Al-Ahram Weekly Online   11 - 17 June 2009
Issue No. 951
Travel
 
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Passion for pristine

By the beach of love, Jyl Ghoneim celebrates the beginning of summer

Click to view caption
Cleopatra's bath, where lovers go for a taste of nostalgic passion

Marsa Matrouh. White soft sands and .calm transparent waters by a bay protected from the high seas by a series of rock formations; where Alexander the Great once went in search of god Amun's blessings; where Cleopatra built herself a grand palace and took part of the beach, later known as the beach of love, as her bathtub; where the Desert Fox Rommel took refuge with his troops; and where many legendary classic love movies and songs were filmed.

Located 290km west of Alexandria on the Mediterranean Sea coast, the town serves as a seaport and a pit stop for travellers heading to Libya and safari goers to Siwa. It is also gaining popularity because of its soft white beaches and crystal clear waters. Though relatively underdeveloped compared to the Red Sea coast, the area is changing rapidly. With several new hotels in the area and old hotels making vast improvements, the attractions of Marsa Matrouh are heating up just in time for summer.

As a soft opening for an obviously hot season, Al-Ahram Weekly samples a taste of old and new Marsa Matrouh, recommending you hurry up and pack before it gets too crowded once the school year is over.

A BEAUTIFUL VIEW: Situated on Beau Site Beach in Marsa Matrouh, the Beau Site Hotel, meaning "beautiful view" in French, provided my group and I much needed relaxation in fabulous natural surroundings. Rated as a three-star hotel, it has very good, clean accommodations for a fraction of what surrounding hotels charge. Although I was sceptical at first, I soon discovered the Beau Site lives up to its name.

The hotel has an interesting history dating back 50 years. Dimitri and Marie Modpak of France began the hotel with basically no money, putting everything they owned, including their kitchen appliances, into the business. When it began, there was nothing but desert and sea. The Modpaks had spoken with the then governor of Marsa Matrouh expressing their interest in starting a business in the town. The governor brought them to the place that would be home to their memories and careers for the rest of their lives.

The original two buildings were not much more than stables, with no kitchen or conveniences of any kind. Through hard work and determination to succeed, they transformed the stables into a 12-room hotel marketed as a honeymoon destination. Amazingly, the business took off, soon catering to the foreign market. It evolved from a honeymoon destination into a family resort, bringing back the honeymooners and later their families for years to come.

They experienced many hardships, especially in 1967 when the war broke up many families, took many lives and destroyed many businesses. Rooms that had been reserved for the entire summer had to be refunded, nearly breaking the Modpaks' pocketbook, hearts, but not determination. Dimitri fell ill due to the stress of the war and slowly losing his dream, leaving Marie no option but to save the day.

Luckily, she had been in charge of finances since the beginning, and had saved money, unbeknownst to her husband. With the meagre LE600 in savings, the Modpaks made it through that hard summer and the following year -- eventually recovering and becoming even stronger than before. Thanks to Marie's frugality and foresight, the hotel, their careers and home were saved.

In the 1980s, Dimitri and Marie were finally allowed to buy the property where the two buildings were located. They then built one storey condominiums, which was a major improvement over the bunkhouse style accommodations they had previously provided guests. This new improvement worked well, and they were able to fund the construction of the three-storey buildings in use today. The original 12 rooms are currently used as business offices, and are a constant reminder of how far this business has come in 50 years.

Today, the hotel includes a cafeteria-style restaurant, with mirrored tiles on the ceilings and pillars, and a panoramic view of the Mediterranean Sea. A new restaurant is under construction in one of the original buildings, and the hotel has expanded to include over 150 functioning rooms, all with beautiful views. Construction has begun on the next addition to the Beau Site, namely a four-star branch of the hotel east of their current location. When asked why they do not build a five-star hotel, the answer I am given is simple: they would lose the family atmosphere in which the Modpaks take pride.

Because of this constant evolution and improvement, the Beau Site customer base has spread to nationalities worldwide. This small hotel has been an inspiration for many and a comfort destination to those who visit regularly. Today, the same customers from 50 years ago are returning with their families. It has become an annual tradition for these families to have reunions in Beau Site; last summer, a party took 45 rooms and brought together their family members from several countries for a reunion in Marsa Matrouh.

Excellent security is provided to the two private beaches the hotel owns, where many games are set up, including volleyball, speedball, soccer, gunny sack races, and tug-of-war. There is a free floating swimming pool a few metres off the beach, perfect for sunbathing and diving. Another attraction is the truly stunning natural beauty of the beach. From sunrise to sunset, the water undergoes several colour transformations which I have never seen before. Also, there is no high or low tide here since the natural rocky reef breaks the strong waves coming in from the deep water. This means there is no danger of being swept out to sea by rip tides, which are notorious for drowning swimmers and water sports enthusiasts.

The children and grandchildren of Marie and Dimitri Modpak, who today run the hotel, tell us about the many types of entertainment the hotel offers. There is an animation team, which gets guests involved in bingo games and face painting, but a popular pastime for adults and children alike is the costume parties. The hotel provides over 300 costumes, many of which where flown in from overseas, for Beau Site guests to use. Meanwhile, food and drink, music and games are all also available at the parties.

Parents and their children are required to participate in games together, which helps strengthen family bonds. Many of these games are a little quirky, such as children racing to turn their parents into toilet paper mummies; children acting as parents with the adults sitting on their child's lap; kids compete with their parents to see who will finish feeding the "babies" first using a bottle of coke with a baby bottle nipple attached to the top. Prizes are, of course, provided to the winners of these contests.

For parents in need of a break from the kids, babysitting services are provided upon request. There are several restaurants in Marsa Matrouh as well as a Libyan market. If you are looking for a more economical solution for a night out, there are many stunning beaches for a romantic stroll by moon light. There is a gift shop at the hotel, where baskets can be bought very cheap, and several markets where a picnic meal can be bought.

In celebrating the 50th anniversary of the business, Marie is hosting a festival of sorts between 18-21 June, full of entertainment and the usual family fun. If you are planning on visiting Marsa Matrouh at this time, reserve your rooms in advance because they are nearly sold out. There will also be other celebrations throughout summer to mark the hotel's anniversary.

For reservations, call (2) 02 2259 9480.

JAZ IT UP: You cannot possibly be in Marsa Matrouh and miss out on the tranquility and privacy of Almaza Bay, where you can lose your worries to its pristine water while stretching out on the beach. Such beauty is complimented by luxury since the Jaz Resort established three five-star hotels on the sands of the bay.

Jaz Resorts, set 38km east of Marsa Matrouh airport, is the new hot spot for foreign travellers to Egypt, particularly Italian and Swiss nationals. The airport, with expanding services from Cairo, Switzerland and Italy, has facilitated the expansion of the tourist industry in the governorate. The Jaz Resort, including the Almaza, the Crystal and the Orient, offers shuttle services to and from the airport. If you are travelling there by road, the resort is marked by a simple sign on the north side of the highway, so pay close attention. The resort is not visible from the road and it is very easy to miss.

Having only come to Egypt in late November, this was my first encounter with a five-star resort here. Operational since 2006, Jaz Almaza was joined by Crystal Resort in May 2009, and the new Orient Resort is scheduled to be launched in July of this year. I waited eagerly to visit the popular and ever expanding five-star resort, especially the four miles of stunning, soft, clean, white beaches and the cool, turquoise waters.

Walking through the front doors of Jaz Almaza, I was startled by a welcoming crew who provided us with chilled, refreshing towels and fruity drinks. We were ushered to the sitting area, situated in a wonderfully air-conditioned area of the lobby. Unlike American resorts, both Jaz Almaza and Crystal don't skimp on anything. There are plenty of thick, fluffy towels, high quality toiletries, including dental kits, shaving kits, bottles of shampoo and conditioner, shower gel, soap, shoe shine and even a sewing kit. I was in heaven.

The sheets are crisp, very white, and obviously well laundered and ironed. The hotel cares about their sheets so much, they ask that if you take advantage of the henna tattooing available in the resort to make sure you come to bed clean. Our room in the Almaza Resort was comfortable and stylish. The pillows were very thick and soft, with extras in the hardwood closets. One pair of bathroom slippers are provided per room, as well as a plate of various types of apples that are fresh and crisp. The minibar is well stocked with delicious snacks, such as nuts and tea provided in the welcome basket. I also noticed that there is real cream in the room for tea drinkers, something I had never seen before.

There are three types of rooms available to guests at Jaz hotels, namely superior, family superior or suite; we were lucky enough to see all three. The superior rooms offer single or double beds with spacious private bathrooms and fabulous views. The family superior rooms at Almaza and Crystal provide accommodations for up to four children, two televisions, and an abundance of room. The suites include apartment style accommodations, with one bedroom, another immense ultra luxurious bathroom with a two person jet tub, a sitting and living room and a Jacuzzi just off the patio. All rooms provide a marvellous view of the pool, the desert or the sea.

I am not a seafood lover in any way, shape or form. I am also pregnant and suffer from morning sickness, so I am afraid my review of Carallo's seafood restaurant, part of the Jaz Crystal Resort, cannot be completely fair. I can say that it is very elegant and, according to my husband, serves superb seafood. I tried the calamari, which I hate normally, but found it more than edible.

Waves, the main restaurant at Jaz Almaza Resort, has an open buffet providing guests with a large selection of delights. For dinner, we ate roast beef in gravy, flavourful chicken stir fry, kebabs, various salads, pasta, carrots cooked to perfection, delicious potato soup and a variety of fresh baked breads. For dessert, we ate fruit and two types of cake: lemon (my favourite) and chocolate cake. My friend was about to go into diabetic shock after the meal; I was too full to move, but my pregnant tummy was very happy; and my husband looked satisfied.

On our way up to our rooms, I noticed how quiet the hotel is at night. The design of the structure ascertained that the music from the nightclub stayed in the nightclub. Superior design in hotel architecture is rare, but at Jaz resorts the buildings are beautifully decorated, the colour schemes are non-abrasive using mostly warm shades of neutrals. I later learned that the owner's wife herself chose the colour schemes for both resorts.

While our friend slept in at breakfast at Waves, my husband and I enjoyed sausage and eggs with French toast. We drank perfect American coffee -- if you make it stronger than 40 cc's of coffee per 12 cups, it must not steep longer than five minutes. They got it right. After breakfast, we walked through the hotel to the beach which all three resorts share. We found that the most popular amenities the hotel offers are the beach, with its sports, live music and dancing, and the swim up bar in the pool area.

Down at the beach the loungers were nearly full, which surprised me. When I am on vacation I like to sleep in, but the Italian crowd must not be as lazy as I am. All around, children played with their parents, while beach games were drawing a crowd. Several games of volleyball and one-on-one soccer were underway, along with a peculiar game I didn't recognise. A volleyball net is set very low, while players use their hands and feet to play ball. It looked like a lot more fun than volleyball, albeit more painful.

After taking in about as much sun as my fair skin could handle, we headed back up the path to see what else the hotel had to offer. I had never seen vendors on the beach before, so we stopped to see what they were selling and for how much. One stand made bracelets and necklaces for the cost of two and five euros, respectively. The carpet vendor was making carpets before our eyes, and could custom weave your name into 5x9 inch rugs. The non-custom ones cost a mere euro, so I made a mental note that on my next visit I must pick up a few as Christmas gifts.

Continuing up the walkway, we passed by the pools at the Almaza Resort and decided to head west towards the Crystal. The hotel, laid out as a W, makes it easy to explore the complex and not get lost. That is a refreshing change for me, as I am directionally challenged. We noticed a fun playground for the kids, one of three we later learned. It was busy with staff and children alike. There were two very good theatres between the Almaza and Crystal complex, but unfortunately no entertainment was scheduled for that morning. I noticed a spa, which after deeper exploration seemed to be the only one in the resort. A 30-minute massage costs 15-20 euros, amidst relaxing music and therapeutic aroma.

By the time we finished our tour, it was lunch time and that was the best meal we had there. I ate their delectable chicken stir fry again, as well as the pasta in tomato sauce. It wasn't a true spaghetti sauce, as it was more lightly flavoured, but it was delicious nonetheless. The guys ate BBQ chicken, macaroni, salad and drank juice. We also ate fruit for dessert. I haven't eaten dessert at two meals of the day since I was in school, so it made me feel very spoiled and fat.

Sadly, the weekend was over. Time to pack and go. Yet, my journalistic curiosity urged me to learn a little more about the impact of such a large business on the area. General Manager Hani Fouad told me that Jaz hotels shop locally when they can and created over 1,900 jobs locally for construction workers and resort staff. Indeed, the local economy has improved exponentially since 2006 when Travco, the owning company, brought Jaz Resorts to the area.

Plans to expand include building villas and vacation apartments, which will employ the construction crews for the next two years. Since the resort came to Marsa Matrouh, new schools and homes are being built, enabling a much better lifestyle for the locals.

Beyond the economical aspects of the resort, Jaz likes to employ ecologically responsible programmes, such as recycling and has created some 27,000 square kilometres of green areas which improve the air quality of the area. In fact, within the resort gates, it feels cooler and smells better than surrounding areas. The desert surrounding the complex has also been cleaned up, contrasting the piles of garbage on the road to Marsa Matrouh and the cleanliness exhibited on the properties.

It is no wonder the foreign market is attracted to this destination, and I'm sure the locals share the same passion too.

For reservations, call (2) 046 436 0000 or 046436 0020.

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