Al-Ahram Weekly Online   3 - 9 December 2008
Issue No. 925
Travel
 
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

In the lap of luxury

Top hotels, luxury spas and world-class golf courses provide exclusive service and memorable experiences for high-end visitors to the Red Sea. Amira El-Naqeeb indulges herself

Click to view caption
Heaven on the rocks, on the Ritz-Carlton beach

Luxury travelling is marked with extravagance, whimsy and the relentless pursuit of excellence. The two Red Sea resorts of Sharm El-Sheikh and Soma Bay in Hurghada were my main destinations as I sought luxury, comfort and self- indulgence in my travels. So, I set off on a quest to experience a vacation planned and packaged to perfection.

RITZ-CARLTON -- DREAM WEAVERS: Situated on Hadebet Um Al-Sid in Sharm El-Sheikh on the southern tip of the Sinai Peninsula is the Ritz Carlton Sharm El-Sheikh. The hotel is a 15-minute drive from the vibrant Neama Bay area, where most shopping and nightlife take place, and another five minutes will take you to the Sharm El-Sheikh International Airport.

Walking into the hotel is like opening a box of chocolates; so many flavours all in one place and a delight in every bite. The panoramic view from the lobby is a promise of everything to come -- the only eye sore being the pale, worn out carpets and sofas upholstered in pale caramel chenille.

Staying at a Club-room is like checking into a hotel within a hotel, as it offers a range of exclusive services for club and suite guests only. An attractive flower arrangement greets me as I enter my room, complementing a space furnished to the highest taste. Elegant, yet simple clean-cut furniture is thoughtfully arranged; a king-size bed in dark wood, framed in a dark caramel leather headboard, accentuates the contemporary feel of the room; a plasma screen television and DVD player enhance your entertainment experience.

"We are in the business of creating memories," as Spencer Wadama, the hotel's general manager, put it. We talked on the terrace of the award-wining Italian restaurant La Luna . "Yes is the answer, so what is the question?" Wadama told me was the philosophy behind the success of this hotel empire. "We want every guest to be happy, not just one in 10."

A stay at the Ritz-Carlton is like nowhere else. Your holiday can be as restful or as active as you wish, even if your party includes children since the Kids Club provides activities for young ones and babysitting services can free up parents to pursue other interests.

I begin my day with a gourmet breakfast at the cosy Club Lounge, which is only accessible to Club-room guests. The small buffet is a display of home-made indulgence, while the variety and quality cater for all tastes. This private lounge offers five culinary presentations daily to its guests. There is also free WiFi, DVDs to borrow and a range of books to read as you nibble on treats from the cookie jar.

A stroll outside takes me to the hotel's beach perched atop a hilly area. Sun beds, straw umbrellas and hammocks are neatly arranged, but more interesting are the wooden tents, which provide further privacy for guests. The tents are shaped like wooden kiosks draped with linen curtains. This excess is by reservation only and for an extra charge.

I stretch out on one of the hammocks, folding myself into the beautiful scenery. After relaxing and soaking in the sun, I grab my snorkels and head towards the jetty, plunging into the cold water and allowing myself to drift in the inky blue sea. Underwater is a hypnotic sight of vivid reef and schools of fish dancing about -- a heavenly scene for snorkellers and divers.

The hotel's diving centre offers exclusive services for its jet set clients, including VIP treatment on VIP1; one of the finest motor yachts cruising the northern Red Sea. The yacht can be rented for multi purposes; cruising, diving, or safari trips to Tiran Island or Ras Mohamed. The yacht costs 1,500 euros per day including all dives for divers without the food. There is also the Diamond service that offers more relaxed and laid back diving trips, with luxury lunch and premium service. The Diamond service is a tailor-made diving package, which starts with a minimum of six divers, and costs 125 euros per person without equipment. For more info check www.vipone.comwww.vipone.com/i>. Myself, I find the donut tube in the aqua park a prime spot for relaxation. Book in hand, I lay there as, adrift, I take a tour of the hotel's verdant lawns. By the time I got out of water, it was lunch time and my table at the Wave restaurant was ready in a private wooden tent overlooking the sea. The view is unparalleled under a dazzling azure sky, changing hues from red and copper to violet as the sun sets. It is like having your own suite in paradise.

I take my leisure eating a seafood wrap, savouring the view and every bite. Lovebirds can enjoy even more privacy at the Arabian tent which offers romantic candlelit dinners and an exquisite view of the Red Sea.

In the evening, I head to the spa for a Thai herbal body scrub.

Of course the secret of spas lies in the setting and mood. The music and gentle aroma of jasmine oil permeates the room; the dark chocolate wood and bamboo furniture contrast with the creamy walls; and the sound of trickling water relaxes and nourishes the body and spirit.

I choose a mild scrub containing sesame seed to help exfoliate, and after leaving it on my body for 10 minutes I rinse it off with lukewarm water. The softness of my skin is immediately apparent. More invigorating results can be accomplished with the Red Sea Salt Scrub, advises my very polite and efficient Polish therapist.

Next, it is time for Cleopatra's Bath. There is an Arabic proverb which says each person shares the traits of their name. My name means princess, and naturally that is why I chose the royal treatment. I am taken into a dimly lit room with two marble steps leading to a large marble bathtub. Sheer ivory curtains panel the bathtub for extra seclusion.

Soothing music continues as I am left alone with a request to relax and take all the time I want. The tub is filled with aromatic powder milk, essential oils and rose petals. I dip one toe in the water, and my entire body follows; a sense of serenity and tranquillity from another era washes over me as I immerse my body. Although I only spend 15 minutes in this trance, it is enough to prepare for my next appointment.

Treading lightly on a candlelit path, I walk towards the live tunes of the Cuban Sun band by the pool. It is a pleasant surprise that the hotel was hosting a pool dinner night, with tables neatly dressed in white set for an international culinary feast.

The Latin tunes enhance the flavour of everything, but I remain loyal to the Lebanese cuisine because of its vast selection of salads. But for a more authentic experience, the Fayrouz restaurant in the vicinity of the hotel offers a delectable Middle Eastern and Lebanese cuisine. Sushi lovers also have a prominent place at the hotel, namely the Blue Ginger Japanese restaurant with its open sushi kitchen and signature Makimono rolls.

MARRIOTT -- FEELING THE VIBE: Neama Bay is a destination for the hip and vibrant. If you gravitate towards action like a bee to a hive, then this is unquestionably the place to be. Situated in the middle of this beachfront strip is Sharm El-Sheikh Marriott Resort. Checking-in at the front desk offers an opportunity to contemplate the beauty of the water cascades, adorned with various plants in the reception area.

From sunrise to sunset, there are countless activities to experience here. I begin with breakfast at the Palms Buffet, with a view to die for and food to match. The huge buffet has culinary delights from around the world, giving me a boost to embrace the day in its entirety.

Meanwhile, the animation team on the beach further raises my energy level. After my muscles stretch and bend to the extreme, I lay down to bask in the sun and watch people play the gentle sport of bocce. Played by individuals, pairs or a team of three, the aim is to throw a leather ball as close to a white target ball as possible. Although originally designed for athletes with disabilities, players of all ages have taken to the sport.

Since action is what I have in mind, The Sun 'n Fun centre for water activities on the Marriott beach was my next stop, featuring a wide range of activities including diving, snorkelling, parasailing, banana boats, glass boats and submarine trips. If you are a jaded sybarite like myself, you'll definitely enjoy the exclusive VIP services they offer guests.

A serene trip aboard the Sina Dream boat turns fantasy into reality. The sailing boat offers daily trips between 9-5pm for fishing, snorkelling or late lunch with the sunset as a backdrop, the boat costs $2,000 per day to rent.

However, if you are in the mood for a high-speed ride, Dahab Lady VIP motor yacht is there to please. Standing 27 metres long, the yacht is licensed for sea safaris to Tiran Island and Ras Mohamed. This means you can hop off your plane, spend a week on the boat, and hop back to your next destination. Full board accommodation per night, without diving equipment, is $2,000. For more info log on to www.sunnfun.com.

Back on solid ground, I choose a bowl of salad for lunch at the Beach Barbeque restaurant, but the Parmizzano Italian restaurant with a view of the Neama Bay promenade is another option for a four-course gourmet meal.

In my travels, I cherish the sunset, as I bid the day farewell and ready for the night. Walking the Neama Bay promenade is one option to enjoy the sea breeze as passersby linger at shops, talking, laughing or just stargazing. "Time for some sushi," declares my companion with a child-like smile.

Teppanyaki and sushi, I am prepared for -- but not the elaborate food show by Chef Mohamed, who goes by the nickname Totya. The excitement starts from the moment we walk into Kona Kai, the hotel's signature Japanese restaurant. We are offered kimonos and head wraps to wear, and later encouraged to beat our plates with forks while Totya sliced the egg pie. After he finishes we applaud like excited school children and dig into a delicious meal.

RENAISSANCE -- A VIEW OF GOLD: The Renaissance Golden View Beach Resort is a literal description of the hotel's location. In the reception area, I am met with a panoramic view of the spectacular sea and coral reef stretching ahead. In fact, "Discover the Reef" is one of the main themes of the hotel.

Walking through the reception area, I am seduced by underwater pictures of the Red Sea and hurriedly head towards the coral beach, which is ideal for snorkelling. After two hours relaxing in the sun and exploring the reef, a drink at La Rotunda bar refreshes and rejuvenates my senses. I am comfortably seated on built-in semi-circle deep cushions, facing the water, cocktail in hand. I watch diving boats cut through the calm waters with sleek vigour, as Tiran Island stands in the background with beauty and pride.

"During your stay, it's just you and the open sea," asserts Director of Operations Russel Storey. "You will even find fridge magnets, bookmarks and turndown chocolates in the shape of fish from the Red Sea." According to Storey, the hotel is ideal for guests who lead stressful lives and want some tranquil luxury.

After working up an appetite for a late lunch by laying in the sun some more, it is just before sunset when I head to Acapulco Joe's. The Mexican restaurant is located outdoors, amid the abundant gardens of the beach promenade. It is dimly lit, but I can still see that the menu offers a vast selection of mouth-watering Latin American dishes.

My companion and I settle on a classic choice -- beef fajitas. We are waited on by Richard, a trainee from Switzerland, who is efficient and friendly and provides a good opportunity to practise my long-forgotten French. We warm up our palates with homemade nachos, sour cream and avocado dip; and -- as expected -- the fajita is one of the best I have ever had.

Watching the sun go down, I wish to return to the sanctuary of my sea view suite. But on my way, I am lured into the lobby bar for a cup of tea. Furnished in an elegant yet comfortable English design, the bar offers a variety of drinks well suited for the five o'clock tea tradition. It also has WiFi.

Loving to pamper myself, I begin the next day at the hotel's spa which offers a sauna, steam room and jacuzzi, as well as a wide range of treatments, facials and massages. An aroma therapy massage is my pick, hoping for intoxicating fragrances to penetrate through me as my Egyptian masseuse worked her magic. While the candlelit ambiance relaxed me, there was not even one whiff of aroma anywhere in the massage room. My aroma therapy was aroma-less, which was disappointing despite the masseuse's competence.

LA RESIDENCE DES CASCADES -- A LEADER IN BUSINESS: The Golf Resort and Thalasso Centre at La Residence lies 48km on the Safaga Road in Soma Bay on the Red Sea, and 45km from Hurghada International Airport. It is also a member of the exclusive Leading Hotels of the World, www.lhw.com. My immediate impression upon arriving in Soma Bay, home to four big names in the hotel industry, Des Cascades, Kempinski, Sheraton and Robinson Club, is that this place has a spirit unlike anywhere else in Hurghada. It has a quiet, secluded air about it.

I check in close to midnight and the air is cold, but the thermostat in my room is still set on cool and the bare ceramic floors are making it worse. Quickly I discover that the thermostat is in fact broken, so I look for extra blankets but there are none. Exhausted and still nauseous from the ferry crossing from Sharm El-Sheikh, I can't be bothered to call housekeeping and end up sleeping in the bathrobe for extra warmth.

The next morning, the open sea view from the terrace of my room quickly melts away any ill-feelings I have about my stay. Heading to the Dunes restaurant for breakfast, I temporarily forget my hunger as I am mesmerised by the spectacular view. This indeed is one of the leading hotels of the world.

I choose to breakfast on the open terrace overlooking the splendid golf course with its lush fields, water trickling down the cascades, woven with the pristine blue sea. The buffet is generous in choices to cater for every appetite -- from smoked salmon and sparkling wine, to traditional fuul and cheese.

Service is not as inviting, however, as waiters are cranky, don't pay attention to guests and requests take too long to be met. I am also anxious every time I leave my table to visit the buffet, since upon returning I find that they have either cleared my plate or teacup without asking.

To be honest, the poor service comes as no surprise. Throughout my travels in Egypt, I have found that no matter how exclusive the hotel, service is never up to par. "Poor training and the lack of the right calibre of managers is behind this problem," a senior supervisor in the hotel industry once confided.

I decide not to let the chronic problem of inept service disrupt my plans to enjoy my stay.

THALASSO: La Residence is home to Les Thermes Marins Des Cascades, one of the largest and best equipped Thalasso therapy centres in the region, which is also a member of Leading Spas of The World. The concept of Thalasso is based on benefiting from the natural environment, and the centre must be located in a pleasant setting by the sea to benefit from the climate and seawater. For more info e-mail thalasso@somabay.com or log on to www.residencedescascades.com.

I check in for my treatment in the late morning, and as soon as the glass doors close behind me, my mood is transformed trance-like by the lemon grass scent and Zen music filling the air. Six attendants are ready to assist at the reception desk, and I am shown to the ladies' locker to change into a bathrobe and slippers. My treatment is the Soma Bay Scrub, followed by the Soma Bay Seaweed Wrap, and concluding in a Soma Bay massage.

My therapist for all the sessions is Suvallee from Thailand, and she perfects all of them, especially the massage which is almost an out-of-body experience. I walk out feeling as light as air, refreshed and rejuvenated, but also famished.

The outdoor Spikes bar seems a perfect choice for lunch, overlooking the Golf course in a relaxed causal setting, and offering a fusion of different cuisines. I linger around the golf course until sunset. As I walk back to my room, the pool takes my fancy. Under a rising full moon, the water twinkles as if sprinkled with a thousand diamonds, and I decide to take a dip. My long effortless strokes slice the water, as my mind drifts into meditative tranquillity. Since it was spontaneous, I didn't have a towel when I came out of the water, but a friendly pool attendant offered me a bathrobe.

Back in my room, I was greeted with an extra blanket on my bed.

If you are an early bird, you will enjoy Soma Bay because there is much to do during the day, and it's mostly quiet at night. Whether you are an avid golfer or not, don't miss the free golf intro offered by the Golf Academy. As an athlete, I always welcome an extra doze of endorphins. The Golf Academy in Soma Bay is the only one on the Red Sea, reveals golf champion Mohamed Kahoul, who is a trainer at the academy. "This is a 9 Hole Par 3 Challenge Course," Kahoul explains, as he takes me around for orientation. "It gives the opportunity for beginners as well as advanced golfers to practise." In fact, The Cascades, Soma Bay's Championship Golf Course designed by Gary Player, came in first place in a survey by Golf Journal Travel Awards 2008.

Personally, I always thought golf was a very dull pastime. But after some time on the green, I realise that it requires a lot of concentration, coordination and agility for a good swing.

From greenery to the deep blue, I head to the beach at noon. Although sunny, it is a little windy this time of year so if you plan on spending the day on the beach, bring something warm towards sunset. I nestle on a wave-like sun bed and give in to the cool breeze, letting my feet soak in the water.

The beach in Soma Bay is a very popular destination for wind and kite surfers, and Soma Bay Kite Surf Centre offers many packages and rentals. After a few laps, I decide to stave off my hunger with a snack from the beach bar as a warm up for dinner at L'Emporio -- the Italian restaurant at Sheraton Soma Bay.

L'Emporio was recommended by guest relations at La Residence as "the most romantic restaurant in Soma Bay." I change into a dress to fit the mood and catch a free shuttle to the Sheraton. My table is on the outdoor terrace, and unlike their peers at the Dunes the waiting staff here is more friendly and attentive.

The setting is heavenly, with dim lights hanging from a wood-paneled ceiling, ornate flower pots in every corner and a majestic view of the infinity pool, overlooking the sea with Pharaonic statues simulating the famous Karnak Temple in Luxor. "This place is paradise," proclaims my companion, as we decide on duck with parmesan cheese, tomato soup and ravioli. To my disappointment, the duck isn't very good (perhaps from being refrigerated too long), but the Tiramisu which came later with the coffee healed my wound.

If you want to stay out late, there is some entertainment available. The Sheraton's Solar lobby bar is very cosy and brimming with people, with a beautiful view overlooking a large terrace with the sea at the far end. It's around 10pm and I'm in the mood for more. So back at La Residence, the Eagle's Nest bar offers a casual but warm environment with dark wood paneling, three LCD screens for sports lovers and a pool table at the far end.

Sitting at the bar, I follow a game closely until familiar tunes seduce me away from the screen. The hotel's talented Egyptian singer is crooning songs by John Lenon, Elton John and my beloved Dire Straits. I sway to the music and remember days gone by.

At midnight, it's time to bid the day farewell and catch up on my beauty sleep. It's not every day that I can rejuvenate at a Thalasso therapy centre.

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