Monday, 13 April 2009

Weekend Breaks from Cairo

Living/working in Cairo can be an extremely stressful experience. Weekend breaks with family and friends are an ideal way to de-stress and Egypt has plenty of options for every kind of weekend break, no matter what your interests are, or how hot or cold the weather is. This list is equally useful for travelers to Egypt who are trying to budget their time around the country.

If relaxing on a beach with a book or building a sand castle is your idea of a holiday, you can choose from a range of options. Ain Sukhna is the closest beach retreat from Cairo. If you opt for Alexandria, you can also catch up on some Greek history while visiting the catacombs, the Roman Theater and the museum. The Bibliotheca Alexandria is definitely worth a visit and the kids may love the planetarium.

Marsa Matrouh is a bit of a drive away, but has the calmest lagoons and softest sand of all the beaches that I have visited in Egypt. Halt midway, at the International memorials in Alamein where soldiers from all over the world who died here during World War II are buried.

If you have even the slightest interest in diving and snorkeling, Sharm el Sheikh, Dahab, Hurghada, Nuweiba and Taba offer a range of diving spots of varying difficulties. There are PADI institutes at these areas which can train and certify you for dives. But do check their credentials and equipment before entrusting your life in their hands. While these spots may seem a bit of a distance from Cairo, you can easily drive there Thursday evening and be back by Saturday evening. Some of these towns have their own airport and you have the option of catching a domestic flight from Cairo.

Whether you are a history buff or not, you cannot leave Egypt without doing the mandatory Luxor-Aswan Nile cruise. There are 3, 4 and 7 day options to this cruise and cruise ships to fit a variety of budgets. Normally all meals, entry tickets, transport and guide fees are included in the package and this is a convenient way to visit all the main Pharaonic monuments in Egypt

If sailing is not your thing, but you still want to catch up on some history, then a 2 day trip to Luxor (the largest open air museum in the world) is a wonderful appetizer. Spend one day on each bank. The East Bank has the must-visit Karnak Temple and Luxor temple. The Luxor museum is exceptional: uncluttered, well lit and with short printed descriptions to accompany most of the major pieces, it is easy to navigate on your own.

On the West Bank you can choose between the Valley of the Kings, Queens, Nobles or Workmen and visit underground tombs that are beautifully decorated. Deir el Bahri (Hatchepsuts Temple) is a popular attraction as are the Ramesseum and Medinat Habu.

If you have an extra day free, you may like to make the trip to Abydos and Dendera where the reliefs and construction are in much better condition than those in Luxor.

There are direct flights from Cairo to Abu Simbel, but in case they are booked, you can fly to Aswan and then travel by the 4am or 11am convoys. The original temple itself was a marvel, but combined with the international relocation effort to higher ground, it makes the very existence of these temples nothing short of a miracle.

If you would like to get back in touch with nature, then desert camping is an option that you could explore. Egypt has 5 Oases in the Western Desert: Bahariyya, Farafra, Dakhla, Kharga and Siwa. Follow basic precautions when offroading or camping in the desert. Always travel in more than one car. Have someone familiar with the desert in your group. It is very easy to get disoriented when you can see the horizon 360 degrees around you. Carry enough fuel, food and water.

Having a good guide to the desert, will make the difference between you enjoying your camping trip and wanting to return again and again. Sleeping in a 5 star can never be compared to sleeping under a million stars with the occasional shooting star or comet.

If a quick day trip to an oasis is all you have time for, then Fayoum is the place for you. Bird Watchers will revel in the multitude of birds which hover around Lake Qaroun. Fayoum also has a number of hotels and eco lodges, if you would like to spend the night. The water wheels, ancient Pharonic temples and pre-historic fossils at Wadi Hitan are just some of the sites you can visit at this oasis.

The Sinai Plateau offers hiking and trekking opportunities aplenty no matter what difficulty and stamina level you are looking for. From the colored canyon to Gebel Musa.

Towns like Port Said, Suez, Damietta and Rosetta are great options for picnics from Cairo if all you have is one day off each week.

If you are interested in Monasticism and Coptic History, the monasteries of Upper Egypt and Wadi Natrun are worth a visit. While it may be more difficult to organise permits to visit Upper Egypt on your own, Wadi Natrun is a day trip from Cairo. Just be sure that you don’t visit during one of the many fasts in the Coptic calendar, otherwise you may just find everything closed.

Egypt offers a wealth of travel opportunities for every kind of traveler. There are tour agents who can manage every aspect of your travel, so you don’t have to worry about anything. With a little planning, you can ensure that you recharge your batteries in different locations regularly, to help you face the coming week in a better frame of mind.

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Oasis - Weekend Breaks from Cairo

Saturday, 4 April 2009

My Favorite Time Outs in Cairo

Visiting Cairo and want to see something other than just the Pyramids- museum - Citadel tourist route?

Here are some ideas for Cairo which are slightly off the beaten path. Places to visit, places to shop at and places to eat.

Take a walk through Al Azhar Park. You will be surprised to find such a vast green oasis in the midst of the madness that is Cairo. Catch the sunset that is heralded by the calls from the muezzin from multiple surrounding mosques. At just 5Le entry, this is great value for money. If you would like to jazz it up a bit, there is a wonderful restaurant on the premises that you can sit at to catch the sunset and a wonderful dinner surrounded by the twinkling lights in the distance of the multiple monuments around the area.

Climb the gate/minarets of Bab Zuwayla. This is one of the three surviving main gates of the Khan el Khalili and the only one that can be legally accessed. The view from the top of the gate is marvelous and for the more adventurous, both the minarets can also be climbed. It is easier to access the pinnacle, in the minaret on the left (when facing the tent makers street). Entry is just 10Le but the view is worth much more than that; and if you are lucky, you may be the only people on this edifice.

Catch a Sufi Performance at the Wikalat al Ghuri. This is a free performance at 8pm every Wednesday and Saturday. The performance here is more devotional and less commercial than those on the Nile cruises and can transport you into a mystical world. Just watching the whirling dervishes can put you into a trance. (Turn right after accessing the street adjoining Al Azhar Mosque in Khan el Khalili) Go early for good seats.

Sakiat El Sawy and Makan are 2 other places to catch a performance. While the former has different performers at different locations within their compact premises, the latter has traditional Egyptian and African performances every Wednesday at 8pm.

By now, the weather should have improved enough to take a picnic basket on a felucca. Hire a felucca on the strip adjoining the Grand Hyatt hotel. They charge around 50Le per hour (if you bargain hard) plus tips. The charge is for the felucca itself, no matter how many people get on board, so it’s a great option for family outings too.

If you want a more luxurious option then you may want to take a Nile Cruise aboard the fancier cruisers. These are available as sunset cruises or dinner cruises. Our personal favorite is the Golden Pharaoh (opposite Four Seasons, Giza). They offer open buffets and 3 course meals served at your seat. Golden Pharaoh also allows you to opt for an Indian menu if you book at least a day in advance. This works out to approximately 200Le per person with meals included.

For a truly extraordinary experience, I would highly recommend a meal at the Revolving Restaurant at the Grand Hyatt. The food is not outrageously priced. This is one of the 2 locations within the hotel where alcohol is still being served. The ambience, food, service and view all combine to make this one of the most wonderful places to enjoy a leisurely dinner in the city.

Christo’s is a lovely sea food eatery opposite the Mena House Oberoi. They offer a wonderful sea food spread (where you choose your sea food and tell them how you would like it cooked) during dinner. The reason, we keep going back here is not just for the food but the wonderful color bathed view of the pyramids while the Sound and Light show is on. Do try their salads and sea food soup too.

Sapporo at the Sheraton (opposite the Opera House) offers a special kind of dinner theater. The Master Chefs prepare Teppenyaki at your table and watching them at work is to view poetry in motion. They offer combinations of meats and seafood and can customize the seasonings to your taste.

For a less pricey meal but one with ambience, chose one of the many eateries on the stationary boats in Zamalek for lunch. They are reasonably quiet at this time and you can gaze at the Nile as she flows past in her eternal journey to join the sea. The Fish Market, TGIF, Chillis, Maharani. . . You have a choice of cuisine and budgets among these boats.

The various bookstores in town are an interesting place to catch up on the latest in the literary world and enjoy some peace and quiet in serene surroundings. Some bookshops have cafes attached where you can sip a cup of coffee while perusing your latest purchases. Diwan has opened at many more locations outside of Zamalek. Kotob Khan on Lasilky road and The BookSpot on Road 9 in Maadi are 2 other locations which offer extremely friendly and non obtrusive service. The AUC bookstores offer a great variety of English books on Egypt that make for great gifts.

Other places that offer unusual gifts while contributing to a worthy cause, include Tukul Crafts at the All Saints Church in Zamalek (products created by prison inmates, Sudanese refugees and other disadvantaged groups), the Fair Trade Center on Yehia Ibrahim street in Zamalek (where the artisans are given fair prices for their creations), Touch Her World Inc (017 280 0756 - products made by young Egyptian women seeking self sufficiency)

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