BeSeeingYou At: Sofitel Legend Old Cataract Hotel
Location: Aswan, Egypt
Number of rooms and suites: 138
Date of Stay: October 2023
Why book Sofitel Legend Old Cataract?
Reigning like a lavish queen over the banks of the Nile River, the Sofitel Legend Old Cataract is as enchanting a destination as you’ll find anywhere, thanks in no small part to the180-degree views of Elephantine Island, golden desert sand, and the ever-mysterious and moving river. I could spend hours watching the traditional felucca boats zig-zag up and down the scene or listening to the call to prayer waft by on the wind.
From the moment you stroll past the tinkling fountains and palm-tree-lined entry and step inside, you’ll be charmed. The arabesque-meets-Victorian aesthetic with Moorish archways, fresh roses and candle light evoke an era of old Egyptian glamour, while glimmering chandeliers, carefully curated pieces of art and period furniture, and black-and-white photos of illustrious guests add to the illusion that you’ve stepped back in time and into a mirage.
Fold in the Instagrammable outdoor spaces and a spa that looks plucked from an Egyptian fable, and it’s easy to see why the Sofitel Legend Old Cataract is a bucket list stop in Egypt for hotel lovers and travellers. No wonder the setting inspired Agatha Christie to write Death on the Nile!
Expect to see couples, families and groups just off a boat or about to embark on a Nile River cruise, as many tour companies begin or end their itineraries in Aswan. The crowd definitely leans sophisticated, even by the pool, where I spotted men in Vilebrequin swim trunks and women in belted Gucci maillots. Sundresses, linen pants, shorts and sandals are fine for lunch or a drink al fresco, but plan to step it up a bit for dinner, especially if you book a table at 1902 Restaurant where men must wear jackets (one can be provided), and sneakers are a no-no. Though refined and upscale, the Sofitel Legend Old Cataract overall vibe is still relaxed and welcoming to all.
Does the hotel have a past?
Does it ever! Dating back to 1899, the hotel was built by Thomas Cook for wealthy European travellers and was part of the early tourist expansion in Egypt. The former guest list reads like an illustrious who’s who, with aristocrats, movie stars and politicians all rolling through over the past 100+ years. However, the hotel has practically become synonymous with the late novelist Agatha Christie who stayed here with her husband in 1933. This stunning setting is said to have been the muse for Death on the Nile, first published in 1937. One look around and the inspiration’s easy to understand. Among other luminaries who have rested their heads at Sofitel Legend Old Cataract are Tsar Nicholas II, Princess Diana, Winston Churchill, Margaret Thatcher, Jimmy Carter, Howard Carter, and Queen Noor. Are you next?
Rooms & Suites
The Sofitel Legend Old Cataract has 138 rooms of which 100 are suites, many with Nile River views, in various categories across two different buildings: The Palace Wing, housed in the original building, and The Nile Wing, a newer (built in the 1960s) highrise that is a bit of an eyesore if I’m being honest. Luckily, the rooms more than make up for it.
I stayed in a luxury room (62-square-metres) in the Nile Wing. The lime green hallway had me worried at first, but then I opened my door. The room was massive, with a large seating area and TV, a coffee and tea station, a king-sized bed, and a marble bathroom the size of my first studio flat, complete with a stand-alone tub. The pièces-de-résistance of the luxury rooms are the terraces with seating for four and sweeping views of the pool, the river, Elephantine Island, and the Mausoleum of Aga Khan sitting atop a desert dune in the distance.
The hotel has several categories of suites, but for a real splurge you’ll want to nab the Agatha Christie (175-square-metres) or the Winston Churchill (138-square-metres), both in the Nile Wing. They offer plenty of room to channel your inner VIP, pen the opening chapter of your novel, or sip Champagne overlooking the Nile.
Spill the tea: how’s the food and drink?
There are five food and beverage options at Sofitel Legend Old Cataract, and none disappoint. The Terrace Restaurant is where to take in the view while dining on sandwiches, salads, babaganouch and tahini, and a basket of fresh-baked bread. Reserve a table at 1902 Restaurant for refined French gastronomy served beneath a grand Arabian dome. The menu changes regularly but you might find dishes such as grilled lamb chops or beef fillet, baked salmon with oriental spice, sea scallops with caviar, with warm tarte tatin with vanilla ice cream for dessert. Enjoy a cocktail or high tea at Palms, where you’ll enjoy scones, strawberries and cream, gourmet sandwiches and savory snacks while marveling at the blazing orange Nile sunset.
Honestly, once you arrive at Sofitel Legend Old Cataract, you won’t want to leave. But Aswan and the surrounding areas are full of mind-blowing places to visit. Not to miss are the temples of Philae, Kalabsha, and Kom Ombo, a cruise on a traditional felucca boat, and a visit to a Nubian village (the Nubians are an ethnic group from Southern Egypt and Northern Sudan, with their own language, and cultural traditions). Be sure to add an extra day for a trip to Abu Simbel, a highlight of any visit to Egypt. Though the journey is long (about a 3.5 hours’ drive each way from the hotel), the temples are some of the most spectacular. The Aswan souk is a 5-minute cab ride from the Sofitel Legend Grand Cataract or a 20-minute walk, and full of Egyptian and African goods.
How’s the service?
Egyptian hospitality is warm and personal, and the Sofitel Legend Old Cataract is no exception. We arrived early in the morning so our rooms were not ready. However, the staff welcomed us in, offered us a drink, and invited us to change at the spa and lounge by the pool. We were able to check in just after lunch. Because we had an 6 a.m. departure, breakfast ‘to go’ boxes were prepared for us, which were filled with French pastries and sandwiches. It sure beat the airport food! If you book a suite, you’ll enjoy butler service. Whether it’s unpacking your suitcase, making reservations or drawing a bubble bath sprinkled with rose petals, your wish is their command.
Is there a spa?
WOW! doesn’t do the So Spa justice. It’s a magical and mesmerising space with an indoor pool (adults only) surrounded by mosaic pillars and filigreed lanterns that transport you inside Aladdin’s lamp. A private locker is provided for your personal belongings, and you will be supplied with a robe, towel and slippers. The treatment menu includes the usual spa suspects (massage, facials, body wraps) but try the 45-minute Hammam ritual, in which your skin is cleansed with traditional black soap, followed by steam and invigorating loofah scrub. They also offer after-sun treatments, which you need after a day out exploring Egyptian temples. For guests 7-15 years old, the spa offers a 30-minute ‘Mini Me’ massage, a nice treat for your tweens and teens.
Plastic bottles are ubiquitous around Egypt but I’m happy to report there was nary a one in sight at Sofitel Legend Old Cataract. Glass bottles are stocked in rooms where you’ll also find refillable shampoo, soap and hair conditioner bottles in the showers. I was also pleased to see paper straws used at the bars and restaurants.
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Suite 1201, where Agatha Christie stayed and wrote her famous novel, is available for a visit. Every afternoon at 5:30 p.m. (verify time), this famous room, along with the Winston Churchill suite, is shown to curious visitors, if they aren’t occupied by guests. Just meet in the hotel lobby.
Reviewer: Kimberley Lovato
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Photos courtesy of Sofitel Legend Old Cataract unless noted