Never never land
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A panoramic view of El-Gouna from an ultra-light; the downtown area of El-Gouna is a must for dining, shopping and general fun; you can have a wonderful horse-riding experience at Yala Horse Stable; Abu Tig Marina is another facility in El-Gouna; the "Bedouin night" ( below) is one of the traditional entertainment options you have to try in El-Gouna
"It is a town that is not a town," said my companion. He is partial to making obscure, profound-sounding statements but I must admit, El-Gouna defies easy classification. Most developers build hotels or hotel complexes, but El-Gouna is a grand plan: child meets grown-up; village meets town; Mickey Mouse meets real life.
The space is immense, much of the area is still being developed. There is an airport, hospital, marina, hotels, post office, schools, villas, apartment buildings and more. The town even boasts its own television station -- Gouna TV -- radio station and local magazine (where you can read about the latest movie star who bought into the area). And there are none of the flaws that mar so many resort towns: here everything is planned, zoned and homogenised. Small bridges span man- made lagoons; cobblestone squares lead to picturesque seating areas on the beach.
The husband of a friend of mine recently described his visit to El-Gouna: staying in a beautiful house and party-hopping by car and boat. There is no mistaking the fact that El-Gouna is first and foremost the playground of the elite; million-pound homes, moored yachts and brand name shops are the tell tale signs.
El-Gouna manages, however, to accommodate us all in style. And so in defiance of the heat, we took to the road and wound our way down south in search of promise.
We decided to take the highway -- head towards Suez from Cairo, then turn right towards Ain Al-Sukhna and keep driving south towards Hurghada. A new highway is being built, but ignore the signs directing you to take the new road -- the highway is still closed.
The journey takes about six hours if you keep within the speed limit -- an incredibly low 90 kilometres per hour. And beware: the road is strewn with radar traps. Be that as it may, many parts of the road are picturesque and sections have been resurfaced, making it a comfortable drive. For pit-stops along the way there is a Pizza Hut and Kentucky Fried Chicken facility near Ain Al-Sukhna, followed by the Marhaba Motel in Zaafarana, which offers reasonable food and drinks; the bathroom facilities -- which are clean -- can be used for LE1.
Where to stay
We booked our accommodation before we left Cairo, but because almost all the hotels were fully booked, we were not exactly promised the best pickings. We reserved a room at the Rehana Inn, but the first glitch came when they insisted on us paying cash in advance for the entire stay. And to make matters even worse, we had to travel to the Heliopolis suburb of Cairo to make the payment -- the other end of the world if you do not happen to live there. One would think that in this day and age there would be a more customer-friendly method of confirming reservations.
The second thorn in my side came when they refused to allow me to bring Sushi, my [very] small Pekinese dog. These "no pet" policies in less than five-star hotels defy logic as far as I am concerned, but I suppose this is a matter of opinion.
And when we called into the hotel to ask advice regarding the highway options into El-Gouna no one had any information to pass on.
But nothing prepared us for the room. Rehana Inn is listed as a four-star facility so imagine the shock at being ushered into a very small room, stuffed with two pencil-thin beds and a window air-conditioner noisily -- and ineffectively -- droning on and on.
There was no phone in the room -- there was, though, a telephone at the end of the corridor for those desperate enough to want to use it; the TV was suspended from the ceiling making it physically dangerous to actually watch; and water glasses had not been provided. We did have, though, a sink and a mini-bar (empty) and a cute balcony with plastic chairs overlooking the pool. "You do not like your room?" asked the receptionist, "it is a VIP room." I don't think so.
Do not get me wrong -- the hotel is very nice for families on a budget, and it was brimming over with obviously satisfied customers. But we were very relieved when, a day later, the helpful management staff moved us into the Rehana Resort, where the rooms have wonderfully high vaulted ceilings, the TV is at eye level, and there is a telephone and proper air-conditioning unit.
The Rehana Hotel complex has three swimming pools, an assortment of restaurants, an active animation team and is in close proximity to the downtown area. They also offer an hourly bus service to and from their beach facility and the Abu Tig Marina area.
If you happen to be as spoilt as I am, however, you might want to consider Dawar Al-Omda, a wonderfully designed small hotel also in the downtown area, or just head out to the Mövenpick Resort, which has a great spa facility and is the only one I found with a uni-sex sauna and Jacuzzi area.
If you do book yourself into a five-star resort, the desire to remain ensconced within your own private haven becomes compelling. Resist. The downtown and Marina areas of El- Gouna are a must for dining, shopping and general fun.
Without even thinking we head straight for KiKi's. It must have been one of the first restaurants to open in El-Gouna and I can remember dining here seven or eight years ago. The food is Italian, the setting simply lovely. Situated on the second floor and overlooking the lagoon, you can enjoy the pasta while indulging in some stargazing. Pan-fried smoked cheese on a bed of salad; vitello tunato and farfalle pasta with rocket leaves and blue cheese followed by apple crumble drowning in hot custard. Need I say more?
Right next to KiKi's is Tobasco which has great interior design and chocolate soufflé to beat the band.
Over the next couple of days we spent more time discovering the Abu Tig Marina which is chock full of cute restaurants. So much food and so little time! We did, however, take full stock of The Seventh Star which serves broccoli soup inside a scooped- out large brown, hard-crusted bun, proper croque monsieur and chocolate fondue. Allow me to linger: pieces of fruit and wafer served next to a pot of warm chocolate (white and hazelnut varieties available) and you spend your evening dunking the first into the second, looking up at the moon and out to sea. They also have a great bakery and are open for breakfast.
Walk past the Marina and out onto the beach to discover Al- Esha, a reed structure with tables right by the water which serves basic fish dishes and pizza. This is the one establishment, however, where alcohol is not served.
You can hang out at the beach or at one of the pools. According to our receptionist, you can also use the pool at any of the hotels during the day. However, when we called up the Mövenpick an unpleasant receptionist barked at us demanding to know who had told us we could ask for day-use. The hotel people claim that because they are fully booked they are unable to be flexible. No reason not to be courteous, though.
There is a golf course at the Steigenberger Hotel; you can dive (see traveller's notes); go water-skiing (take lessons) at the Sheraton, go horse-riding at Yala Horse Stables, and there is also a go-cart centre (which caters more to kids). Or you can simply rent a bike and head off on a trail of discovery.
Or take an excursion out into the desert on one of those noisy but infinitely fun desert buggies -- a trip that can be arranged through any hotel, as most offer a "Bedouin night" experience.
These are the traditional offerings. For something truly original, you could head to the El-Gouna Hospital for a spot of plastic surgery. The establishment describes itself as being "most advanced" and treatments on offer include tummy tucks, neck lifting and laser wrinkle therapy. I hear plastic surgery/vacations are all the rage in South Africa where tours combine a stay at the hospital with a safari to recover.
Or take a cruise. One particular boat, the MS Galatea, has eight double guest cabins and two masts and will take you and your friends sailing on the Red Sea to Global Island where you will be waited on hand and foot for the duration of the trip (for more information visit www.neptunedreams.com ).
But after all is said and done there is nothing like shopping. There is an abundance of goods to choose from at the Marina: Safar Khan offers contemporary Egyptian artwork; Shatex Home Accessories has the latest in laid back furniture; go to Malaika for hand- made sheets; and there is a handful of shops selling fashionable imported clothing; not to mention the whole range of Nefertari hand-made beauty products at the drugstore. Since the rich and famous are busy furnishing their Gouna homes in top style there is a proliferation of home design and furnishings shops.
Or -- my personal favourite pastime, to my companion's horror -- you can hunt for real estate. Consider villas designed by the Italian architect, Alfredo Freda; villas by Egyptian architect Shehab Mazhar; or homes designed by the internationally renowned Michael Graves (who created the Sheraton Miramar). There are several real estate offices around town who offer tours and quote their prices in dollars. Long- and short-term rent are also available.
And at night -- after dining -- why not consider dancing at the Palladium open air disco, partying at one of the beach parties organised almost daily by hotels or, if you are a foreigner, going to the Aladdin Casino.
Or just head to a quite corner of the beach and watch the stars. This is never never land: no one grows old, all is beautiful and the lines delineating reality and fantasy remain forever blurred.