After years of unrest and uncertainty, one of earth’s greatest destinations is back on the travel hotlist. In this episode of Prestige Detour, we discover Egypt’s old treasures and new glories.
A small riverboat manned by two brightly dressed Nubian men rushed at our ship seemingly out of nowhere. They lassoed a rope to our vessel to keep pace with our cruising speed. This “pirate” move in the middle of River Nile had us darting to the starboard side wondering what would come next. Three more local boats joined us.
“200! 200!” yelled one man, who threw a bundle an impressive four decks up onto our poolside while the other furiously paddled to steady their boat. We curiously peered through the transparent plastic bag to find a colourful Egyptian galabeyya (traditional Egyptian garment) inside. One guest threw it back at them, shouting, “100!” The savvy seller tossed it right back with a “Okay, 150! Okay?” The bag was fished out from the pool and 150 Egyptian pounds were tossed back inside another bundle.
It was a fun-filled, surreal afternoon of retail therapy with bags full of clothes flung back and forth in the air, sometimes rescued from the Nile, until there was mutual agreement on size, colour and price. This unplanned shopping spree in the spirit of supporting the locals and testing our aim on the world’s longest river was a first for us. This experience would in fact be one of several firsts during my fascinating 10- day journey across the land of the Pharoahs.
An Ancient Wonderland
Some of my friends had felt it was lion-hearted to visit Egypt with the family. “Is it safe? Do you need police escorts?” they asked earlier. At one point during the trip, our Egyptologist guide Ivy from well-reviewed tour agency Abercombie & Kent had reassured us of our safety: “The media hypes up Egypt’s former troubles.” In a world where caution is required while travelling to any bustling city, Egypt is no different. Having booked our holiday with a reliable vendor, we had every confidence that our week-long sojourn, which kicked off in Alexandria, would be enjoyable and fruitful.
Situated on Egypt’s northern coast along the Mediterranean Sea, Alexandria was once the largest city and most influential cultural centre in ancient times, and an important trading hub between Asia and Europe. It was founded by Alexander the Great in 331BC during his conquest of the region, but it was his Ptolemies (local rulers) who then buried his body there and developed the city.
During the heyday of its Hellenistic period, it was home to the legendary Lighthouse of Alexandria, one of the seven wonders of the ancient world, as well as a storied library that housed 700,000 books. We visited the reincarnated library in the disc-shaped, ultra-modern Bibliotheca Alexandrina, which also houses four major museums and a planetarium. The day continued with a trip to the Catacombs of Kom El Shoqafa, a well-preserved necropolis featuring a series of tombs cut into solid rock and accessed by a central staircase that spirals down three levels. Next was Pompey’s Pillar, a Roman triumphal pillar in Egypt and one of the largest monolithic pillars ever to be created; then onwards we went, to the Alexandria National Museum showcasing artefacts that brought to life the city’s importance to the Egyptian narrative.
A well-deserved respite from the heat and dust at the end of the day came in the form of the luxurious 19-storey Four Seasons Hotel Alexandria in San Stefano, which is a swanky waterfront neighbourhood right on the shores of the Mediterranean. Although it is a decade old, the
property adorned in classic European elegance remains the city’s most exclusive and upscale tourist address. In addition to its prime location within the San Stefano mall, which offers a convenient spot of shopping, it is connected via an underpass to its own sandy and sheltered private beach that is open from April to October.
While the hotel boasts several casual or family-friendly dining options, which serve both local cuisine and international fare, my two kids preferred dining in the comfort of our room wrapped in fluffy bathrobes. The adults sampled delicious mezze as well as Lebanese and Syrian dishes at the ornate Byblos restaurant with a terrific view.
A City of Legends
The next day, a 45-minute flight took us to Cairo, where we first sorted ourselves out at the stunning Nile Ritz-Carlton, Cairo. My children were delighted that the hotel provided them with their own check-in counter. An opulent, 331-room retreat fabulously located on the River Nile overlooking the Cairo Column, it offers endless views, including a breathtaking sunset on the rooftop that evening. Below us the Nile was serene, the traffic manic and the ancient structures bathed in an orange glow. This is Cairo, a heady mix of chaos, calm and character.
With nine dining establishments at The Nile Ritz-Carlton, Cairo, we were spoilt for choice. When we entered the glass-clad restaurant NOX, we were greeted with the mesmerising backdrop of Cairo lit up to the nines. The chefs then surprised our daughter with her own chef’s attire and invited her to join them in the preparation of sushi. The hotel, in the tradition of Ritz-Carltons worldwide, definitely wins the hearts of their younger guests with ease and creates unforgettable experiences for them.
Outside this luxurious cocoon, more excitement would await in the next three days. At the Museum of Egyptian Antiquities, it was astounding how casually the artefacts were exhibited – unsealed and almost carelessly placed such that we were able to get up close for an intimate experience. We examined the Palette of Narmer and Tutankhamun’s tomb items, and also purchased a special pass to the mummies room that featured famous royalty such as Ramses II.
A visit to the ancient city ruins of Memphis rewarded us with the arresting sight of an 84-tonne statue of Ramses II. To my delight, a hieroglyph of the sun over a duck spelt “Sah Rah”, which prompted me to snap a picture to send to my friend Sarah. At the Saqqara necropolis, which is northwest of Memphis, we marvelled at the commanding Step Pyramid, the earliest colossal stone building in all of Egypt. The Pyramids of Giza were enroute back to Cairo, and the Great Pyramid was larger than I had expected. A venture into its core by crouching through tunnels was thrilling and highly recommended. In the pyramid complex, we even had time to relax on camel-back and take in the mighty Sphinx by sunset.
Old Cairo, which is the city’s most historic area pre-dating the founding of modern Cairo, gave us an insight to some of the oldest religions of the world. Al Moez street has the largest gathering of Islamic artefacts and mosques globally. The highlight among the many Coptic Christian churches there is the Al Muallaqa, also known as The Hanging Church dating back to the 3rd century AD, so named as it was built over two towers of the Babylon Fortress gate. We also saw the oldest Book of Psalms at The Coptic Museum, as well as the Ben Ezra Synagogue, which is the country’s oldest and the place where a collection of precious ancient manuscripts were found in the 19th century.
Go with the Flow
For our much-anticipated Nile cruise, we arrived at the departure point at the river port city of Aswan. A few hours prior, in the early morning, we had taken a side trip further south to the colossal temples of Abu Simbel, which were built by Ramses II 30 centuries ago in the Egyptian part of ancient Nubia. Abercrombie & Kent reps then escorted us onto our abode for the next five days – the Sanctuary Nile Adventurer. Moored on a private dock, the 32-cabin cruiser owned by Sanctuary Retreats was a picture of contemporary elegance, having undergone a recent renovation. Its chic interiors of taupe and blue contrasted with teak floors had an immediate calming effect on us. The boat also flaunts extensive sun decks, an onboard spa and a pool deck flanked by canopied private cabanas.
In addition to cruising leisurely along the popular Aswan-Luxor route, our experienced personal guide and Egyptologist took us on private tours at a relaxing pace. The daily adventures – interspersed with opportunities to sample Egyptian wines and essential oils, and buy alabaster vases, Egyptian cotton and papyrus art – were undertaken in the lap of sheer comfort. For instance, cold towels and chilled fresh lemonade awaited us upon our return. Out on the water, the affable staff continuously ploughed us with snacks and drinks. For meals, we were served gourmet fare prepared by award-winning chefs aboard.
Our first afternoon was spent riding a felucca (a traditional Egyptian sailboat) in the waters of Aswan – around Elephantine Island and Kitchener’s Island, and past the Agha Khan Mausoleum. Post-dinner, that night ended with a wonderful folkloric and dervish show.
The breakfast buffet the second day was simply a debauched delight stocked with bakes and cakes, as well as all kinds of savoury meats and grills. After hopping onto a short motorboat ride, we landed on Agilika Island where we visited the romantic and majestic Philae Temple, and also saw the granite quarries that used to supply the ancient Egyptians with most of the hard-stone blocks. Following this, we headed north towards the magnificent Temple of Kom Ombo on the mainland by the river. It was dedicated to the crocodile god of fertility Sobek, and is home to many mummified crocodile remains.
On the third morning, we stopped along Edfu and explored the extraordinary Temple of Horus before arriving at the city of Esna. There, Ivy took us around the Greco-Roman Temple of Khnum whose beautifully preserved Great Hypostyle Hall was built during the reign of the Roman Emperor Claudius. While strolling in the nearby village, we encountered yet more mummified crocodiles hung over doorways for good luck. Several times, the local kids hollered at us with the only English they knew: “Hello, money! Hello, money!”
We were so fortunate that the winter solstice put on an incredible visual spectacle for us when we finally arrived at the Karnak Temple Complex near Luxor. The sun dramatically rose over Karnak’s entryway, perfectly framed between the high walls. For a few moments, the sun’s rays gleamed through the pillars and fell on the Sanctuary of Amun. Interestingly the word “ammonia” traced its roots to this very sanctuary, as the food offerings here would rot and give off an odour.
Both Karnak and the Temple of Luxor slightly further afield were strikingly graceful and sprawling. Besides their usual highlights, the Sanctuary Nile Adventurer team arranged for us the privilege of visiting areas that require a special permit – unlocked by traditionally dressed temple guards, no less.
The terraced, architecturally imposing Mortuary Temple of Queen Hatshepsut on the west bank of the Nile beckoned us next for more photo opportunities, after which we set off for the nearby Valley of the Kings where we explored the legendary tombs of Tutankhamun and Ramses IV. A stone’s throw away is the Valley of the Queens, of which the most impressive monument is the colourful tomb of Queen Nefertari, which looked like it was painted only yesterday.
Bidding farewell on such an awe-inspiring journey would certainly prove to come all too soon. At the gala dinner on the last day, we were in high spirits dressed in the galabeyyas we’d purchased earlier, enjoying a splendid culinary feast to convivial music and dance. We toasted with our new friends to the conclusion of our Egyptian adventure – a first for the whole family but certainly not our last!