Cairo’s reborn Nile Ritz-Carlton brings the very best of modern hospitality to one of the world’s great ancient cities, writes Andrew Harris
Rashwan is looking concerned. Having endured his tennis courts being removed to make way for a new 52m swimming pool (the largest in central Cairo), the former tennis coach’s new role as pool attendant is nevertheless taken seriously. But as he waits, towel in hand, to extend his habitual warm welcome, a barrier emerges between us: a line of Middle Eastern men in smart suits and crispy white jalabiyas suddenly pour past, chaperoned by anxious-looking large men talking into their sleeves – all oblivious to the disruption they are generating for Rashwan and myself.
Their point of entry into our otherwise tranquil watery wonderland appears to be an ornate iron gate discreetly positioned behind the new poolside cabanas, leading to a perfectly manicured lawn at the centre of a lush garden. Beyond is an imposing building, the HQ of the Arab League.
The officials, it seems, have a habit of using this conduit into the hotel next door. This is clearly not the kind of internationally significant appendage attached to the average hotel, but then the Nile Ritz-Carlton is not the average hotel. With the Arab League on one side, the imposing pink colonial façade of the Egyptian Museum on the other, breathtaking views over the Nile to the front and across Tahrir Square and the city to the rear, this
is the heart of Cairo – itself the beating heart of the Arab world.
Colonel Gamal Abdel Nasser isn’t remembered fondly in Britain. In the fevered atmosphere following his 1952 anti-colonialist revolution, what better symbolic site to construct an ultra-modern hotel to eclipse all those British bastions than on the site of the British Army barracks? Cairo’s leading hotel, Shepheard’s, had just been burned to the ground amid anti-British riots, and who better to partner its replacement than the supposedly meritocratic Americans?
In February 1959, Nasser inaugurated the first modern Middle Eastern hotel of the postwar era, and a legend was born: the Nile Hilton. But in the time-honoured tradition
of revolutions subsiding with unintended consequences, Nasser’s temple of hospitality for all became from day one a shrine of incessant worship for Cairo’s elite, with an unending stream of celebrity guest appearances, from Elizabeth Taylor and Frank Sinatra to John and Yoko.
The huge ballroom, Alf Leila Wa Leila (One Thousand and One Nights), entered Cairo’s consciousness, becoming the scene for any and every self-respecting society wedding. The sweeping staircase, preserved in all its 1950s glass-and-gold glory, became the backdrop for a thousand and one bride-and-groom photo-shoots.
Appropriately, it is another upscale US hotelier, Ritz-Carlton, that is assuming the responsibility of bringing into the 21st century this American-style statement made so definitively during the preceding one.
The 331-room Nile Ritz-Carlton reopened in November 2015 following an extensive refurbishment by the architect Frank Nicholson. He had a hard act to follow, but the new kid on the old block where Nasser deliberately stamped his Pan-Arab credentials is every elegant inch a worthy inheritor of that history.
As the limousine transfer arrives outside the hotel concourse, the man jumping out of the car in front inadvertently displays a pistol tucked into the back of his trousers. Security, which Egyptians are appreciating has to be tight at all times, is discreet here and does not disrupt the aura of a glamorous hotel.
Apart from 20 suites, including two capacious royal suites, the balconies, which were considered so radical at the time, are gone. This is no bad thing – given the current state of air quality, the views, which remain as spectacular as ever, are probably best breathed in from behind safety glass.
The revamped One Thousand and One Nights is now accompanied by the Al Qahira ballroom, at more than 18,000 square feet the biggest in downtown Cairo. There are four dining options, with the signature restaurant Vivo operating under the tutelage of chef Oliver Glowig, highly regarded in Italian gastronomic circles since his time cooking in Capri, where he acquired two Michelin stars along with an Italian wife.
The Ritz-Carlton concept of the Club Level lounge, to which guests can upgrade, situated here on the 12th of 13 floors, is a masterclass in high-end hospitality. The continually changing repertoire of meticulously laid-out, top-quality food and beverages, amid the plush confines of this exclusive eyrie perched above the Nile, must rate as one of the most attractive potential landing spots anywhere on Planet Upgrade. It’s also an opportunity to engage with the staff, some of whom, like Rashwan, are survivors from the Hilton era, and to appreciate how they all genuinely do aspire to be the best of the best.
Up on the top floor, another ‘wow’ factor awaits with the views from Nox, the late-night bar and music venue. Here, and throughout the hotel, designs and colour schemes project a restrained opulence, more Vanderbilt than Vegas. To the rear of the hotel, bordering Tahrir Square, a garden has been reinstated, incorporating the shisha-smoking, belly-dancing outdoor Arabic restaurant, Bab El-Sharq.
If you do make it into the maze of Franco-Italianate streets constructed by Khedive Ismail, Egypt’s late-19th-century ruler, you’ll find it all as busy, but as run-down as ever. Ismail, who was deposed by the British and ended up dying in exile while trying to consume two bottles of champagne in one go, virtually bankrupted the country by recreating a European-style city on the banks of the Nile. Right up to the 1952 revolution, there flourished a refined cosmopolitan world of wide boulevards and ornate buildings, including an opera house, several palaces, and a large synagogue that still sits in resigned solitude.
The Middle East’s largest metropolis is no prettified, Gulf-style Arabic theme park; it’s the real deal. Khan el-Khalili, the gigantic spreading souk, has all the unadulterated smells and shouts of an authentic oriental bazaar and is an experience to savour. From the grandeur of the Mohamed Ali Mosque to the Agatha Christie spirits in the museum, and of course the Pyramids, Cairo remains an A-list destination.
How long considerations, both domestic and geopolitical, continue to weigh on visitor numbers is anyone’s guess. For now, the queues outside the museum are gone but this destination hotel at the heart of Egyptian life for half a century is well and truly back.
It has brought an amazing Olympic-size pool with it, and it’ll take more than a passing trade delegation to keep me out of it.