Looking across the Nile from a suite at Nile Ritz-Carlton Cairo, I watched the sun set over the opposite bank in El Mohandiseen, beyond the Cairo Tower. It felt as if nothing had changed since my last visit eight years ago, but in fact, everything had become more finely tuned and stylish. In the hotel, which used to be the Nile Hilton, round-floor boutique offerings include really desirable, dreamy robes for ladies from YMZ, and colourful casual gear for men from Mobaco.
Thanks to one of two kinds of postcards in desk drawers, culture-seekers now know, for instance, that the two Pharaonic wall sculptures in the lobby of the 440-room hotel are copies of originals at Aswan; they were a gift from President Nasser to celebrate the opening of the hotel in 1959 (Hilton’s contract expired 28 December 2008, and it was rumoured that Starwood offered the Government $14 million to turn it into a Westin, but Ritz-Carlton won, with a $15 million bid).
Fortunately, Qantas’ partner Emirates has three daily flights from Emirates to Cairo – each is scheduled for three hours, 50 minutes. Once arrived and in my hotel, I immediately know where I am, not only because of scenic views of the Nile from suite 910’s bedroom and salon. Big wall-set televisions are frequently showing shots of the Pyramids, a reminder that the ‘Pyramid hotel’, Mena House, is now Marriott.
The suite is really comfortable, with stylish, turquoise leather accessories, and room valets were quick as lightning (Gym lift? I will show you!). A malfunctioning room key was replaced in under five minutes. I was delighted to find pristine copies of both the Financial Times and New York Times in the 12th-floor Club lounge. There were also, I suppose, GCC publications among the Arabic reading material; summer-long, this is a favourite vacation spot for Arabic speakers, especially from Saudi Arabia. Yesterday and tomorrow, a GCC events organiser has rented the main ballroom for local concerts, 1,200-strong audiences both occasions.
Tonight, I see a bride in full western white – engaged girls and their mothers tend to book the post-ceremony wedding party at least six months out, typically inviting 400-500 (sometimes double that) but fortunately share, with the groom’s family, the considerable cost of a party that starts around 9pm and may include not only basic drinks, but champagne and a full range of cocktails.
When GM Joe Ghayad, whom I had last met when he opened Ritz-Carlton Almaty, arrived here, he immediately used some of the creative and money-making flair he must have inherited from his Lebanese father, a renowned film director who took his three kids to some of the world’s best hotels.
Joe Ghayad quickly turned part of the lobby into Sweet, a patissier with outstanding Illy coffee. He has also introduced wellness into dining options for both guests and his 1,000 staff, who sometimes find buffet dishes labelled with the number of minutes required to work off, say, a typical kenafeh (an Arabic sweet that looks like shredded wheat soaked liberally in honey syrup). He also invites any staff member who is available to bike with him on Fridays, when Corniche El Nil and the other roads around are not quite so crowded.
The copious buffet serving stations at Culina restaurant, fortunately, have no such calorie reminders. I sat outside on the terrace, which has an eight-foot-diagonal-measurement wall screen showing football in real time (I was fortunately able to get CNN on a LifeFitness elliptical in the 24/7 gym, which has all-wall windows looking over the Nile).
Lunch was a tasting of Arabic appetisers followed by a lamb tajine from a shiny copper cauldron, a far cry from last night’s dinner. This luxury hotel, like all Cairo hostelries it seems, has an Italian, Vivo. I coincided with German guest-chef Oliver Glowig, who as well as his eponymous two-star Ristorante Oliver Glowig in Rome, seems to consult regularly for Ritz-Carltons in Bahrain and Tokyo. As practice for the gastronomic extravaganza he is preparing for tomorrow night’s party for the hotel’s 50 top loyalists, he sent out beef tartare topped with Beluga; I followed this with simplicity-in-Italian colours, plain spaghetti al dente, cooked cherry tomatoes, and grilled asparagus.
And I thought, once again, that luxury benefits from a sense of place. We drank Cape Bay Special Oaky Edition Cabernet Sauvignon Merlot 2017 from Al Ahram Beverages, established 1897. Later, I found out that Al Ahram is now part of the mighty Heineken empire.
But as a change from city life, I wanted to get into Egypt’s rural space. A big incentive was to see what Olivier Masson is up to now. After years with Four Seasons Hotels & Resorts – lastly as Cairo-based RVP overseeing eight luxury hotels – he threw it all up in 2015 to open what will eventually be the 25-villa Lazib Inn Resort & Spa in Tunis village, on the southern shore of Faiiyum Oasis, 90 kilometres south-west of Cairo. As he and his wife Nanette say, this is five acres of paradise. Even the exterior, almost unnoticed on a central street of Tunis, is fast becoming Egypt’s equivalent of Deia, Mallorca for its pottery and arts, and is utterly appealing – when you know it is there.
The Massons bought the five-acre plot, looking down to Qaroon Lake, in 2013. It already had a weekend house on it but the new owners started modernising and expanding. They have been the architects and designers throughout, and have filled every room with an eclectic selection of treasures collected during a couple of decades of worldwide travel. For some, the one duplex villa, with upper level for kids, is perfect. Many villas, including #3 have connecting doors. I loved #3, up 20 adobe-look painted concrete steps, about 70 square metres total inside, with a big sitting-out balcony. My library ranged from a selection of Harley Davidson art books through to Bill Clinton’s My Life, which made a good prop to raise my bedside reading light.
Eight villas are already fully finished. All have real-log fireplaces, superb Wi-Fi, easy-work LavAzza espresso machines, empty refrigerators and Masson-designed toiletries, plus whirlpool bathtubs.
Out in the terraced gardens (looked after by Nanette Masson) are two year-round swimming pools, one adult-only. There is, by the way, a stunning wellness complex, with two treatment rooms, sauna and steam rooms and an alabaster-lined hammam big enough for the whole of Egypt’s national football team. Everywhere, it seems, is part of one massive art gallery. There are five Nepalese prayer flags fluttering in the wind here, and a prayer wheel nearby. One of the unique chandeliers has lamps hanging from an old Swiss oxen yoke.
If you want to work out with buddhas and art books to hand, this is the memorable hotel for you – and the Cybex facility is, of course, open 24/7. A Himalayan-type glass-walled building, housing reception and a boutique for Tunis village ceramics, is also open night long – it shines as a beacon in the middle of the Lazib complex, named for a Moroccan overnight lodge (Olivier Masson and his four elder siblings were brought up near Marrakech, where his father set up a ski lift and taught the late King Hassan to ski).
There are, by the way, at least a dozen black-and-white photos of pre-teen Olivier Masson dotted around villa #3. As I hope I have already implied, this oasis resort is unique. In fact more memory points were to crop up again and again during my stay at Lazib Inn Resort & Spa. After a cup of LavAzza coffee watching the sun rise, a good early morning programme includes a walk round the estate – or follow Olivier Masson, who runs around local villages for, he claims, 90 minutes every dawn. Breakfast is in the Blue Donkey restaurant, named for the full-size painted-resin animal hung upside down from the ceiling. Egyptian or European? Opt for the latter and no fewer than 12 dishes arrive, some ceramic, some the hotel’s RAK china, all bearing a different edible. Since many of the current guests are Egyptian, presumably they choose their national breakfast, which helps warrant the hotel’s 9.3 rating from booking.com.
I then had a choice. Take a tuk-tuk to Tunis village ceramic school, which I thought I could do afterwards, or head off for antiquity. History, please. With Olivier Masson at the wheel of his Toyota 4×4, off we set for a two-hour desert tour. First we went to one of three waterfalls, sadly rather low on water right now – best times to visit, apparently, are November and April when there is more flow, which is partly the reason that over 300 bird species (including many flamingos) transit here on their annual migration between Eastern Europe and southern Africa. Today there were only local youngsters, the boys wading in water that was too shallow for diving.
We continued, alone in the white-sand desert, shuddering over the corrugated unpaved road… Eventually the 360° unrelieved vista of sand-sand-sand was punctuated by some barrel-roofs buildings ahead. Officially called ‘the visitor centre and the eco-lodge at Madinet Madi’ this is a lonely museum, guarded by a Sadat look-alike in a floor-length grey robe and pristine white scarf. Beyond is 300 yards of wooden boardwalk, leading to Pharaonic ruins, Madinet Madi. It was built in the 12th dynasty by Kings Amenemhat III and IV and it is now being restored, apparently, by Italians, but there was no sign of any activity at our visit. And with that, time called for us to leave. “We will go back quickly, through little villages,” said Olivier Masson.
A ‘village’, to this admirable hotelier, is anything, from four still-constructing (or already breaking down?) breeze block buildings up to a city with the hustle and bustle of, say, Mumbai. At one point we were stuck behind a full-size Maersk container on a trailer, trying to navigate through an ants’ nest of busy black and yellow tuk-tuks. We did make it back, but instead of two hours total it was just under four. There, as ordered, the perfect snack lunch awaited, in my room (oh what a sign of a true modern-luxury hotel) and I packed and got ready to go. Driver Tarek was already there. At least a fifth of Lazib Inn’s workforce, local lads all in brightly coloured polo shirts, were there to say goodbye. “Have you REALLY had a good time?” asked one (their English teacher doubles as reception manager). “Absolutely,” I said honestly, and I cannot wait to come back. And we returned to Cairo.