Al-Ahram Weekly Online   9 - 15 October 2008
Issue No. 917
Travel
 
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Travelling on a credit crunch?

Join Amira El-Naqeeb as she delves deep to find economical alternatives for a memorable Red Sea holiday

Click to view caption
The crystal clear waters of Beer Sweir and its golden sands

Since it hosts one religious feast, Eid El-Fitr or Lesser Bairam, and two national holidays, the 1973 War on 6 October, and the Suez City and National Resistance Day on the 24th, this October is an extremely inviting time for travel lovers. Yet, as is the case on similar occasions, while hotels might race to present their best packages to attract as many holidaymakers as possible, such offers might not cater to the budget of many who, in their quest to make the best of their time off from work or studies, might wish to enjoy the beauty of more than one destination and would hate to let their limited budget restrict their fun and/or choices.

If that is your quest and wondering where to go, there is plenty the spectacular idyllic coast between Nuweiba and Taba on the Red Sea Peninsula has to offer. The coast is dotted with relatively cheap camps and camping sites for nature lovers and low maintenance budget travellers. The camps offer basic amenities, with top-notch five-star deluxe skies, seas, weather, beaches, serenity, and privacy.

My friends and I decided to head towards this beautiful coast and explore a whole array of less pricey, but still stunning camps. Driven by a tremendous force of excitement and longing for a long weekend by the beach, I rushed home, following what would normally be a full hectic working day, to pack my back-pack and hit the road for what turned out to be one of my unforgettable trips -- if for nothing than the ultimate state of relaxation it blessed me with.

After a gruelling five-hour drive, we reached our first destination on the Red Sea coast, Ananda.

ANANDA is a camp located on the Red Sea's Gulf of Aqaba, with a 200-metre beach front -- approximately 22km from Nuweiba, if you take the coast towards Taba, and 45km from Taba if you take the coast towards Nuweiba. In both cases you will see a clear sign announcing Ananda on your left or right depending on where you're coming from.

Ananda hosts 50 huts, 12 directly on the beach and 38 approximately 50 metres away, all with a sea view. There are two communal bathrooms, and a main seating area replicating the Bedouin style with scattered cushions on the floor. It is a welcoming haven for relaxing and unwinding and has an inviting lookout point for lovebirds and romance seekers. Ananda's beach is rocky, so eager swimmers must have footwear on. Snorkelling is possible since the area is rich with colourful reefs, yet doesn't host much variety of fish. When I reached Ananda at night, and as I dropped my bag and ran to take my favourite spot on one of the hammocks scattered on the beach, the world for me seemed like one big hug. Lying on the hammock, I felt the embrace of the stars, the sky and the sea.

Breakfast in Ananda is my favourite meal of the day. I've always enjoyed the Egyptian breakfast, with fuul, taamiya, and a very special recipe of omelette Egyptian style, all such delights for LE25. Prices for lunch, however vary and start at LE40. For groups who wish to add more spice to their journey and get a deeper taste of camping, there is always the option of barbecuing your lunch and/or dinner.

The masterminds behind this idea were my friends Eric and Allam who came from Cairo with marinated meat ready for the grill, and cooked rice with nuts. Yummy, but honestly, the food counts for only half the pleasure. Setting a fire on the beach, with the sound of the waves in the background, underneath a sky dispersed with diamond-like stars made all the difference. The atmosphere turned our grilled meat from being just a meal into a euphoric experience. We ate, laughed, relaxed and most of all we felt indulged by nature as her guest.

The hut in Ananda costs LE60 for Egyptians and foreigners alike, and it accommodates two people. It has special prices for groups.

For reservations call Ezz Gelbana: 002012 356 1742.

BEER SWEIR: I always believed I was a fish in another life, to be more precise, a mermaid. After swimming in Ananda, I'm not so sure since the beach is rocky and I wanted something sandier.

So, in search of a sandy beach, my friends and I woke up the next morning determined to explore the coast and never rest until we found my idyllic powder-like beach.

Beer Sweir, 450 kilometres from Cairo, lies along the coast between Taba and Nuweiba, and 15 minutes away from Ananda. You can spot the camps along the coast if you are heading in the direction of Nuweiba, coming from Taba. It starts at Antiqa Camp, one of the camps that dot the coastline and ends at the Ghazaly Aqua Sun Club Hotel, approximately three kilometres before the famous Basata Ecolodge, which lies in Ras Borqa.

Sweir Queen is one of the best camps that dot this coast. Located in front of it is the famous Laguna spot, where you can enjoy sugary-white sand and clear blue water, enough to melt your heart, contrary to the pebbly beach along the coast. We plunged in the water to cool off since the weather was very hot that morning. After spending almost two hours swimming, I started feeling knots in my stomach. It was the silent "it's time for food" alarm. I lounged on one of the big cushions lying on the beach, surfed the menu, and my mind was set for a pizza. The food took more time than I expected and when it finally appeared it wasn't that great, so if you are very hungry consider this a snack or bring your own food.

The huts in the camp cost LE10 per night for both Egyptians and foreigners -- told you it was cheap. As for meals, breakfast starts at LE20, and main courses at lunch start at LE40. Pizzas and snacks start from LE25. The camp also hosts the only pool table in Beer Sweir if you are looking for some action other than basking in the sun and lazing around. Organised desert safaris are also available.

Longing for more pampering and willing to pay for it, you can have more fancy accommodation at the same location, ambiance and hospitality. Sally Land, the first hotel built in Beer Sweir, offers an affordable, languidly peaceful accommodation. It's a three-star hotel with stone built rooms matching the surrounding nature. The double rooms have private bathrooms, an AC but no TV -- yet, who needs one. The double room costs LE240 on a half board basis for Egyptians and residents, and LE320 for foreigners. The hotel has an international indoor restaurant that caters for all tastes with an outdoor terrace, a perfect place to chill out after a long day on the beach.

RAS AL-BORQA: Basata, the oldest and most famous ecolodge in Egypt, is in Ras Al-Borqa, on the Nuweiba/Taba coast. Ras Al-Borqa in Bedouin language means the head covered with smooth sand.

In Basata you can enjoy nature at its best. It has the finest sandy beach in the area, and its reef is a haven for passionate snorkelling lovers.

What is so special about Basata is its homey feeling. Inside the main hut there's a big kitchen where everyone gets to cook their own food. This self-service system which Sherif El-Ghamrawi, the owner of the ecolodge, introduced was his attempt at ensuring interaction, and developing a sense of intimacy among his guests and their surroundings.

In 2006 Basata won second place in coast protection worldwide in the World Travel Market in London, the biggest tourist convention in the world.

Basata's huts, though primitive, are adequately furnished with super clean communal bathrooms. A hut costs LE48 per person, 14 euros for foreigners, plus 15 per cent taxes. It also has a place where you can set your own tent. At Basata, which in Arabic means simplicity, you register your name on a piece of paper in the kitchen, then write whatever you've consumed, (milk, eggs, bread, cereal, pasta, etc...) and pay for them at the end of your stay.

For reservations log on to www.basata.com or call 002 069 850 0481/480.

GHAZALY AQUA SUN HOTEL: A three-star hotel just before Basata Ecolodge is a more convenient option for families with larger budgets. Its dome-shaped ceilings, and beige-coloured walls stand in contrast to the spectacularly ever-grand Sinai Mountains. I lounged in the Alfresco beach bar enjoying guava juice and watching the sun go down. The smell of the barbecue coming from the grill bar on the beach filled the air with such an aroma that my appetite found extremely difficult to resist. Hypnotised by the mouth-watering aroma, my friend Amr and myself instantly and silently each let go of our hammocks and let go of our spiritual meditative quest to attend to a more earthy urge, that of our tummies.

What makes this place even more special is the friendly atmosphere and the welcoming spirit of the people working there. All rooms are well furnished and air-conditioned. The price for Egyptians in a double room on a half board basis is LE150, 25 euros for foreigners. The hotel also has bungalows at the price of LE100 per person for Egyptians and 15 euros for foreigners.

For reservations call 002 012 923 3075.

WHERE TO GO: Since this area on the coast between Nuweiba/Taba is tranquil, there isn't much hustle and bustle. So if what you are looking for in your holiday is not an ultimate relaxation where you spend your days swinging on the hammock, swimming in the clear sea waters, snorkelling and/or diving along the variety of reefs and corals, gazing at the bright stars and enjoying the silver moon, such heaven is not for you.

CASTLE ZAMAN: Perched on a mountain overlooking the Gulf of Aqaba and the Red Sea, Castle Zaman is built as a ruin. A slow food restaurant/bar, it has a sublime view to the open vistas of the Red Sea. Standing up there you are actually looking at the borders of three countries at the same time; Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Israel. Castle Zaman is the closest and only outing if you're looking for a place to dine and wine. Food portions are huge so make sure you tell the waiter how many people the order is supposed to serve. You should order as soon as you get there because it takes quite a while for your food to be ready.

TARABIN: Located in downtown Nuweiba, it takes from 10 to 30 minutes to get there by car/taxi depending on where you are on the coast. Tarabin used to be bustling with people eating by the line of restaurants lying directly on the coast, or shopping in lined-up bazaars. My friends and I decided to pay the city a visit for dinner, and hopefully some action. To our disappointment, there was almost no activity in this sleepy town. We seemed to be the only guests eating on the coast. Very few bazaars were open, and almost no buying or selling was taking place. We picked a restaurant that looked a bit vibrant than the rest, but unfortunately most of us weren't lucky with what we ordered. The food took ages to be served, and the portions were too small and didn't taste good. I ordered grilled calamari because from my point of view it was the safest and least complicated. I ended up having almost first-degree tongue-burns because it was too spicy.

Most of us remained hungry after the meal and prone to haemorrhoids from the over-chilli food.

RAS SHITAN: Its name came from a big rock on the beach described as the head of the devil, which is the literal translation of the word. Mohamed, the bar tender at Ras Shitan's Castle Beach, told me another story. Reportedly, it was originally called Bein Shattein (between two beaches), "but at the time of the Israeli occupation of Sinai, the Israelis called it Ras Shitan." Castle Beach is an ecolodge with bungalows built with materials gathered from the surrounding nature. It's very spacious, with a 400-metre reef where I experienced my first dive that turned out to be extremely intoxicating.

There is a diving centre there that provides lessons, certificates and buddies. For the October holidays, a hut for two people will cost LE150 with breakfast, valid for Egyptians and foreigners. The huts have a beautiful terrace overlooking the beach. The communal bathrooms are squeaky clean and the huts are adequately furnished.

For reservations visit www.castlebeachsinai.com or call 002 012 163 3812.

Camp Ayash: It is actually the camp next door to Castle Beach. They share the same beach, but the famous rock is actually on Ayash's side of the beach. Camp Ayash is best known for its laid-back atmosphere. I wandered up and down the beach, trying to find a spot to nestle on. It was packed with guests eating, basking in the sun, reading a book or simply relaxing. I plunked down on my perfect spot, one of the cushions under a straw-like umbrella, with a juice in one hand and my tanning oil in the other. What a perfect way to spend an afternoon.

Ayash's camp hosts a number of very simple huts, more primitive than its counterpart in Castle Beach. The huts are scattered on the beach and also on the hilly area behind the camp. The area entertains its guests with traditional folk music on the oud and semsemia every night. A hut costs LE20 per person per night for both Egyptians and foreigners, and LE50 with breakfast.

WHAT TO PACK: Light cotton clothes. Bohemian, hippie or vagabond style, the choice is yours. The dress code in all venues is extremely casual, all to serve the purpose of a chilled-back mood, so don't overdo it and dress for comfort. Don't forget to pack your sunglasses, and a sun block of a minimum 25 SPF. Snorkelling boots are a must-have to avoid foot injury since most of the coast is hemmed by jagged rocks. If you fancy sleeping on the beach, remember to pack your sleeping bag.

GETTING THERE: Fly EgyptAir to Sharm El-Sheikh, then take a bus or taxi to your destination on the coast. You can also take the East Delta bus, or the Super Jet buses that go to Nuweiba directly and ask the driver to stop you on the spot/ camp you are heading towards. Enjoy the chill.

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