x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

Sofitel El Gezirah, Cairo

It's hard to imagine that there is a better place to stay in Cairo. To be able to escape the chaos but remain in the heart of the city is priceless.

The Sofitel El Gezirah hotel features a spacious lounge area decorated with a mix of modern and traditional motifs.
The Sofitel El Gezirah hotel features a spacious lounge area decorated with a mix of modern and traditional motifs.

You escape from the bustle and the horns of Cairo traffic and nip down a side street, stopping momentarily so a dog can sniff the vehicle for explosives. Then you have to pass through a metal detector before you reach the lobby - clearly this is a hotel taking security seriously. The main reception room is vast, with a huge chandelier, a wooden ceiling like a French chateau, large sofas and a view on the Nile. The actual check-in takes place in a low-ceilinged corridor. Nobody shows you to your room but there is a rather natty lift system that asks you to select which floor you want to go to while you are waiting; when the lift arrives, your desired floor has already been automatically programmed in to the controls and all you have to do is look at yourself in the mirrors.

Nobody could pretend this is a hotel with a beautiful exterior. It's a Soviet style tower, the likes of which you find in Bucharest and Prague, and could even have been a gift from Stalin during the heat of the Cold War. The building dates from the 1950s, but the hotel has been completely renovated and refurbished within the last year. From afar it looks like one of those curlers that your mother might have worn in her hair.

However, what makes this so special is the location: right on the tip of El Gezirah island, in the middle of the Nile. It is like being on a boat, and because the tower is round, everybody gets a great view. It's quiet too, with little to disturb you except the sound of the water slapping against the hulls of the feluccas as they sail up and down the river. Although it is a bit of a schlepp to the pyramids, which are on the outskirts of town in Giza, the fabulous Egyptian Museum is just across the bridge.

Is neat and comfortable, if not especially large. French hotel chains are obviously under orders to make their rooms to match their pocket-sized president. However, there was a good separate bathroom with shower and bath, and free Wi-Fi. The bed was comfortable and came with a choice of pillows. The best thing of all was the small terrace, about the size of a bathtub, on which I could sit and watch the sun setting on the pyramids on the horizon.

Friendly and relatively attentive, if at times a little chaotic. Despite being told that everything was open 24 hours, one barman hurried us off the terrace at 11pm one evening. The worst part was when I went to the pool at 4pm on Friday afternoon for a swim. When I asked for a sunlounger I was told there were none available, but I should "go and have lunch and come back later". Whoever built a hotel with 300 rooms and then bought only 30 sun beds ought to be eaten slowly by crocodiles.

The bread, the bread. The Egyptian restaurant has its own bread oven, and what comes out of it is delicious. Otherwise the food at El Kebagy was good, if not outstanding, but I liked the mini barbecue that the meat arrived on that sat on the table like a gold sarcophagus. The breakfast was a buffet, not bad if not remarkable. Better was the Moroccan restaurant, and best of all was the Buddha Bar. The food there was fabulous: spicy prawns, Asian dishes of chicken and meat, noodles, and fancy rices. And it had the least irritating house music I have ever heard. There is an open air terrace at the back where you can smoke shisha and admire the flow of the Nile.

Is this hotel for businessmen, pyramid viewers, locals to have dinner or Europeans to take their children for winter sunshine? Nobody is too sure, but the hotel has a range of different rooms and restaurants designed to suit everyone.

Being on the river; the gardens - including a flower bed of ornamental cabbages - and the Buddha Bar. And the massage from a Thai woman called Tim.

Being told that there were sunloungers available. When I did finally find one, I fell asleep and woke up to find my ankles being mauled by mosquitoes. There is a moral there somewhere.

It's hard to imagine that there is a better place to stay in Cairo. To be able to escape the chaos but remain in the heart of the city is priceless. It was almost tempting just to stay on the balcony and watch the boats go up and down and the pyramids loom in the distance.

A double room costs from US$220 (Dh800) including tax but not breakfast. Sofitel El Gezirah, 3 El Thawra Council St Zamalek (00 20 2736 3640; www.sofitel.com).