Ever dreamed of the romance of the Grand Tour, of hotel drawing rooms dripping with aspidistras and antimacassars, of mahogany dining rooms and creaking iron elevators? You’ll be happy to know that whilst the rest of the world’s hoteliers toss out the chintz and candlewick in favour of faux suede and flat-screens, relics remain of the good old days of travel, scattered throughout the Middle East. Here's where you can still find that olde-worlde charm.
A crop of the region’s finest Victorian-era hotel gems can be found in vast, ancient Egypt. If you’re travelling to Cairo, check into the historic Mena House Hotel at Giza. Once the royal hunting lodge of Khedive Ismail, the hotel, right beside the Pyramids, has been welcoming the well-heeled since the 1890s and is now a lush five-star destination from whose swimming pool, in the words of Napoleon, 'forty centuries of history look down' upon you.
If funds are tight, consider Cairo’s stolid old Windsor Hotel – a love-or-loathe-it experience – whose clanking pipes, lumpy mattresses, temperamental old cage elevator and ancient waiting staff exude an undeniably raffish charm. It was a British officers’ club before it began welcoming paying guests for the night, and you may still find the odd ghost of a sergeant-major lingering in one of the club chairs of the Barrel Bar, which – even if you can’t quite stomach a full night’s stay – is well worth patronising for a nice strong scotch or two.
Further south in the temple-heavy Nile-side cities of Luxor and Aswan, two further vintage hotel jewels await. In Luxor, the Winter Palace Hotel, built in 1886 on the banks of the Nile, retains a distinct air of nostalgic charm, despite nowadays being part of the Sofitel chain. Ascend its grand front steps to wander its cool marble, tile and antique-laden interior, dine on fine French food at its 1886 Restaurant (don’t forget your jacket and tie), and watch the mighty Nile laze by from the comfort of your little French balcony. Aswan's Old Cataract Hotel – another Sofitel heritage property – has a similarly grand provenance. Book in to this vast old Nile-view palace, built in 1899, where luminaries such as the Aga Khan, Winston Churchill, Princess Diana and Agatha Christie have all stayed before you.
Israel & the Palestinian Territories
In Israel and the Palestinian Territories, two turn-of-the-century treasures can be found in East Jerusalem and biblical, beautiful Bethlehem. The American Colony Hotel, a darling of diplomats, UN workers and foreign correspondents, started life in the 19th century as a pasha’s palace. In 1902 Baron Ustinov, grandfather of the late, great actor Peter Ustinov, converted the palace into a hotel, and its luxury rooms have been housing overnighters – and its bar negotiations, interviews and intrigue – in oasis-like comfort ever since.
The magnificent Jacir Palace, a sensitively restored mansion belying a maze of new wings, in Bethlehem now operated by the Intercontinental chain. Built in the early 2oth century for a former mayor of Bethlehem, the original palace is a fanciful gingerbread stonework construction, which has, at various times, been used as a school, a prison, and an Israeli military headquarters. Today, however, its marble floors echo once again to the sound of guests, and its swimming pool, out back, offers respite from the rigours of travel in the turbulent Palestinian Territories.
Deep in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley beside the ruins of Heliopolis, the 'Sun City' of the ancient world, don’t miss a stay at the Palmyra Hotel, a musty, rusty relic of better, grander days. Stay in room 30, where General de Gaulle slumbered, peruse Jean Cocteau’s sketches (penned to pay his bill), and hole up in its tiny, evocative bar, to truly relish the last, fast-vanishing remnants of the Grand Tour.