The trip of a lifetime is a flight away, with luxurious accommodation, ancient artefacts and magnificent vistas, writes Eugene Masterson
With direct flights from Dublin to Cairo recently starting, it is magical that the land of the pharaohs, which has been at the top of my bucket list for decades, is now easily accessible from Ireland.
My journey began by taking Egypt Air’s efficient and pleasant service, a flight of about five-and-a-half hours. There is no alcohol served on board, and you will also find there are no local bars in mainly-Muslim Egypt, though alcohol is served in tourist hotels or the ubiquitous English and Irish bars, which are few and far between.
On arrival in Cairo, I checked into the modern Fairmont Nile City Hotel — a towering structure boasting spectacular views over one of the world’s most famous rivers.
The Fairmont has a couple of upmarket international restaurants as well as its in-house Egyptian eatery. Upstairs there is a pool bar, where you can take a dip in the warm air. Be warned though, cocktails are very pricey at about €20 a pop, with bottles of lager around €6.
The next morning, I left the hotel at 7am and was whisked through the bustling streets of this city of nearly 20 million people. After only a 20-minute ride, I spotted one of the most magnificent sights I’ve ever seen — the iconic pyramids of Giza.
It’s amazing to see how close these majestic structures are to the city, lying right on its periphery. There are three major pyramids, as well as the Great Sphinx of Giza. All were built during the fourth dynasty of ancient Egypt, between 2600 and 2500BC (the locals are bemused when I tell them Ireland’s Newgrange is 500 years older, but perhaps not as spectacular).
The reason why tourists visit this site (and others in the country) so early in the morning during summer is the stifling afternoon heat, which can reach 40C or more. This is also why it’s usually best to plan your trip in the spring or autumn.
arrival at the tallest pyramid — which is one of the seven wonders of the ancient world and the only one still in existence — it’s time to take in the sheer enormity of what was for nearly 4,000 years the planet’s highest man-made structure, standing at 147m (481ft).
The pyramids were originally built to house the tombs of the pharaohs, but the insides are now empty — they’re not for the claustrophobic, as you have to crouch down tunnels to reach the chambers (I passed on this one).
To get totally into the vibe, I donned a headdress and mounted a camel for a jaunt of several minutes on the outskirts of the pyramids, feeling a bit like Lawrence of Arabia (it’s about €5).
Next up was a photo opportunity with the iconic sphinx, which has the body of a lion and head of a human. Many tourists say the best place to get a snap of the whole vista is from the roof of the local Pizza Hut, though I didn’t get time to try this out.
After this breath-taking visit, we popped into a factory where the papyrus plant is made into the writing support which was used by the ancient Egyptians. Then it was off to the Museum of Civilisation and the Egyptian Museum. Both fascinating buildings house mummies of the pharaohs, the most famous being Ramesses II. The latter museum also has many of the artefacts taken from the tomb of Tutankhamun, including his death mask.
The next morning was spent visiting the historic Citadel — an Islamic fortress built in the 12th century, which housed Egypt’s rulers for over 700 years. The complex now boasts a huge mosque, while its former palace has been turned into a fascinating museum, with an exhibition of military paraphernalia outside.
A walking trip through the city’s Khan el-Khalili market and bazaar allowed me to pick up a couple of local handmade souvenirs, and get a glimpse of what life is like for the locals. Early the next day it was time to fly to Hurghada, a major port city located on the Red Sea. I checked into the beautiful Hilton Plaza Hotel, where I stayed in a fabulous two-story duplex overlooking swimming pools and a beautiful beach.
Visits to a fascinating Coptic cathedral and a local mosque were followed by a pretty marina, where I took a boat trip which included snorkelling (wear a life vest as the water can be quite choppy). You can also see coral and fish from the boat’s submarine-like windows downstairs.
The next day, I took a six-hour journey by car through mainly barren countryside to reach Luxor in the Nile Valley, where I checked into the splendid Steigenberger Nile Palace, which has lovely suites overlooking the Nile and delicious Italian and Lebanese restaurants in its airy courtyard.
The Luxor area is known as ‘the world’s largest open-air museum’, where one of the greatest civilisations to have walked the earth once lived.
That evening, I visited the enormous Karnak Temple with its mindboggling array of statues and pillars stretching back nearly 4,000 years. A relaxing sunset trip on a traditional felucca sailboat followed, during which I sampled Egyptian tea and saw kingfishers diving for food.
The next day was one jaw-dropping moment after another. First up was a once-in-a-lifetime trip to the Valley of the Kings, which has about 60 discovered tombs, four of which I visited; they are readily accessed with steps and lighting and boast wonderful artwork on their walls.
The most famous, of course, is the tomb of Tutankhamun. It still has the mummy of the boy king who reigned Egypt from 1361-1352BC and will celebrate the 100th anniversary of its discovery by Howard Carter in November.
The temple of Queen Hatshepsut and Luxor Temple are both treasure troves, where you can spend hours looking in awe at the detail of carvings and sculptures, while the twin Colossi of Memnon also have the wow factor.
A few tips if you go — you’re likely to be targeted by hawkers at major tourist attractions, who usually ask three times the price you can barter them down to, but they are friendly enough. Be wary of tourist traps like alabaster pottery factories, where I was charged €200 for six onyx marble goblets. And at Cairo airport, the euro and dollar are the same rate in duty free, so you may prefer to pay in dollars.
■ Egypt Air operates four times per week between Dublin and Cairo, and it is the first Ireland’s scheduled air service to and from Egypt. Prices average €500 return.
■ Fairmont Nile City Hotel is at all.accor.com/fairmont/cairo; Hilton Plaza Hurghada on hilton.com/hurghada and the Steingenber on steigenbergerluxor.guestreservations.com