Al-Ahram Weekly Online   5 - 11 November 2009
Issue No. 971
Travel
 
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

The undiscovered Sharm

Giovanna Montalbetti and photographer Sherif Sonbol find out that while the attraction of Sharm El-Sheikh still revolves around the sea, it is now very possible to live the "Sharm experience" without putting on a wetsuit

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Maria Schroeder ship wreck; Soho's out-of-the-ordinary oxygen bar; Sheraton Sharm's spectacular beach

Without a doubt, one of Sharm-El-Sheikh's greatest appeal for many, especially foreign tourists, is the chance to enjoy a taste of the high-life at a relatively moderate price. The vast number of luxury hotels and resorts offer many amenities that will enable guests to satisfy their desire for a chic and fun vacation, at a lower cost than pursuing the same holiday at the Côte Azure or the Caribbean, for example.

If once Sharm was amongst the favourite destinations for divers, the profile of the average visitor to this city has changed, especially in the last five years. Although the coral reefs of the Red Sea still hold the power to attract many visitors, Sharm-El-Sheikh has had to expand its offer to suit the requirements of its new guests. Casinos, clubs, discotheques or spas are sprouting at unbelievable speed as new areas become urbanised and new hotels are built.

To get around, you will probably need a car at some point. Do not hesitate to get a taxi, as they have lately incorporated metres and the starting fare is lower than in Cairo.

ENCHANTED LANDSCAPE: Ras Mohamed maybe Egypt's most famous national park, but it is not the only one. A few kilometres outside Sharm, the Saint Catherine Protected Area, a national park established in 1996 that includes Egypt's highest peaks of St Catherine Mountain at 2,624 metres. This protectorate offers a great chance for birdwatchers and trekking lovers, but also for history, culture and religion-related tourism. But both St Catherine and Ras Mohamed demand at least an entire day trip in order to be fully enjoyed. If you are on a short trip or simply want to take pleasure in nature without having to give up other parts of your tight-packed agenda, Sharm is still the place to go.

About 35 kilometres north of Sharm-El-Sheikh, the Nabq Protectorate, a marine reserve established in 1992, has embraced the challenge of integrating resident Bedouins into the different aspects of the area's management strategies. Nabq is home to several species of small mammals and birds since its area of almost 600 square kilometres is home to various ecosystems. It also houses a great number of botanical specimens, including what appear to be the Middle East's largest single-stands of Arak Bushes, from which siwak or miswak brushes are made.

As the largest coastal protected area in the Gulf of Aqaba, Nabq still offers corners of breathtaking beauty to enjoy in private, if you are able to avoid other visitors. The Rawsia Mangrove located in the midst of Wadi Kid is one of these spots. Although there are signs leading the way, there is no real threat of not getting there should you make the wrong turn. The alternative road leads to some of the Bedouin settlements and shrimp farms, and they will most probably point you in the right direction.

The mangrove itself may not be too impressive, especially if you have seen the ones in Latin America, East Asia or Australia. It is composed of white or grey mangrove trees ( Avicennia marina) that gradually increase in height as they move towards the sea, creating a soft transition from the smallest shoots to the grown trees . It may not be the forest of twisted rooted trees you imagined, but even so, the landscape as a whole is spectacular.

The sandy ground stretches between the Sinai Mountain skyline -- ghostly tinted in different shades of purple in the afternoon sun -- to the cobalt sea horizon of the mangrove. A Bedouin woman makes an almost magical apparition as she emerges from the stone sheds to sell her small tokens, and discreetly disappears moments later.

Silently presiding over the scene is the wreck of the Maria Schroeder, its presence dramatically hovering over the place, igniting the imagination with a romantic gothic flame. The Maria Schroeder is but one of the several ship-wrecks to be seen along the coasts of Sinai. It can be easily reached, and presents an impressive sight as most of its body is exposed above the water. It also provides a good spot for diving as its underwater portion (up to 24 metres deep) has been colonised by many reef fish and corals.

The superstitious among us have nothing to fear, since no dark legend is involved in the wreck: the ship was built in Norway in 1920 and sailed as the Rolf Jarl until it was sold to R Richard Schroeder in 1950, who renamed it the Maria Schroeder. The ship crashed against the reefs in 1956 as it headed from Aqaba to West Germany. The international press of Friday 13 April 1956 reported the ship had sank while transporting 1,900 tonnes (no cargo specified) while sailing in an Egyptian military zone, but that fortunately the entire crew had been rescued safely.

A couple of fishermen's boats lay stranded on the beach. With their faded colours, they strike a note of desolate beauty. Although in good condition and probably still in use, in mid-afternoon they appear slightly nostalgic against the sand and bushes, as if dreaming of glory days gone by.

FROM DUSK UNTIL DAWN: The last few years have witnessed a dramatic increase in Sharm's number of visitors, which has led to the development of new leisure areas to satisfy and welcome even more customers. Whether you spend the day at the Old Market, discovering Sinai's natural wonders, tempting luck at one of the many themed Casinos or simply basking in the sun, you will always be allured to sample Sharm-El-Sheikh's famed nightlife. We visited three key places with very different personalities, but one common goal: entertainment.

THE CHIC OF SHARM: Soho Square spreads itself as an architectonic Fata Morgana mirage over the sands of White Knight Bay. This simile seems even more accurate as one analyses the fast evolution of this project and its remarkable appearance. Delimited by the Savoy Hotel at its entrance and the Queen Vic Pub at its farthest end, this fashionable avenue spreads for over a mile displaying a carefully selected assembly of shops, leisure centres, restaurants and bars.

Upon witnessing Sharm-El-Sheikh's fast expansion, Savoy Hotels and Resorts in Sharm Chairman Emad Aziz identified the urge to provide his guests with an assortment of services to fit his company's guidelines of quality and sophistication. In order to achieve this, all details were paid close attention: the Italian touch combines modern and sober lines in the architectonic design, with more baroque decorations of putti, wild animals and neo-romantic children. Despite its beauty, the assembly has something of an artificial feel, which is in fact a common trait of many of Sharm's urbanised and leisure areas.

The staff is proficiently trained and wears a uniform during the day, but changes into more casual clothes at night. To add to the friendly feel of the environment for both workers and guests, employees wear identification tags that only display their first names, regardless of their hierarchical position.

The commercial area is distributed in selected outlets -- several directly related to the Savoy -- and all meet the company's standards. Rest assured, you will be able to enjoy your visit without being hassled by vendors. As it prepares for the third and fourth phase of expansion, which will include the addition of new dining spots including ice-cream parlors and the incorporation of a second street to the Square, Sharm's Soho is consolidating itself as one of the new hotspots not to be missed. Open to all customers, it also offers full programmes and special offers for groups (including shuttle bus services), and is becoming very popular amongst international tour operators. Soon, visitors will be able to find Sharm's biggest Duty Free shop here too.

The restaurants pride themselves in the excellence of their products and services, also in the authenticity of the cuisine offered since the chefs are native to their restaurant's nationalities. They aim to match London's West End best and, judging by the fine dining served at their Bombay, they are well on their way. For more casual eating, the Queen Vic Pub stands out as it has a succulent steak house and provides hours of fun in the best English pub tradition, from retransmitted live sport events to karaoke singing on Saturdays. Also, Café Chino serves snacks and sandwiches at reasonable prices until early in the morning.

Soho Square also offers a variety of clubs and bars. The most intriguing is probably the Ice Bar, where -- once you are provided with proper clothing -- you will enjoy your favourite drink surrounded with sculpted ice, from the seats to the glasses. Although the cold is dry and the experience comfortable, the average temperature is -9 degrees Celsius so you will not be able to stay longer than 20 minutes.

If you would rather stay warm and still experience something out of the ordinary, go to the Oxygen Bar where you can inhale your choice of flavoured gas. Prices range according to the length of the session, the shortest being five minutes. Some of the benefits you will reap are a clear mind, more energy and vanishing headaches.

At the Electric Bar, enjoy a strong drink while relaxing on a massage armchair; but fashionistas will have to wait for the Fashion Lounge to complete its makeover before it reopens soon. If you are looking for a refined yet more traditional bar, choose the Mandarin. You will enjoy fine drinking and will probably rub shoulders with Sharm's visiting celebrities. The night we visited, charming singer Shereen was the centre of all gazes.

If dancing at the African style Pangaea Night Club is not your cup of tea, you may want to share some laughs and acrobatics at the Ice Rink, or enjoy a journey through Egypt's History at Culturama. For a relaxing experience, watch the dancing fountain show while puffing on a shisha in the open area court, as you glance at the occasional camel-riding Bedouin saunter across the street. Once there, you might be even tempted to watch any of the many shows on Soho Square's stage every night. There is also a children's show (the second in the nightly programme), which is sure to entertain the younger members of the family.

The location is also consolidating itself as a meeting and event venue. The Square has hosted many events, including sports such as the Women's Squash Competition; cultural, most recently the Wind of Hope International Art Festival and Competition; or super-star concerts by the likes of Lebanese sensation Nancy Agram, who is booked for 29 November.

Although there may be more economical alternatives in Sharm, it is undeniable that Soho Square is the place to go if you are looking for a sophisticated night out with the entire family. The venue begins getting crowded after midnight, so if you want to enjoy more peaceful moments go earlier. The masterminds behind the project and their families can be seen enjoying all that Soho Square has to offer. That should guarantee that quality is well above standard.

LA BELLA STRADA: Il Mercato Promenade is one of the favourites amongst users of the travel-oriented Internet communities. Located in Hadaba, this open air shopping mall attempts to capture the essence of mostly Italian, but apparently also French and Spanish, renaissance architecture. The concept and the name may sound familiar to those who have visited Dubai, since Sharm's Il Mercato is the offshoot of the Gulf city's Mercato, the first themed shopping mall in the Middle East and UAE.

In order to remain faithful to the original idea and for the sake of artistic coherence in both places, the same Italian architect designed both malls. Although Daniele Morelli manages to create a friendly environment, it is hard to shake off the feeling that one is walking through a prefabricated movie set. The feeling is even stronger if you visit before midnight and the place is not yet crowded. Still, it is a great alternative if you are looking forward to some shopping and dining in one of Sharm's most popular areas.

The main entrance is impressive. As soon as you cross the arcade, you find yourself in an Italian avenue surrounded by the Palazzo Ducale and the Palazzo Vecchio. The walk is spacious and the lighting is better than at Soho Square, which makes it parent-friendly because it is easier to keep an eye on the kids if they are playing around.

The mall is divided into different areas, with clearly marked maps. The number of shops is remarkable and so is the variety. Many popular brands -- both national and international -- are available to provide visitors with an amusing and diverse range of products. Whether you are looking for Mothercare shopping, jewellery, clothes or eyeglasses, a visit to Il Mercato is a good stop. You will be able to find Levis, Billabong, Baraka Optics or Damas Jewellery, just to name a few. And if you are not fond of bargaining, don't worry: Il Mercato is also a hassle-free shopping area.

All in all, at the moment, this mall offers a wider and mostly more affordable alternative both in shopping and dining than Soho Square. If dinner at the Charleston seems too much, you can always go for your choice of fast-food such as KFC, McDonalds and Cilantro, amongst others. Il Mercato also has in mind those who may still long for the magic of the oriental markets, with fragrant spice shops and several stands for stone and coral jewellery that bring back memories of the Aswan market.

It is enjoyable to stroll in the warm night, to take pleasure in the charm of the bandstand, or to sit on one of the many benches for a short respite between purchases. Meanwhile, the soft music of the likes of Suzanne Vega and Kenny G fill the air, as you watch the artists at work. One is diligently creating bronze carvings using simple tools and intricate talent. It is a pleasure to watch him so concentrated, unaware of curious glances, as he sits surrounded by his finished works. The soft lights of Il Mercato shine off the array of metal works in a warm piercing glow, making it easy to imagine these items as part of a legendary treasure.

Just a few metres away on the opposite side, another artist is working on his crafts of sand. If you have the patience, you will be mesmerised by the agility with which this artisan creates colourful landscapes out of sand. Watching him pour the sand, it is hard to believe that with only the aid of a small metal rod, he can draw camels and palm trees against the bottle's inner walls. As the scenes emerge, one wonders whether they are preconceived designs or if they were there all along waiting to be exposed.

Il Mercato also offers souvenirs for the lovers of kitsch, including surrealistic paintings with dream-like scenes in gaudy colours and evident designs. Many are painted on black, which make the feminine and horse figures -- mysteriously recurrent in these sorts of paintings -- pop out; others are highlighted with glitter. All in all, they exert a snake-like fascination even to those who find this art distasteful.

The promenade offers also the advantage of its proximity to some of Sharm's most thrilling entertainment spots like Aqua Park, the Crocodile Show or the always colourful Alf Leyla wi Leyla. Besides, Mondays are Ladies' Day at Il Mercato, while Fridays are Children's Day, with special activities for the respective groups to enjoy.

YOUNG AT HEART: On talking to visitors, Neama Bay leaves no one indifferent: half of them love the hubbub and excitement it provides, its long and twisting course full of side streets, the crowds of people and the cluster of shops and of course, the hassle and the chance of bargaining; the other half loathes it all. It is partly this chaotic character that gives it its magic. Neama is still the fun-heart of Sharm and it literally beats with life and energy.

The strip of shore is very popular amongst Egyptians and foreigners alike, and if you want a taste of Sharm's beginnings, this is a must-see. Neama is the birthplace of Sharm El-Sheikh as a tourism magnet, and where several of the city's most popular clubs and bars are located. These include Le Pacha and Little Buddah, which are definitely the places to go if you want to savour the buzz of the crowd hours before midnight.

As you enter, you are surrounded by dozens of bars with oriental carpets and seats in which to enjoy shisha, some of them with surprisingly unexpected names such as the "Miami 1". As colourful star-shaped lanterns dance in the night breeze, it is hard to move around without taking notice of the countless bars, eateries, clubs and shops offering various trinkets, souvenirs and services. Somehow, that a dentist announces his location among the sea of colourful restaurant signs doesn't seem out of place here -- it merely adds to the eccentricity.

Walking along Neama can be pretty hectic, especially as the night turns into day. You can always escape for a quieter stroll if you reach the Helnan Marina. Here, you will also be able to enjoy a romantic dinner by the sea. Although crowded, Neama Bay is not near its capacity if you go before midnight. The jostling is not that bad either, since you are generally approached by gentle-speaking men inviting you to step into their business. They seemed to be good sports with "no, thank you". At one point, we were approached by a more persistent fellow, who even walked with us for a few steps, but within seconds another man appeared and told him to leave us alone. We wondered whether the area was being policed to ensure tourists are not harassed, but to our surprise the second man was another vendor whom we had just turned down.

"He has to stick to his territory," he explained. "We each have our own and we should respect the other's areas." Although acknowledging that tourists do not like to be hassled, he noted, "but what can we do? There are so many places to choose from here, that we have to invite them to ours. We have to earn a living."

The truth is, the rapid development of the area is not giving as much profits to the locals as one would imagine. Mohamed Rizk, manager of the Sheraton's Aquarius Diving Centre and Sharm resident over the past 15 years, explains that the tourist profile is changing. Today, most of the visitors come on low-cost packages and spend less money than a few years ago. Rizk also claims there is little chance for locals to be hired in senior jobs, since companies hire many of their employees from abroad. In a place where rent equals that of a similar apartment in Zamalek, one more customer doing business makes a difference.

THE TOWERING GIANT: Back in 1937, Ernest Henderson and Robert Moore opened their first hotel in Massachusetts, putting the cornerstone of what was to become one of the world's most reputed hotel business. In less than 15 years, Sheraton was already synonymous with excellence around the world. In 1999, Sheraton Sharm, part of the Starwood Alliance since 1998, opened its doors on the Al Pasha Coast. Due to its privileged location, the main building stands atop a hill, the hotel already distinguishes itself from its competitors by having a staggering seven floors.

Laws in Sharm prohibit buildings from rising above two storeys to ensure the views are never obstructed by construction. Sheraton Sharm built its floors down into the hill, providing its main building guests with fabulous views over the Straits of Tiran. The hotel provides 835 housing accommodations, including 112 villas and 423 resort rooms and eight family rooms. About 70 per cent of them have sea views over Tiran Island and nearby Neama, while the remaining 30 per cent look over luscious gardens.

The entire building is luminous and spacious, and despite its huge dimensions manages to convey a feeling of serenity and cosiness that invites relaxation. Although it is a popular meeting place for businessmen because it is fully equipped to host corporate meetings and large events, it is hard to believe anyone can be stressed within these walls. The static gaze of the two sphinxes in the 24-hour lobby cafeteria is enough to melt away anxiety, and the strawberry juice is superb.

There are 19 bars and 10 restaurants, the main three located in the central building, to choose from. They offer a variety of specialties that include Indian, Italian, grilled fish and seafood cooking or sandwiches and snacks. The rooms have plenty of natural light and are tastefully decorated with details in either azure or teal, conveying a sense of coolness and brightness that matches the sea outside. With all the comforts one may wish for, the room opens up to a balcony that overlooks the hotel's beach.

There is a high risk that you will lose track of time here since there is so much to do. Families are sure to have a memorable holiday, while the adults are at the spa, tennis courts, fitness centre, disco or the shopping arcade, the children will enjoy their special pools or join the specialised activities throughout the day. Children even have their own shows at the hotel's open stage, Rumors. This is certainly one of the Sheraton Sharm's most unique spots: with a look that is reminiscent of old Tarzan movies, the multi-levelled distribution of platforms allows guests to comfortably watch the nightly shows while savouring a cocktail.

In order to make the most of your day, it is wise to plan in advance. Even early birds might find it hard to resist the temptation of staying an extra five minutes in bed, if just to enjoy the calm quality of the morning and watch the horizon before getting out from under the covers. Discipline yourself though and wake up early to begin the day with a room service breakfast, at least once. Whether you decide to sip your coffee in the warmth of the morning's first rays or in the cool of your room's air conditioning, settle back and watch the sea slowly shifting from metallic silver-white to cobalt, as it mirrors the sun in its ascension. Hidden by the glare of the water, Tiran Island appears to float like a mirage on the near horizon, its outline blurred in the morning air. As the sun moves west, Tiran acquires a more pinkish tint. Throughout the day you will be captured by the beautiful contrast between the rose island and the blue water, occasionally crossed by white sailing boats.

Booking a spa session is a good option even if you are in a romantic trip for two, as it doesn't necessarily imply you will have to part from your sweetheart. The Sheraton Sharm Thalasso Spa offer couples the chance to share the ultimate indulgence experience: a special massage room built for two will allow you to live with your partner the benefits and pleasure of a massage and relaxation treatment. The setting could hardly be more romantic, as the stretchers are covered in flower petals and swan- folded towels. Many of the spa areas, like the Jacuzzi and the Hydro Pool are joint for men and women, so make sure you make the most of your spa-for-two and enjoy the facilities in full together.

If you prefer some solo time, treat yourself to any of the spa regimens as single treatments or part of a package. There is practically everything you could wish for, from Thai massage to beauty cures, all provided by highly trained specialists. One of the most popular amongst men is the anti-stress massage session, while ladies should definitively try the Ladies Day package which includes different massages and a chocolate body scrub. The experience is not as sticky as you may imagine, and is bound to leave you feeling luscious.

The Sheraton Spa is home to one of Sharm's best Hydro Massage pools, with a complete circuit to relax and energise your body. Just two warnings: first, they use purified salty water which is slightly saltier than the sea outside, so sensitive eyes might feel a bit uncomfortable; second, keep an eye on the clock over the pool in order not to overstay the five-minute security rule at each station. You can go in for a second round after a short break, or head to the sauna, steam room, or amazing Jacuzzi with an aesthetic fit for the Olympian gods.

Despite its technical and high-design merits, one of the best values of the spa is its team. Highly professional, they still manage to convey warmth and friendliness to the guests. Do not hesitate to ask for their help if you are having trouble choosing a treatment or you have any specific requirements. Be it sore joints or more privacy, they will take care of your needs and provide you with a pleasant experience.

At some point of the day you will inevitably head to the beach, and there are many to choose from in Sharm. Some will require a prepaid entrance fee, such as Shark's Bay beach, while others are public -- including a couple in Neama. Some have more reefs than sand, but most offer an array of activities to spice up your day. One of the hottest beach spots this season is Laguna Beach in Nabq Bay, as it provides chill out and house music to entertain you as you bask in the sun, and hosts vibrant beach parties such as the "foam" or the "drink until you drop" after sunset. With restaurants, bars and European DJs, Laguna Beach is the place to go if you want a wild party.

Most hotels have their own private beaches, providing an opportunity to settle for a more familiar holiday, or simply the convenience of being close to your room. Sheraton Sharm's beach stretches over one kilometre of both sand and reef. Just a few metres away from the main pools, you can relax under an umbrella while contemplating Tiran Island, or you can join any of the activities that take place on the beach. Volleyball, pétanque, football, stretching or belly-dancing are some of the activities you can choose from. All activities are announced through loudspeakers, so it is hard to miss what is going on. Loudness is a constant on most Sharm beaches, which unfortunately subtracts from the beauty of the place.

There is also a diving centre for hiring scuba or snorkelling equipment, book diving lessons or various trips. A good way to enjoy the wonders of the deep as a family, is to go on a submarine or glass boat excursion. If you are looking for more thrill, ride the banana and experience the fun of speed. In a more meditational mood, attempt parasailing, which is surprisingly relaxing for an activity which involves hanging from a parachute being pulled by a speed boat. It is safe and little instruction is required.

As you soar up into the sky you are surrounded by silence, and the world below looks minuscule as you float comfortably in the breeze. There is the chance of two people going up on the same ride, so if you feel you need a little extra encouragement or want to share this unique experience with someone, make sure you book a flight for two.

Since you are at the Red Sea, you should at least get your head underwater once. Millions of people come to see the treasures these waters hold, so even if you don't visit one of the most popular diving spots, grab a mask and a snorkel and head out to the sea. Although the hotel's bathing area is quite popular amongst the guests, you will soon be making acquaintances with parrot fish, anemones and giant clams. Consider buying an underwater disposable camera to immortalise your new gilled friends. A Checkered Wrasse seemed entranced by my floating hair as I was by his bright colours and neon stripes, and we followed each other around for over 20 minutes. Staying on schedule in such circumstances requires discipline, but at least I snapped some shots to remind me of my underwater buddy.

Depending on your plans, you can visit Rumors before or after dinner, or at least steal a peak from outside as you head to the lobby. The programme changes every night, and we were able to watch the Fakir show, as well as traditional Shameddan (candelabrum) and Tanoura (whirling dervishes) performances. The Fakir show began with an electrifying display of fire acrobatics that mesmerised the audience; the fast moving flames creating figures to the frantic rhythm of techno music. Samsara, who had been introduced as the Fakir who came from the depths of the desert, then started a glass-walking and glass-eating routine and laid on a bed of nails. Unfortunately, his show deflated towards the end with his supposedly comic final number.

The Shameddan show starred three pretty girls performing some traditional Mahmoud Reda-inspired choreographies. These were followed by a solo by the technically best, but least graceful, of the three. Nonetheless she did a fine job and served as a great introduction to the Tanoura dancer, who ended his performance in a memorable crescendo. Having light bulbs stitched to the costume sounds unorthodox, but the final effect was surprisingly lovely.

If after the show you are feeling hungry, there's still time to visit one of the hotel's main restaurants. While the White Cruiser Restaurant offers thematic nights and international cuisine, the show kitchens of Portofino and the Tamarind serve Italian and Indian dining, respectively. Portofino is decorated in the style of a little Italian village, and serves a variety of delicious salads, soups, pasta, fish and meat specialties, priding itself in its al forno specialties. The service is impeccable although slow, and is sure to provide you with a charming soirée.

Chef Iswara is in charge of the Tamarind, a restaurant elegantly decorated with Indian detail. Safeguarding his country's flavours, he has developed his own personal variations on some of India's most popular dishes. The food is excellent and, unlike most available Indian cooking, is not greasy.

Dinner may mark the beginning of a quiet night, or serve just as a warm-up for your after-hours partying. Should you find it hard to decide, ponder your options as you listen to the live music at the Lobby Cafeteria or while enjoying shisha at the White Cruiser's terrace. Whatever you decide, you are bound to enjoy yourself.

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