By RICH GRANT
CAIRO – Few places are associated with such iconic and romantic images as Egypt. The pyramids, camels crossing the desert, felucca sailboats with their triangular sails gliding up the Nile, the ruins of Luxor and the haunting sound of the evening call to prayer as it echoes over the rooftops of Cairo.
The amazing thing is how easily accessible all of these places are. Egypt was one of the world’s first leisure tourism destinations. Romans and Greeks used to vacation in Egypt eons ago, and Thomas Cook & Company from London started running excursions to Egypt in 1869, where it was popularized as part of the “World Grand Tour” by dozens of writers from Mark Twain to Agatha Christie.
Unfortunately, being associated with early tourism means that even today, people associate Egypt with rough adventure travel – exotic foods, travel by camel caravan, sleeping in Bedouin tents.
Well, of course, that’s nonsense. You can do that – if you choose. But you can also stay in luxurious modern resorts, upscale hotels or historic inns that compare with any in the world for food and service, and still be only minutes from 4,500-year-old antiquities. The romantic vision of Egypt has never been easier to see. And due to the political situation, it’s never been cheaper. Overpublicized reports of a few terrorist incidents have scared away European and American travelers, but the truth is, Egypt is as safe as anywhere in the world. The tourism industry employs 4 million people in Egypt and the Abdel Fattah El-Sisi government has made tourism safety one of its top priorities.
What does that mean? Well, there are small inconveniences. You’ll have to go through dozens of metal detectors. There are detectors at every hotel, museum, shopping center and attraction. Airports have as many as four detectors as you move from the entrance to your gate. There are armed police virtually everywhere a tourist would go. Rather than being frightening, these measures are reassuring. Far more than any other destination, Egypt is going to extraordinary lengths to ensure safety.
Here are 10 dreams of Egypt that are effortless to see and enjoy.
Cairo suburbs have moved around the 4,500-year-old pyramids, and the approach by road can be disappointing. But continue to the viewpoint where you can see nothing but desert, camels and pyramids. This view is worth the trip alone. The site is about an hour from downtown Cairo hotels.
Ride a Camel
You’ll have many opportunities throughout Egypt. Whether you do it for a photo op or for a lengthier ride, it’s a must.
The Egypt Museum
The museum gets a bad rap because it’s chaotic and crazy, with too many priceless objects crammed into every nook and cranny of a space that looks like something from a Harry Potter film. Yes, the cases of wood and glass are old. Because of that, Egypt is building the new $1 billion Egyptian Grand Museum at the pyramids, which is slated to open completely in 2020. Parts of it are already open, and when it is completed, it will be the largest museum in the world devoted to one culture. But there’s something magical about the old museum – especially seeing the greatest relic of the world, the solid gold death mask of Tutankhamen in the very museum where archeologist Howard Carter placed it. Accept defeat before you start – you can’t possibly see everything. But enjoy what you do see. The museum is an easy walk from the Ritz Carlton or Four Seasons hotels.
The Citadel and Old Cairo
Just 30 minutes from downtown hotels lies the Cairo of imagination – shops filled with brass and antiques, chaotic narrow streets, old mosques, churches (yes, 10 percent of the population of Egypt is Christian), and nearby, a towering 12th century fortress that was built to successfully keep the Crusaders out. Inside the citadel are mosques with alabaster walls, and the best view over the rooftops of Cairo. See if you can spot the pyramids in the distance. Time your visit to coincide with the Islamic Call to Prayer, at midday or in the middle of the afternoon. From this highpoint, you can hear the haunting cry echoing from dozens of mosques across the city.
Luxor Temple at Twilight
Luxor is a one-hour flight from Cairo or can be reached by a 10-hour night train. A half dozen modern hotels line the banks of the Nile River, just a short walk (or better) short horse-drawn carriage ride from the temple. Originally called Thebes, this was the center of power of the world for 1,500 years, and today Luxor is an outdoor museum, home to 80 percent of all Egyptian antiquities. Start your visit at the temple during the “magic hour” when the sun sets and the lights of the temple start to come on.
Visit the Valley of the Kings
The Valley of the Kings is just 30 minutes away from Luxor. This is the one place you can’t take photos, but it’s easy to understand why. If you once started taking photos, you could never stop. There are 63 tombs of kings and nobles here. One of the last discovered, No. 62, is Tutankhamen. The boy king’s tomb is smaller and less impressive, with fewer paintings and corridors than many of the other tombs … but it has one amazing surprise. King Tut is still there! Or rather his mummy, which has never left. It is partially covered with a linen cloth and kept in a special climate-controlled glass box. Perhaps it was just airflow from the air conditioner in the glass box, but I could swear, in the dim light, that I saw the linen covering over his chest flutter up and down, as if he was breathing. You won’t forget this tomb. Near the Valley, you can take all the photos you want at the simply amazing Temple of Queen Hatshepsut.
Ride a Felucca on the Nile
The traditional wooden sailing boats with their distinctive triangular lateen sails float effortless across the river, like some type of pretty water bug. All hotels have access to the boats.
See Karnak Temple
You can enjoy Karnak by day and by the thrilling sound-and-light show at night, which is presented in English at different times on different days. This is the largest house of worship in the world and a history of Egypt captured in stone as each successive king over a 2,000-year period who tried to outdo the others by leaving a new addition to the temple.
Visit a Red Sea Resort
Sharm el-Sheikh is the largest, with diving, snorkeling and submarines that take you to some of the world’s most beautiful coral reefs. The modern resorts are located in a sea of pink bougainvillea, and compare for luxury, cuisine and style with any in the world. Within a few meters, you’ll see beautiful Russian tourists in thongs drinking beer on the beach and Arab women bobbing in pools in a full head-to-foot black abaya gown, with a black niqab face veil covering everything but their eyes. Such is modern-day Egypt. Sharm is just a one-hour flight from Cairo.
Venture out into the Desert
The majority of Egypt’s 80 million people live on or near the Nile, but it is the other 5 percent who are perhaps most fascinating. The desert starts with a 15-minute drive from Sharm el-Sheikh. On dune buggies, you can soon be lost in a maze of stark hills burned black by the sun. The close-in Bedouin villages have a bit of a tourist feel, but watching people herd camels the same way they have for centuries is an image that will stay with you for a long time.
Where to stay: The Four Seasons Nile Plaza and Four Seasons First Resident hotels in Cairo are both beautiful and luxurious with Nile views and are close to all attractions. The Fairmont Heliopolis Hotel is near Cairo airport and has 17 international dining choices, including the entertaining Egyptian Night, featuring belly dancing and authentic local cuisine.
The Steinberger Nile Palace in Luxor Savois directly on the Nile, with balcony rooms overlooking the river, eight restaurants and bars and gorgeous riverside pools.
The Savoy Hotel in Sharm el-Sheikh (www.savoy-sharm.com) is a dream of flowers, pools and outdoor cafes, all dropping down to a beautiful beach on the Gulf of Aqaba. It is walking distance to the dozens of shops, bars and entertainment of Soho Square. The Rixos is a Turkish chain that has brought incredible elegance to Sharm. The original hotel has seven pools, two main restaurants, eight a la carte restaurants, five bars, a spa and its own protected reef accessible by a 147-meter-long pier, creating a natural aquarium. The company’s new Rixos Seagate Sharm has nearly 800 rooms, an 850-meter-long jetty, a spa, a Turkish bath and world cuisine in a stunning assortment of restaurants. Don’t miss the snake show at Alf Laila Wa Laila, a massive Arabian Night-themed entertainment complex. It’s a hoot.
For general tourist information on Egypt, visit the Egyptian Tourist Authority webpage.