By Heba Elkayal
At the Winter Palace Luxor hotel’s gift shop, Gaddis, hangs an old sign that reads: “You are requested to consider yourself at home here. The staff will serve you cheerfully but is strictly forbidden to importune you to buy.”
Mr. Gaddis first set up shop in the hotel’s arcades in 1902 to sell and develop pictures for guests. Over the years, it started to offer books and trinkets for travelers, but it is worth looking in if only to admire some vestiges of the past, such as old cameras in a glass case.
The sign, though amusing and charming, is perhaps more telling of the hotel’s spirit and the attitude of its staff: Guests both adults and children alike are invited — in fact, requested — to indulge in poking around the hotel’s many rooms and grounds. Where else in the world is one invited to do so at a hotel that dates back well over a hundred years?
Built in 1907, the Winter Palace Luxor hotel stands on the banks of the river Nile looking across at the Theban necropolis and the Valley of the Kings; it’s also a stone’s throw away from Luxor Temple. Today, it is managed by the French hotel company Sofitel, mixing French savoir faire with Egyptian hospitality and heritage. The result is both beau et charmant.
The Winter Palace has been the address for Luxor visitors since opening in 1886. The 19th century was a time when travel was indicative not only of status and wealth, but also of keen scholarship and worldliness. The Winter Palace was, and continues to be, home to guests who wish to flee from the bitter cold during the winter months or enjoy the relaxed atmosphere and countryside charm of Egypt.
Previous guests included Somerset Maugham, Agatha Christie, Sir Winston Churchill, James Baker, Henry Kissinger and, in more recent years, French President Nicolas Sarkozy. It was here that King Farouk would make his place of residence when visiting Luxor and it was here that Howard Carter, along with his patron Lord Carnarvon, decided to announce to the world on the steps of the hotel the discovery of the tomb of King Tutankhamun.
Getting too used to luxury
What makes the Winter Palace a destination in and of itself is not what it offers guests in terms of modern amenities, but what it offers them in terms of a travel experience. Bellboys in red fezzes and embroidered jackets will handle all your baggage as you climb a grand staircase at the hotel’s entrance, staff at the concierge desk will greet you “bonjour” with sincerity and the palace’s interiors all bring you to as close a 19th century travel experience as possible.
The hotel underwent refurbishments recently and will soon, under the guidance of its holding company EGOTH, be restored in its entirety. Ninety-two rooms are available, seven of which are suites.
My pleasant room was generous in size, in comparison to hotel rooms in Egypt, with high ceilings and equally grand windows that opened up to a view onto the hotel’s famous gardens. Numerous acres make up the grounds where decades-old palm trees sway amongst exotic plants that were flowering in late October during my visit.
The bathroom is relatively small and the shower’s water pressure was weak, but some Hermès toiletries and soft complimentary slippers made up for that.
Service is efficient throughout the hotel, but room service lacks thoroughness. Housekeeping did a perfunctory job of tidying up my room but considering all else I was enjoying in the hotel, I didn’t care too much.
I suggest tailoring each day of your visit with an early start to tour the sites and spend the afternoon relaxing and dining. It’s best to get to the touristic sites as early as possible to avoid the busloads of tourists, which despite current political circumstances, are still flowing in.
With only one morning in Luxor, I visited the Valley of the Kings, Howard Carter’s house, and then Hatshepsut Temple in about five hours total. The concierge at the hotel helped to arrange for a car and tour guide.
Shahaat, our local guide, not only spoke English fluently but gave a thorough lecture peppered with anecdotes at all three sites, and our driver constantly ensured we were armed with icy water bottles which were served out of a cooler from the trunk.
After a hike up and down to Hatshepsut Temple in the sun, our driver handed us moist towelettes. As I lapped up the little touches of decadence, it became clear: you can’t do the sites of Luxor as if you were doing the sites of Europe. There’s something so uniquely regal about viewing millennia-old monuments of such pomp and circumstance, it wouldn’t be acceptable to view them with any less formality or flair.
A dip in the hotel’s pool before the sun sets wouldn’t be amiss. Children on midterm holidays were splashing about and waiters around the pool joked with guests. I was called princess when served my lunch of pizza and for a second, I allowed myself to believe it. I can only imagine being a child grants you even more treats.
Though food is not exceptional throughout the hotel, there are highlights of course. The French restaurant 1886 offers French gastronomy in an historic and intimate dining room decorated with candle lights, gilded mirrors and silk draperies. A strict jacket and tie policy applies, and smoking and talking on your mobile are forbidden. The man playing covers on an electric guitar during dinner was somewhat kitsch but best to drown him out with some laughter and the clinking of wine glasses.
It’s highly recommended that you enjoy a drink some time after dinner in the Royal Bar. Restored and refurbished, you can borrow one of the hotel’s books — some are first editions carefully guarded by the hotel and Council of Antiquities that visits the hotel four times a year to check upon its artifacts.
These include lush Oriental carpets in the reception area and in the Victorian Lounge, which is a great setting for high tea while watching the dappling of light filter in through the windows overlooking the garden.
Yet you could also spend hours in the reception area, admiring the faire forge railways on the staircase. Curlicues of wrought iron in an art-deco style compliment the considerably large Ottoman style glass blown chandelier that hangs from the ceiling of the hotel’s top third floor, spanning the height of two stories.
Try to catch the sound and light show at Karnak Temple or walk around downtown Luxor. A Jaguar car and chauffeur could be arranged for such an outing. Would a modern monarch also have gone to the show in such a ride? Quite possibly.
I missed the show due to bad planning on my part. It’s best to catch it as early in the evening as possible due to management cancelling shows if not enough people show up, which tends to happen later in the evening.
Downtown Luxor has not yet started to disintegrate in the manner that downtown Cairo has. It’s easy to mentally transport yourself to another era when walking around. Art deco, ancient Egyptian and local architecture all form this small town’s physical make up. Luxor is considered the world’s largest outdoor museum for a reason: it’s breathtaking at every corner.
Rates start at €219 per room, subject to seasonal changes.
Sofitel Winter Palace Luxor
Corniche El Nil Street, Luxor
Tel: +2 (095) 238 0425