Five places Obama should have seen in Egypt

When Obama visited Egypt last week he took time out from making historic speeches to see the country’s most famous sights–the Pyramids and the Sphinx at Giza. It’s surprising he had the time, considering he was only in the country for nine hours. It reminds me of some of the package tours that zip through the world’s most historic country faster than you can say Tutankhamun.

OK, Obama’s a busy guy, but Egypt is a place you need to take slowly. Here are five sights that every visitor to Egypt should spend a day seeing.

Islamic Quarter of Cairo. Many people only use Cairo as a base for seeing the pyramids at Giza and the fantastic Egyptian Museum. While these are two of Egypt’s greatest hits, Cairo has plenty more to offer. Take a stroll through the Islamic Quarter, the old medieval district of winding alleyways and historic architecture. You’ll pass by thousand-year-old mosques, ornate madrasas, and sumptuous fountains. Take the time to have some tea or coffee in one of the quarter’s innumerable cafes and you’ll be sure to end up in an interesting conversation with the local shopkeepers.

Valley of the Kings. It’s best to get here as early as possible. I arrived at dawn and found most of the guards asleep, but a wee bit of baksheesh (“tip”) got me inside the tombs. I asked them not to turn on the lights. Seeing the tombs alone with only a flashlight for illumination was one of the most stunning experiences of my life. I didn’t enjoy it for long. Within an hour the first tour groups arrived. Although I was already further along in the valley, they soon caught up. But that hour or so I had by myself was unforgettable. With the help of a map, take the trail over the ridge to get above the modern-looking Temple of Hatshepsut. You can then take a trail down to this famous temple of the woman pharaoh, passing the tombs of its builders on the way.


Karnak. The most magnificent Egyptian ruins besides the Pyramids at Giza, this massive temple complex near Luxor begs to be seen at a leisurely pace. The Great Hypostyle Hall in the Precinct of Amun-Re is awe inspiring. It’s a forest of massive columns covered in hieroglyphs. I spent an enjoyable morning from dawn until noon sitting in just this one giant hall watching the light and shadows move over the carvings. Most tour groups ran through here in fifteen minutes or less, but there was so much to study I’m sure I missed half of it. While there are a lot of people selling tourist trinkets, if you hang out long enough they leave you alone. You’ll have to say no to each of them at least two or three times, but the solitude that follows is well worth it.

St. Catherine’s Monastery, Sinai. Built in the 6th century AD, this monastery at the foot of Mt. Sinai may be the oldest functioning Christian monastery in the world. Not only are there historic churches and age-old traditions to experience, but an incredible collection of early Christian art, including some especially beautiful icons. Several tour companies from Egypt and Israel send buses here, and it makes a good stopover if you’re traveling between the two countries.

At least one small town. Egypt has been hustling tourists since the days of Herodotus, so it’s nice to get away from it all by visiting an out-of-the-way place where tourists tend not to go. I spent an enjoyable three days in Minya, a small provincial capital that doesn’t have much in the way of ancient ruins. When I visited the local museum the curator was so excited he insisted I sign the guest book. I was the first person writing in something other than Arabic for several days. I spent my time sitting by the Nile, watching the faluccas while chatting with everyone who stopped by. Nobody tried to sell me anything. Away from the economic pressure of the tourist industry, I found the Egyptians to be warm, friendly, and eager to meet foreigners. I smoked waterpipes and drank tea in cafes, read the paper, and did nothing in particular. It was like a vacation from my vacation.

If you are looking for more about Egypt, check out last year’s post by Matthew Firestone of five other things you can do in Egypt. Interestingly enough, only one of them kinda overlaps with my list.

There are lots of guidebooks to Egypt, but the best cultural and historical guide I’ve seen is the Blue Guide, which is like a crash course on all things Egyptian. Sadly, the last edition was in 1993 and it is now out of print. You can easily find used copies but obviously you’ll need to buy another guidebook to supplement it. Hey, Blue Guides! Do you need a former archaeologist to update your Egypt book?

16 Tourists injured in Luxor hot air balloon accident

Yesterday, a hot air balloon crashed in Luxor, the city of the pharaohs, in Egypt. Sixteen people were injured in the incident. For those of you with an axe to grind about cell phone towers, you just got some ammo. The hot air balloon hit a cell phone tower on the west bank of the Nile River, near Gourna village.

Identities of the injured haven’t been released yet, but we do know that they come from Canada, Denmark, England, France, South Korea and the United States. All were taken to a hospital in Luxor for treatment.

This event is not without precedent. A year ago, a similar situation led to the injury of seven tourists.

The Classic Nile Cruise Gets an Upgrade

Travelers to Egypt generally share a similar experience. They arrive in Cairo, visit the Pyramids and Sphynx, swing by the Egyptian museum to check out Tut, then leave town for Aswan to scope out the dam, before boarding a Nile riverboat for a leisurely cruise back down the world’s longest river. Along the way, they’ll visit more ancient ruins, before ending up in Luxor a few days later, where they’ll tour, you guessed it, yet more ancient ruins.

The Nile Cruise has been one of the staples of tourism in Egypt for years. But according to a new story from the Daily Mail the classic cruise is undergoing major changes at the moment, with larger, more luxurious boats, longer cruise options, and more amenities.

The typical Nile cruise ship has roughly 15-20 small cabins, but the newest vessels to hit the river are much larger in size, including the Sonesta St George I, a boat with 57 cabins, a full service spa, and five-star service. Not to be outdone, the recenly launched Royal Viking cruise ship has 68 suites, most of which are twice the size the cabins on standard vessels, with four over sized rooms that include a whirlpool tub, large windows, and plasma TV’s.
Luxor is undergoing some changes of it’s own. While the amazing Egyptian temples remain as they have for 4000 years, the hotels and restaurants in the city are undergoing massive restorations, with a number of new additions being built as well. To cater to the increased traffic, the port has also been expanded to more comfortably accomidate more boats and the new larger ships as well.

It seems that the Nile Cruise is going upscale, with more options for travelers than ever before. Lets just ohpe the classic experience doesn’t change dramatically as well.

A Different Side of Vegas

What I love about Las Vegas is that it has the capacity to be whatever you want it to be. Alcohol soaked bachelor party? Check. Romantic honeymoon? Check. Terrifying ride to wealth? Well, maybe if you’re lucky.

I just got back from a long weekend in Vegas with my girlfriend and saw a side of the city that I hadn’t seen. A more relaxed, comfortable, and satisfying side. Here are the highlights:

The Signature at MGM

I’ve stayed at and enjoyed the MGM before, but this was a totally new experience.

There are no regular rooms in the Signature. Every room is a suite. What I particularly appreciated was how thoroughly the suite was appointed.

The kitchen has a large Sub Zero fridge, Miele appliances, and most important: every kitchen utensil you can imagine. Calphalon pots and pans, high quality flatware and silverware, measuring cups, baking sheets, and even a blender.

We originally planned on eating out for most of our meals, but it was so pleasant to cook in the kitchen that we ended up going to Whole Foods and cooking almost every meal ourselves. Best of all, the maid will do your dishes in the morning.

The bedroom has a large king sized bed with the high quality linens that you would expect from such a hotel. Huge windows let the sunshine in to wake you up in the morning, or you can draw the room darkening curtains if you want to sleep in. The desk facing the bed has a huge retractable plasma screen which the housekeeping staff sets to an amusing aquarium scene at night.

Our suite had two full bathrooms, which would have been convenient if we were ever in a rush to get showered and ready. The huge master bathroom has a perfectly sized Jacuzzi in it. Big enough for two people to easily sit in, and deep enough for the water to go up to your neck. The lights of the bathroom are on a dimmer, which is essential for a relaxing soak.

The living room has a comfortable couch, a second plasma screen with DVD player, a nice sized balcony, and a round dining table that also serves well as a card table.

The Signature is not “just another hotel”. It does a great job of combining the comfort and convenience of home with the luxury and service of Las Vegas. It’s now my first choice for Las Vegas accommodations.

Book through your favorite travel site, or directly at The Signature


I’m a huge Cirque du Soleil fan, so it’s probably impossible for me to give an unbiased review of any of its shows. Then again, anyone who sees just one show will join the ranks of Cirque fans.

KA, which shows at the MGM, was different from other Cirque du Soleil shows that I had seen. It had more plotline, more special effects, but less acrobatics. It was nice to see a Cirque show that tried new things but still maintained the magic of the troupe.

The centerpiece of KA, if there is one, is the amazing stage that they’ve built. It’s difficult to properly describe because it’s difficult to understand how it works. The entire stage is suspended with giant hydraulic arms which have the ability to rotate or angle the stage in any direction imaginable. At one moment actors will be dancing on it, and in the next it has rotated 90 degrees vertically and they’re climbing up arrows “shot” into it. In the photo above the actors are suspended on harnesses and are walking straight up the stage.

The show, as should be expected from Cirque du Soleil, is completely mesmerizing. I have only seen a handful of Cirque du Soleil shows, but KA broke the mold and incorporated a lot of elements that I hadn’t seen before. In particular, the set was unbelievably complex and beautiful.

If you’ve never seen a Cirque du Soleil show, there’s no way to truly understand the experience without actually going. The best description I can give is to say that it’s a combination of acrobatics, design, dance, music, and immersion in a world that has the same texture as dreams.

Videos and tickets are available at KA Cirque du Soleil.


No, that’s the not the name of a tawdry “topless revue” in Vegas. It’s actually an exhibit at the Luxor which showcases dissected and preserved human bodies.

Sound gross? It is at first, but after fifteen minutes of getting used to seeing sliced up dead people, it’s becomes the science class you always wished you had.

The exhibit does a great job of showing you how the body actually works, not as individual organs, but as one big connected system. My favorite parts were the complete circulatory system, seeing the whole digestive path together, and the counter at the end where they let you hold real human organs.

I promise it’s not as gross as I made it sound. Get tickets to the Luxor exhibit here, or check the Bodies site to see if there’s an exhibit in your area.

Vegas Building Boom Means Cheap Rooms

Las Vegas is feeling the pinch of slumping travel numbers. The amount of visitors who enter Sin City has dropped by nearly 5%, but the construction of new hotels has led to an increase in rooms. Who to fill them?

Once they get over criticizing themselves for lacking foresight, hotel execs have to find a way to hawk all those empty beds.

The obvious strategy, at least for the short term, is to lower prices until they reach a point where visitors won’t mind shelling out a little extra for the flight because they are getting such a ridiculously cheap deal from the hotel.

How cheap is ridiculously cheap? According to MSNBC, over half the casino-owned hotels in the city are offering rates of $50 per night or below. Yes, that type of price is usually reserved for roadside motels where you can also choose to pay by the hour. Even high end, established names like Luxor and MGM Grand have rooms available for under $100 per night.

However, the famous ad campaign tag-line might be true of hotels as well. What happens in Vegas…isn’t happening elsewhere just yet. Rooms in Chicago, New York and other major metro areas are still at full price. International tourists, convention-goers, and business travelers make up the bulk of New York’s hotel customers. They have other bases to rely on as the number of US-based leisure travelers decline. That is not so in Las Vegas.