Although this particular Nile craft is less than a year old, the dahabeya is an ancient design with a long history – and certainly underscores the comfort and extravagance that has always marked Egypt since the time of the pharaohs.

Unless otherwise noted, all photos are by Elaine L. Mura, author of the article.

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