On his recent trip to Egypt, one of our editors stayed at one of the hotels on the New York Times’s list of “11 Hotels to Visit in Your Dreams” and frequently considered by several publications as one of the best hotels in Africa. But is it really that good?
Aswan, Egypt – the city that sets the meeting between the Nile and the Nubian Desert. It’s in this scenario that we find Sofitel Legend Old Cataract Aswan. Imagine a hotel, built on top of a pink granite rock, on the banks of the longest river in the world, with a view of the desert in the background and, closer, to Elephantine Island. Spoiler alert: the description in no way rivals the experience.
But it is not just the location that deserves the spotlight. The Sofitel Legend Old Cataract, has a history like few others. Built in 1899 to satisfy the whims of the rich European tourists, the hotel has welcomed VIP guests like Czar Nicholas II, Margaret Tatcher, Jimmy Carter, Princess Diana, Winston Churchill or Agatha Christie – that is said to have written parts of his novel “Death on the Nile” here. The film that resulted from the book was set at the Old Cataract in 1978. In fact, both Churchill and Agatha Christie have suites with their names, both available for a guided tour if, of course, they are not occupied – that would be kinda strange (unfortunately during our stay they were). The hotel closed for renovation between 2008 and 2011 and reopened under Sofitel management, the luxury brand of the Accor group.
But enough with the history. Upon arriving at the hotel, we passed through security (it’s Egypt, you have security everywhere) and were led by an electric cart through the fabulous garden, until arriving at the entrance to the main building. Our bags were kindly taken and we would only see them again in the room.
Although it has its own reception area, on arrival we were greeted by the staff and led to a comfortable sofa in the lobby and it was there that we took care of all the check in procedures, while sipping the fruit juice that was offered to us. We weren’t really paying much attention to the bureaucracy, because we were busy enjoying the beautiful Arabic-style architecture in this area of the hotel. After everything was taken care of, a staff member accompanied us to the room.
The hotel is divided into two wings: the “Palace” and the “Nile”. The “Palace” wing comprises the “classic” area of the hotel, where the original features have been kept. The “Nile” wing was the result of the redesign and integration of the New Cataract Hotel – built in 1961 for visitors looking for a more affordable stay – at the Sofitel Legend Old Cataract Hotel.
As we wanted to try both wings, we booked the first night in the “Palace” and the remaining 3 nights in the “Nile” wing, where rooms with river view were still available. (If you want a river view in the Palace wing you need to book way in advance)
Palace Premium Room
As the name points out, the Palace Premium room is located in “Palace” wing. Upon entering this 45m2 unit, we are transported to the colonial period, with an impressive high ceiling, apparently original wooden floors, a desk, Nespresso machine, ultra comfortable king-size bed and a balcony overlooking the garden. Everything was impeccably maintained, as expected. WiFi worked as expected.
The bathroom was kept also in a classic style, with green marble countertops and two separate areas for the shower and the toilet.
Luxury Nile View Room
From the second night, we moved to a Luxury Nile View room, in the “Nile” wing. Although the former “low-cost” part of the hotel, we can say that the Accor group has spared no effort to transform it into a luxury area as well. Even tough we like the style of the “Palace” room better, those who stay at the “Nile” wing won’t leave the Old Cataract disappointed.
Unlike the “Premium Palace”, the Luxury Nile View is not the “standard” type of room, but the mid way between the “Premium” rooms and the Suites, so note that this cannot be taken as a direct comparison between the two.
With an impressive area of 62 square meters, if we hadn’t been told, we could easily think that we were in one of the luxury suites. Two TV’s, a living room area, a corridor with a closet which leads to the largest hotel bathroom that the guy who is writing this this article and his lovely lady have seen. Again, the WiFi worked without any problem.
Oh, and the balcony did not leave anything to be desired either, with a very privileged view.
Let’s start with the good: The interior bar was fantastic, with an eclectic decor and a tasteful mix of Arab and colonial architecture. The service was consistently excellent.
The outdoor terrace, arranged trough all the extension of the hotel promenade, had an amazing view of the desert and Elephantine Island. Seeing the sun setting behind the dunes while watching the feluccas passing silently in front of us is an incredible experience. There is a drink and snack service. We didn’t try the snacks but the espressos were reasonable. The service on the terrace was always friendly, although sometimes slow.
The breakfast service was done through a semi-assisted buffet at the Terrace Restaurant (photo below) and, on the last day, at the Oriental Kebabgy.
Now the bad part. First problem: While the buffet was semi-assisted – meaning that you can’t serve the food on your own – the staff did not feel like assisting. I waited several times for a more than a reasonable amount of time until someone decided to come. And I would even understand if the buffet was crowded and employees were busy, which was not always the case. Sometimes they were talking to each other and / or the number of employees available was comically low (1 or 2) for the whole buffet.
Second problem: quality. For a Sofitel Legend, the quality was not up to standard when we compared it to other hotels where we have stayed in Egypt, such as the Marriott Mena House or Hilton Luxor (articles coming in the next few weeks). The cold cuts of meat were average, the bread was often not as fresh as Sofitel standards would dictate and the selection was not that big. In hot dishes and pastries, things got a little better, but we were still “meh”. We were expecting more. On a positive note: fruit juices were natural and very good.
At the two dinners we had at the Terrace restaurant, the feeling was the same: “meh”. We found it too expensive for the quality of the dishes, except for the soup, which was excellent. The rest gave the sincere impression of being rushed, with minimal effort.
Third problem: Inconsistency in the restaurant and breakfast service. In one day we could get an extremely professional waiter and in the next one who seemed to be there for the first time and wasn’t even that motivated. Some guests were served with porcelain or glass cups, others were only given paper and plastic cups. I remind you again that we are talking about a Sofitel Legend hotel, not an ibis Budget (they belong to the same group). I would add that it did not happened to us in other hotels in Egypt. When asked, we were told that because of the Covid situation they only served non-disposable drinking material to guests who asked (but doesn’t kinda turns this policy ineffective?). And the dishes can’t be washed to avoid the issue? I don’t know, it seemed to us a bit of a lame excuse.
The outside area of the hotel is fabulous, from the gardens that surround the hotel, to the pier, to the outdoor pool, where we spent a lot of time relaxing while watching the feluccas pass by. One activity we would have liked to have was the breakfast in a felucca, but we decided to spend the money in a trip to Abu Simbel. In addition to that breakfast, the hotel offered various water activities on the Nile, from booking cruises to a simple felucca ride.
In the pool area there were always sunbeds for all guests, and a more reserved area for for those who do not like to eat near the pool. By the way, the pool staff was great – friendly, quick and efficient. Whenever a guest asked for an umbrella, a towel or anything else, all the staff members were extremely helpful and crazy fast.
As we already mentioned, we found the service to be inconsistent. At the reception, bar, promenade / terrace and by the pool, the staff was always impeccable and the service was excellent. The pool staff deserves a special mention in this regard. We did not think, however, that the staff in the dinner service and especially breakfast fully complied with the minimum standards expected for a hotel like this.
We left the Sofitel Legend Old Cataract with a strange feeling. Was it the best hotel we’ve ever been to in terms of hard product? Yes, probably. Considering the incredible architecture, the exceptional location and the quality of the rooms and amenities, in our opinion it edges, although by very little, the Six Senses Douro Valley – where this editor and his lovely lady had the luck to stay last summer.
As for the soft product, namely in terms of meals, staff and experiences, the Six Senses is way ahead. Between the two, Six Senses Douro Valley remains the best luxury hotel where we have ever stayed.
Don’t get us wrong. We really enjoyed our experience at the Old Cataract, but we feel there is room for improvement, in order to make the transition from a very good hotel to the hotel of your dreams
Disclaimer: The reservation was paid for in full by us and in order to keep the experience as genuine as possible and the hotel was not informed about our intention of preparing this article at any time until check out.