CAIRO — “We’re going to ancient Egypt,” I overheard my son, Luca, 7, tell a friend days before our trip to Cairo and Sharm el Sheikh. We had been reading books about pyramids and mummies, the sun god Ra, and the Great Sphinx of Giza, but it was only then that I realized that I had forgotten to tell him about modern day Egypt. In a sense, though, he was right: Most tourists go to Egypt to take in its ancient wonders.
While the country has seen its share of political turbulence since the Arab Spring rocked the very foundations of Cairo, the capital, just over two years ago, tourism is once again on the rise.
In a bid to bring tourists back to the city, the Pyramid of Chefren and six other ancient tombs on the Giza plateau have reopened. In the shadow of the pyramids, work is underway to complete the Grand Egyptian Museum by 2015. When it opens, this state-of-the-art complex will house the largest archeological museum in the world.
New hotels include Mövenpick Hotels & Resorts, Starwood Hotels & Resorts Worldwide, InterContinental Hotels Group, and Hilton Hotels & Resorts.
We decided to test the choppy waters last fall after consulting the US State Department’s website and ensuring that Egypt was not on the Travel Warning list — as it had been in the aftermath of the uprising. As our guide, Hithem Samir from Memphis Tours, said, “Egypt does not need propaganda to have tourists. The history and artifacts speak for themselves.”
After visiting the awe-inspiring Pyramids of Giza, the mythical Sphinx, and riding on camels under the beating desert sun, we decided to escape the heat in the newly reopened burial chambers of the Pyramid of Khafre. Crouching down the claustrophobic stairs (only our daughter, Mia, 4, did not have to duck), we explored the spooky halls, hidden passageways, and subterranean chambers deep in the bowels of the world’s second largest pyramid.
The Egyptian Museum, close to Tahrir Square (the focal point of the 2011 revolution that still ignites from time to time, and has itself become a tourist attraction), is filled with all things pharoanic. The children’s favorite sections were the “Daily Life in Egypt” display; the Tutankhamen exhibit, with its treasure trove of King Tut’s artifacts and the famed golden mask unearthed in 1922; and the animal mummy room, where they tried to guess what the animal was before reading the explanation and got a sense of how animals were thought of as gods.
A one-hour flight from Cairo and yet a world away from the bustle and grit of the capital, Sharm el Sheikh was our next stop. Dominated by swish, full-service hotels dotting the coast of this desert-like peninsula, Sharm is for Europeans and Russians what the Caribbean is to people in the United States: the perfect beach escape.
“I found Nemo,” shouted Luca through his snorkel, swallowing some of the warm, salty Red Sea in his excitement over the rainbow of marine life in the reef at the Ras Mohammed National Park, considered one of the best diving spots in the world. Accessible to us from various jetties along the nearly 500-yard-long beach at our hotel, the Grand Rotana Resort & Spa, the calm azure waters belied the frenzy lurking just below the surface. From cute clown fish and fluorescent yellow butterfly fish to schools of brightly striped angelfish, it was like having a tropical aquarium at our disposal.
Every morning we set out for a snorkeling adventure, and with over 1,000 species of fish to spot, the ever-changing scene never failed to captivate us. Mia was too small to snorkel but she loved playing on the beach and wading in the shallow water.
Tourism in Sharm el Sheikh also took a big hit after the Arab Spring. Asmi Sami, the resident manager of the Grand Rotana, said tourism there was down by up to 70 percent in the aftermath of the uprising. He is, however, looking to 2013 as a comeback year.
Hotel guests were an interesting mix of string-bikini-sporting Russians and Europeans to more conservative guests from the Gulf States wearing burkinis. Whatever they wore, all seemed happy strolling the massive hotel complex, with its more than 2,200 palm trees, eight restaurants, meandering lagoon-like swimming pool, spa and fitness center, diving center, and kids’ club with nightly movies al fresco.
Options for excursions were plentiful, from quad bike rides through the Sinai desert to Bedouin camel safaris and glass-bottom boat trips. From Sharm you can make pilgrimages to nearby Mount Sinai, climbing to the top of Mount Moses before dawn to catch the sunrise over the desert, and to St. Catherine’s monastery, at the place where Moses is said to have encountered the burning bush.
After we left Egypt, political unrest and violent protests intensified. The State Department issued a travel alert (expiring May 4), asking US citizens to be aware of the “continuing possibility of political and social unrest, incidents of which have led to recent violence.”
To get up-to-date information, go to www.travel.state.gov.