Al-Ahram Weekly Online   4 - 10 October 2007
Issue No. 865
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Not afraid of Heights

Nothing is faster than flying, but nothing is more thrilling than travelling overland. Join Mohamed El-Hebeishy as he sets out on wheels, rails and water from Cairo to Damascus

Click to view caption
Don't mind her. Focus more on the silent mountains, cerulean waters and Taba Heights

Kissed by the sun, embraced by the moon, caressed by the wind and tickled by the sand... All of nature's elements, in the perfect dosages, combine with luxury to introduce a new definition for an excellent vacation. The concept of Taba Heights is one of its kind in Sinai. You have camps in Dahab and Nuweiba that cater to limited-budget tourists with only basic needs, and Sharm El-Sheikh on the other hand that is loud with everything it offers, from beaches lined next to each other to five-star hotels, dozens of malls, hundreds of bazaars and life abuzz day and night just about everywhere.

Taba Heights, situated at the northeastern corner of the Sinai Peninsula, redefines luxury in a way that still renders nature a close companion on one's vacation. Allow me to elaborate: cinnamon mountains in the backdrop, the azure waters of the Gulf of Aqaba in the forefront, infinite twinkling stars, the number of which can only be matched by Siwa Oasis, and the breath of very fresh air impossible to find in the nightmarish city. All these are enclosed in a complex, 4.5 million square metres, 480km east of Cairo and only a 10-minute drive from Taba city, comprised of five lavishly architected resorts that pay attention to the finest details, an international golf course plus a marina which is a licensed point of international entry and exit and that can accommodate up to 50 yachts.

Let's indulge in the road to Taba before we enter the city; this after all sets the mood. The Nekhel Road linking Cairo directly with Taba could least be described as the work of art that gathered all the painters since creation to collectively produce a single painting. Some 20km before entering Taba, the road zigzags, reducing automobile speed to 30kmh, thus giving travellers the chance to contemplate the mystic mountains that blend its colours which vary from green to red, yellow, white and brown. Despite their different heights and sizes, they have something in common; they stand mightily.

Taba Heights can easily be mapped into two areas: the four five-star hotels -- InterContinental, Marriott, Sofitel and Hyatt -- all linked through a promenade on the 5km beachfront; and the downtown area housing the four-star Al-Wekala Three Corners Hotel, in addition to restaurants, cafés, bazaars and a supermarket.

The creators of Taba Heights are the same Orascom Hotels and Development that bought a deserted piece of land and turned it into the comprehensive community of El-Gouna, on the Red Sea north of Hurghada. Nothing similar between the two projects though, except perhaps for the policy of preserving the environment. Evidence is the complete recycling project that turns collected garbage into irrigation lines and coat hangers.

ACCOMMODATION: With a group of media fellows, I arrived in Taba Heights to be accommodated in no less than the five-star InterContinental Resort. Expecting nothing less than a luxurious setting, I wasn't disappointed as check-in procedures took no time at all. Upon entering my room, spacious as with most Orascom hotels, much of Cairo life faded from memory. The sea view, always a blessing, does work wonders on alleviating the crankiest of moods. Luxury is largely manifested here. Not only do travellers get their rooms sea view, lake view or pool view, but either sea and lake view or sea and pool view. Not to forget the vast scenes of greenery with every view.

The InterContinental is the Heights' newborn. The latest addition, opened in April 2006, consists of three separate structures: the Atrium, the Pentagon and the Crescent, which are linked by garden pathways. With 503 rooms, 11 restaurants and bars -- stories could be told here. Having Thai or seafood by the pool restaurants and pool and golf bars, in addition to a kids club and a chic spa, the InterContinental offers a wide variety of recreational activities.

Off we went to the beach. The white soft sands, the heavenly coloured waters, so clean and transparent, and many opportunities for snorkelling promised a remarkable day, especially with the perfect weather and the right amount of sunshine. A word of caution: the shore is pebbly, so make sure you put on your swimming shoes before you get your feet wet.

Come night and Taba Heights assumes a different role. The downtown area, also known as "the village" or "uphill" as it will probably be named soon, boasts El Fuego, a Mexican restaurant\bar with an outdoor area from where to watch the entire complex. Being at El Fuego in the company of the owner/Marriott Hotel GM, we were made to feel at home. And home it was, for I felt like I was sitting in the terrace of my own house with an absolutely rare view. At a short distance were lined Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Israel. And what a sight that is!

When in Taba Heights, a real sense of the place emanates from visiting all the resorts in the complex. The Marriott has a totally different design from the InterContinental. From the lobby, constructed at least 10 metres above ground level, you get a wonderful sea and resort view. Distinguished for its waterfalls and rock outcroppings beside the pools, the Marriott accommodates 394 rooms and, among its many restaurants and bars, hosts the Grotto Bar and Grill which is an Eastern cave bar in an exotic setting of fish and waterfalls. The Marriott pays extra attention to kids. The Kids Club is an area with a special corner housing a shaded pool for children, and the main pool, 2,800 square metres, has a water slide for the older kids.

The Sofitel can be recognised at a distance from its rose- coloured domes. The architectural styles of the resort meld effortlessly into the natural backdrop, employing age-old techniques developed by the Arabian and Mediterranean civilisations. Accommodating 294 rooms, six restaurants and bars and with two fresh water pools and one with sea water, the resort's finest catch is drawing on ancient traditions along with modern trends. The L'Asiatic is a Far Eastern cuisine that serves the latest teppanyaki trends (teppanyaki is Japanese food prepared with an iron griddle).

The Hyatt Regency Hotel is Taba Heights' first creation. Opened in 1997, the hotel is a unique structure, a reinterpretation of an Egyptian village designed by the world- renowned architect Michael Graves. It features 426 rooms, seven restaurants and bars and a casino. On the Rocks is a very cosy indoor bar hosting live shows, DJ and Karaoke. To put it mildly, the night we visited the bar was the exact moment I realised I'll never make a career out of singing. Nevertheless, I enchanted the audience!

EXCURSIONS: A five-star, award-winning dive centre is something Taba Heights is proud of. The Red Sea Waterworld is the only National Geographic centre in the Middle East and a designated PADI project Aware dive centre. Aside from trophies and big names, the Red Sea Waterworld is an experience I myself enjoyed to the full. Received upon arrival with genuine smiles and greetings, my group opted for parasailing. And a good choice that was. Accompanied by a professional filmographer who comes onboard any dive excursion and with the help of in-house editing staff, creates a DVD documenting all above- and underwater experiences, we took a motorboat to the middle of the sea and in no time I was 100 metres up in the air. Those must have been the most sincerely calm moments I've had in my entire life -- unlike the scenario I prepared in mind, which was to scream my head off once my feet left the boat. Swinging up in the air, with dark blue waters beneath and nothing but voidness in the surround combined to create a state very difficult to describe. Perhaps the closest would be: I was a free spirit. Then looking around to see the mighty mountains and the Taba Heights complex, I now literally know what's a "bird's-eye view".

In recognition of its commitment to providing the best service for the environment, Waterworld received three awards last year: the PADI Centre of Excellence Award, the PADI Project Aware Environmental Achievement Award and Diver Magazine's Dive Centre of the Year Award for Red Sea College. Maybe these awards were after all what made me trust the staff with my life while flying in the air.

As far as diving and snorkelling are concerned, Taba is home to over 30 world-class breathtaking underwater sites that capture the imagination of professional divers and amateur snorkellers alike. If you opt for nearby snorkelling or diving experiences you have the options of Ras Amira, the Fjord and Pharaoh's Island. The Fjord is an out-of-this- world site. Even from the main road of Taba the city, you can see the Fjord nestled between the mountains -- or in another version, the mountains taking daring steps into the sea -- with multiple water shades. And each inch has a different shade of blue. This is a must-see in Taba. Even if you're nowhere near Nuweiba and even if you're not going to plunge in its waters, please don't hesitate to make the 40-minute drive to see the Fjord.

Pharaoh's Island lies 15 kilometres west of Taba Heights and is easily accessible by boat. The island boasts the Salaheddin fortress which, if you want to enter, a permit will be necessary. Built during the Byzantine period, the fortress was occupied by the Crusaders in 1116 and enlarged by Sultan Salaheddin after he seized it in 1182. It has since been restored by the Egyptian Antiquity Organisation and in 1986 was opened to the public.

Besides providing full-day excursions, Waterworld offers a wide array of water activities such as waterskiing motorboats, tubing and banana boating, windsurfing, sailing, wakeboarding, waterskiing and glass bottom boat outings.

Canyon Motor Safaris arranges trips to the desert by jeep or quads. My group opted for a sundown trip on quadrunners. I hadn't been on one before. I can't drive a car let alone a quad but I was assured it was utterly safe. Upon arriving at the centre, we were briefed with the Yamahas we were going to drive, and it turned out to be such an easy ride. And hats off to the track the centre designed, with its many hard turns and mini-hills. Speaking of the latter, it's fun to fly on a quad, and it's majestic to speed on a two-metre wide track and be hugged by the mountains. Half way through the track, a tent has been erected to rest the drivers and nourish them with refreshing drinks and water.

GOLF: For those interested in golf, Taba Heights has got to be a destination well worth travelling to, simply because its golf resort is widely recognised as the most picturesque course in the region. How not when it's endorsed between the dramatic mountains of Sinai and the majestic waters of the Red Sea. Designed by John Sanford, the 18-hole championship course measures 7,100 yards. It is attractive for all skill levels as each hole offers five tee placements, allowing golfers to experience exciting challenges or just stick to their level. For beginners, coaching with qualified PGA professionals is available. To add some spice to the game, elevation ranges from four to 70 metres. The Golf Clubhouse houses a pro shop, a snack and drinks bar, equipment rental, caddy service and electric carts.

Read the following only if you're into golfing. The first hole eases towards the mountain range, setting the scene for the first six holes. The sixth, in particular, is a long uphill Par 5 with three separate playing areas. From the seventh tee onwards the course mazes through the desert and rocks and back to the Red Sea. Again, the short Par 3 eighth hole crosses the desert and a flood canal, and features the largest bunker on the course. Hole 12 is embraced by the mountains and is a feature of the back nine, while Hole 14 is the longest championship hole in the country. The green of 17 and tee of 18 lie less than a small pitch from the water's edge.

Traveller's notes:

- Taba is accessible by plane, bus or private cars. The SuperJet and East Delta run daily buses from Cairo's Torgoman, Almaza and Tahrir stations. The Taba airport works on charter flights only, so if you still want to take an EgyptAir flight, you'll stop in Sharm El-Sheikh from where you can take an East Delta bus to Taba. The bus drive is about three hours.

- The prices of accommodation in Taba Heights might vary from one week to the other. Egyptian and foreign residents are charged the same. Prices for non-resident foreigners, however, vary from one market to the other. Below are the rates for the residents till the early months of 2008:

- The Hyatt Regency, from 11 to 17 October, offers single rooms for LE500, doubles for LE600 and triples for LE750. From 18 October till 18 December, single rooms are offered for LE400, doubles for LE450 and triples for LE600. And from 19 December till 30 January 2008, singles will be offered for LE500, doubles for LE600 and triples for LE750. These rates are charged on half board basis per room per night. For sea view supplement, add LE50 per room per night. The Christmas gala dinner will be charged LE230 per person, and the New Year's Eve party $500.

- The Sofitel, from 1 to 11 October, from 19 October till 18 December and from 9 January till 16 April 2008, single rooms will be offered for LE450, doubles for LE550 and triples for LE800. From 12 to 18 October, from 19 December till 8 January 2008 and from 17 to 30 April 2008, singles are offered for LE575, doubles for LE720 and triples for LE1,000. The rates are charged on an all-inclusive basis. For sea view supplement, LE120 are added. The Christmas gala dinner is charged an extra of LE230 per person, and the New Year's Eve party LE460.

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