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Trip Report Trip Report: Jordan and Egypt - February 2010

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February 10 (Wednesday): Trying to Depart the US

We were supposed to depart this day; however, major snowstorms on the East Coast ended up postponing our flight until the next day. We had been watching the weather, and we actually moved our flight ahead one day even before the airlines/airports cancelled/closed. I felt better having the decision in my own hands rather than being at someone else’s mercy, and it turned out to be the right one.

February 11 (Thursday): Departing the US

Parking: We used Air Park at JFK for the second time successfully. The only potential snag was that they moved the entrance for their parking lot from a side street onto the main thoroughfare.

JFK Airport: Terminal 3 is pretty nice; however, we didn’t spend much time in the public areas. As American Express platinum members who were travelling on Delta, we had free access to their club/lounge, so we spent our waiting time there. There’s a huge duty free shop in Terminal 3, along with the usual array of shops, restaurants, and currency exchanges.

Delta Flight: The flight from JFK to Amman was fine. There were a few open seats, so my husband and I moved from into the center aisle of the 2-3-2 configuration with an empty middle seat between us. The flight attendants were friendly and the service was fine. Food was decent, considering it’s airline food. In coach class, movies are played on the general cabin screens, one right after the other, so you don’t have a choice as to what you watch when, but it wasn’t as problematic as I had envisioned it would be. I would use Delta again for the right price and/or itinerary. We chose them over Egypt Air or Royal Jordanian because they flew nonstop to both Amman and Cairo, and it allowed us to have an open-jaw itinerary.

February 12 (Friday): Amman to Petra

Amman Airport Arrivals: This is a calm and manageable airport. We had to buy our visas, then stand in line for customs/immigration. The purchasing was quick and easy, but the rest of the process was rather slow and laborious, passing your documentation from one man to another, taking your photograph, etc. We exchanged enough US dollars for Jordanian dinars before departing the US, so we did not first have to stop at a currency exchange in the airport. We had no problems whatsoever at the airport; baggage claim was easy and we found our driver quickly.

Desert Horizons Transfer: Our driver, Ahmed, met us at baggage claim as planned. Desert Horizons deserves my kudos because we had to change our plans at the last minute due to the snowstorm. Mohammed, the general manager, communicated with me via e-mail many times over the past several months, then more frequently as it became evident that we would have to adjust our plans because of our late arrival. We intended to spend our first night at the Kempinski Ishtar at the Dead Sea, but we had to bypass that and go directly to Petra because of missing a full day. We had intended to do some sightseeing en route to Petra, including Bethany Beyond Jordan, Mount Nebo, and Madaba, but we had to skip those. We did get to visit Kerak on our last day en route to Jerash rather than on our first day as originally planned.

Movenpick Petra: We spent two nights at the Movenpick Petra in a junior suite, which wasn’t worth the extra money. The hotel can’t be beat for its location right next to Petra; for that alone, it deserves your consideration. The Petra ticket window is just steps from the hotel door. The outside of the hotel is attractive, although boxy. At one time, it appeared that you could enter the hotel from the main street or at either end of the building, but that’s not true anymore. Security measures have everyone passing through a metal detector and entering directly into the lobby. The public spaces like the lobby, indoor atrium, and pool are attractive, if small. There are a few shops off the lobby, including an ice cream shop/cafe. The main restaurant, Al Saraya, has a nice breakfast (included with most room rates) containing hot and cold selections and made-to-order omelets; this restaurant is also open for lunch and dinner, serving a buffet as well as a la carte. There is a more formal restaurant called Al Iwan that we did not use. The Al Maq’aad Bar has a lovely and lively atmosphere, and you can order snacks and light refreshments there (that’s where we found ourselves for “dinner” on both nights). Prices are fair, considering it’s a hotel bar. You can also eat/drink in the Al Multaqa Lobby Lounge and the Al Baraka Tea Room (in the winter during the afternoon). The Al Ghadeer Roof Garden, supposedly only open in the summer season, was undergoing renovations when we were there, so we couldn’t even sneak a peak. The swimming pool is somewhat small, but that didn’t seem to be a problem since it was deserted on the day we saw it. You reach it in an odd way, though; first descending to the basement fitness center and then rising again to the main floor. There was access through the buffet restaurant, but it didn’t seem encouraged. The fitness center looked adequate, but small. There are several restaurants right outside the hotel on the main street; sadly for us, none of them served alcohol. There are also a few shops and supermarkets right outside, but again, no beer or wine sold (you could purchase bottles of wine at the Movenpick ice cream shop/cafe). The Movenpick restaurants do serve alcoholic beverages, so things aren’t completely dry. As I said, we had a junior suite, the decor of which was a bit dated. Disappointingly, the room didn’t have a balcony, although I saw other rooms that did (I think those were just standard rooms whose guests got lucky). Our room was a decent size, and it had a nearly-complete kitchen in a room off to the side, which we did not need; we were more interested in the extra room than having kitchen facilities. Our room faced the main street, but we heard no noise whatsoever, and we even had to sleep with the windows open one night because the air-conditioning did not work. The hotel says the minibar is complimentary and refilled daily, but we found that not to be true. It was stocked when we arrived, but never restocked, despite the fact that we called room service twice (as directed by the front desk) and actually presented ourselves at the front desk another two times to make our request. That’s terrible service in my book--if you aren’t going to refill it, then don’t lie to me and tell me you will! I suffer from dehydration, and I counted on having those liquids available to me, so it’s not just that I was trying to get a freebie. With the junior suite, we had admission to a private lounge (I think it was called the Burkhardt Library), although the first night we tried to use it, it was closed, even though it was 1.5 hours before the scheduled closing time. We were able to use it on our second night, and it was nearly deserted while we had a few drinks and snacks (nuts, petit fours, canapes, and wine and beer). I do not feel that I got what I paid for with the upgraded room; therefore, I would recommend just going with the standard option. I can’t remember actually using the internet while I was there, although I believe it was free.

February 13 (Saturday): Petra

Petra Tour: Our driver from Desert Horizons, Ahmed, hired a local guide to give us a tour of Petra. (Only Petra certified guides are allowed inside.) Petra is amazing, and rounding the last corner of the Siq to catch your first glimpse of the Treasury is priceless. We hiked to the Monastery, and the view is a nice reward after the climb. Maybe I would try a donkey the next time and conserve my energy. We rode on horseback from the ticket area to the entrance (included with your admission, but not necessary--it’s walkable on foot), and took one of the horse-and-buggies back out in the afternoon. I was impressed by the facilities inside--restrooms (although port-a-potties) and even a full-service restaurant run by the Crowne Plaza (there were real restrooms there). We did not climb to the “high place” of sacrifice, choosing to hike to the Treasury instead. You can easily spend a full day in the site, if not two. I thought that one full day was perfect, but I think my husband would have liked to return a second day to explore further.

February 14 (Sunday): Petra to Jerash to Cairo

Desert Horizons: Ahmed met us early in the morning and drove us to a crusader castle (I can’t recall the name but it might have been Shobak) before visiting another crusader castle called Kerak (from the Kingdom of Heaven movie). As a fan of the movie, I think my husband enjoyed the visit, but it was not a must-see in my book. I would recommend hiring an on-site guide, because it was VERY dark inside, and the directions were not clearly marked. Jerash, on the other hand, is fabulous! Having recently visited Turkey, I wondered how the site would compare to Ephesus, Priene, Miletus, Didyma, and I think Jerash is equivalent if not better in some ways. The yellow wildflowers around the site were in bloom, making it very picturesque. The theatre is not impressive compared to Hierapolis in Pamukkale, Turkey, for example, but Jerash has a huge number of standing pillars that are quite impressive, along with some other well-preserved structures such as colonnaded streets, plazas, and arches. I would definitely recommend it.

Amman Airport Departures: As I said earlier, this is a calm and manageable airport. You must clear security in order to check in for your flight, and they don’t allow you to pass through until 2.5 to 2 hours prior. We used Egypt Air, but it seemed to be staffed by Royal Jordanian employees. Check-in was quick and easy, as was passport control. There is a nice duty-free shop in the airport, along with two or three other small shops, a few eateries, and a currency exchange. We ate at a full-service brasserie, where we felt the food and drink prices were fair, considering it was an airport. You are able to smoke in the airport in designated rooms; there is even a smoking room off each departure lounge.

Cairo Airport Arrivals: We found this airport to be a little hectic after the peace of the Amman airport. We got our Egyptian visas prior to leaving the US, so we were able to bypass the bank windows where everyone else had to stop to exchange money and/or purchase their visa. We had no problems with immigration, customs, or baggage claim. We went to the Marriott desk (the JW Marriott shares with the Cairo Marriott) in the arrivals area, but there was no employee present as we had been told to expect. We did see a man in a suit with a Marriott nametag, who told us that the $30 Lancer car that we had arranged through the hotel and asked to have added to our bill would take a very long time to get there. He instead offered us another car service for the same price, but we had to pay cash. It was hard to know if he was scamming us or not, but things turned out fine. You have to sign your name in a big book upon leaving the airport, just prior to the tolls. There is a duty free store in the arrivals area, but you cannot use it unless you just arrived internationally. There is also a convenience store, where we stocked up on drinks and snacks (prices were really reasonable even though it was the airport). There are restrooms and a smoking room in the baggage claim area.

Cairo Marriott: I expected to like this hotel more than I actually did. Traffic was unbelievable on the way to the hotel from the airport. It was about 10 pm, but it took us well over an hour to reach the hotel. It was Valentine’s Day, so there were lots of locals out walking, driving, and celebrating, which definitely added to the traffic. (While the traffic is bad in Cairo, it’s not insane like it is in Delhi.) There is extensive security at the Marriott, including bomb-sniffing dogs when you first arrive at the property and then a metal detector later. This hotel is a self-contained oasis, with many shops, restaurants, banks (24-hours, three ATM machines), etc. We upgraded to an executive suite, which wasn’t really up to 5 star standards. There was a separate bedroom, but only one bathroom, and that didn’t even have a separate tub and shower set up as I expected. There was no wet bar, either. The room description said it included a dining table, which it did not, and also a large balcony. It actually had two small balconies, neither of which was viewable or connected to the other; just an odd setup. I expected lounge chairs out there, and each one just had a tiny table and two chairs. Neither of the balcony lights worked on our first night, although maintenance fixed them the next day. The toiletries were below 5-star standards; just ordinary products you would find in a Fairfield Inn in the US. The lounge was worthwhile, though. Internet access is NOT free. We stayed at the Marriott for three nights.

February 15 (Monday): Sakkara, Dashur, and Giza
Casual Cairo Detours: We booked about six months ahead with Debbie Senters of Casual Cairo Detours. Debbie is really responsive to e-mail questions, and as you probably already know, she is a frequent contributor to this board. We booked an Egyptologist for one full day tour in Cairo to the pyramids, including Sakkara, Dashur, and the Giza Pyramids and Sphinx. Mustafa was our Egyptologist guide, and Matmoud was our driver in a ?? nine-passenger van, even though it was just the four of us. Mustafa was very personable and knowledgeable, and we were happy with his services.

February 16 (Tuesday): More Cairo Tours

Casual Cairo Detours: We arranged to have an Egyptologist (Mustafa again, but this time without a driver) pick us up at the Marriott and give us a tour of the Cairo Museum. We debated about trying to see the museum ourselves versus using a guide for a half day. Deciding to use the guide was THE best decision--he knew exactly where and when to go to certain areas in the museum, thereby bypassing all the crowds (although we were told it wasn’t particularly crowded on the day that we visited). The security lines are fairly long to enter the museum grounds; if I have a tip, it’s to choose the line on the right when looking directly at the museum. Once you choose a “side”, the lines are contained by pillars, and it’s not really possible to switch from one side/line to the other. You can take photos outside the museum of the grounds (and there are some interesting artifacts to photograph), but you cannot even take your camera inside the museum at all. You must check it next to the security office, where they give you a claim check for when you return. The lines to retrieve cameras were longer than any other lines on the day we were there. Restroom lines inside are long. There is a small gift shop and a small cafeteria. People really complain about the conditions at the museum--hot, dark, crowded--but I really didn’t think it was bad. For our half-day afternoon tour, a Casual Guide, Jim, and his driver, Tariq, met us at the museum and drove us to the Citadel, which was marginally interesting, followed by a trip to the Khan-el-Kalili bazaar. I’m not much of a shopper, but I did want to buy some cartouches at Gouzlan Jewelry to give as gifts. I bought five double-sided silver cartouches, with Arabic on one side and hieroglyphics on the other; they came with a choice of 16”, 18”, or 20” chain and were enclosed in a small velvet pouch. They also have a cheat sheet to understand the writing. I placed my order around 4 pm, and Gouzlan delivered to the Marriott by 10 pm that evening. Their prices seemed fair, and they took credit cards and charged in US dollars, so no added foreign conversion fee. We ate kosharry at the bazaar, which is a traditionally Egyptian food, particularly in Cairo. Delicious! We were eating it on the street and some of the locals got a big kick out of us eating their food. One man chuckled, saying it was the first time he had seen tourists try kosharry. Highly recommended!

February 17 (Wednesday): Luxor West Bank Tour

Casual Cairo Detours: We asked Debbie to arrange an Egyptologist for us for our two days in Luxor. Moemen was our guide; again, he was very personable and knowledgeable. We had a driver as well, but I don’t recall his name. We visited the Valley of the Kings on what was the hottest day of our trip--we think it was 105 degrees--a definite heat wave for Cairo at this time of year. We were not able to take our cameras into the Valley of the Kings. Not only can you not take photos inside the tombs, but you can’t even take photos on the property (this is a new rule made within the past two months, we were told). We went inside three tombs: Seti I, Seti II, and Tutmoses. We did not pay the extra fee to see Tutankahmen’s tomb. I did not find the Valley of the Kings particularly enthralling, but it’s on everyone’s to-see list. It was hot outside, it was even hotter in the tombs, and the lines were long and slow moving. We also visited the Valley of the Queens, including Hatshepsut’s Temple (which was more interesting, and the first glance we had of enormous lifelike statues). We also visited the Colossi of Memnon, which I liked.

Hilton Luxor: This was my favorite hotel of my trip to Egypt and Jordan. I could have stayed here for a week without any problem. The public areas are gorgeous, including the lobby, pool, and restaurants. There are a few small shops off the lobby, including a bank and an ATM machine (I don’t think that ATM took American cards on the PLUS/NYCE/STAR system, though). There are several restaurant options; we enjoyed the four that we tried. We booked an upgraded room, and I would highly recommend that to everyone. We were on the second floor of the building adjacent to the Nile. I think there were only 27 rooms in that building, nine per floor on each of three floors. The main part of the hotel was farther from the Nile and pool, and more stories high. The big bonus to the upgraded rooms are the large balconies/terraces; the standard rooms in the main building have a little triangular sliver of a balcony, not even large enough to fit a chair, while we had a spacious terrace with two teak chairs with comfy cushions and a small table. The room was really comfortable, although not overly large. It certainly wasn’t the largest room we had during our trip; on the contrary, it may have been one of the smallest, but it was the one I liked best and felt completely comfortable in. The hotel seemed deserted, although I saw many people at the pool during the day; I’m not sure where they disappeared to at night. We only spent one night here, sadly. There is a little grocery store just outside the gates, but alcoholic beverages were harder to come by. There was a restaurant right outside the gates, and they sold us some beers by the can to take back to our room (we like to save a little money when we can). I don’t recall the restaurant name, and they didn’t take credit cards, so I don’t have a receipt, but it was almost directly across from the hotel driveway; the restaurant also functioned as a one-terminal internet cafe and library. We ate lunch at the poolside restaurant on the first day, followed by dinner on the outdoor Sunset Terrace, combining foods from Silk Road and Olives. In the morning, we had breakfast at Rosetta, which was included with our room rate, and very complete and plentiful. Internet access was free, but only because my spouse is a Hilton Hhonors Gold member. The staff was very friendly and helpful in every way. There was a metal detector to enter the lobby, and the gatekeeper at the street entrance was extremely thorough. I would stay here again in a heartbeat.

February 18 (Thursday): Luxor East Bank Tour to Cairo

Casual Cairo Detours: Moemen (and a different driver) gave us a tour of the East Bank sites, including Karnak Temple and Luxor Temple. I don’t recall the driver’s name, which is unfortunately because he was the best one we had during our entire trip. He brought along a cooler packed with cold drinks, which we appreciated immensely, and hopefully our extra tip covered whatever costs he incurred for the beverages. Both Karnak and Luxor Temples are amazing, and must-sees in my book. Moemen took us to his neighborhood sheesha “joint” for drinks and a smoke at the end of the day, which was a unique experience.

Novotel Cairo Airport: As we expected, the Novotel Cairo was the worst hotel of the trip. I wish I had been surprised and proven wrong, but the rooms are terrible. The public spaces are fine, particularly the lobby and restaurants, and the pool is adequate (although a little old and dated), but the rooms and the dank musty smell emanating from them are unacceptable. Sadly, we were here for three nights due to our rigorous touring schedule. There is an Iberotel right next door, and the view that we had from our room into/onto that property made our stay at the Novotel even worse, because the Iberotel looked much nicer than where we were (we had prepaid, so we couldn’t leave without losing all our money). The bathroom was fine, although the toilet didn’t flush properly, despite several calls to the front desk and maintenance visits. The air-conditioning worked wonderfully, as did the flat screen TV, so that was something at least. Space was tight, and we had a room with a king-size bed, so I think it would be even more cramped in a room with two double beds. We also had a sofa/daybed type thing, but the furniture, carpet, and curtains definitely needed a refresh. There was a mini-bar (not included), which gave us plenty of space to store the drinks and snacks that we bought at the grocery store across the street (well, across the street from the property entrance). The Italian restaurant (La Primavera) was fine, as was the Le Jardin d’Heliopolis (a la carte). We missed breakfast on all of the days (at Le Jardin), so I can’t comment, but the buffet set-up looked fairly large. It is possible to get beers from the bar (Le Rendezvous) to take back to your room, but the quantity is limited. There is a supermarket quite nearby where you can buy drinks and snacks for your room, and the prices there are very affordable. There were a few ground-level rooms that had access to the swimming pool/outdoor terrace. I would recommend trying to get one of those if you must stay at this hotel (I’m not sure if they were suites or regular rooms). This is a popular hotel for weddings and local conferences; some big event was going on every night that we were there, and the partying continued well into the next morning. We didn’t hear any noise from our room, although we were on the fourth floor and on the opposite side of the building.

February 19 (Friday): Cairo to Abu Simbel and Back

Cairo Domestic Departures: Very clean, spacious, comfortable terminal. Gates are somewhat far apart, but there are maps telling you how many minutes it will take to reach each gate. A great idea--one that I wish other airports (particularly in the US) would copy. There are smoking rooms in the domestic departures area, and a few shops and cafes as well as vending machines. They make lots of announcements for boarding. The domestic flights we took all required us to board a bus and drive out to the tarmac, without the aid of jetways. Even our international flight home boarded the same way--bus transport, then climbing exposed stairs to board.

Abu Simbel Airport: Very tiny, as expected! One restaurant/cafe (where you could smoke) and one small souvenir shop. There were plenty of seats for waiting, and the restrooms were clean, well-stocked, and of course, attended (I don’t recall seeing a restroom in all of Egypt without an attendant). We spent much more time at the airport than necessary, but it was a fine place to wait.

Aswan Airport: We had a four-hour layover in Aswan. When I booked our Abu Simbel itinerary, there was a direct (but not non-stop) flight from Cairo TO Abu Simbel via Aswan, but the direct return was already full. We chose to visit Abu Simbel on a Friday because there is a later afternoon return flight to Cairo on Egypt Air, but we really had more time at the site than we needed. When I originally booked, it seemed that a quick one-hour breeze-through wouldn’t be enough, but in retrospect, it would have been fine. It was nice to see the site deserted, though, after the morning crowds had gone home; it was much easier to take photos without hordes of people in them. There’s a nice shady patio cafe just outside the site, and a gauntlet of souvenir shops. If you hire a local guide onsite, be sure to tell him how much time you have. Our guide grouped us with another couple, and assumed that we were on the whirlwind tour, when we actually had lots of time for him to really educate us on the place. We did a short 20-minute tour with the guide, then took another more leisurely look around ourselves. We also walked to the nearby Nefertari Hotel, thinking we could have lunch and a drink, but it was a scary place! We ended up having drinks in a dark, non-air conditioned bar adjacent to the dining room; it reminded me of a circa-1970s basement. I’ve since seen some photos online, and it appears that there is a pool; it would have been nice to have drinks outside near the pool, with a view of Lake Nassar in the background.

February 20 (Saturday): Cairo Relaxation Day

Our flight back to the US departed just after midnight, so we booked our hotel for another full night, even though we would be checking out around 10 pm. We slept late (missing the breakfast buffet, which ends at 10:30 am), then spent the day lounging by the pool. I wish it had been a nicer pool, but the area was clean, there were plenty of umbrellas (although chairs and towels were harder to come by), and large open grassy spaces so you didn’t feel cramped. There was even some marginal drink/food service by the pool. This was the only day we had free time to relax, so it was well deserved and appreciated. We had a late lunch/early dinner on the patio outside the main restaurant, Le Rendezvous. The food and service were fine; no complaints.

Cairo Airport International Departures: This is a different terminal than we had used previously for our domestic flights. There is some shopping and a few restaurants/bars. You can get beer in international departures. They start the boarding process nearly 3 hours before the flight--there is lots of security. There is a smoking room in the international departures building, though none once you pass through the gate security; the same is true for restrooms once you pass through the secondary gate security.

February 21 (Sunday): Arrival in the US

Delta CAI to JFK (Coach): We scored some exit row seats on the return, which gave us lots of extra legroom. That made the flight much more bearable. It was freezing next to the exit doors, though; I think it was the first time that my husband and I were actually cold on a flight--ever!

JFK Arrivals: We arrived 45 minutes early-woo hoo! The only problem was that it dumped us into immigration along with three other large flights, so the wait time was long. I think we spent about an hour. There’s a currency exchange just outside of baggage claim in case you have an foreign money you want to convert to US dollars. There are also soda machines if you need a drink for your ride home.

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