Dear Shaded Viewers,
Because wintering in St. Bart's or South Beach is so two decades ago, I now winter in the south of Egypt, in Aswan, ensconsed in the Nubian Desert and on the most beautiful part of the Nile. Here, the culture of the Nubian tribes and the proximity to Sudan gives this part of Egypt a more African feel than the rest of the country. The days are hot and dry, the air is clean, the breezes from the Nile are refreshing and the desert nights are bracing. It is a divine place to pass the days away when much of the West is submerged in frozen February gloom.
The grandest, and most famous, place to stay in Aswan is the Victorian palace known as the Sofitel Legend Old Cataract Hotel–"old cataract" referring to the first waterfall one encounters as one travels up the Nile. The Sofitel brand is known for buying and revamping colonialist legacy hotels–like the Metropole in Hanoi, where I stayed in 2004. The Old Cataract was founded by Thomas Cook and built in 1899. Through the years, famous heads of state, dignitaries, authors, actors and jet-setters have stayed here, from King Farouk of Egypt to Francois Mitterrand, from Winston Churchill to Agatha Christie (both of whom have suites dedicated to them at the hotel–more on that later.)
The hotel had a facelift a few years ago with a chic makeover by French interior designer Sybille de Margerie (Moorish arches, Persian carpets, ruby red chandeliers, modern Italian lamps) which resulted in the original building being renamed the Palace Wing. I stayed in the new building, the Nile Wing, which has a more contemporary feel (and a spa) and overlooks the Victorian-era building. The Old Cataract is probably best known for being the place where Agatha Christie wrote part of "Death on the Nile" (the hotel is a backdrop in part of the story) and also where scenes for the film version (featuring Bette Davis and Maggie Smith in an S&M relationship, and the divoon Jane Birkin) were shot.
One of my glorious views from my suite's long terrace. Here you can see the original hotel, now the Palace Wing.
I took this photo as soon as I arrived. In lieu of a check-in desk, guests are escorted upon arrival to a tufted sofa in the plush salon near the bar and offered a choice of cold drink. I can't remember what I had, but it was something like Nectar of Isis.
And voila, my Master Bedroom in the Prestige Suite where I stayed for 4 ultra-relaxing nights. I was mad for the pale-green and white color palette.
While bathing in my freestanding tub by Villeroy & Boch (I love the colored tiles), I had a lovely view of Elephantine Island through the terrace doors of the bedroom. It was espeically enchanting at night when the Nubian tribes were playing their drums and when the Muslim Call to Prayer (which sounds more supernatural here than in Cairo) started up. I took to referring to the result as the "Nubian Desert remix of the Call to Prayer." Spellbinding.
There was a living room and off to the right by the lamp, a study and library.
This is what I woke up to every morning….the Nile, Elephantine Island (with the Ruins of Abu) and the golden Nubian Desert.
I zoomed into the Ruins of Abu from my terrace (and also strolled around them one morning before visiting the Nubian Villages). It is said that Khnum, the ram-headed god of the cataracts, lives here. I should have liked to meet him.
View from the famous terrace of the Palace Wing.
All hail the heroic Gin Fizz! I thought this was the proper British colonialist cocktail to sip while watching the hotel's famed view of the sunset
Beyond Elphantine Island is the Mausoleum of Aga Khan.
The sunset viewed from the terrace.
I felt quite regal walking through the gilded entrance of the Nile Wing to my suite.
The pool in the Nile Wing's spa. I never got around to using the spa, alas. I couldn't tear myself away from all the spectacular views around the hotel. And then of course there were expeditions, like my 8-hour trip to the Temples of Abu Simbel.
View of the hotel at night, with Coptic church in the background.
I dined at 1900, the hotel's exquisite French restaurant that was built in 1900 to commemorate the premier of the Old Aswan Dam.
Glazed duck breast with hibiscus and marmalade sauce served with a tarragon brioche and garnished with a stalk of lemongrass. Superb. It paired nicely with a glass of red Jardin du Nil, my favorite wine du moment.
View inside 1900
On another night, I dined in The Oriental, the hotel's Egyptian restaurant, and had pigeons stuffed with two kinds of rice, a traditional Egyptian dish.
The hotel's general manager took me on a tour of the property, which included a requisite stop in the Winston Churchill Suite.
The foyer of the Churchill Suite.
A view of the suite's giant living room.
Churchill master bedroom
The private terrace of the Churchill suite is very spacious.
Onward to the Agatha Christie Suite….
I much preferred Ms. Christie's living room….the throw pillows are dreamy.
The French version, naturallement.
I adored the view from Agatha Christie's desk. But of course those divine Italian lamps were not there during her stay back in the 1930s.
Another view of the Agatha Christie Suite's living room. I was positively over the moon for the gold-leafed cabinet in the background, which served as Ms. Christie's personal mini bar….
As the Suite has a kitchen, if you're in the mood to whip up some French delicacies, Ms. Christie thoughtfullfy left behind her cookbook.
The price per night in the Churchill or Christie Suite? $8,000 USD. A mere bag of shells, doll…
Feluccas on the Nile. I took a felucca ride one idyllic afternoon…..Aswan really transports one back to the past….
And if you're still nervous about visiting Egypt….you couldn't be in a safer place than Aswan. If you're worried about the political tumult in cities like Cairo (which is also safe) and Port Said, fear not–there is nothing going on in the southern part of Egypt. It's the most peaceful place on Earth.
Sunset at the Aswan airport.
Thanks for reading.