The Sofitel Legend Old Cataract Aswan review, Egypt

THE LOCATION

On the banks of the Nile, Aswan is a 90-minute flight from Cairo or a three-day river cruise from Luxor, the most popular route on the Nile. The ancient world pervades the city, its temples and quarries making the 120-year-old Cataract Hotel (as it's known locally) look positively youthful. The guest book includes the last emperor of Russia, Princess Di and Egyptologist Howard Carter, who discovered the tomb of Tutankhamun. These days, you'll also spot Arabian celebs and well-heeled Cairenes slipping down for a stylish weekend at this destination hotel.

THE SPACE

The hotel comprises two wings: the original palace wing was built by Thomas Cook in 1899, low-slung and beautiful, all Arabian arches and elaborate carved timber screens (mashrabiya) married with old-school Victorian polish. The newer wing was built in 1961 during the construction of Aswan's High Dam. There are 138 rooms and suites, topped by the Winston Churchill and Agatha Christie suites. A beautiful pool is surrounded by palms, and steps lead to the river's edge.

French group Accor took over the hotel in 2011 and renovated it extensively so it slots easily into the Sofitel Legends collection, which includes the Metropole Hanoi. Visit the spa for its subterranean, glittering mosaic-lined relaxation pool and locally inspired beauty treatments worthy of a queen: try the papyrus wrap with white clay.

THE ROOM

It was a tough choice between a room in the historic Palace wing and the newer Nile wing, but the Nile rooms are bigger and brighter, and my room on the top floor has astounding views. There are masses of room for our party of two adults and a child, with walk-in wardrobes, a huge lounge area and a vast white marble bathroom. A double balcony with loungers looks down on the palace wing, the pool and sculptured gardens, and all the way up the Nile. On the opposite banks, I spy a picturesque Nubian village and the pink limestone dome that is an Aga Khan's mausoleum.

THE FOOD

Agatha Christie was onto a good thing when she wrote much of Death on the Nile on the outdoor Terrace. It's the place to be seen for long breakfasts, high teas and sunset drinks. The chefs are delighted when guests steer away from the omnipresent omelettes and try local foods such as ful and ta'ameya (Egypt's take on falafel) for breakfast, and the evening menu also features Egyptian classics.

Wicker settings are dotted around the grounds, perfect for a G&T or shisha pipe while inside, The Bar is hugely Instagram-worthy, with its zebra-print chairs, gargantuan brass chandeliers and leather lounges. Churchill rated it  as his favourite drinking den outside London. The signature restaurant, 1902, is all French cuisine and champagnes beneath a massive dome that's part of a medieval crypt.

STEPPING OUT

Key sights are usually covered on all Luxor-Aswan cruises, topped by the beautiful Temple of Philae, adrift on its own island in the Nile. Take a felucca late in the day for the best light and least crowds. The Unfinished Obelisk in the granite quarries explains much of Egypt's engineering feats, while a felucca ride to a traditional Nubian village on the West Bank is always fun. In the city, Aswan's souq is much quieter than in the pre-revolution era, and is far less hustle than in Cairo. Stock up on gellibayas and its renowned hibiscus, used for the vivid, refreshing karkadai tea, sold at the souq's many spice shops. The city is a natural hopping-off point for cruises and flights further south to Abu Simbel.

THE VERDICT

With an unsurpassed setting, smooth service and the undoubtedly fabulous history, I rate it this of my top historic stays around the world. Armchair travellers should binge on Netflix's subtitled Egyptian murder mystery Secret of the Nile (2016), which was filmed in the hotel.

THE ESSENTIALS

Rooms cost from $US167 a night in the low summer season, rising to US$225 in winter. Abtal El Tahrir St, Aswan, Egypt. See sofitel.accorhotels.com

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HIGHLIGHT Take the daily hotel tour through the Palace wing for a peek in the top suites.

LOWLIGHT Egyptians let kids run rampant, but the French prevail here, and children are banned from the 1902 restaurant.

Belinda Jackson stayed at the Sofitel Legend Old Cataract at her own expense.

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