Six thousand years of fabled history. Land of the Pharaohs, Old Testament country and modern Islamic republic. River, sea and desert. Grandeur and urban blight. That’s Egypt for you, a singularly exciting mix of living history and cultural melting pot. Located in the northeast corner of Africa, Egypt is mostly sandy, hot desert to its east and west. Its ancient civilisations developed on the fertile banks of the Nile River that runs the length of Egypt.
Cairo, Egypt’s capital and largest city on the Nile is where most travellers begin their discovery of the land. Colourful, madly busy and filled with starkly juxtaposed images of poverty and affluence, the “City of A Thousand Minarets’ is all about sensory overload.
There’s Khan El-Khalili, an Aladdin’s Cave of a bazaar, where spices, brassware, copper goods, jewellery and attractive souvenir shops vie for attention. Save one evening for a dinner cruise on the Nile Pharaoh, a restaurant on a solar barque whose decor takes you back to the days of the Pharaohs. You can also experience the timeless grandeur of the river on a felucca, the traditional Egyptian sailboat. A complete Nile cruise is perhaps the best way to explore the Pharaonic heritage of Luxor, Aswan and other renowned historic cities; en route, you get to glimpse the lifestyle of rural Egypt, where people live much the same way as they did thousands of years ago.
On the outskirts of Cairo are Egypt’s biggest tourist drawcards – the Pyramids of Giza and the Sphinx. The Pyramid of Khufu (or Cheops) is the largest, famously known as the Great Pyramid and the only surviving monument of the seven ancient wonders of the world. The mysteriously smiling Sphinx, carved from a single block of sandstone, is the world’s largest monolith. Along with other pyramids, these form the Giza Necropolis.
For a desert country, Egypt has plenty to offer water sports lovers. The King Snefro 5 and 6 are diving cruise vessels, which operate live-aboard safaris in the Red Sea. Explore the World War II wreck of the s.s.Thistlegorm, Ras Mohamed National Park and the coral pillar at Tower Beach. The Straits of Tirian, with their stunningly beautiful offshore reefs are a must-do for divers.
Egypt’s Red Sea resorts are a byword for great family holidays with good service and affordable rates. Sharm el-Sheikh is among the most popular; El Gouna is quieter and more upscale. From here, tour some of the Red Sea islands like Abou Kizan or The Emerald or explore the important dive sites of the Sinai Peninsula. Na’ama Bay is rather touristy, but its coral gardens are worth the visit. Snorkelling, windsurfing and pedalos are other popular activities.
The Sinai is steeped in Biblical history and natural wonders. St. Catherine’s monastery (527-565 B.C.) is believed to be constructed around Moses’ Burning Bush and is filled with priceless artworks and ancient manuscripts. Close by is the Coloured Canyon with its wondrous, brilliantly hued rock formations.
Egypt has an extremely hot, dry season from May to October, with northern winds exerting a moderating influence. October to May is cool and sunny, though nights get chilly. Humidity levels are higher in the Delta and Mediterranean areas.
Visas on arrival are granted to nationals of North American countries, UK, Europe and Australia, among others. Travellers from most Asian, African and East European countries need to apply for visas prior to arrival in Egypt.
Local currency is the Egyptian pound (1 EGP = 100 PIASTRES). Change foreign currency at exchange companies or banks rather than street vendors; alternatively, ATMs are available in all cities. Credit cards are accepted at all large establishments and tourist centres. Tipping or baksheesh is a way of life here; it is the norm to tip a few piastres for the most minor of services. Baksheesh will also magically open several closed doors!