But like many Egyptians, his enthusiasm gradually waned as crime rose with the collapse of the police state, and the growing Islamist influence raised Christian fears of persecution. Riad’s wife and daughter recently moved out of the country after he was threatened by an Islamist cleric who objected to the spa services. But he enjoys good relations with local clans and reopened the hotel in October 2011.
The heart and soul of the hotel, Riad cooked our first meal himself. His spa staff was on vacation, but as a trained masseur, he offered us massages and facials. He also acted as tour guide, designing a packed itinerary for our four-day stay.
Our room had no curtains, so the sun was our wakeup call. Donkeys brayed as they dragged carts along the dirt road outside — Siwa’s rush hour. But it was easy to get up as the aqua pool beckoned, with breakfast served in the shade of date palm trees. After coffee, omelets, cheese spread and breakfast salsa with freshly made flat bread, we jumped in the pool and swam until our afternoon tour of historic sights.
First was the Temple of the Oracle, where Alexander the Great came in 331 BC to confirm that Zeus was his father.
For about $4 each, we tried to absorb the lingering wisdom of the oracle and enjoyed the view of the maze of mud hut roofs below as well as the Mountain of the Dead — filled with rock-cut tombs dating to the Ptolemaic and Roman periods.
We then hiked around the winding paths lining the steep Fortress of Shali, with stores at its base selling traditional handicrafts. The merchants were eager but not pushy, unlike more aggressive vendors in Cairo.
The area is dotted with bubbling hot and cold natural springs, which irrigate the thick date palm and olive groves. One of the most popular is Cleopatra’s Bath, a deep, round natural spring where tourists can take a dip while shopping for souvenirs.
The driver then took us to a vast salt lake reminiscent of the more famous Dead Sea but without the infrastructure. You can float in the lake for a while, then soak in a nearby freshwater spring to wash off the salt.
Back at the hotel, Riad administered much-needed massages in a top-floor studio with an open roof and nighttime view of the stars.
A tuk-tuk carried us to dinner at Abdu, a restaurant serving Middle Eastern fare such as lamb kebabs, hummus and baba ghanoush.
The next day started with a swim followed by facials. The open roof wasn’t so lovely under the glaring sun, but a straw cover was put in place to block it out.
Then Riad introduced us to our desert guide Ahmed Bakrin, with assurances that he was a very safe driver. We soon found out why that was important as the four-wheel drive raced up and down the wavelike dunes.
He slowed down as we approached Bir Wahed, a beautiful blue freshwater lake surrounded by cattails that whispered in the wind.
We had the place to ourselves for a half-hour until an Egyptian family arrived, followed by a rowdier group of Italian tourists. We jumped back into the Land Cruiser and sped to the next surprise, a sulfur-infused hot springs.
The next thrill was sandboarding. As I hesitated, Bakrin, who has been taking tourists through the desert for a decade, told me to close my eyes and gave me a push, sending me soaring down the dune. Going up wasn’t as much fun: For every one foot up, the sand pulls you two feet back.
A crunchy patch of white in the sand turned out to be a marine fossil bed from when the area was submerged in a prehistoric ocean.
Our adventure ended with mint tea made over a bonfire and dinner served in the desert. We ate under the stars while a desert fox lingered in the distance, hoping for some leftovers.