Al-Ahram Weekly Online   2 - 8 April 2009
Issue No. 941
Travel
 
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Going for gold

Amira El-Naqeeb rummages around for the best deals in Dahab

Click to view caption
Dahab has a little bit of everything; walking along the promenade, café and bar hopping, window shopping, chilling out with friends, or spending quality time with your loved ones

Dahab has always been my hideout, my shelter, my retreat and the golden bay of my heart. It is my favourite town in Egypt for many reasons. It's on the Red Sea, but it's not Sharm El-Sheikh with its high maintenance Italian visitors in elegant shoes, crazy nightlife and expensive hotels. Neither is it Nuweiba, with its budget- friendly camps but deathly quiet. Dahab is the perfect mix of the two: laid back but not dead; mellow but with style; alive but not overwhelming. Although Dahab's downtown is one long pedestrian street, the activities you can do there can keep you busy for almost a week. Walking along the beach promenade while watching the shops with their colorful displays is a joyful experience unique to Dahab, because this hideaway is boisterous but not bustling. Also café and bar hopping along the beach is ideal for carefree vacation. Plus, it has a variety of accommodations which cater to every budget.

NOT SO FISCALLY CHALLENGED?: Dyarna is one of the oldest hotels in Dahab. Rated as a three-star hotel, it is considered a good option for holidaymakers who can afford to spend a minimum amount of money on accommodation. It is located at the beginning of Mashraba, which is the quiet area of the beach promenade, but at the same time a 10-minute walk away from the busy area of Masbat. Masbat is considered the centre, where all the hustle and bustle takes place: bazaars, coffee shops and restaurants are scattered along the beachfront.

The rooms at Dyarna have the basic amenities of air conditioning, mini bar and a private bathroom. However, as a three star hotel, I expected a little more luxury such as more comfortable mattresses or more character to the room, but both were lacking. Some 80 per cent of the rooms have a magnificent sea view; mine is on the second floor and its terrace showcased the open sea vista.

The hotel is also home to a medium-size swimming pool, but the breakfast buffet is very basic with very little variety. The food presentation certainly needs jazzing up since it didn't look very appetizing. The service, on the other hand, is quite competent and the staff is very attentive to guest needs.

The hotel has one restaurant with an international cuisine. The grilled fish is a good option, but the mushroom soup tasted like flour stirred in water. There is also a pool bar which is for snacks -- most famously pizzas -- serving until midnight. Room service also operates until midnight.

There is one café on the roof with a pool table, but when I popped my head in, it was abandoned. The roof has a great outdoor seating area but only to be enjoyed in warm weather.

Dyarna has a five-star diving centre, organises safaris and offers free Wi-Fi. Rooms for groups of at least 15 people (booking through a travel agent) are for EUR15 (LE109) per person per night on bed and breakfast (BB) basis. For individual booking by foreigners or Egyptians, its EUR30 (LE 218) for a double room on BB basis. For more info, log on to www.dyarnahotel.com or call 00-20-693-640120

JASMINE PENSION, located in the Mashraba, is another good option and more budget-friendly. All rooms come with a sea view, and the pension has its own dive centre. Although it's a pension, the rooms are very cozy, clean and neatly furnished. The walls are wood panels with a private bathroom and air conditioning. The room's terrace houses a wooden bench for guaranteed awe-inspiring views of the sunrise and sunset.

Jasmine is one of the best restaurants in Dahab; make sure you try their pancakes, especially the one with orange sauce, and don't miss their Egyptian breakfast. The service is good and the staff is slightly less nosy than at other hotels.

Double rooms cost LE150 on BB basis during the high season which starts from April to mid-May, including national holidays and LE130 between May and September. Single rooms cost LE120 and LE110 during the same periods, respectively. For info log on www.jasminepension.com

BEST VALUE FOR MONEY: Coralia Club Dahab, aka Novotel, is located on the lagoon three kilometres from the town centre. There are 40 deluxe sea view rooms which began operations 18 months ago, and are a real value for money. The work of French architect and interior designer Alain Jaouen, the hotel is a real masterpiece especially that the space is used wisely. In fact, strolling through the hotel you realise that most outlets and facilities have a fair view of the sea. As if it were an unspoken promise that you will have a guaranteed sea view vacation.

The beach has all the right attractions, with a 400 metre stretch of sand which is windy in some spots but with a gentle breeze in others. This makes it heavenly for swimmers like me, but also idyllic for wind and kite surfers. "According to the international surfing community, Dahab is considered the second most popular destination for wind surfing in the world," according to Jacky Cronk, the executive secretary of Coralia Club Dahab's general manager. "Most of our repeat guests are either kite or wind surfers. They are our bread and butter, in good times and in bad."

The hotel has two wind surfing facility stations managed by the Neilson Active Holiday Company. There is also a water sports centre, fully equipped with banana boats, water skiing, glass boats and kayaks.

Cronk added that they intend to target football teams and football clubs as potential clients, which is why the Novotel has a minimum-size standard football pitch.

Breakfast at the Zaytouna restaurant lived up to my expectations. I had worked up an appetite in the morning during a run on the beach. A generous buffet greets me, and the service matches the good food. The Sunset Bar provides not only delicious food, but a sublime view. The Coralis salad -- smoked salmon on the freshest bed of vegetables I have tasted in a while -- was so delicious I devour it while watching the sky turn into a sea of molten gold.

The vegetables are so fresh because they are grown on hotel grounds. General Manager Gamal Hassan envisioned an 8,000 square metre organic farm for the hotel which was planted one year ago. Crops include okra, moulokhiya (which makes green soup), tomatoes and cucumbers. A variety of fruit are expected this summer.

The Mai Thai restaurant is basically a wooden kiosk with glass windows on the beach. The restaurant only had a faint Thai influence in decoration, such as the flowers in the corners, but the rest was a hash of other Far Eastern taste -- witness the Chinese lambs hanging from the ceiling. For appetizer, we have Por Ria Tod, spring rolls stuffed with vegetables; the second appetizer Gai Neva Satays, chicken skewers served with peanut curry sauce, is delicious.

These are followed by a beef soup with lettuce and fried garlic, also very tasty but in a conservative way. I am almost full by the time our main course of chicken with green curry in coconut milk comes to the table. While delicious, I only take a couple of spoonfuls and decide to leave room for the Kleuy-Tod, fried banana with ice cream.

A wise decision on my part, since dessert is a euphoric experience. I have had fried bananas before, but they are usually too greasy. This one, however, is phenomenal: crunchy, light, sweet and the homemade ice cream is perfect. I had set menu A, which cost EUR16 (LE116.5).

There is also a fish market in the house where you can pick the catch of the day. For lovers of the Italian cuisine, be sure to stop by Al Pesto. The Lagoon Bar is always available for a quick snack.

At night, there is little to do at the hotel. La Terrace, which is a spacious area with traditional Bedouin-style seating, is the only entertainment available. Since it is entirely dependent on the hotel's occupancy, it was a sad sight to see the singer crooning into the microphone to an empty space.

The Bedouin theme is also found at the tent overlooking the beach where guests can relax during the day. There is also an inviting seating area by the Neilson Active Holiday surfing station.

According to Atta El-Dessouky, the hotel's rooms division manager, April in Dahab is the high season so there will be no special discounts. The rates will start to go down by June until 21 September. In order to cope with recession and encourage sales, El-Dessouky notes that the hotel relies on visual promotions and attractions posted on its website. These include free nights or discounts on massages and food. "These are called added-value on the promotion, which means internal reduction on services," he explains. The hotel has good deals on lastminute.com and a 10 per cent discount on early booking. For more information check the hotel rates at www.accor.com

NESIMA is one of the landmark hotels in Dahab which has undergone many facelifts since it opened in 1995. Although it's a two-star hotel, the quality of food, service, buildings and scenery are equivalent to a four-star venue. They have recently renovated their roof restaurant, with an extended outdoor terrace, which is open for breakfast and lunch.

If you're looking for luxury with ecological style, then this is your pick. The rooms are stunning; they have all the lavish amenities, yet the nomadic spirit is still well preserved. Dome-shaped ceilings, stone walls, brass lamp units and a framed Bedouin borqaa is a signature in each room. The terrace doors are soundproof and overlook picturesque gardens.

The breakfast buffet has an intriguing variety and good American coffee as well. Nesima is also home to a four- star restaurant which is famous for its steak. The only down side to eating in Dahab, generally, is the fact that you need to get used to sharing your food with dogs, cats and flies. Animals in Dahab, especially cats, are almost too friendly and find no problem with jumping on the table and eating off your plate. If you don't like to share your food, you can ask for a mini water sprayer to discourage the ravenous felines.

Since many holidays fall in the month of April, such as the Coptic and Christian easters as well as Sinai Day, rates are going to rocket between 1-21 April. Superior rooms will cost EUR90 (LE 655) and will accommodate up to three people. Standard single and double rooms will cost EUR51 (LE371.28) and EUR66 (LE480.50), respectively, on a BB basis. Go to www.nesima-resort.com for more information or email reservation@nesima-resort.com

BACK-PACKER PARADISE: Red Sea Relax Resort, Dahab was voted by hostelworld.com customers as the number one hostel in Egypt in 2008. I can definitely see why. Not only is it super clean, but rooms are also very commodious. I am given a tour by the friendly owner Chris Tomley of the PADI Gold Palm Resort.

The merits of the place are endless: standard rooms with private bathrooms; all amenities; rooms with access for the disabled; free tea and coffee all day; free Wi-Fi; a laptop for guest use in the reception; free pool table and a swimming pool. They also have a café and a bar on the roof, where there is a big flat screen that shows movies and sports. What more can you ask for?

There is also accommodation for shoestring travelers, namely a male dormitory with 20 beds, another one for females, a mixed dorm, and a private two-bed dorm. "We are the only ones who offer this kind of facility," Tomley proudly said.

The dorms have an extraordinary view of the sea, which is a welcome sight after an exhausting long trip with a backpack. Checking into this cheap, clean hostel was like stumbling onto a traveler's haven. Prices are the same year round; Egyptians receive a 20 per cent discount on the standard rate, while those using the in-house diving centre lodge for free. For reservations and more information, log on to www.red-sea-relax.com, book through hostelworld.com and get a special rate, or call 00-20-693- 641309.

MOHAMED ALI CAMP, the iconic camp of Dahab, is also one of the oldest lodging places and marks the beginning of the Masbat area. The camp was renovated a few years ago with the addition of more beachfront rooms. The rooms have private bathrooms and air conditioning, at a cost of LE120 per double room -- but you need to book at least three weeks in advance.

The word "camp" implies some characteristics, which the place still maintains by keeping its old, basic, cheap rooms. The single and double rooms with a private bathroom cost LE40 and LE50, respectively; rooms with communal bathrooms cost LE20 per person. The camp also has a mixed dorm at a cost of LE30 per bed.

Overall, the atmosphere is friendly and its Bedouin seating area is a popular meeting point in Masbat for many back packers. The camp has a three-star diving centre, but offers no food or Wi-Fi. For reservations call 00-20-693- 640268 or email clubredsea@sinainet.com.eg

EL-SALAM CAMP is located at the end of Mashraba from the beach side and is strictly for back-packers. There are three types of rooms: sea view shared bathroom at LE30 per room; standard rooms also with communal bathroom at LE25; rooms with a private bathroom and air conditioning at LE100 per room.

Sea view rooms are basically a match box window overlooking the beach, and standard rooms are small with a built-in plateau with a mattress on top for a bed. The communal bathroom is moderately clean, and accommodates a shower. There is a kitchen in the camp for the use of guests. Reserve at elsalamcamp@gmail.com or call 00-20- 693-640307

SABRY PALACE is a very basic and simple camp in Masbat, so don't have any high expectations based on the name. Its door front is slightly off the main beach promenade, so you might miss it. This small camp has one main advantage, namely its location amidst the shops and restaurants. Rooms are quite modest; the ones with a bathroom cost LE80 per room and those without cost LE40. For reservations, call 00-20-693-640444 or 00-2-012-781- 3810.

WHERE TO EAT: The array of cafes and restaurants that dot the beachfront makes the choice hard for first-time visitors. To save you much confusion and stomach churning, here are my recommendations. Penguin restaurant in Mashraba is one of the best places although a little pricey. Yet the shrimp curry and the pizzas are worth the extra money.

For a good but expensive gourmet meal, try the Carm Inn Restaurant at the end of the Masbat from the beachside, right before the lighthouse. They have an adequate variety of dishes and great onion soup.

Chinese food lovers are advised to hold back and look for alternative cuisines, since the quality of food offered on offer is not up to standard. Coffee lovers also have a place in Dahab. At Lavazza café you don't only get to taste the best mochas in the country, but also master the art of watching the world go by while sitting on the outdoor terrace. Another option is a new Illy cafe by the end of the pedestrian shopping area, which is parallel to the beach promenade before heading to Mashraba Street.

Mashraba Street itself is full of oriental coffee shops which offer a large variety of local drinks, like tea with mint, anise, hibiscus, sahlab and various blends of shisha -- of course. There are also many supermarkets in the area, pharmacies, diving stores and different bazaars selling gold, leather and local hand crafts.

WHAT TO DO: During the day, Dahab is home to many water sports such as diving, snorkeling, kite and wind surfing. However, if you don't fancy any of the above, you can nestle on one of the sun beds scattered along the beachfront and enjoy. Dahab protrudes into the sea; therefore it gets more than its fair share of the northerly wind. Since it's also a bay, the northern tip of the lighthouse area is slightly sheltered and the water is calmer. This makes it a good spot for swimming.

Strolling on the street which stretches along the beach has one disadvantage -- street vendors and waiters harassing you to try their goods. One activity you shouldn't miss out on is renting a bike and cycling on the beach promenade. Desert safaris have a wide variety of good bikes at a reasonable price of LE10 an hour.

The Lagoona is a very famous destination since it's privileged with a sandy stretch of beach and a coral reef. A 20- minute walk from Mashraba on the beach will get you there, as will a quick ride in a mini van for LE5. The infamous Blue Hole is also a must see for avid divers. It is notoriously known for swallowing up eager and overly confident divers who tempt fate by going further than the recommended depth.

Many tourist companies organise this trip for a reasonable price of LE 50 per person by Jeep, or LE 120 per person by camel. Along the beachfront, there are many companies which organise trips to various destinations in Sinai such as Nuweiba, Saint Catherine and Taba.

Night owls may get a little stir crazy in Dahab since the famous Tota boat bar/restaurant -- a main player in Dahab's nightlife -- sadly closed. Today, the restaurant/bar Rush fills the void left by Tota. It offers an action-packed week for party animals, with a DJ playing the latest House and Trance tunes on Fridays for a minimum charge of LE50; a jamming session on Saturday; karaoke on Sunday; and soft mellow tunes with the vocals of the talented Egyptian Hesham Hafez over a candlelit dinner on Tuesdays.

The Tree Bar is another option, where you can enjoy "happy hour" some days of the week, depending on the season. They also host a DJ party every Thursday with an entrance fee of LE50. For more information, search for The Tree Bar on Facebook.

HOW TO GET THERE: Those who can afford it, can hop on a plane to Sharm El-Sheikh using www.egyptair.com, and then take a taxi or bus the remaining 90 minutes to Dahab. Bus fare is about LE12 and the taxi will cost LE70- LE100 per person, depending on your bargaining skills.

For budget travellers, you can take an East Delta bus from the Torgman bus station in downtown Cairo to Dahab for a nine-hour ride. For bus schedules and prices, call 00- 202-2574-2833.

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