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Beauty and adventure in Egyptian oasis

By Ian Lee, for CNN
updated 6:00 AM EST, Tue November 26, 2013
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Siwa Oasis is one of Egypt's most isolated settlements
  • Experience a slower paced way of life without electricity at an eco lodge
  • Discover the Sahara, sandboard on huge dunes, or a take a Siwa sand bath

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Siwa, Egypt (CNN) -- The journey to the Siwa Oasis isn't enjoyable. Hours are spent in a car covering hundreds of kilometers of flat, barren desert. If you're not careful, you can easily fall prey to boredom and passenger's fatigue.

The first signs of the approaching oasis are red and white buttes rising from the sand that break the monotony of the landscape.

Entering Siwa is like Dorothy opening her door to Oz.

The Siwa Oasis is an isolated desert oasis in Egypt, close to the Libyan border. While visitors will have to do without cell phones and Wi-Fi, there are still home comforts at the Adrere Amellal Ecolodge -- pictured. The Siwa Oasis is an isolated desert oasis in Egypt, close to the Libyan border. While visitors will have to do without cell phones and Wi-Fi, there are still home comforts at the Adrere Amellal Ecolodge -- pictured.
Siwa Oasis
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Beauty and adventure in Egyptian oasis Beauty and adventure in Egyptian oasis

Two large saltwater lakes fed by fresh water springs dominate the oasis, surrounded by a forest of date and fruit trees.

In photos: Siwa Oasis

Three barren hills -- home to the Oracle of Siwa, the Mountain of the Dead and the old town -- loom above the sea of green foliage. Donkey carts seem to outnumber cars on the road in this sleepy part of Egypt.

The only place to stay and truly experience everything the oasis has to offer is at one of the eco lodges.

Getting over the initial impact of living without electricity will be uncomfortable, at first. At Siwa Oasis, you'll need to break the addiction of Internet, cellphones, and television. But eventually a primitive human instinct kicks in, and a new level of relaxation takes hold.

Watch: Egypt wants tourists back

We stayed at the Adrere Amellal Ecolodge, which sits on the far west end of the oasis straddling Siwa Lake and the Sahara Desert. Don't be fooled into thinking that just because there isn't any power you'll have to slum it. The rooms are built in the traditional Siwa fashion, but with all the amenities of a five-star hotel, including hot water.

Siwa Oasis: A land of contradictions
Living in Egypt's most historic city

Step outside your room and prepare for an adventure. With only three full days I was limited in what I could explore. But I especially enjoyed taking a dip in the pool fed by a natural spring. Then, I floated on the lake that, to my surprise, is just like the Dead Sea. Sturdy horses take travelers into the Sahara to watch the sun rise above the oasis and later that day, sink behind large dunes of the Great Sand Sea.

Speaking of sand: If you're interested in sandboarding, make sure to check the boards first. The sandboard I used had an exposed screw on the bottom, which acted like an anchor going down the slopes.

Our desert guide, Abdullah Baghi, was extremely knowledgeable and friendly. While out exploring the fossils, we discovered what Baghi believes are fragments of a meteor. We couldn't be sure, seeing neither of us are meteor experts or geologists.

You can enjoy a Siwa sand bath if you're brave enough to make the journey in the middle of summer. The average temperature is 38 degrees Celsius (or 100 degrees Fahrenheit). If you take the plunge, you are buried up to your neck in scorching sand, which allegedly helps with rheumatism, high cholesterol, and other ailments. For 10 to 15 minutes the moisture is pulled out of your body, after which they dig you up. Apparently the stench remaining in the pit once someone leaves is pungent.

Read: Stargazing in the desert darkness

If you're looking for a bit of adventure without a guide, bicycles are available to rent so you can discover the back roads of the enormous oasis. While out discovering its nooks and crannies, you might want to stop off at Cleopatra's Spring. Rumor has it, the Egyptian queen visited and swam there -- but historians dispute this claim.

Egypt: We want our tourists back

Back at the hotel, the amazing staff is ready to serve. The meals alone are an event. Every multi-course meal is presented at a different location on the lodge's grounds. Dinner is under a ceiling of shining stars and illuminated by candlelight. After spending five years in Egypt and dining in most of Cairo's restaurants, I can say, without a shadow of a doubt, they serve the best food in the country.

If you're lucky, the owner of the lodge, Dr. Mounir Neamatalla, will join you for dinner. He's a truly enlightened man with incredible knowledge of not only Siwa, but of Egypt as a whole, and makes for great conversation.

Later in the evening, lanterns illuminate the pathways around the grounds, some of which lead to a roaring fire. In my opinion, sitting by the fire with a good drink is the best way to relax and rejuvenate after a long day.

Part of what makes this oasis so magical is the difficulty in traveling there. Only dedicated, serious travelers make the journey -- not your run-of-the-mill beach bum. If you decide to hop in a car or bus and travel the grueling hours, I can guarantee you will not be disappointed.

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