It’s only few days until Christmas, which means that 2011 is winding down. I’ll be spending the next two weeks going through my best and worst from a year that included stops in four continents, 11 countries and 10 states.
All that time on the road, more than 120 days in all, meant plenty of nights in hotels. Believe it or not, I stayed at more than 40 different hotels this year, plus two ships. None were horrible – although I do wish that Atlantic, Iowa, where my husband’s parents live, had some choices beyond the Super 8 – but some were clearly better than others.
Among that list of chart-toppers include the four different Four Seasons properties I visited: The Lodge at Koele and Manale Bay in Lana’i, the Biltmore in Santa Barbara and the Four Seasons at Nile Plaza in Cairo. What I love about the Four Seasons is that all of their hotels have an individual flavor that reflects the setting, plus undeniably outstanding service. If you have the budget to make it work, it’s hard to go wrong there.
Still, my favorite hotel this year has to be the Mena House. Located within spitting distance of the Giza Pyramids (which you can see from many of the rooms), the historic hotel is managed by the Oberoi Group, a luxury hotel group based in India. I had heard about the chain’s reputation for service for years, but this October marked the first time I had stayed in one of its properties.
The pyramids often come as a shock for people who have always seen them in photographs. For one thing, they abut Giza, a crowded Cairo suburb, instead of standing by themselves in the desert. Driving through the town can be a disillusioning experience, as you go through trash-filled streets, passing skinny camels, stray cats and countless touts (in contrast, Luxor and Aswan – two other Egyptian tourist cities – seem much cleaner).
In this atmosphere, the Mena House is another world. Originally, the Mena House served as a royal lodge for Khedive Ismail, the King of Egypt, while on hunting trips in the desert. With the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869, he enlarged the guesthouse to receive international and royal guests. The hotel later underwent a succession of owners, becoming a luxury hotel in 1920.
The modern Mena House has two sections, the old Palace which overlooks the pyramids, and the newer Garden building where the pool is located. While I enjoyed amenities in both, I’m glad that my suite (for which I paid a media rate) was located in the historic section. To say that I had a rock star room would be putting it mildly. My suite consisted of three full rooms – living, dining and bedroom – plus two bathrooms and three balconies with Pyramid views. It wasn’t quite as glamorous as the hotel’s special suites, the Montgomery suite (named for English general Bernard Montgomery) and Churchill suite, but it came quite close.
Several high profile historic meetings were held in the latter rooms, including a meeting of the Big Three – General Chiang Kai-Shek, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Sir Winston Churchill – during World War II and a peace summit between Egyptian President Anwar Sadat, Israeli Premier Menachem Begin and Jimmy Carter.
The pool area proved spectacular, with drink and towel service. As you might expect, touring in Egypt is a hot affair, and I went swimming every afternoon after my guide dropped me off.
During my pool sessions, I sussed out who the other guests were. I noticed quite a few families and couples from other Arab countries, as well as a handful of Brits and one American couple. Fridays are holy days for Muslims, and since the January revolution, that’s when the biggest numbers of protesters gather in downtown Cairo. A particularly large protest was scheduled during my time in Egypt; not surprisingly, nearly every chair at the pool was filled that day, as people avoided the city (which is about an hour away, given Cairo’s traffic).
Even if the pool seemed crowded, occupancy at the Mena House ranged between 30 to 40 percent. That’s incredibly low, and I’m sure it’s worse now, what with the pictures coming out of Cairo this past week. I ate dinner one night at the Moghul Room, the hotel’s gourmet Indian restaurant, and there were less than a handful of other guests there. (The food was delicious, as you might expect). Several of the hotel’s other restaurants, including its nightclub, are closed.
Yet I hope the hotel keeps its head up through the chaos. It’s one of those Grand Dame hotels that I love, one of those places where you know you can always get a cold drink and an outstanding meal, no matter what condition the rest of the country is in, and it deserves to stick around for another 100 years. If I was heading back to Cairo, I would stay there again, happily, secure in the knowledge that I’d feel secure, no matter what was happening in Tahrir Square.