Al-Ahram Weekly Online   1 - 7 October 2009
Issue No. 966
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Gamal Nkrumah

Breathe freely

Gamal Nkrumah reminisces about ending the summer holidays with a stint at an exclusive getaway on the outskirts of Heliopolis

The boys were having a ball of a time, playing mock battles by The Beach. They were soon forced to pack up camp, however, as the sun went down. The waiters hung upon their flanks as the boys retreat dripping wet from the pool, raining down irresistible offers of beef burgers and pizzas.

The Beach is the nickname of the crystalline turquoise theme water-park, complete with a simulated-wave swimming pool, sandy shores, water slides, artificial islands and waterfalls. The Beach also happens to be the star attraction at the JW Marriott Mirage Hotel, a picturesque, year-round resort conveniently located 10 minutes away from Cairo International Airport. So what is the sweetest scent to welcome you when you alight a long-haul flight?

It is that of the crisp and clear desert air that fills the nostrils, a far cry from the mucky polluted air of Cairo, Egypt's overcrowded and overburdened metropolis. My autumn work cycle, back-to-school and other trials and tribulations kicked off with a trip to the JW Marriott. Breathtaking vistas, including a 27-hole golf course, await the guests. But my boys headed straight for The Beach.

And now from the runaways, the boys on The Beach, to the retreat. Using the paradigm of fashion labels, this burgeoning phenomenon of being pampered silly at luxurious spas is fast gaining ground in Egypt. The JW Marriott is no exception. Its 5,000 square metre state-of-the-art fitness zone, The Health Centre, might not attract as much attention as The Beach, but it is a secret hideaway from the maddening crowds of impossibly boisterous and rowdy youngsters.

The Thai Spa, Mandara, is cultivating its own discriminating clientele. Guests flock to indulge in its seductive pleasures. The experience is not cheap. Options include a Thai massage, a bewildering array of facials and endless sessions of workouts with your personal trainer. Tumble into a water therapy tub, brace yourself for a deep cleanse or dare to try the tranquillity mask.

On a more serious note, promulgating ideas of caring for the elderly and disabled has been gaining momentum among hoteliers around the world. In Egypt, this is a fairly new perspective and the JW Marriott has been a trendsetter in that respect. Treating the elderly and physically handicapped with respect and according them the dignity they deserve can also be good for business. Few resorts in Egypt are designed with the disabled traveller in mind. The JW Marriott is one of the few exceptions.

For starters, the reception area itself is wheelchair friendly. I was delighted to learn about the special facilities designed to provide the disabled guests at the JW Marriott with comfort and easy access to the various attractions this especially enchanting resort offers. Wide door openings, ramps and no steps in certain areas can be of particular assistance to the disabled guests.

The Beach, the single most captivating attraction of the JW Marriott, is within wheeling distance from the reception lobby and the rooms are equipped with special facilities for the disabled. Accessibility for the physically handicapped is the hallmark of this luxurious resort. One is immediately struck by the fact that there are no mobility obstacles that might compromise the comfort and amusement of the disabled guests. Toilets are spacious allowing for easy mobility of wheelchairs and have handy holding bars. At the same time, the staff is trained to cater for the special needs of the disabled.

In the past, fear of not being able to enjoy the facilities of resorts had hindered many disabled tourists from visiting Egypt, but this is no longer the case. A group of British pensioners, many in wheelchairs, were ushered to The Beach by specially trained, amiable staff members, and an accommodating, sunny disposition instantly prevails.

The precepts of modernism in Egypt are multifaceted and varied. There is, of course, the need to pare down the horrors of the historically richly textured landscapes of the country. This, I believe, is the driving force behind change in Egypt.

Sumptuously patterned gilded leather and glitzy golden paintings greet you at the JW Marriott. Straddling the Ring Road, Mirage City, is a world apart -- an oasis of luxury which makes it easy to forget the outside world. Hectic Heliopolis is at once 10 minutes away and a million miles away. The JW Marriott, however, epitomises the same dynamic of the prevailing contemporary Egyptian culture, the same sense of urgency in spirit, if not in substance.

Countless sports and leisure facilities set against the background of breathtaking vistas in Cairo's backyard is an attractive alternative to the faraway beaches along the Mediterranean, the Sinai Peninsula and the Red Sea. The JW Marriott is minutes away from Cairo International Airport and this plush hotel is virtually a thoroughfare for Arab and Western tourists and businessmen. With 357 rooms, and 79 luxurious suites, the award-winning Heliopolis resort has long entered the mythology of modern Egyptian ostentatious living. The multicultural environ that exudes vitality is the hallmark of the JW Marriott Mirage City, perhaps the very antithesis of ancient Heliopolis. While the rest of the city claims to struggle to preserve its historical legacy, the JW Marriott, by putting together an interior look that bespeaks modernism, flaunts a forward-looking future.

Fusing Western and Arab sensibilities in a seemingly effortless variety of eye-catching details, this oasis of opulence defies description. Deliberately leaving loose threads hanging, in some ways there is a profusion of empty imitations of a Western pattern -- American more so than European. But my kids and I loved it all the more for the lunacy and the kitsch of it all.

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