Al-Ahram Weekly Online   6 - 12 August 2009
Issue No. 959
Travel
 
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

The deal with summer

The temperature this summer is unforgiving, but Gamal Nkrumah finds escape at a luxury spa in Cairo, Salonaz Sami runs from the madding crowds in the North Coast and Amira El-Naqeeb samples close-by Red Sea spots

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

The North Coast has reigned over summer resorts for generations, and in recent years it has reinvented itself and expanded extensively to accommodate the crowds which flock there every summer. In the past few years, however, the Red Sea has gained a lot of momentum and popularity as the place to go for a great tan and rejuvenation. The famed Sharm El-Sheikh or Hurghada jump to mind at first mention, but many other resort destinations have sprouted and flourished along these fabulous shores.

But then again, you don't even have to leave town to indulge yourself in some lavish pampering. Many five-star hotels offer exquisite services which will remove you from the daily grind of the city, and provide much needed rest and relaxation.

Butter me up

Queen Cleopatra VII, the last of the Ptolemaic monarchs of Egypt, bathed in milk and honey so that her skin would be as soft as freshly churned butter. Today, Cleopatra's legendary beauty ritual lives on in the Spa and Fitness Centre of the Four Seasons at Nile Plaza, Cairo.

The consequences of Cleopatra's maniacal obsession with her beauty were historically portentous. Led by the strong aesthetic and singular eye to the high end of the market, the founders of the Spa and Fitness Centre of the Four Seasons at Nile Plaza took Cleopatra's extravagant manifestations with solemn portent. Juxtaposing luxurious delights together produces much-anticipated pleasant results. The pungent coconut aroma, among other heavily perfumed unguents for a refreshing massage, filled the rarefied air.

Feasting the eye on this explosion of luxury into texture and colour, I peeped in rather sheepishly at first. Its association with glamour and celebrity makes it a foreboding place for the uninitiated. The sheer burst of cosmopolitan gaiety was alluring enough. Swallowing my pride, I tiptoed in. I could see clearly that the Belle Epoch and Art Deco styles of the 20th Century Garden City are a distant memory -- except perhaps in the black and white photography, mostly Van Leo but also those of the celebrated American photo- journalist Barry Iverson.

Tactile fabrics and a desire for absolute comfort means that wood and stone predominate as far as the interior designs are concerned. They provide the impetus for a dramatic and daring re-invention of the Egyptian resort spa. First it was Helwan at the turn of last century, and now it is the Four Seasons, Garden City. Ironically, in some ways the Nile Plaza is the antithesis of the grand gesture. The pashas and aristocracy of yesteryear flocked to Helwan for its salubrious sulfuric waters. They couldn't care a toss for achieving a sense of self-worth. They had it all, and by birthright, too.

Towards an epochal period, they knew somehow that their days were numbered. But now, there is an unmistakable sense of a new beginning. There is, of course, Gold's Gym and the Grand Hyatt both of which also have panoramic views of the Nile, however, neither has a health spa that rivals the Four Seasons'. The Nile Plaza embraces vistas that date back to ancient times. I scanned the horizon. The Pyramids glistened in the merciless sun's fierce glare. The river sparkled in the blinding midday sunlight. Over the hazy riverbank I could literally see the waters evaporate -- or was it the steam room next door?

The spa meets the personal needs of each individual guest. It is the largest facility of its kind in Egypt. Facing the Grand Hyatt, one of Cairo's most recognisable buildings, it has breathtaking views of the Nile, Cairo and Giza. By day it is a delight; it is a different scene by night, equally compelling, of course. The Nile waters glisten in the lighting of the sunset. The spa is the very image of serenity during a night of frantic activity along the Nile. The Corniche, the city's major thoroughfare, is teaming with pedestrians and vehicles. Towering above the millions, the smog and the noise pollution, the spa affords much more than a reckless prank.

Chilled and purified fresh cucumber water was just what I needed at that particular moment.

Seeking a happy place

Like many Egyptians, I usually spend my summer back and forth between the noisy, polluted capital and the peaceful North Coast (Al-Sahel). Come June, I would be waiting eagerly for the weekend to come, pack my bags and hit the road. But this year is different; I haven't been to Al-Sahel this summer. And now that Ramadan is right around the corner, if I didn't pack my bags and go now I would probably not go altogether.

I had made plans with a friend, but due to a sequence of unfortunate events these fell through and I ended up going alone on Saturday morning. Driving alone to Al-Sahel, or any destination for that matter, is not something that I would normally do. But knowing that most of my friends were waiting for me at the end of the trip, made it a little easier.

Naïvely, I thought if I left my house early -- which is about 15 minutes from the Cairo-Alexandria Desert Road -- I would be able to get a head start before the traffic. But little did I know. As I arrived at the petrol station located just before the gates, I found hundreds of cars bumper to bumper in front of the toll station. I was unpleasantly overwhelmed by the number of vacationers, heading in the same direction as me.

As I began coming to terms with reality, I was approached by a polite young man in a colourful uniform offering me free giveaways and promotions. Forty minutes later, I reached the smiling old man in the glass window by the toll station, who took my five pounds and handed me that worthless receipt. I looked at my passenger seat, which was empty 40 minutes earlier, and was amazed to find that it was piled high with freebies. Halawa bars, comic books, ice-cold drinks and cheese; it's the latest fad of promoting products to vacationers so they would buy more of the same while on holiday.

All the way to Master's, the famous rest house half way to Alexandria, I didn't exceed 70km per hour. The Desert Road was transformed into an expanded six-lane version of Salah Salem Road leading to the airport in Cairo. Soon after the rest house, I was sadly losing my 104.2 FM transmission but happily gaining speed. When I finally got on Al-Alamein Road, it was a relief. More than 60 per cent of the cars were gone and the remainder was much easier to manoeuvre.

By the time I arrived at Lotus Village, where I was staying, I was once again shocked. The volume at the toll station had doubled, but this time the crowds were heading to the gates of the Marina compound. It seemed as if Marina would burst at the seams. The scene reminded me of the bazaar at Khan Al-Khalili, the most crowded place I know in Cairo, but somehow even worse.

But then again, every beach resort and village I passed seemed to suffer from the same population explosion. Tens of cars, bumper-to-bumper, waiting to go through the gates. My fiancé, who had been in Al-Sahel for work reasons, had told me that it was especially crowded this weekend, but I didn't believe him until I saw it with my own eyes. I wondered if the streets of Cairo were now less jammed since half the population appears to be here.

The unit I was able to rent for LE350, at such short notice was miserable, and I could only have it for 24 hours. Miserable floors, miserable beds and, most unfortunately, miserable toilets. I didn't know why anyone would want two bathrooms in a flat which is less than 75sqm, with a kitchen similar to that in prison. I called my fiancé to save me, but he said that finding a place this weekend would be a miracle.

My plan B was to get dressed and go out, since staying away from this third-floor hellhole was, by all means, the best thing to do. I ran into some friends who, unsurprisingly, took me to Marina. But as soon as we arrived I wanted to leave. It was screaming family, literally. It seemed as if the Al-Sahel's miniature metropolis was overrun by thousands of children and teenagers.

Soon, however, we managed to escape the traffic and crowds, arriving at a beautiful quiet spot by one of the many lakes and lagoons in Marina. I was relieved that the teens haven't yet claimed this spot theirs, and the next morning life improved tremendously when I was able to rent a one- bedroom roof chalet with a swing and a magnificent view of the Mediterranean Sea, in the same village, and for only LE400.

As I floated on the swing, enjoying the view and the fresh air, I was thankful that I have finally arrived at the Al-Sahel I yearn for. Soon, I headed to the beach at La Plage for more than a view of the Mediterranean. Over the past couple of years, La Plage has been the place to be. It had all the right elements, excellent music, various snacks and drinks options, and a great beach with calm, still waters. Nowadays, however, although still popular, the once classy private beach appears to be attracting the wrong sort of crowd, just like its birth mother, Marina.

Disappointed, I decided to stay at the Lotus and spend my days as far away as I could from Marina, about 45km to be exact, to the new rising star La Hacienda Beach Resort. And as it turned out, the further West you go, the nicer the beaches and the entire atmosphere become. La Hacienda is, by far, smaller but quieter and more exclusive than Marina.

Designed by famous architect Shihab Mazhar, the beautiful resort is all about tranquility, with flourishing landscapes and greenery. As soon as you set foot there, you can't help but feel at peace with the world. This is probably why, although still under construction, the Palm Hills Development resort is already almost all sold out. The resort is home to a sprawling 18-hole, golf course, designed by the award winning Sanford Golf Design.

Whether you want to party hard or just lounge with your friends, it is the place to be. La Hacienda Bay is home to two of the hottest spots in Al-Sahel, Andrea (where the owner himself stands by the door to decide who can and can't go in) and Sky Beach Bar. The latter is the newest and most fashionable addition to the North Coast nightlife. Straight from Beirut, Sky Beach is, without a doubt unique. On weekends, only the who's who of Cairo are seen at Sky Bar. Their music is great and their food is even better; but if you want to drop by while in Al-Sahel, make sure to make reservations at least a week ahead.

In 2010, Hacienda will also be home to the exclusive five- star Nikki Beach & Resort. It will feature a 130-room boutique hotel, 60 villas, and the signature Nikki spa and fitness facility, as well as a range of six-star services which include private 24 concierge service, VIP lounge, and some of the world's most renowned signature restaurants.

Palm Hills Development has also launched Hacienda White, another top-notch exclusive resort, 137km on the North Coast Road, adjacent to Hacienda Bay and home of Delano Beach Lounge.

The next day, I visited yet another hot spot in what I like to call the "new North Coast". Marasi, developed by Emaar Misr on Sidi Abdel-Rahman Bay, has given the entire area a facelift. The company has even taken over the historic Alamein Hotel, the first beachfront hotel in the area, and turned it into a luxurious hotel which still maintains its traditional Egyptian character. Marasi is defiantly redefining the cultural, social and tourist heritage of the Sidi Abdel-Rahman Bay region, one of the finest and most historic beaches in Egypt.

The resort is a Mediterranean-style neighbourhood which is easily accessible from Borg Al-Arab and Alamein airports. It features a world-class beach resort, a town centre, marina, golf course and a number of five-star hotels, surrounded by abundant greenery and man-made lagoons. It is said that the Ritz-Carlton will open a beachfront resort in Marasi in the near future.

Another hot spot, I was told, is Privé, which had its soft opening on 2 July and thus entered the Al-Sahel competition for night life. Located 130km on the Alexandria-Matrouh Road, the new club still needs to step up to impress Al-Sahel's nocturnal-goers. Already, Privé has earned a reputation of being an after-hour place.

With so many new remarkable options in Al-Sahel, I thought to myself, who wants to go to noisy Marina again? I packed my bags and said my goodbyes to the roof and swing and headed back to Cairo, alone again, but with memories of a packed weekend.

The irresistible sea

Although the Red Sea can become too hot in summer, its fans are always in love with its appeal and charm. Situated on the Gulf of Suez on the west coast of the Sinai Peninsula lies Ras Sedr -- considered the most popular destination amongst wind- and kite-surfers in Egypt. Ras Sedr is a two- and-a-half hour drive from Cairo, making it the second closest destination on the Red Sea for Cairenes after Ain Sokhna. A flourishing tourist industry, the opening of new resorts, pristine waters and seclusion makes it ideal for all walks of holidaymakers, especially privacy seekers.

Ramada resorts is one of the popular resorts in Ras Sedr, especially for wind- and kite-surfers, since it's home to the famous Club Mistral. Beach lovers and avid swimmers will also enjoy the sandy stretch and the crystal clear waters. The resort offers various types of accommodation to suit families and individuals.

After an energy-packed day at the beach, relaxing at The Surf Bar located next to the Club Mistral surfing station is a treat. The bar has a Bedouin-style setting, with a view of the open vistas of the sea, with a variety of mouth watering snacks. For more information log on www.ramadainternational.com.

Moon Beach, one of the oldest resorts in Ras Sedr, is also famous for its wind- and kite-surfing. Located half way between Cairo and Sharm El-Sheikh, it is a family-run business where simplicity and efficiency meet. For relaxation after surfing, you can join a yoga class; various yoga styles are offered in the resort's vicinity. For more information visit www.moonbeachretreat.com.

Creative Green Sedr Resort is another beach resort and hotel on the Red Sea, some 76km from the Ahmed Helmi tunnel. It offers diverse accommodation, including rooms and chalets for rent, and is more geared towards family vacations. The hotel is famous for its beautiful lagoon overlooking the Red Sea. For reservation log on info@creativegreensedr.com.

"Pack and Go to Hilton" is the name of the new summer programme Hilton Egypt is launching for Egyptians and foreign residents. It allows guests to have the best rate on accommodation within Hilton Egypt's 12 resorts, by enquiring about this programme at any Hilton hotels and resorts. But getting the best rates this season is only part of the fun; Hilton resorts on the Red Sea are offering a range of special activities this summer for guests.

"Love is in the Air" is a main theme celebrated at both Hilton Dahab and Hilton Nuweiba. Both hotels have special arrangements for couples and honeymooners. At Hilton Dahab, couples can enjoy a romantic dinner on the beach any night upon request, and at Hilton Nuweiba, a romantic gazebo is ready for celebrating special occasions for lovebirds.

Families and groups are also well taken care of during the Hilton summer programme. Hilton Taba has a Bedouin theme night every Friday starting 1 August; in Nuweiba there is an entertainment programme on the beach every Wednesday; Hilton Dahab organises group dinners by the beach upon request.

ONE MORE NIGHT: Marriott Hotels & Resorts launches the Free Night promotion during the summer. The promotion offers one night free for stays between June and September, 2009, which is almost all summer. Marriott has this promotional night for its guests who have a minimum of three consecutive nights in any of Marriott Hotels & Resorts. So Red Sea lovers have the chance of visiting Marriott Sharm El Sheikh, and enjoying vibrant life style of Neama Bay, our own version of Mickonos in Greece, or Ibiza in Spain, aka the party capital. For low- profile vacationers you can enjoy the same promotion, in Marriott Hurghada, while unwinding your brain coils. For more info: www.marriottfreenight.com

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