Al-Ahram Weekly Online   4 - 10 November 2010
Issue No. 1022
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Charming quarters

Another deluxe room with a view; another posh lobby with gilded fixtures; another fancy restaurant at another over-the-top five-star hotel. But what if you want something more intimate and cosy? Mohamed El-Hebeishy seeks out some of the best boutique hotels

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From top: a view of Belle Epoque's verdant garden and pool; a Mamluk suite with its masterfully crafted furniture; afternoon tea at Alf Leila Hotel; mashrabeyas, arabesque and calligraphy, are the highlights of the Mamluk suite; a state-of the-art chandelier adorning Le Riad Hotel de Charme reception area

The concept of boutique hotels dates back to 1984 when the very first one opened in New York. Fusing American-inspired architecture with European-themed interior design, Morgans on Madison Avenue Hotel was by that time's standards a step change from the mainstream. During the inauguration of this one-of- a-kind hotel, Steve Rubell, the pioneer businessman behind the project, said one sentence that wraps up the entire concept of boutique hotel business: "I wanted something different, something less department store and more boutique." On that day a new hotel concept was born.

Since the inauguration of Morgans on Madison Avenue Hotel, the concept has been twisted and turned courtesy of owners' entrepreneurial ideas and avant-garde creativity. Let loose the creativity within, and an abandoned mill becomes a popular boutique hotel. At least that is what happened with 42 The Calls, one of the UK's most distinguished lodging faculties. Here, the beds are handmade while old machine parts pose as in-room decoration.

Le Riad Hotel de Charme is another abandoned old building turned boutique hotel; not in the UK, but in Cairo. Located on Al-Muezz Le-Din Allah Street, in the heart of Islamic Cairo, the facility is a trove of artistry delights concealed amidst the twisting alleyways of the old Cairene district which is jam-packed with both people and historical sites. The brainchild of French entrepreneur Veronique Sedro, the hotel has no rooms, but rather 17 junior suites with no numbers. No two suites share the same décor, not even a chair, a nightstand, or a side lamp. As a matter of fact, each suite is individually styled with a distinct theme that sets its mood, and the themes substitute for suite numbering.

Choices include Mamluk, Cinema, Photography and Calligraphy, among others. Mamluk is inspired by the historic period that deeply influenced Islamic Cairo, when an architecture fever gripped Mamluk sultans and princes resulting in the construction of breathtaking mosques, madrasas and sabils. The Mamluk suite houses some masterfully crafted mashrabeya screens and arabesque furniture. It further plays on the Islamic theme with elaborate paintings depicting period scenes.

Cinema is captivating, just like the real thing. Movie posters adorn the pink painted walls, while 1970s' furniture sets the ambiance of this suite. Photography, on the other hand, is both creative and intense with bold colours and brilliant photographs on the walls. The photos capture the true essence of Cairo streets giving the entire suite a flavour of its owns.

Although Photography was quickly climbing to the top of my list of favourites, this completely changed when I went into Calligraphy. As the name rightly implies, this suite is in traditional style with Arabic calligraphy adorning the walls. I was very impressed as I walked to be greeted by a huge calligraphic installation hanging on the wall. Both the living and the study rooms are furnished with arabesque handmade pieces, and various calligraphic fixtures. The bedroom swept me off my feet; it was nothing I have ever seen before. The king- size bed sheet had an entire poem hand- embroidered on it, Misr tatahdath a'an nafsiha (Egypt speaks of itself), a poignant text glorifying Egypt which became the lyrics for a song by the phenomenal Umm Kolthoum. A poem hand-embroidered on a bed sheet is certainly novella, and executed with great mastery.

Le Riad Hotel de Charm is not Cairo's only boutique hotel. Another equally impressive one which offers a completely different atmosphere is Villa Belle Époque in Maadi, Cairo's greenest suburbia. The hotel revives aristocratic life in 19th century Egypt, and rooms are named after Egyptian cities, sport subtle colours, classic furniture, period fixtures and big chandeliers. No two rooms are the same size since the building was originally a villa, and much of the original architecture has been well maintained.

Villa Belle Époque has a lovely garden which is a good location for afternoon tea or a drink around sunset, and the swimming pool is a welcome option during the midday summer heat. The hotel has an exquisite restaurant that complements your experience, serving sophisticated gourmet, with dishes sampled from all four corners of the globe. It is true indulgence for the taste buds.

Dahab, Sinai, is home to yet another great boutique hotel -- Alf Leila. Dahab is a good destination on the Red Sea, especially if you want to avoid the hustle and bustle of hip Sharm El-Sheikh. Most of Dahab's hotels fall between budget and midrange categories, and are located around Dahab's famous promenade which connects Masbat, Mashraba, and Assala together.

Although Alf Leila misses on the direct sea view, its distinctive character and one-of-a- kind identity make up for it. Inspired by Morocco's famous riads, Alf Leila is built around a courtyard with a tiny fountain in the middle. Rooms are individually themed and reflect the owner's creativity as a former fashion designer. The eight units, of which four are suites, come in vibrant bold colours, authentic and simple pieces of furniture, and are awash with artistic handmade items of décor. Bathrooms are also individually designed, creatively using gravel and stones.

Egypt is still new on the boutique hotel scene with only a handful scattered around the country. But with the history and creativity Egypt has to offer, more unique charming hotels are bound to open in the future.

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