Middle East Crossroads

If your clients are first-time travelers to Egypt, the choices you can offer them are mind-boggling. A good place to start is Cairo, the heart and soul of the country and still the crossroads of the Middle East. Dusty, noisy and exciting, it is a place to spend a couple of days at least. Then, send your clients on a cruise down the Nile, past Luxor and Aswan, which have some of the most spectacular ruins in the world.

By: Jim Calio

If your clients are first-time travelers to Egypt, the choices you can offer them are mind-boggling. A good place to start is Cairo, the heart and soul of the country and still the crossroads of the Middle East. Dusty, noisy and exciting, it is a place to spend a couple of days at least. Then, send your clients on a cruise down the Nile, past Luxor and Aswan, which have some of the most spectacular ruins in the world.

Time permitting, they can take a four-wheel drive into the Western Desert, an exercise in solitude and wonder.

Finally, if your clients want to explore the Sinai Peninsula to the east, they can start at the top, in Port Said at the mouth of the Suez Canal, or go to the southern tip and enjoy the crystal clear water and the beaches of the Red Sea.

After all that sightseeing, they might want to pull up at a local cafe, order a mint tea and watch the foot traffic go by. It’s a tradition as old as Egypt itself.

Cairo

Cairo is estimated to have 12 million to 15 million inhabitants. The cacophony of noise people, cars, animals, nonstop construction can be overwhelming, but it is also part of the city’s charm.

The best place to begin a tour of the city is at the huge downtown central square called Midan Tahrir. To the north is Balaq, an old quarter full of mosques and twisty back streets. To the South is Garden City, a tree-lined area where the British lived during World War II, when the city was thick with intrigue and spies. Old Cairo is located to the south, and Islamic Cairo, which looks medieval, to the east.

Here, walking the narrow streets of the old walled city, you will see ancient mosques and palaces, and some of the oldest shops in Cairo, seemingly unchanged for centuries.

The spectacular Khan al-Khalili market is a must-see, with thousands of shops, constant haggling and the aroma of fresh coffee and spices pervading the atmosphere. The Egyptian Antiquities Museum is worth the price of the whole trip it houses the mask of King Tutankhamen and other treasures of ancient Egypt.

The muezzin call to prayer echoes through the city five times a day, so it’s worth a visit to one of the city’s hundreds of mosques, all admission free. Of course, the real reason to go to Cairo is to see the pyramids and the Great Sphinx across the Nile in Giza, literally a cab ride away. Construction on the pyramids began in 27 B.C.; if your clients are adventurous, they can see them by camel. The Great Pyramid, or Khufu’s Pyramid, is the only one remaining of the ancient Seven Wonders of the World. Don’t be put off by the urban sprawl that has crept up to the edges of these magnificent ruins. It’s all part of progress, Egyptian-style.

Where to stay:

" Cairo Marriott, Gezira. Located on one of the islands in the middle of the Nile, this huge hotel was built around a stunning old palace that originally hosted French Empress Eugenie’s visit for the opening of the Suez Canal.

Standard room rates range from $110 to $150; suites start at $185.

Call 800-228-9290.

Web site: www.marriott.com.

" Four Seasons, Giza. The service is like nothing else in Cairo: smoothly efficient, attentive to the smallest detail and staff seemingly a whisper away, waiting to meet your needs.

Rates for standard rooms range from $190 to $260; suites start at $600.

Call 800-332-3442.

Web site: www.fourseasons.com.

" Mena House Oberoi, Giza. Originally built as a hunting lodge for a 19th-century Egyptian ruler, this is the great colonial-era hotel in Cairo. The location, at the foot of the pyramids, is superb.

Standard room rates range from $180 to $250; suites start at $425.

Call 800-562-3764.

Web site: www.oberoihotels.com.

" Conrad International. The rooms are spacious and pleasant, typical of an international hotel chain.

Standard room rates range from $99 to $129; suites start at $330.

Call 800-445-8667.

Web site: www.hilton.com.

Nile Valley

Cruising the Nile was once the only mode of transportation in Egypt, and it’s highly recommended for the first-time traveler. Most luxury cruise ships, or floating hotels, are equipped with modern amenities air-conditioning, pools, hot tubs, exercise rooms, saunas, Turkish baths, restaurants and special viewing rooms for seeing the sights. In Luxor, known in ancient times as Thebes, there are the Karnak and Luxor temples, huge undertakings that to this day are a stunning testament to the scope and ambition of the ancients.

On the West Bank are the tombs in the valleys of the Kings and Queens, where the mortuary of Queen Hatsheput is carved into the bottom of a cliff with rows of columns still intact. The queen was the only woman to reign as a pharaoh, which adds to the luster and lore of this sacred place. Some of the walls of the tombs also have beautifully painted scenes of everyday life in ancient Egypt.

Farther to the south is Aswan, where the sight to see is Lake Nasser. When the lake was created some 30 years ago, it threatened to inundate some major Nubian monuments, but a public outcry saved some of them. The Temple of Ramesses II looms over the lake, just as the shadow of the pharaoh dominated the country he ruled centuries ago. A river cruise by felucca, the traditional single-mast sailboat that plies the Nile, is popular there.

There are many fine hotels in Luxor and Aswan for those who want to stay a while.

" Sheraton Luxor Hotel & Resort. Group travelers fill the lobby of this modern American-style hotel. The Sheraton also operates its own medium-capacity cruise boats, which make regular journeys to Aswan with stops at monuments along the way.

Standard room rates range from $60 to $96; suites start at $192.

Call 800-325-3535. Web site: www.sheraton.com.

" Luxor Movenpick Jolie Ville. Occupying 60 acres of the lush Crocodile Island, the Movenpick’s exotic plants and flowering trees are filled with flocks of migrating and local birds.

Standard rates range from $126 to $140; suites start at $210.

Call 800-344-6835. Web site: www.movenpick-hotels. com.

" Sofitel Old Cataract Hotel, Aswan. Opened in 1900, the hotel’s fame was revived with the filming of Agatha Christie’s “Death on the Nile,” and the current management has restored the property to a high standard of elegance and efficiency.

Room rates range from $162 to $287; rates for suites must be requested directly from the hotel.

Call 800-763-4835. Web site: www.sofitel.com.

" Hotel St. Joseph, Luxor. For the budget-minded, this property features spanking clean rooms, spacious balconies and a friendly staff. The view from the rooftop pool is one of the best in Luxor.

Rates not available.

Call 011-20-095-381-707800.

Web site: www.st-joseph-luxor.com.

Western Desert

The great expanse of desert west of Cairo contains many splendid ruins Roman, Islamic and monastic. It’s a tantalizing glimpse of life before the age of technology, when camels ruled the road and mud huts were hotels. The best way to see it is by four-wheel-drive with a guide.

The fortress village of Siwa Oasis is a great place to buy Bedouin crafts, rugs, embroidery and baskets. Farafa Oasis has hot springs open to visitors. It’s just like in the movies oases surrounded by date palms and the bleached beauty of the desert stretching out to distant mountain ranges.

The White Desert is an ancient ocean floor that has been bleached so white that everything seems to blend in sand, cliffs and mountains.

Where to stay:

" Siwa Safari Paradise. An oasis of charm and comfort, this is one of the best hotels in the Western Desert and one of the few that accepts credit cards (MasterCard and Visa). A variety of rooms are available at Siwi, from simple reed huts without facilities to bungalows with fans and luxury suites. Rates not available.

Call 011-202-046/460-2289.

Fax: 011-202-046/460-2286.

Sinai Peninsula, Red Sea, Suez Canal

Going east you will cross the Suez Canal, which many consider a wonder of the modern world. At the northern end of the canal is Bur Sa’id, or Port Said, mainly a tourist stop for those planning to spend time watching the big ships enter and leave. To the south, at the tip of the peninsula, the Red Sea is famous for spectacular diving, some say the best in with world with an estimated 130 species of coral and 250 species of fish. The water at Ras Muhammad National Park is crystal clear, perfect for snorkeling and scuba diving.

Farther inland is St. Catherine’s Monastery at the foot of Mount Sinai, which many believe Moses climbed. If your clients want to climb it, tell them to bring hats and plenty of suntan lotion. The seaside resort of Sharm al-Sheikh is chock-full of luxury hotels and great restaurants, but the small villages farther up the coast are more typical of the area.

Where to stay<:

" Sofitel Sharm al-Sheikh Coralia. Its stark, white Moorish exterior, brass chandeliers and Arab tile work, all tastefully executed, make this is a first-class seaside resort. Horses are available for desert rides.

Room rates range from $112 to $130.

Call 800-763-4835.

Web site: www.sofitel.com.

" Ritz Carlton. The Ritz has thought of everything, from aromatherapy and massage treatments in a tent overlooking the sea to childproof rooms and bathrooms. This is the definitive Red Sea experience, right down to the tuxedo-clad waiters.

Room rates range from $260 to $320; suites start at $600.

Call 800-241-3333.

Web site: www.ritzcarlton. com.

"Hilton Fayrouz. The hotel boasts the biggest stretch of sand of any property in Na’ama Bay, with beach and watersports plentiful. Sign up for the Bedouin dinner trip, prepared once a week deep in the mountains behind Sharm. Standard room rates range from $145 to $160; suites start at $145.

Call 800-445-8667.

Web site: www.hilton. com.

For a list of tour operators, call the Egyptian Tourist Authority at 877-773-4978. Web site: www.egypttourism.org.

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