Read our writer's views on this property below
Dugald Jellie finds ancient Egypt is no match for imperial luxury.
Alain de Botton in The Art Of Travel tells of being in Madrid for a weekend and wishing for nothing more than to remain in bed. The everyday philosopher was bowed by indolence. He had nocuriosity for the city's foreign spectacle. It's the ennui of travel and this is how I feel in the dry heat and fine dust of Upper Egypt.
King Tut's tomb, anyone? I'm keener, actually, on the hotel pool and a banana lounge.
This is what happens when we check in to the Winter Palace at Luxor, a grande dame of European hospitality on the east bank of a river that drains half of Africa. As pompous as a wedding cake, it's a high-water mark of colonial luxury favoured by ivory traders, cotton merchants and the British upper crust since the days of Queen Victoria and steamboats up the Nile. And it's here in a hotel of imperial splendour I want for little more than the soft shade of date palms and a room-service hamburger.
I've had two stifling weeks in Egypt and a man can eat only so many chickpeas. Perhaps leisured excess has this effect: of torpor, languor and a hankering for beef patties. We have travelled so far to plumb the mysteries of the Nile and see the great temples and burial chambers of ancient Thebes, yet all I can think of is cable TV and French pastries for breakfast.
The Valley of the Kings is across the way and yet in the old wing of the Winter Palace, I succumb to idleness. Not that others haven't done so before: Churchill, Noel Coward and English archaeologist Howard Carter have all sunned themselves in the hotel's pleasure grounds; as have Charles and Diana, on honeymoon; and Agatha Christie, who took tea on her balcony and by purling waters wrote Death On The Nile.
From behind the hotel's majestic facade – a sweep of white marble steps and porte-cochere facing the sand hills of the Libyan Desert – the epic monuments of Luxor turn into piles of stones. I'm weary of hieroglyphics. Over obelisks. Indifferent to sphinxes. Tutankhamun's tomb even, the discovery of which in 1922 burned in the imagination of the world, arouses scant interest.
No wonder then, in this palace of dreams, my partner lifts her Rough Guide to Egypt and threatens to throw all 855 pages at me. We have a travel domestic, in a room billed nightly at $489.06 to my credit card. I desire to go nowhere beyond the hotel's grounds, not even for a shish kebab, a sure sign that something is wrong.
"Tea on the terrace of the Winter Palace Hotel," wrote the English playwright and humourist, Alan Bennett, in Writing Home. "We watch the sun set over the Nile, a scene captured by dozens of tourists with film cameras, who wait as if for the passage of royalty."
Rituals of travel in Egypt are as old as Herodotus, the Greek historian who ventured into the sunbaked heart of Africa and would report: "Egypt is the gift of the Nile." He had heard the stories and journeyed to Thebes to see for himself.
Inquisitive romance brings us here also, to this high-Victorian pile built in 1886 for Britain's new middle classes and their diversions of travel inexotic Egypt. Thomas Cook ran tours up the Nile from 1869. Cairo filled with foreigners. Railways were laid. The Suez Canal dug. Colonial ambition surged. And the Winter Palace would come to cater to all whims, confirming status and identity in a land of mummified novelty.
The lustre endures. "Thank you for a magnificent stay, it was all that we had been led to expect," write Tony and Cherie Blair in the gilded hotel guest book. Ambassadors, dukes, princes, Hollywood starlets and the World Bank president have all left handwritten praises. Condoleezza Rice writes: "I look forward to returning to this beautiful, historic hotel."
No sooner have we arrived and I want never to leave. At reception we sip glasses of karkaday, a hibiscus-flower tea, sugary-sweet and served chilled in the desert's eternal sunshine. I could spend all morning on the brocade upholstery, spellbound by a grand marble staircase and its Art Nouveau cast-iron balustrade, awfully pleased to have booked two nights in this heirloom.
"Would you like to go out to the garden?" a silver-haired Englishman asks his wife. Her name is Rosie and she's in a floral-print summer dress. He wears a silk cravat with a pink shirt and white pants. They walk the lobby's floor together with all the aplomb of a couple off to a society ball.
Truth be told, I have no savoir-faire for such aristocratic occasions. Not that it matters when a porter in a red jacket and black fez shares the news. We've been upgraded to room 327, King Farouk's top-floor suite where the last of the khedive leaders that ruled the British condominium of Egypt and Sudan resided variously from 1936 until 1952, when he abdicated and fled on the royal yacht to Monaco.
The privilege usually costs €468 ($814) a night for foreigners (Egyptians pay half price) and comes with polished walnut furniture, elaborate window drapery with tasselled ties and a gilded rococo coffee table.
The bed, naturally, is king size. The room is enormous; a good thing considering the size of the flat-screen TV. We feel like royalty. Yet, my girlfriend still hangs four pairs of wet knickers in the shower and I wash socks in the sink.
Nicolas Sarkozy has bedded down across the corridor in the presidential suite ($1800 a night) with Carla Bruni. The French leader took the former model on a public first date to Disneyland in Paris. Two weeks later, at Christmas, they came here to indulge, presumably, in the pleasures well-heeled travellers have always sought in the land of Nefertiti and Cleopatra.
To justify such extravagance abroad – the ballrooms and crystal chandeliers, the silver service fit for a pharaoh or viceroy, or a Cairo princess – we intend to enjoy every minute: draw a bath deep enough to drain the Nile; lounge in white Egyptian cotton robes; call on the shoe-shine boy; pinch the Hermes toiletries.
"The whole world has heard about Egypt and dreams of one day coming to Egypt," says Jacques Serpollier, a Frenchman in silver cufflinks and a pinstripe suit and the proud manager of the Sofitel luxury hotel.
"About 80 per cent of the archaeological monuments on the planet are in Egypt and most of them are here in Luxor."
A crowd rings the pool: there's a couple from Manhattan's Upper East Side (he's a lawyer, she's a volunteer with Medecins Sans Frontieres); an Italian man with a gold watch and turquoise budgie-smugglers; a Frenchwoman in a pink bikini with a flat stomach; and a bronzed Mancunian, tanning in a gold lame bikini with her BlackBerry.
I return to our room through a 1920s Hollywood-style pleasure garden: purple bougainvillea flowers in urns; water trickles from a fountain; guests sit in the shade of a mango tree in white wicker chairs. My girlfriend has come to appreciate the delights of a banana lounge.
I never want this to end. I'd like to extend our fantasy; to wear a pith helmet, to spend weeks strolling among the clipped lawns and topiary shrubs of the exotic palm garden and to the muezzin prayer call in a fuchsia dusk.
We've only one night left. Which means only one more breakfast, served on double pink damask linen by waiters in black tie. If only life were always a holiday at the Winter Palace.
Dugald Jellie flew courtesy of Singapore Airlines.
Cairo is the nearest major international airport. Singapore Airlines has a fare to Cairo for about $1761 low-season return, including taxes, from Sydney and Melbourne, flying non-stop to Singapore where you change aircraft and then fly via Dubai to Cairo. Korean Airlines flies non-stop to Seoul where you stay overnight at the airline's expense and then on to Cairo via Tashkent. A flight from Cairo to Luxor costs about $133 one way, including taxes. Tourist-class sleepers on overnight trains between Cairo and Luxor cost $US120 ($147) for two-bed cabins. Australians require a visa for a stay of up to 30 days.
Standard garden-view rooms at the Sofitel Winter Palace cost from $226 a person a night and include breakfast (linger, it's the best we had in Egypt). Nile-view rooms are more expensive and noisier at night. Rooms in the adjoining Pavilion Winter Palace (the "new wing") are considerably cheaper and are booked mostly by those on package tours. Access to the pleasure gardens and swimming pool is shared and you can drop into the old wing for high tea on the terrace. See sofitel.com.
When to go
Summer in Upper Egypt is intolerably hot. Luxor's average daily top temperature from June to August is 41 degrees, in the shade. Most foreigners visit between October and February, when the daytime mercury drops below 30 degrees and the desert nights turn chilly.