The years since the 2011 “Arab Spring” revolution in Egypt and consequent free-fall of tourist numbers have taken their toll on accommodations in Egypt. While some upmarket choices have remained ready for guests, many of the mid and budget options have had no money for upkeep and have suffered, some have simply closed. Publishers of guidebooks have taken an understandable break from printing new editions so I found available information unreliable. Even local agents seemed unsure where to send me. So travelers to Egypt are on their own for the moment. My best advice, mentioned in the course of this series, is to buy above one’s usual travel niche.
Having circumvented one of Italy's notorious transport strikes by booking a car service to Fiumicino Airport in what may have been the nicest car I’d ever experienced, I arrived in Cairo on time. The sign with my name on it was in the hands of a lovely-looking older gentleman standing right where I'd been told he would be. But setting off for the city center in his car could not have presented a greater contrast with the sleek new Mercedes in which I'd begun the day's journey. And traffic was light, he told me as we sat perfectly still waiting to move on the expressway, because it's Friday, the weekend.
Hotel Longchamps, Cairo
My preference for hotels is generally for smaller ones and because I could find only one survivor that seemed to fit the bill for my 4 nights in Cairo, I resigned myself to paying more than I’d planned. To mitigate the cost I chose a standard, rather than a superior room. Though I couldn’t have known in advance, it was a mistake.
Owner Hebba Bakri is a force of nature, or ruler with an iron fist, or she might choose grand dame. Getting a word in edgewise is unlikely, changing her opinion impossible and I had the clear impression that to disagree with Mrs. Bakri is proof you're simply not her kind of guest. "Well, we'll just leave it at that" was as far as she was prepared to go. I was dismissed.
Hotel Longchamps occupies, as far as could tell, 2 floors of a building in one of central Cairo’s nicer neighborhoods, Zamalek, on an island in the river. From an unswept ground-floor lobby, the elevator lets one out onto the 5th floor into a hallway with badly worn flooring and a long faux-oriental runner to the front desk, breakfast room and terrace to the right, bedrooms to the left.
There are 21 rooms, 3 of them “standard” and mine, number 5, was upstairs. It bore no resemblance to the website photos I'd used to convince myself that this was the place for me. Those had shown tastefully decorated retreats and I’d mistakenly assumed "standard" meant smaller, not sub-standard. The floor was sheet plastic printed parquet and there was no aspect of the room that raised it above the level of deeply disappointing.
A plastic tray with an electric kettle next to the non-functioning television raised my spirits momentarily until I noticed one lone packet of instant coffee, no tea. Fortunately, as one who cannot do without her tea, I'd bought a box in a duty free shop at Heathrow several days before.
The bathroom was tiny, the toilet seat too small for the stand and, with a broken hinge, I became well acquainted with the icy porcelain. The shower was a minuscule retrofit and after being set to the desired temperature, would alternate between scalding and cold. One bath towel, one hand towel, more evidence of stingy management.
Not everything was bad. There was a pretty terrace off my room accessed through green shutters but because it was shared with the adjacent room I wasn't comfortable sitting outside so just enjoyed it through the window. Breakfast was a nice buffet served in a large attractive room and the staff, with the aforementioned exception, was kind.
One day I was taking pictures as Mrs. Bakri happened by. I’d asked if a better room was available and she told me there was not, but after mention that the photos were for my blog, a “superior” room miraculously materialized and she’d be happy to move me there, no additional charge for my last night. The contrast could not have been greater, an elegantly decorated large space, luxurious big bathroom, lots of towels, a selection of teas and a new flat-screen TV. The difference in price was not great and I couldn’t help but imagine the “standard” rooms are designed as a sadistic punishment for those from whom Mrs. Bakri is unable to extract a few more dollars. I can think of no other explanation.
Egypt lesson #1, learned on day #1, when in doubt, spend more.
Though I made mistakes while choosing accommodations in Egypt, ‘Our Luxor’ was not one of them. The apartment looked beautiful on the website and it was. I booked it early on in my planning and during subsequent months my go-to person for information was Freda, half of the English team of Freda & Edward who own the apartment and live above. The apartment is close to the action, a short walk from the river and Luxor Temple but in an intimate local neighborhood, the kind I love.
Edward came in a taxi to pick me up at the airport, just a few minutes from town. On arrival we climbed to the 3rd floor and entered the immaculate space, and well, it was quite a thrill, something that doesn’t happen often in my travels, the photos simply unable to convey the pleasant comfort of it.
There were real linen sheets on the bed, a first for me, and the bathroom could not have been nicer. The kitchen was well equipped, the living room huge, furnished with three couches that double as single beds for young men of the family in the traditional Egyptian manner.
I went up the stairs to Freda’s terrace for breakfast every morning and the couple gave freely of their time and contacts, making arrangements for me or taking me out and about, to their travel agent, to a market, to see the Winter Palace Hotel and for an adventure on a local bus. What I’ll remember most about Egypt will be Freda & Edward and my home-for-a-week, ‘Our Luxor’.
If ever the phrase, “oasis of calm” applied it would be here. I’d left a letdown of a river cruise a day early and stayed one night in an empty hotel in the noisiest location I think I’ve ever tried to sleep. One phone call, a short walk, a private ferry to a lush garden on an island, the only traffic sound the occasional soft whine of an electric golf cart. It had been mentioned to me by Freda and Edward’s Luxor travel agent, Baha, but assuming it was not what I wanted, I let the suggestion pass. But a huge room with dressing room and large modern bathroom, a balcony overlooking another gardened island in the Nile to the west and desert beyond convinced me in a flash that it was just what I needed, when I needed it.
Included in the room rate was an adventurous buffet breakfast that included all manner of exotic fare, or less exotic if one preferred. The dining room had floor to ceiling glass walls overlooking the spacious pool area and garden on three sides. A large second floor terrace connected my bedroom wing with the restaurant and lounge and the staff was unfailingly helpful and friendly.
Above, the view from my balcony. Below, the view from the buffet restaurant.
The Mövenpick’s private ferry motored continuously between it’s own island dock to it’s own town-side dock, so there was no feeling of being marooned on Elephantine Island. My time there felt in perfect balance as a result, with my posh digs away from the bustle and noise of town, surrounded by garden and silence and the Nile, with busy life of the real Aswan minutes away when I wanted it. Perfect.
Beit Sabee, Luxor West Bank
My Trip Advisor review:
Reviewed December 4, 2017
Don't expect what you see in the photos on the website, but a sort of scruffy version of it. Prior to my arrival I met a couple on the train from Aswan who asked where I was heading and suggested I not expect much. Then 2 more conversations over roof-top meals with a similar sense of disappointment. I'm not saying it's terrible, no one said that, just not what was expected and overpriced.
I was there for a day's rest before moving on and while the staff of 2 were friendly enough and mostly helpful, their continuous squabbling was not the soundtrack of my dreams. The setting is lovely and I had great hopes for the place, have traveled many years in developing parts of the world and seek out simple places to stay but this isn't one to which I'll be returning.
Sometimes the issue is less what we get than what we expected to get. As an Airbnb host, I’d much rather have my guests be pleasantly surprised than disappointed, so don’t try to pump up expectations for the sake of more bookings. Simplicity is what I sought in this case, but what I got, as I mentioned in the review, was scruffy. And while often not terribly different, they aren’t the same.
Having been in Egypt for a while by the time I booked with Beit Sabee, I knew that the pick-up they offered from the train station was about double the going rate. Most of their clientele stay before or after a river cruise on the owners’ dahabiya and they probably don’t know the difference. I knew the difference but thinking from their website it would be right up my alley, swallowed the inflated cost for the taxi because I’d be arriving after dark, the place is out of town and accepted it was the price for a hassle-free transfer. After my 2-night stay the manager made arrangements for my transfer to the airport with a local driver, still overpriced after he presumably added on his commission but less so. Nothing happens in this part of the world without one or more “commissions.”
Le Méridien, Cairo International Airport
I’d booked arrangements in advance for my first 11 nights of the 20 I’d spend in Egypt. I planned to book the rest of the hotels, a probable train and a return flight to Cairo along the way as it became clear to me where I’d be and when. Though my flight from Cairo to Rome wasn’t until the afternoon, my preference is almost always to be in the departure city the day before. I’d already seen what I’d most wanted to see in Cairo and had no wish to experience the city’s traffic again, if I could help it. After searching online for hotels near the airport I concluded the best idea of all was to simply stay right within the airport complex at possibly the best hotel in town, Le Méridien. Five star hotels are rarely a part of my itineraries but at about $160, this one I decided, would be. And I was not sorry.
The 2 previous nights’ accommodation had been a disappointment so I was ready for all 5 of those stars. The hotel is attached to the airport and I was able to walk from the gate where I arrived from Luxor. Not only was there no traffic to drive through, I met not one other soul along the way before I reached the vast lobby.
I see as I gather the photos for this chapter of the story, I failed to take many pictures to show you how nice this hotel really is. I guess enjoyment sometimes trumps duty and I did so enjoy myself here. Dinner was in an elegant Chinese restaurant, 'China Red' (I borrowed the picture from the hotel’s website), and breakfast was a never-ending international buffet at a table with a view of the pool. The hotel staff was well trained, low key but friendly and exhibited one of the traits I love most about a nice hotel, they never said no.
After the 1997 terrorist massacre of 62 tourists at a much-visited Luxor temple and the revolution of 2011, Egypt’s tourist industry had pretty much dried up. Enough time has passed now that visitor numbers are rising again. For those contemplating a trip to Egypt, there are 2 factors, among others, to consider. Enjoying sightseeing without the crowds is truly wonderful and prices may be the lowest they’ll ever be. But the other side of the equation is understandable neglect of some of the tourist infrastructure during these years. Though my taste in accommodation usually runs in the direction of local and simple, where I stay when I travel is important to me, definitely not just, as some are wont to say, a place to sleep. As I became aware of the current situation in the country I addressed the issue by bumping myself up to a better class of hotels than I’d normally require. Maybe that’s the moral of this Egypt story, something to do with the Nile and going with the flow.
Next week, the pleasure of Rome for one more day.
All episodes of 'PortMoresby in Egypt' can be found here.
And others of PortMoresby’s contributions here.