Al-Ahram Weekly Online   3 - 9 September 2009
Issue No. 963
Travel
 
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

The stuff of legend

Jyl Ghoneim goes where fairy tales come true

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Read, tan and relax

At the turn of the first millennium, a young man named Ghalib, the son of a poor tailor, had become a well-to-do spice merchant. As fate would have it, he fell in love with a girl named Budour, the most beautiful maiden in Kathima. Budour's father agreed to their marriage on one condition: Ghalib must pay double the dowry another suitor had promised.

Ghalib agreed, and in doing so made a mortal enemy of Salim, whom Budour was previously promised to. Before the wedding, Ghalib steered his three ships into Aidhab on the coast of Egypt, the country's main Red Sea port. However, the vengeful Salim arrived before him and bribed the governor to bar Ghalib's entry.

Not to be outdone, Ghalib sailed north to a small hamlet. It was an unused natural bay said to be haunted by a fleet of ancient Pharaonic ghost ships. Undeterred, Ghalib arrived safely in the bay and in doing so cut almost a week off the established spice route to the Mediterranean.

After his daring success, other merchants began to use the bay. It was then that Ghalib decided to found a new port at this little-known village.

Soon, Port Ghalib had a bustling harbour and Ghalib had enough money to pay the dowry and build Budour a beautiful palace. Furious, the jealous Salim again misled the governor of Aidhab and convinced him to attack Port Ghalib with armed ships.

As the Aidhab fleet descended on them, the situation was grim for the outnumbered merchants of Port Ghalib. Suddenly, out of the mist, there appeared a ghost ship. A second ghost ship appeared a few moments later, then another, then ten more. All the while, the oarsmen of the ancient ships chanted in a tongue no one had heard before. Terrified, the Aidhab sailors hoisted their tall sails and sped away, never to return.

For the next 500 years, Port Ghalib thrived and the legend of Ghalib was woven into the tapestry of time, never to be forgotten.

Or so claim the owners of the Crowne Plaza Sands Resort at Marsa Alam. Although we saw no evidence of ghost ships, tyrannical father in-laws, desperate ex-fiancés or turf wars, Port Ghalib still holds the romance of the legend of Ghalib. Like the palace Ghalib allegedly built for his wife, the Port Ghalib hotel and luxury apartment complex, which includes the Crowne Plaza Sahara Sands, Sahara Oasis, Marina Lodge and InterContinental Palace is a grand and beautiful structure. It is a palace in its own right.

Located approximately 700km south of Cairo on the Red Sea, Port Ghalib is the up-and-coming hot spot for business and pleasure travel. As popular and famous in Europe as the Maldives, Port Ghalib is spreading in popularity with Egyptians. Travel blogs, MySpace and Facebook are all abuzz with this quickly developing resort. Not two minutes after we posted a few vacation shots online, comments and enquiries started pouring in. Luckily, Intercontinental Hotels Group, the resort owners, took measures to ensure this virgin oasis remains as beautiful, if not more so, than the day they broke ground on the resort.

The Marina, which is home to the InterContinental Palace, Marina Lodge and luxury apartment complex, is reminiscent of a cross between Dubai, Miami and Venice. Yachts line the marina, teasing those of us without a luxury vessel. As there were no generous yacht owners willing to give us a joy ride, we busied ourselves exploring the land.

Charming souvenir shops line the Marina area, awakening the curiosity of guests. The sales people in the shops are trained to make your shopping experience fun, and the prices are reasonable, with a variety of items for all tastes.

If the very filling three meals a day are not enough to satisfy your hunger, restaurants such as TGI Fridays and Pizza Hut are available to quench your hunger. Though we ate all our meals at the main restaurant, I was curious about venturing to the Marina for a meal. With an intricate canal system and unusual water features, walking and dining along the water front is an experience that can be both relaxing and exciting. It is akin to stepping onto a movie set, where guests are the featured stars of the film.

For vacationers, like me, who need to keep their children amused, there are dozens of activities. My daughter Bethany is perpetually bored at home; normally, there are not enough activities in the world to keep her happy. While I have been assured that this is normal for an only child, it is very frustrating for a parent. At nine years old, she is at an age where little kid activities are "lame", but she is not old enough to participate in activities for older children. Whether by divine intervention or excellent forethought by the hotel owner and his team, I am relieved to report that my daughter was constantly occupied and happy.

When we arrived at the hotel it was after midnight, and were grateful to have finally arrived. Luckily, my husband Ayman had been sleeping almost the entire 13 hours of the trip and did not have to hear what was happening around us. I was not so lucky. Bethany had been asking every few minutes where we were and how long it would be until we got there. Since she is accustomed to flying everywhere, patience is not one of her virtues. She announced about 300 times that she was hungry, thirsty and tired.

We took the Upper Egypt Travel bus, which charges the same price for foreigners as Egyptians. As far as bus travel goes, it wasn't bad. The bus was clean, the air conditioning worked well until the hottest hours of the day. They played a movie in Arabic and, of course, music in Arabic. We were very disappointed by the lack of food; usually on long trips there is at least a snack pack provided.

For an adult accustomed to travel, it could be a lot worse. And every traveller knows the journey to their destination is the most difficult part. Thankfully, the destination was well worth the suffering. When the bus finally dropped us off, a limousine service was there to pick us up.

We were escorted directly to our suite. All around us there were low, romantic lights reflecting off the water and the sound of a soft breeze ruffling through the vegetation. This is where the magic of five-star resorts begins. There are few experiences in the world quite like being driven through a romantically lit garden, where the sounds of gently trickling water and a soft breeze, are your welcome party.

Even better was arriving at our room and seeing that it was a luxurious suite. My husband made a sound like a contented sigh; my daughter squealed and plopped onto the bed; my starving pregnant stomach took over my brain and the first thing out of my mouth was "Oh look! Food! Triple Decker sandwiches!"

Before we ate, however, we had to explore our accommodations. Our suite, which shares the same décor with all rooms at the Crowne Plaza Sands Resort, was chic. The first object that caught my eye and held it was the stained glass window separating the master bedroom from the bathroom. Alcoves strategically placed throughout the suite held beautiful Arabic works of art made of semi-precious metals. Lovely wicker accents tied the outside to the inside. Our beds were turned down for us, and chocolates were placed near our pillows.

Our bathroom had a raised tub with the perfect angle to lay back and relax. Even the faucet was perfectly positioned between the foot and head of the tub for the ultimate in lazy bathing experiences. A glass wall separated a powerful shower from the toilet and sink areas. Handy alcoves were stacked with more soft fluffy towels than we could ever use in three days. Even the slippers were softer and fluffier than the usual five-star hotel slippers.

Our closets were large and included a full size ironing board and iron. The mini bar had an excellent combination of sugary drinks, chocolate and healthy fruit juices. Bethany noticed right away that our room came with Pringles chips; Ayman was happy to munch on our wide selection of nuts; and we all devoured the assortment of fruit, including; apples, kiwi, peaches, plums, and grapes.

In fact, during our stay I have never seen my daughter eat so much. It was a little embarrassing at first, but then we noticed that all the children at the hotel were eating very well. We ate at the main restaurant, Souq Al-Hana, three meals per day. Breakfast, the most important meal of the day for little ones, included eggs made to order, an enormous fresh bread bar, a variety of yoghurt, fruit salads, green salads, cereals, juices, meat and crepes.

At lunch, the dishes varied widely every day. There were kebabs, goulashes, meats, vegetables, pastas cooked to perfection, nearly authentic pizza, salads to please anyone, a huge selection of bread and an entire wall of deserts. My husband and I ate at least two plates at lunch every day. The food was fabulous and we were on vacation. Every time Bethany went back for more, the kitchen staff smiled bigger, and by the time we left everyone knew her well.

The evening meal was quite the lavish affair, with a large selection of entrees to choose from, as well as several different stations serving Indian, Asian and Italian dishes. There were so many types of meat to choose from every night I hardly knew what to sample first. The Indian Dahl and lamb was seasoned to perfection and maintained its tenderness. The Egyptian fare was very tasty, but, I must admit, not as good as my mother-in-law's cooking. To be fair though, she knows just what I like and spoils me when it comes to food. The normal banquet of breads, salads, deserts and ice creams awaited hungry guests every evening.

After supper, we enjoyed oriental entertainment. My daughter looked stunned at the way the belly dancers moved, and I too was impressed. The whirling dervishes show was very entertaining as well, although Bethany kept expecting the man to fall over -- but didn't, of course. Some children tried to copy the dancers, much to the amusement of everyone watching.

For those guests who are not in the mood for live entertainment, there is a movie theatre in the convention centre which shows one Arabic and two foreign films every night. Apparently, there is no cost for the cinema, but we were having too much fun with the live entertainment.

After the show, there was not much to do but take a walk and go back to our room. My husband and I were happy to snuggle on the extremely comfortable bed while watching movies. Bethany watched kids' shows in the other room. She remarked several times that she was very pleased to watch her shows in her room, while we watched ours in our room. We were very happy too -- I can only watch so many episodes of the Simpsons before it ceases to be funny.

Out on our private balcony, we enjoyed many cups of tea while listening to the sound of the surf pounding the shore. I was impressed with the grass walkway leading to a private garden off our suite. The landscape designer must be a genius; tall hedges lined the walkway, shielding our private paradise from passersby. The view beyond the garden was the typical Red Sea vision. A sand football field separated our garden area from the beach and sea. To the south, we had a decent view of the jetty, where there was a near constant stream of guests coming and going.

On our second day, we took Bethany to the kid's club. The schedule for the afternoon included a treasure hunt, as well as several other activities. Rather than sticking to that schedule, they actually watched movies, played with play dough, board games and built a sand pyramid.

Meanwhile, Ayman and I tested the activities we were worried would be too dangerous for a child. That included venturing out into the water for my first snorkelling adventure. Our first stop was the activities desk, where we inquired about renting equipment for the rest of the day. Unfortunately, all snorkelling equipment had already been rented. We made our way down to the jetty where we met Hussein, who rented out equipment directly.

We paid LE25 each for masks and snorkels for the entire day, climbed down the ladder and got down to business. It took me at least 30 minutes to learn how to breathe and relax enough to enjoy what I was seeing under the water. Several times, I breathed out of my nose and caused my goggles to leak, which led to an excruciating burning sensation in my nose and eyes.

After learning to relax, my husband took me by the hand and led me out to the edge of the reef. From the jetty, the coral appeared to be submerged about one third of a metre under the water, but in reality the water covering the coral was well over two metres deep. Just before the jetty ended, the solid wall of coral simply dropped away to the sea floor. The distance from the top of the water to the bottom of the coral was at least as deep as my apartment building is tall. The colours were beyond words. We couldn't stop tugging on each other and pointing out amazing sights.

On the third day of our trip, we decided it would be safe enough to allow Bethany to do some snorkelling for the first time. Several Italian families brought their kids out with the same thought in mind, and at one point, there were about 20 parents and children in the water, watched over closely by the lifeguard on duty. Though timid in the water, my daughter had a blast. That night, she fell asleep with pictures she had drawn of the coral reef.

In my wildest, most detailed dreams I never could have imagined the variety and colour of fish. No description or photography can do justice to the awe-inspiring nature of coral reefs. I now understand why so many guests come here for diving and snorkelling, but the water is not the only attraction Port Ghalib has to offer.

With a world class conference centre, business people from around the globe are becoming more and more attracted to Port Ghalib. Ultra low prices for conference rooms are beating the competition worldwide. Thanks to these competitive prices and encouraging word-of-mouth, between October and March the Port Ghalib International Convention Centre does brisk business.

The centre boasts a capacity of 1,500 people, communal and private meeting and training rooms, stage designers, simultaneous translation, flower arrangements, photography and even private offices. Catering can be arranged and the meeting rooms are a great work and learning environment. While touring the conference centre, I went into the VIP office which was fit for a king or queen. I am certain Ghalib himself could not have created a more luxurious, yet understated and productive, work environment.

During our short stay in Port Ghalib, our family was able to bond more than we have in months. Aside from business and work, with so many activities in such a friendly and peaceful environment, it would be nearly impossible not to spend quality time with friends and family. If Ghalib and Budour were alive today, I am sure they would be pleased with what their port has become today. A luxurious and beautiful place to connect with the people we love most.

PortGhalib is an ambitious project aiming to create a tourism-based city rather than just a recreational resort complex. Unfolding the plans, the blueprints reveal a full-fledged shopping mall, a mega golf state, a top notch university and a high-tech medical facility.

HOW TO GET THERE: The most convenient and fastest route to Port Ghalib is a direct flight from Cairo to Marsa Alam International Airport. The airport is conveniently located five minutes away from the heart of Port Ghalib and has flights five days a week. The round-trip ticket costs LE1,200 on average.

Renting a car is also an option, and prices vary throughout the season. We usually try three or four travel companies before we rent. Bus travel, while usually the cheapest, will take the longest time. You will also have no control over where you stop or for how long.

We took a bus to Port Ghalib and found that a limousine service was slightly cheaper to come home. Keep a careful eye on prices, as they can be deceptive. Every time you change buses or have to backtrack it becomes less cost-effective and more time-consuming.

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