|Al-Ahram Weekly On-line
18 - 24 January 2001
|Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875||Current issue | Previous issue | Site map|
Over the edge
My travelling companions were more pernickety than I. "Where's the sea?" one said, peering out the window towards the coast as we circled the expansive grounds of Al-Gouna resort looking for our hotel. "Don't they believe in signs?" another grumbled, again rolling down his window and asking a guard for the Steigenberger Resort. I was an easy sell. "Amazing!" I exclaimed repeatedly, sounding as if I'd just rolled into the big city from the provinces.
The hidden hand: Al-Gouna's unseen creator Sameeh Sawiris called for daring designs with traditional themes, like the new Steigenberger Golf Resort (top) and the downtown area
photos: Nyier Abdou
Al-Gouna is remarkable for many reasons, first and foremost because of its ambitiousness. Not just another resort taking its life from an insatiable thirst to populate the Red Sea coast with a five-star strip of hastily-planned holiday spots targeted at package-tour Europeans, Al-Gouna was conceptualised as a self-sustaining town, replete with its own airport (currently patronised exclusively by the town's unseen but ever-present mastermind Sameeh Sawiris -- mere mortals are relegated to the Hurghada airport roughly half an hour's drive south), an international school, hospital, de-salinisation facilities and an overtly contrived, though undeniably well-executed, "downtown." Downtown restaurant-bars can be reminiscent of Cairo spots habitually crammed with the city's young and business elite -- Le Tabasco has a sister branch here -- but Al-Gouna is hardly a desert phantom of Cairo culture.
More important than a formidable grand plan, however, is whether such a venture is a valiant flop (consider, for example, Hassan Fathi's New Gurna) or a runaway success. Winding around the vast expanse between functioning resorts and projects under construction, one can almost feel the uncertainty that must have plagued early settlers only a few short years ago, buoyed only by one business tycoon's sense of adventure and the same motto that brought America's most famous desert haven, Las Vegas, into existence: "Build, and they will come."
And yet, in less than a decade, Al-Gouna is a living testament to astute urban planning, fanatical attention to artistic detail and the Egyptian tourism industry's new cult of the Red Sea. Swimming with an interconnecting network of bright blue shimmering lagoons -- a waterbus running roughly every hour will transport you between all resorts and downtown for LE2 -- no matter where you are in Al-Gouna, you are never far from water. Waterways are traversed by way of quaint bridges that evoke a post-modern Venice and at night, shuttles make the rounds taking the bored and car-less to and fro (also LE2 each way -- nothing is for free in Al-Gouna).
A spirit of surreal enthusiasm and punctiliousness pervades this place, down to the wait staff at resort restaurants. At the Mövenpick's El-Sayadeen Seafood Restaurant (perched on the edge of the coastal bay that faces the open sea -- and Sawiris's private residence on the other side), we made the mistake of turning up just after the dusk chill ushered us off the beach, around 5.30. The restaurant doesn't open before 6.30pm and if you get there a minute earlier, the place will seem a deserted relic of a bygone era. The ma”tre d' gave us a square look in the eye and asked if we would like to make a reservation. Glancing around the cavernous, barnyard atmosphere, we snickered to ourselves and played along. Then we waited outside on the porch in the cold.
At 6.28, two families mounted the steps of the porch. By the time we were seated at our table, two more had arrived, and one woman made her way over to a quiet corner table. Within half an hour, the place was bustling with a warm murmur and we were sitting dumbfounded by what seemed like a secret society in the know about the rituals and rhythms of Al-Gouna ministrations. One waiter asked us if we were guests at the hotel and was horrified to learn that one of our party was a renegade. "What's the matter? You weren't satisfied?" he demanded. Of course, it was only for the sake of change that we had ended up elsewhere, but the damage was already done. "Is it better, then?" he sniffed.
For the record, the Steigenberger Golf Resort will be a tough act to follow. One of Al-Gouna's recent additions, it is an eye-catching work-in-progress, easily recognisable for its candy-coloured, "Nubian inspired" architecture and its USPGA championship golf course. Finding the turn for the resort is only half the battle though; determining which of the arched cubist creations is your check-in point is equally ambiguous. Prohibitive signs abound -- No honking! No smoking! Please shut engine! -- but alas, so far the hotel seems to depend on the fact that its guests will be arriving on a tour bus that already knows where it is going. After the six-hour drive from Cairo, and with the chill of night setting in, the serenity of the sumptuous lobby and its cosy couches is an immediate opiate.
The eclectic geometrical design of the hotel's main buildings, villas and golf clubhouse (the impressive work of renowned American architect Michael Graves, who also designed the Sheraton Miramar) is such a fresh take on a traditional aesthetic, it dips into the realm of avant-garde. It struck me, however, that the domes look remarkably like plungers that have lost their sticks, and after that it was difficult to see anything else. Ogling the meticulously kept grounds the next morning on our way to breakfast, I dodged assiduous golfers humming by on their golf carts as though they were commanding moon buggies en route to an important scientific endeavour.
At this time of year, the water is downright chilly, and with a little wind, it's rather difficult to coax oneself into the water, no matter how divinely enticing it looks. The pool, on the other hand, is heated, which explains why so many people were gathered there. For divers zipped up in wet suits, however, squeamishness is obviously not an issue; those coming to Al-Gouna for nearby dive sites like Umm Gamar and Abu Nahas won't be dallying with lagoon waters anyhow.
Getting from A to B often proved more difficult than it had to be. A sign in the hotel lobby announced shuttle services, but made no mention of boat services, which are a leisurely and cheerful way to get around. After several trips on the shuttle boat, the driver told us that visitors can purchase travel-cards -- information that might have been helpful from our hotel, or perhaps on a sign beside the dock, which, incidentally, was unmarked. Meanwhile, getting to Kafr Al-Gouna (downtown) by car inevitably featured bickering among us. After a few times, you've gotten the swing of things, but why needlessly torture holiday makers with a poor sense of direction?
One of the most salient features of a stay in Al-Gouna is the calm, orderly way people go about their business, as though the whole experience were scripted and visitors and residents were merely acting the part of a semi-populated holiday town. Future projects blend believably into the scheme and it is obvious that this is a town -- not a resort, or even a resort town. A day-trip to Hurghada, about a 40-minute drive, brutally underscores this point. What started as a few hotels springing up alongside a modest fishing town has grown monstrously unabated and without much attention to a potential sense of community; no one has endeavoured to structure the pace of development into a coherent whole. A drive past the surprisingly congested local town and on towards the area lorded over by luxury resorts reveals a monotonous strip of ritzy façades, the deep-blue seas virtually obscured from view. One lone jogger huffed along the dusty highway, looking grossly incongruous.
Kafr Al-Gouna, designed to evoke the pace and feel of a traditional Upper Egyptian town, is essentially a sterilised and stylised local village. Arched walkways, cobblestone streets, russet-coloured Mediterranean-style buildings and winding back roads leading to residential villas belie the same tourist-centred shops and Western hallmarks -- Nathan's hot-dogs, Kodak and Fuji instant-photo shops and the like -- one finds in popular resort towns like Sharm Al-Sheikh, but it is all done tastefully and convincingly. Stores selling local crafts will charge you a suitably upscale price, but the handiwork is worth browsing and store owners were refreshingly relaxed and almost indifferent.
Several shopkeepers and the odd waiter asked me if I lived in Al-Gouna, which sticks in my mind as what sets Al-Gouna apart from the hum-drum Red Sea resort set. The town bottles its own water (Sabil), brews its own beer (Sakkara, Lowenbrau), bottles its own wine (Obelisque), manufactures its own cheese (mozzarella) and maintains its own radio station (El Gouna 98, on 98 FM). The international school even runs a children's summer camp. Isolated by its own self-congratulations, Al-Gouna can feel a little unnervingly predetermined; you leave a shade tanner and with a heavy heart back to your real life, feeling like you were but a small cog in a well-run pleasure machine.
At the travel office in the lobby of the Mövenpick hotel, I spied an interesting flyer among the many tour company leaflets and diving centre promotions. Under a picture of the Giza plateau was an enthusiastic offer for "Two days in Cairo!" (See the pyramids and the Egyptian museum! Spend the night in a luxury hotel!) That a stay in Cairo -- home to the pyramids that have drawn travellers since Herodotus penned his Histories -- has been consigned to nothing more than an overnight trip for foreign travellers as a quaint aside from the real action at hand in Al-Gouna is just a taste of the kind of egomania needed to sustain this portentous study of Egyptian excess.
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