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The Modern Oasis

I'm starting to hallucinate. After leaving Cairo, we've driven for more than six hours on uniformly flat roads. I keep spotting misty lakes, rolling surf, and, at one point, even a herd of charging buffalo in the distance. But these visions dissolve and reappear in an endlessly frustrating pattern of false promises. The seemingly interminable drive is currently the only way to reach my destination: Adrère Amellal, an ecolodge that is one of Egypt's most talked-about new resorts, a 21st-century caravansary said to be as stylish as it is sensitive to the environment.

It's been a long day. It started when Ahmed, my Egyptian driver, picked me up at my Cairo hotel at 9 a.m. Though the first hour of the drive wasn't riveting, it did provide some good visuals: the awesome Pyramids of Giza on the city's southwestern outskirts, fronted by green, flooded fields; a veritable outdoor art installation of boldly painted billboards along the highway leading north to Alexandria. But once we turned off west toward El Alamein, we were hard-pressed for scenery until we hit the Day-Glo blue of the Mediterranean (and even it, alas, is often spoiled by tracts of cookie-cutter vacation villages).

If I were a World War II buff, I might have asked Ahmed to drive through the various cemeteries commemorating the fierce battle that took place at El Alamein in 1942, but instead we pushed on. Outside Marsa Matruh, we left the coast and dipped down onto a two-lane road that is the gateway to Egypt's vast Western Desert. Some 2,300 years ago, Alexander the Great followed this same route to find one of the ancient world's most famous oracles, in the oasis settlement of Siwa. Traveling by camel from Alexandria, it took the general and his entourage eight days to reach Siwa, so how can I mind the one day it's taking us?

Finally, at about 5 p.m., things start to change. Fast. Those miniature mountains and canyons are not mirages. And—can it be?—we're actually going up a hill, our first incline of the day. Then, on the other side, the payoff: a wide green world of palm and olive groves, broken only by shimmering lakes and lagoons. The Siwa Oasis, at last.

We veer off the asphalt in the direction of an ivory-and-ocher peak known as Adrère Amellal (white mountain) in the local Berber dialect. As we get closer, I can make out a weird complex of interconnecting mud-brick structures rising at its base. With an enormous lake in the foreground, the scene looks like the set for an Indiana Jones film.

Disembarking from our vehicle, I thank Ahmed for his flawless driving and follow a smiling, turbaned man across the sand, through some tunnels, and up several flights of stairs. We stop at a small chamber whose mud walls are punctuated by tiny square windows. Rustically minimal, the room has only a plump white-linen-covered mattress on a palm-log frame, a couple of Bedouin throw rugs, and a dozen or so candles to provide light at night. Adrère Amellal has no electricity. My room has no phone, no television, no remote glued to the palm-reed bedside table. In fact, it has no amenities at all, other than a clear cake of glycerin soap and some linen-covered water bottles. The stone bathroom does have hot water, thanks to a small butane water heater, which my guide, Salama, proudly points out (solar heat will be added next year).

"You are tired?Perhaps you want to take nap?" Salama suggests. "Or swim?"

"The lake?" I ask, nodding to the glittering water not far from my door.

"If you wish—but pool is better."

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