Al-Ahram Weekly Online   7 - 13 August 2008
Issue No. 909
Travel
 
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Summer in full swing

Inas Mazhar is charmed by what legend is made of

Click to view caption
Maamoura beach

In the 1960s, Maamoura was the favourite summer destination for the crème de la crème of Egyptian society. Its shoreline, one of the main attractions in Alexandria due to its beautiful beach and park, runs east of the royal gardens at Montazah. Maamoura was the place to show up and show off if you were a top state official, a cultural symbol, a public figure -- and they all owned seafront properties there. With such an eclectic crowd in town and only a stone's throw from each other, the district was a magnet for paparazzi seeking candid pictures of celebrities vacationing.

It was the venue to exhibit the latest trends in fashion, bathing suits, haircuts, cars or anything else. Newsmakers often spotted there included prime ministers, cabinet ministers, music legends such as Farid Al-Atrash and Laila Murad, as well as movie stars the likes of Farid Shawqi. Cinema icon Madiha Youssri was also among the first to purchase property there, and to this day continues to visit the legendary resort in summer.

By the 1970s and 1980s, the district itself became the star of many movies, as more filmmakers chose it as the backdrop for their plots. The sands of Maamoura bear witness to many fictionalised love stories, and almost certainly many more genuine ones. It came to life on the screen in movies including; Abi Fawq Al-Shagara, Wa Saqqat fi Bahr Al-Asal, Agazat Seif...etc

Walking along the endless white beach today, you are almost transported back in time with the scent of history drifting on the waves lapping against the shore. A thoughtful scan of the horizon reveals local residents lounging in their gardens or outside their chalets, a sense of aristocracy and sophistication about them. People from the past, trying to stay astride with the new world by connecting with their children and grandchildren.

The district began as a deserted zone which separated the King's Montazah Palace from the lodgings of the staff and royal stables. "At that time, Maamoura was only home to trees, bushes, birds -- mostly owls," revealed Major General Tareq Rashed, Maamoura's sector head. "After the 23 July Revolution, work began in 1956 to revive the area."

In the first stage, the 500-feddan area was cleaned up and levelled and three main apartment blocks were built, including hundreds of chalets overlooking Maamoura beach. This basically constituted the area from the seafront to Al-Nasr Street. Extensions beyond this point continued in the 1980s, and today Maamoura has five main streets. Famous sites located there include Maamoura Presidential Palace, Maamoura Plaza Mall and Fun Park fairground.

Along the seafront, buildings consist of three storeys and are similar in design, giving the district a distinct style and identity. They are administrated by both the governorate of Alexandria and Maamoura Construction and Tourism Development Company (MCTDC). The neighbourhood beyond the waterfront, which overlooks the Alexandria train to Abu Qir, is markedly different. Buildings there could reach 10 storeys and the architecture varies from one edifice to the next since they are privately owned.

After three glorious decades, Maamoura fell from grace in the 1990s. Rabid competition from fashionable resorts mushrooming up and down the North Coast stole the thunder of this unique location -- to the extent that some locals sold their properties and bought fancy new villas outside town.

Rashed admits that North Coast compounds have eclipsed Maamoura, "but while some Maamoura residents followed the crowd, others remained loyal." And loyalty pays; many former owners who want to go home, can no longer afford skyrocketing real estate prices in Maamoura. Rashed believes that just this fact alone is proof that Maamoura's star is on the rise again. "The increasing value of apartments and chalets proves that there is great demand on property in Maamoura," he argued.

Although Maamoura is best visited when summer is in full swing, it is open year round because of the vibrate community which lives and works there. Maamoura is a gated community; residents have free passes, but visitors pay LE3.25 to gain entry. It costs LE5 to access the public beach; LE3 to rent a chair; and LE7 for the privilege of shade under an umbrella. The beach is open to the public from early morning until sunset, and is divided into smaller public and private beaches. Unsurprisingly, private beaches are exclusive to chalet owners.

Maamoura residents and visitors have access to governorate services and facilities, unlike those at the North Coast. In actuality, Maamoura can be considered an extension of the city of Alexandria, although of a different flavour. There is a never a moment to be bored. While seemingly small, it is a cosy resort where you can find anything you need. A central market serves locals and visitors, making it a one-stop-shop to buy groceries or fresh baked foods, go out for fast food or pick up a souvenir at the gift shop. Whether on a long, short or day vacation, or perhaps just driving through, you're sure to find something that catches your eye.

But if after a few days you find Maamoura too remote and removed, a short commute into downtown Alexandria is a quick reminder of what you left behind. Proximity is one of the advantages of choosing Maamoura over the North Coast to vacation; some could walk, others will drive, while many use local transportation to go to neighbouring Alexandria.

Maamoura is especially famous as a good destination for one-day trips. Visitors come to spend a fun day at the beach, and an enjoyable evening going to the movies, visiting the fairground, or shopping at the mall, market or the Egyptian, Indian and Syrian Exhibit -- which is held annually for three months in summer.

Finding good food is never a problem. A variety of cuisines, including Egyptian, Italian, French and American, tantalise the palate and are easily found. There are also many coffee shops; in fact, in the evening the beach becomes host to many cafeterias and restaurants which are reasonably priced. Customers are entertained by DJs and shows while enjoying the food and cool sea breeze. Those seeking some quiet and/or romance, can sit aside on the sand, listening to the waves and staring at the moon and stars. Or walk the 1km promenade, perhaps while nibbling on an ear of grilled corn.

In July and August, entertainment at Maamoura is large, loud and money raking. Spectacular concerts by top pop stars performing on a giant stage erected on the beach attract thousands of fans. Obviously, these gigs compete with others held at North Coast resorts.

For a teenager in Maamoura, another exciting place to be is the discotheque Maxim. As legendary as the district itself, the nightclub was the meeting point for many young friends, especially that it was located almost in the centre of the district. Many patrons of days gone by, myself included, were dismayed to see Maxim relocated to make way for an apartment block. But at least the name will live forever in the same location, since the new block was eventually christened Maxim as homage to the disco nights.

While MCTDC is selling some plots to private owners, it is a stickler on what goes and what doesn't in terms of buildings. MCTDC Chairman Gamal Awad emphasised that construction must be according to code as stipulated by his company. "We want Maamoura to maintain its identity by respecting building codes in terms of size and green areas," insisted Awad. More than 40 per cent of Maamoura is covered in gardens, creating vast green areas which almost completely eliminate pollution.

There are current plans to offset competition from neighbouring resorts such as the Green Plaza in Alexandria or those in the North Coast. "We want Maamoura to be the best it can be," Awad asserted. "We are working on improving services for both residents and visitors through regular maintenance of the beach, gardens and buildings." Other plans include increasing facilities, developing services, attracting domestic and Arab tourism, as well as establishing new projects in the area.

Many firms and companies have bought apartment blocks and chalets from MCTDC to rent to their employees at discount prices for short periods of time. Some local owners also rent out their properties to tourists, giving cause for many self- proclaimed real estate agents to set up shop on street corners under faded umbrellas.

Prices, justifiably, differ in the summer and winter seasons. While the tourist summer in Maamoura vaguely begins in June, one night in a furnished apartment during that month would reach LE150. In July and August, it could peak to LE350 per night. The night at a chalet is higher, starting from LE500 up to LE1,000, according to the standard of the property and its closeness to the beach.

But not all women, myself included, feel that renting an apartment or chalet is the best way to go while on vacation. Daily chores such as cleaning and cooking will continue to hound us even when on holiday. We prefer to stay at a hotel, where house-keeping, room service and open buffets will free us to enjoy the sun, sea and surf. And this is where it's not all sunny and breezy at Maamoura.

There are only two hotels in the district. The oldest, Maamoura Palace Hotel, is rated as a three-star, while the Paradise Inn Beach Resort is a four-star enterprise. Maamoura Palace is a four-storey hotel located on the main street behind the beach. While it is close, not all the rooms can see the beach. The view from the coffee shop located on a wide terrace is off the main street, with cars racing by and noisy pedestrians. Nonetheless, it houses several good restaurants and guests on the higher floors have a clear view of the sea.

More recently, the Paradise Inn Beach Resort was built in front of Maamoura Palace. It replaced the fairground of which I have many fond memories as a child in the 1980s. The giant Ferris wheel took us so high up that we could clearly see the sea and every inch of Maamoura. The new hotel is situated on the longest white beach in Alexandria, designed as if it were a tropical paradise with a magnificent pool and palm trees shading most of the resort.

Its facilities include gardens surrounded by play areas for children; a state-of-the-art health club with an indoor pool; many upscale indoor and outdoor dining areas; conference and banqueting halls; as well as a private beach with water sports and activities. But since demand is very high on the hotel's 38 rooms, reservations must be made well ahead of time.

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