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

A touch of extravagance

Rasha Sadek explores the other side of Dahab

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Dahab has the perfect weather for windsurfing; the illusionary pool in the resort; lounging in Dahab's downtown

It's reputed to attract travellers on a shoestring budget. But Dahab has another side, the "lofty end", the "fancy residence for the highfalutin", the "up there". There, one doesn't mind stretching deep into one's pockets. There, one is pampered in every way possible. There is a secluded area reserved for five-star hotels. And there was where this traveller wanted to be (without paying exorbitant amounts).

Booking our flight three weeks in advance, a non-refundable roundtrip ticket to nearby Sharm El-Sheikh, brought the price down from LE800 to LE530. Taking a bus from Cairo directly to South Sinai's Dahab and back would have been definitely cheaper but would have slashed 18 hours off the four-day vacation. At Sharm airport, a limo was in the wait to take us on a 75-minute drive to Dahab. The road is an entertainment in and of itself, especially for those who take pleasure in viewing various mountain and rock formations, and there are plenty, plenty in this area.

As for our accommodation, arranging our trip with contacts of my friend provided us with the luxury of a double room, on a half-board basis, for LE400 instead of LE700 at the five-star Hilton Dahab Resort. Indeed that was a good deal, especially at that time of the year, the high season of August. A side note here: outsmarting other travellers, or thinking that one is smart, is not really smart. It mistakenly occurred to us that travelling the last week before Ramadan will spare us the crowds of Egyptians at the resort town. No. Turns out, we were all like-minded. That, however, didn't spoil the plan. The Hilton resort is spacious enough for everyone to enjoy while still privileging the luxury of privacy.

Settling finances, the sore in the throat was gone. We started off with an orientation tour of the resort to get the feel of the place. At first glance, as we exited the lobby after checking in, the resort appeared to be floating on one giant pool. Water was everywhere, and trees and palms contoured it. The combination extended on vast spaces was, to say the least, eye-pleasing. Wherever we walked around the resort, we were surrounded by this curving pool from both sides. All rooms and suites overlooked this labyrinth of water. But no one was actually swimming. As we discovered minutes later, it was all part of the ambiance, a décor emphasising how money was indeed well spent. The real pool lied elegantly in the heart of the resort, with a smaller one for kids right next to it. Such extravaganza added a special glamour to vacationing by the Red Sea resort of Dahab.

Neither rocky nor slippery are to-die- for qualities when one is in Dahab (translated as gold, it is widely presumed the Bedouins gave it such a name because they associated its shimmering sands with gold dust), due to the fact that the downtown area, although overlooking the Gulf of Aqaba, is not an open-sea like the one at the Hilton or its neighbouring hotel, Le Meridien. There, the colour of the water isn't azure and doesn't look mesmerising as "up there" and the seabed isn't very smooth.

After a brief unpacking -- we weren't loaded with many outfits anyway -- we headed to the beach, threw ourselves on the chaise-longues and chilled. That, however, was the whole point behind this vacation; throwing the office headache behind our backs and indulging in all possible legitimate pleasures nature has to offer. And we did just that, in abundance. For the four days we spent in Dahab, we sunbathed and swam in the sea for hours blessed by the elements of nature conspiring to set the right mood: the red mountains with the fading sun at the background, the palm trees swaying with every breeze, and the soft golden-like sands tickling our feet in a semi- massaging way.

On our daily journey to the beach my friend and I were little company except for our books, yet, at such a laid-back mood I barely made it to page 14, while my friend hardly even flipped through hers. Such was the effect of our fascination with the ever-dazzling sea.

For those looking for some action, due to its strong wind, Dahab is equally famous for its water sports especially windsurfing. The city beats the fame of Ras Sedr and El-Gouna in this particular sport. Windsurfing is a common feature in Dahab, where along with diving and snorkelling resemble a major attraction for visitors and regulars.

Fifteen kilometres north of Dahab sparkles the spectacular Blue Hole, rated among the top 10 diving sites in the world and one of the "most dangerous" too. It goes 200 metres in diameter and plunges deep. Indeed, it is a dive site that needs to be treated seriously for many have lost their lives there. Nevertheless, it remains chillingly exciting as a diving and snorkelling site. Other sites include the Canyon, Eel Garden, Lighthouse and Southern Oasis. One needn't worry about booking trips, be they seafaris or safaris. Dozens of offices arranging interesting itineraries are located in the downtown area and in every five-star hotel.

Dahab's downtown is the story often told by a backpacker: a two-mile stretch of bazaars, camps, low-budget hotels, restaurants, one discotheque and cafés directly overlooking the Gulf of Aqaba.

Camps offer bungalows for super cheap prices, and with that comes a more basic nature to one's vacation urging you to forget about televisions, air- conditions, telephones and mini-bars.

During my prior visit four years ago, the promenade made for a good time, a good walk, and perhaps a good jog. The general mood was set in dim lights and soothing décor. These days, the scene has changed. Downtown Dahab has become the poorer version of Sharm El-Sheikh's Neama Bay -- much worse if I may add. Often referred to as "Al-Masbat" and "Al-Mashraba" (formerly "Al-Asala"), Dahab's promenade is now packed with cafés/restaurants, mostly all offering shisha, lined so close to each other that it's almost impossible to tell when one of them ends and the other begins. And the lights used in decorations are very similar to those used in alleyways at times of local festivals, or moulids.

Shocked, is the least to describe how the scene affected my friend and I.

In front of every shop, there were at least two salesmen standing on the promenade "inviting" us -- I'm using a polite word here -- to either buy their handicraft for exorbitantly high prices, or sit for dinner. It was impossible to enjoy our walk peacefully, yet we still had an hour before the limo would pick us up. We ventured into one of the cafés that, naively we thought, was the "most chic" of them all.

What a farce. Without delving into details, three fat cockroaches flew in our faces and the shisha boy "mistook" us for "foreigners who couldn't tell the difference between a good shisha" and an awfully bad one, in his own words. We decided to call it a night and headed back to the resort, swearing that this was the last time we would set foot in the downtown area.

Aside from strolling down the promenade or visiting Tuta, the loner discotheque shaped as a boat, there's nothing much to do in Dahab at night. The city appeals more to early birds rather than night owls.

Blessed to be hosted by what turned out to be our paradise, my friend and I made a conscious decision to stick to our resort and enjoy the maximum pampering luxury has to offer.

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