Al-Ahram Weekly Online   24 - 30 June 2010
Issue No. 1004
Travel
 
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Hurghada... a celebration of contrasts

By Al-Ahram Weekly's team Amira El-Naqeeb & Ahmed Abu Ghazala & photographer Sherif Sonbol

Click to view caption
From the Fish Market to Shade, Hurghada is indeed a city of contrasts

In the bright sunlight, the sea is all emeralds and turquoises, sapphires and diamonds, though in the early morning of the same day, only soft shimmering silk seems to embrace the horizon in a shroud of mist over the sea. The contrasting Red Sea colours offer a continual challenge for the artists longing to capture their unending play of lights, hues and shadows.

A great number of the countless beaches studding the Hurghada coast line allow easy access to the reefs teeming with a myriad colourful fish -- heaven on Earth for scuba divers and snorkellers. The beaches range from tiny, picturesque coves -- ideal for young or inexperienced swimmers and romantic moonlit picnics -- to long stretches of creamy golden sands.

Relaxed vacation destination, international business hub, bustling port city, tranquil nature reserve, modern amenities, crystal azure waters, people of diverse origins, one friendly face. Join Al-Ahram Weekly 's team as they escort you through an in-depth guide to Hurghada, the city of contrasts

Lasting impressions

If you have not yet visited Hurghada, you must immediately set your plans on going there. It is not just another touristic town, as some might presume. It is, rather, a typical Egyptian city characterised by a very special charm and beauty.

There are three main areas to explore in Hurghada, the first of which is Al-Qura . Literally "the villages", Al-Qura is packed with four- and five-star hotels and resorts. A visitor may spend a beach day at any of these "villages" -- from roughly 9am to 6pm -- enjoying the placid Red Sea and its soft sand, or unwind by joining the hotel's animation team dancing, stretching, or playing different kinds of beach sports.

Since Hurghada is famous for its fantastic shores, there are plenty of water activities to indulge in, including sailing, wind surfing, kite surfing, and deep sea fishing; scuba divers and snorkellers can behold unmatched gardens of world- renown coral reefs and spectacularly colourful fish which abound in excellent year-round visibility.

At the end of the beach day, the choices are to dine at the hotel and enjoy its various musical shows before hitting the dance floor, or take a stroll down the car-free Al-Mamsha Promenade, bustling with cafés, restaurants, bazaars and shops.

Thanks to the length and width of the promenade, the cheerful liveliness it provides in no way mars the option of a peaceful walk. Although it offers every possible sort of entertainment, the promenade's spaciousness leaves strollers plenty of private room for a tranquil chat or a quiet moment.

If your target is to visit the most vibrant place Hurghada can offer, don't hesitate to hit the Marina. A fantastic day spot, the Marina is lovely for catching the sunset overlooking a yacht- dotted blue sea. Come nightfall, the Marina grows even more fascinating: a walk sprayed by the sea breeze, high-profile night clubs like Hedkandy or Ministry of Sound, vibrant live performances -- including Latin music -- at the Friends Bar, or simply a dinner and shisha at any of the great number of restaurants and cafés available. Do not miss the daily shows at Alf Leila wi Leila (Arabian Nights) showcasing various performances drawn from Egypt's traditional folklore.

The second main area in Hurghada is Al-Seqala, or Al-Sigala as Hurghada's residents call it . A local story explains that the name Al-Sigala is based on the Sea Gull Hotel, one of the oldest in the neighbourhood. The area was also called Qaryet Al-Sayyadin (Fishermen's Village), since Hurghada was home to Arab fishermen in the early 1900s to 1920s.

Al-Seqala -- at the heart of which is the famous Sheraton Road teeming with shops, bazaars, restaurants, cafés, night clubs, banks and hotels -- is the busiest spot in Hurghada thanks to its unique oriental or, more specifically, Egyptian essence. For most tourists, the Sheraton Road is also a certain "downtown" where all manner of entertainment, food and even medicine is available. A particular favourite is Al-Sokkareya coffee shop.

The third and last area is Al-Dahar, where most Hurghada locals reside, and it is therefore considered the heart of the city, or Old Hurghada. Sometimes referred to as the "Arab district", since it was inhabited by the Bedouin tribes of the past, Al-Dahar is practically the first area to have witnessed life in Hurghada. A visit to the area would not be complete without a drink at an authentic Egyptian qahwa baladi (coffee shop), for a taste of the genuine Egyptian lifestyle after hours.

It is at Al-Dahar that the main public entities are located, including the Governorate Headquarters, the City Council, the main public hospital and the aquarium, among others. It also includes a number of cheap hotels and youth hostels, like the Four Season Hostel for Youth. In addition, it is a perfect place to find merchandise at lower prices from the different stalls and shops, albeit, at a lesser quality too.

A holiday in Hurghada is not restricted to the abovementioned activities -- these are but a sample, the tip of the iceberg. Visitors can embark on a desert safari adventure, experience the magnificence of Giftun Island, explore the Roman Mons Porphyries, or enjoy the glass-bottom boats revealing the underwater treasures of the Red Sea while keeping you dry on board.

Hurghada is so named because the fishermen of old used to meet near a large tree named Al-Ghardaq, which, in time metamorphosed into "Al-Ghardaqa", Hurghada in Arabic. On the very spot where stood the tree, King Farouk, the last monarch of Egypt, established a luxurious vacation residence for himself. Following the revolution in July 1952, the place was commandeered and turned into an Armed Forces Water Sports Club -- still in existence today in front of the Tourism Information Office.

It was not until the 1930s that the city started attracting national attention, thanks to the discovery of oil and the consequent emerging industries resulting in additional forms of trade like transport networks and construction. Rizq Abu Mohamed, an old taxi driver residing in Hurghada since 1978, told the Weekly that a number of tribes -- most important among which are the Rashandeya, Ababda, and Gaafra -- were the only inhabitants of Hurghada when he first arrived. He added that the entire area was no more than sand and rocks, and "all those who lived here were either fishermen or shepherds."

With Egypt's signing of the Peace Treaty with Israel in 1979, tourism boomed in the city and investments started pouring in. The already established Sheraton Hotel was reopened and the Magawish Resort was inaugurated in 1979 upon its completion. By the 1980s' Hurghada was turning into a busy touristic area, with the opening of Giftun Resort, charter flights transporting holidaymakers back and forth, and huge investments financing ever-increasing construction. The number of residents, naturally, massively grew.

Abu Mohamed noted that the city attracted even more investments after the destructive 1997 torrential rains. The number of hotels in Hurghada has now exceeded 200 and, according to the Hurghada official website, nearly two million tourists visited the city in 2008. Cheaper than its rival Sharm El-Sheikh, Hurghada prides itself on being the largest resort city on the Red Sea.

Despite what appears to be a wild city of lights, sights and smells, Hurghada's foremost features remain serenity and safety around the clock. The diversity of both residents and tourists reflects a spirit of tolerance and reciprocal acceptance whereby no visitor is left feeling out of place. Hurghada is, after all, the city of contrasts.

The stuff of legends

A reconnaissance mission to the fine, the cheap, and the memorable of Hurghada's hotels

FIVE-STAR

Grand Resort

Setting foot in this hotel immediately transports the visitor into a fairy tale world. The trickling water of the fountain in the centre of the lobby has a sort of hypnotic effect; the prevalence of ivory and regal red on the reception fabrics and walls, not to mention the colonnades, turns the mind towards Cordoba's Mezquita. As the tour begins, the doors are flung open to a tropical island atmosphere. Lush greenery around every corner, palm trees jutting out of pool islets, and the sound of birds chirping in the air feels natural, and perfect. Every corner has a story to tell.

Ears pick up a familiar tune: sax-infused jazz casts a mellow mood over the Pergola bar's comfortable chairs. Soothed by the tunes, and caressed by the fresh-scented breeze, the tension-free surroundings seep into the soul. The colours of the buildings -- sunny yellow, vibrant terra-cotta, and tranquil salmon -- add warmth to the atmosphere. The architecture is distinctly Andalusian, the vaults, the arcades, the naturally-lit dome-shaped ceiling, even the waiters' uniforms.

The Waterfront Restaurant is the best choice for those who fancy an outdoor lunch. Perched on a plateau overlooking one of the seven swimming pools, the restaurant boasts a mouth-watering salad bar, not to mention the freshly- marinated variety of palatable meat, chicken and fish barbequed to taste.

The legendary hotel offers plenty of activities to keep its guests amused around the clock. By the hotel's mall, located on the promenade dotted with a number of cafés, lies the theatre where the animation team picks a famous Broadway musical to play each night. For those longing for more action, the Jungle Club Disco will keep you swinging all night long.

Hilton Hurghada Resort (Hilton Al-Nour)

The key word for this resort is comfort and service. Start your day with breakfast at the Pebbles main restaurant, which, beside the delicious buffet, promises its guests a different feeling each morning. Thanks to the diversity of its location, the restaurant provides views of the promenade, the swimming pool and the lobby bar as well as secluded spots for love birds.

By the beach, the bubbly animation team offers an aqua gym class for a bit of a warm up before a plunge in the refreshing Red Sea turquoise waters.

To reach all possible guests, the instructor alternated between Russian, Italian and Arabic making the exercises even more engaging and fun as a simple beach activity managed to trespass all international boundaries. Next, the animation team began calling on swimmers, sunbathers, and slackers to join the Latin dancing class conducted by an Armenian instructor who speaks, and looks, Italian. First a spicy Meringue, then a fabulous Bachata to seal the deal. After the dance, please don't forget to make up for the burnt calories by ordering a pizza, spinach ravioli, chocolate fondant or yoghurt parfait. Divine.

Iberotel Aquamarine Resort

Located on the southern tip of Hurghada with its own private beach, this impressive complex features over 1,001 comfortable guest rooms and suites offering the latest services and amenities as well as seven restaurants serving Egyptian, Asian, Lebanese, seafood and international cuisine in addition to two bars.

The hotel's extensive facilities include wireless Internet access, four large swimming pools with two exclusively for kids, tennis courts, fully equipped gym and spa. For water sports lovers, the long stretching coastline, pristine beaches and coral reef islands of Shadwan, Giftun and Gubal make it a perfect diving destination.

BUSINESSMEN AND FOUR-STAR

Sol Y Mar Ivory Suites

This preferred business travellers' hotel is situated just 1km from Hurghada International Airport and within easy walking distance of the city centre. The hotel comprises 48 pleasantly-furnished studios and apartments, all enjoying a balcony or a terrace, and equipped with the standard amenities. A main restaurant featuring international cuisine serves breakfast, lunch and dinner. Guests have exclusive access to the hotel's swimming pool and kids' pool, or they can also use the facilities and amenities of the nearby five-star Iberotel Aquamarine resort, only 10 km away.

Located in the quiet and cosy Al-Kawthar neighbourhood, the hotel's front apartments enjoy a view of the private villas, adorned with lush greenery, while the pervasive shades of cream, camel, and ivory create a neutral contemporary backdrop. Both the furniture and interior are simple and elegantly chic. The special feature of Ivory Suites is their combination of hotel neatness with the cosy intimacy of home.

Hilton Hurghada Long Beach Resort

The first impression imparted by the hotel lobby is that of an airport, with all the hustle and bustle of guests checking in and out. This is the biggest Hilton Resort in the entire Middle East, with 912 rooms and suites. As a four-star property, the hotel operates solely on an all-inclusive basis.

The huge resort requires moving around in a golf cart, unless you are on a strict exercise routine. The family building, which houses 119 family rooms and suites, is one of the resort's unique features as it allocates this exclusive space for families only, with their own heated swimming pool and kids' club. In fact, the whole architecture of the resort spreads the feel of a housing complex; rather than a hotel.

For fast food lovers, the Beach Bar restaurant caters to that special burger and French fries craving. The Oasis Bar answers calls for healthier and more elaborate choices, especially with its appetising salad buffet. For more gourmet food, the Podium Restaurant will cook your fillet right by your table.

BUDGET

Yasmina Helen Hotel

This is a one-star hotel, located at Al-Saqala Street, with an extremely modest appearance but providing exactly what adventurers and backpackers require at a shoe-string budget. The air-conditioned rooms are spotlessly clean and include a bathroom, TV, telephone and mini-bar. Although the mattress isn't the most comfortable, for LE60 per night for a single room, one can hardly complain. The hotel also features a modest restaurant serving the basics, a bar and a coffee shop on the roof that only operates on busy evenings.

Yasmina is a convenient walking distance from the shops and supermarkets.

For reservation: Ibrahim Rizq 017 230 3207.

Four Seasons

It was surprising to hear two Americans asking a taxi driver to take them to the Four Seasons Hotel. There just isn't a Four Seasons in Hurghada. "Hey, are you guys sure there is a Four Seasons here?" we asked. "It's not the luxury one, although we wish. It's a place for backpackers." In the old downtown of Al-Dahar stands the three-storey building with its green balconies -- a small, cosy hostel from inside. Seating areas with long benches and rectangular tables are so laid out to accommodate as many people as possible, while shelves cram books in German, English and Italian as well as diving and desert safari flyers and brochures.

The air-conditioned rooms are furnished with the basic amenities: a bed, fridge, closet and TV. Though the furniture is old, the room is evidently clean. The breeze and the fresh air wafting in from the balcony almost blew us away, giving the rooms a definite edge on hot summer days. A double room costs LE80 for foreigners and LE60 for Egyptians.

For reservation: Mohamed El-Sayed 012 714 3917.

Biba Hotel

This two-star facility lies on the famous Sheraton Road. The lobby is very basic and narrow; the humble restaurant provides breakfast for LE12 and lunch for LE22. A green- coloured corridor leads to clean rooms with window sea view, a broken cupboard, 10-channel TV and a simple bathroom.

109 Sheraton Road. Tel: 002 (065) 34 44 908-002 (065) 34 44 909, Fax: 002 (065) 34 42 565.

Single room: LE80 for Egyptians, $18 for foreigners.

Double room: LE120 for Egyptians, $26 for foreigners.

Golf Hotel

Overlooking the Sheraton Hotel, the Golf seems more than a two-star hotel at first sight, with a nice sidewalk café, a clean spacious reception, and an Internet Wi-Fi connection service. The hotel includes a roof bar and a-not-so-inviting swimming pool. The narrow rooms house old, humble furniture. The spacious and well laid-out restaurant provides lunch for LE18, and dinner for LE22.

For reservation: 002 (065) 34 42 828-002 (065) 34 44 328, Fax: 002 (065) 34 49 463.

Bed & breakfast single room: LE90.

Double room: LE150.

Two-room suite: LE250.

Additional bed: LE35.

Where to eat

Shade

While walking in the Marina, I stumbled upon Shade, which was in any case hard to miss. Let me try to be more visual: stepping into Shade, I felt like a kid in a candy store walking into a big pack of M&M's.

There were bean bags all over the place, green, yellow, red and black. I picked one and literally threw myself onto it, trusting in its comfort. In a short while, a handsome man with salt and pepper hair in sharp contrast with his green eyes approached me. "Would you like to move up to the other level? The rain has made this level wet," he said. I took his hand in an attempt to get up. Hassan Mahmoud turned out to be a partner in Shade.

The place was unique, with the floor-to-ceiling windows in the outdoor pergola guaranteeing that your screen-saver would be an open vista of the big blue. The VIP section, as Mahmoud calls it, "because it's for our regular guests and accommodates big groups," is only a 25cm step off the ground, with bigger, sofa-like bean bags, or Fat Boys, as the brand is called.

Shade will be one year old next June. According to Mahmoud, the Marina will also be two years old in June. "It was originally designated to be shops, which is clear from the arcades. It's owned by businessmen, and a year ago a marketing company marketed the project as a destination for clubbing, chilling out and eating," Mahmoud explained.

I tried the Chili Hot Chocolate. The flavour was intense, but so is the place. Shade hosts a rock band called 13 Daze that plays live music every Saturday. The restaurant markets itself as Shade Bar & Grill: a place definitely worth a visit.

White Elephant

This is the only Thai restaurant in the Marina Boulevard area. The simple decor is inviting, with an outdoor wooden and glass pergola. It was almost 3pm, and the sky was clear, but with some grey clouds and a promise of rain later. I stepped in, took the menu, and decided on an appetiser and soup. Since I was the only guest in the small restaurant, I got the waiter's full attention. I ordered the Tom Yam Gung, which is a shrimp soup with lemon grass and chili paste. Had I not tried this dish three weeks ago at a friend's house who has a brilliant Thai chef, it would have passed as a delicious course, yet it now paled in comparison to my previous experience.

The appetiser, fish cakes, turned out to be a bit disappointing. The deep-fried minced fish with Thai herbs was too greasy for my taste buds and unfortunately had some eggs in them, so the combination was enough to make my stomach churn. I'm neither into eggs nor deep-fried food.

I remained hopeful about the main course, Gaeng Phed Gai Yaang, or barbecued chicken in red curry. Luckily, it turned out to be quite good. The restaurant has all its dishes in mild, medium and strong spicy versions. I asked the waiter if I could talk to the Thai chef. Turmisi was his name, and he looked as if he was in his early 20s and spoke broken Arabic. I asked if most of the dishes were eaten spicy in Thailand, and he nodded. I was also curious about the appetiser. "It's a special kind of fish we bring from Vietnam," he said. That explains it: maybe I am not yet used to Vietnamese fish.

Romantica

The thing I liked most about Hurghada was the amount of places dedicated to pedestrians. The promenade, though not solely a pedestrian area, is an ideal option for people who like to walk. Shops, bazaars, restaurants and cafés dot the two sides of the promenade. However, the variety is poor and over-priced. It was dinner time, my colleague and I didn't have a specific craving in mind. So we decided to be spontaneous and pick a place on impulse. "They have swinging benches," I said. Ahmed smiled and we went up one step. Both of us started swinging, while reading the menu. Ahmed chose the mixed sea food platter, which turned out to be very tasty and perfectly marinated. I chose the fried mozzarella sticks with chili sauce. The portions were huge, and we couldn't finish our plates. Romantica is a good place to eat, swing and watch the world walking by.

Al-Sokkareya coffee shop

Hurghada isn't only a resort for high-end tourists, expats and the upper crust of Egyptian society. It's a multi-faceted city with a lot to offer everyone. In an attempt to discover the other dimensions of the city, we took a taxi to downtown Hurghada, also known as Al-Sakkala.

It was almost 11pm, and there was a lot of hustle and bustle in the streets. We took a walk around, browsing the shops and restaurants in the area. We found a coffee shop and settled into it. It was a local coffee shop, and we wanted to have a taste of the local flavour. We ordered tea with mint, and it came instantly. I took a sip while practising the art of watching the world go by. The freshly brewed tea was great, and I indulged my senses in the scent of the fresh mint. I enjoyed it and asked the waiter about the brand. He said it was a local brand. Viva the local aroma.

Fish for all

You cannot be in Hurghada and miss out on sea food. Al-Ahram Weekly recommends Star Fish as the best restaurant for quality and price. Located on Sheraton Street in Al-Sakkala, the restaurant offers a huge variety of fish to choose from, while the aroma of cooking fish paves the way for a huge appetite.

The place is spacious, with simple furniture of brown tables covered with red tablecloths and plastic covers. There are little aquariums scattered around. No music was playing, but the TV was showing a replay of the Barcelona- International match in the football Champions League.

The setting made me anxious about the food. My colleague, Sherif, joked with Reda Ahmed, the waiter who served us. "Be careful, that guy is a journalist and he is going to write about you," Sherif said. Ahmed's response surprised me, as he looked at me and Sherif and replied, "don't worry: we're the best."

The menu was full of different kinds of fish and sea food, so I ordered a sea food soup and emperor fish because I was in a city on the Red Sea. I felt obliged to try a Red Sea fish. However, the menu was suitable for anybody, as prices ranged from LE15-20 to LE115 or more.

The salad plates of aubergines, beets, tomatoes, cucumbers and other kinds of salad were delicious, especially the pickled tomatoes. When I tasted the soup, I understood immediately what Ahmed meant, because it was one of the best seafood soups I've ever tasted. It was made of marina fish, calamari, shrimps and other kinds of seafood, in addition to a marinade of celery, cumin, salt, pepper, butter and milk.

The emperor fish was grilled in Moskovi or Alexandrian style, split in two and filled with a mix of spices similar to the one used in the soup. Then it was foiled and grilled on coal. The fish was delicious, and I felt totally stuffed half way through. I ordered a glass of lemonade to refresh myself.

Ready, set, go!

There is so much to discover in Hurghada, you'll never wonder what to do, rather how to find the time to do it all

DAYTIME ACTIVITIES

Island Bar

Located at the Marriott Hotel's beach front, the Island Bar is where you can taste the best Frappeccino to start the day while sifting through the newspapers or simply enjoying the mind-blowing view. Although man-made, the Marriott's is the only private hotel island in the Red Sea. The 110m-long beach is, of course, relatively small, yet all the cosier for it. Since the objective of any holiday is breaking free from the endless worries of the city day-to-day, to bask in the sun while marvelling at the view of the moored yachts in the marina under the blue sky, with a silver shaft of sunlight streaking across the water, would be just what the doctor ordered. The spot also works perfectly for romantic weddings and wild private beach parties.

Water sports

The Red Sea is not only a haven for divers and snorkellers; it is also a gold mine for every other water sport. Avid kite surfers will find a place to fulfil their passion at the Magawish Resort's kite surfing Colona Water Sports Station. As for wind surfing, this more popular sport enjoys multiple venues in Hurghada. Beginners can enjoy wind surfing for $25 per hour with the help of an instructor, while the advanced surfers and professionals can indulge to their hearts' delight at $50 (10 per cent discount on these prices offered to Egyptians). For action-packed splashing, the famous Donut (as well as the Banana) is where you sit unsuspectingly, are dragged by a speed boat, before being flipped into the sea -- pure and absolute fun. Pedaling boats, speed boats, and water skiing are all available all over Hurghada.

Feel the water

Visitors are awestruck by the Red Sea's spectacular underwater marvels; for seasoned divers, the area's world- famous reefs are at the top of international "must-dive" sites, while for many non-divers the irresistible experience opens the door to their discovery of the sport. One man I encountered in Hurghada, Michael Stadermann, just could not go home to Germany. The Red Sea had captured his soul, and its deep blue ensnared his passion.

Reaching Mashrabiya Diving Centre, where I was to converse with the man, was not a difficult task. Past a gate beside the closed Mashrabiya Hotel, I moved along for the beach and, turning right, found myself before the door. In less than a minute I had climbed to the roof, where I found members of the centre cleaning the ceramic tiles themselves.

There I met Stadermann, president of the Spiritual World Diving Federation (SWDF) founded in 1994, and owner of the 10-year-old Mashrabiya Diving Centre. Although my goal had been to extract the story behind this man's choice of residence and employment, his contagious passion for the Red Sea, and his enthusiastic eagerness to share his philosophy, inevitably became the real crux of our conversation.

For starters, Stadermann refers to the centre as "a private club", since its aim is attracting those interested in sharing a very unique encounter with the sea rather than indiscriminately widening its client base. His philosophy is simple: diving is more than a sport; it is a way to feel the water, harmonise with the underwater world, explore its treasures and preserve its gifts.

According to Sandra Caramelle, diving instructor and office manager at SWDF, among the centre's specific diving regulations is enhancing the clients' skills. "We target our customers individually. For instance, if the client is a doctor, we won't need to stress on medicine; but maybe he isn't good with mathematics, so we look after that," she said.

The centre uses special equipment, including 50cm-long fins, and techniques developed by Stadermann, who authored the book Perfekt Tauchen (Perfect Diving). Caramelle added that Stadermann's techniques are based on his nearly 16,000 dives and "his close observation of the masters of the sea, the dolphins and fish [so we can] feel the water, move faster and easier, with the current or against it. We even prefer to call ourselves aquanauts, rather than divers," she said. Instead of the internationally-utilised flutter kick, SWDF aquanauts use the dolphin kick to simulate the movement of dolphins, whales and fish. Other leg moves are scissors-like, to avoid disturbing the sand, as well as innovative ways of making turns.

SWDF's main objective is to protect the Red Sea underwater environment and to study the dolphins and the aquatic ecology in the area -- the latter task assigned to two scientists from the University of Zurich. SWDF works together with the Hurghada Environmental Protection and Conservation Association (HEPCA), an NGO established by members of the Red Sea diving community in 1992 to protect marine ecology, in collaboration with the Red Sea governorate.

"I love this very unique and special place," Stadermann told Al-Ahram Weekly, adding that SWDF invests the majority of its revenue in preserving and protecting nature, along with developing scientific research. Interestingly, while 30 per cent of the coral reefs around the world perished due to the warm water resulting from global warming, and half of the remaining 70 per cent is in danger, the reefs in Hurghada proved to tolerate the temperature change, "and that is why scientists from all over the world are interested in the Hurghada treasures," he explained. According to Stadermann, now is the time to try our best efforts to protect the Red Sea, unless we are prepared to lose it within a 20-year span. "It is our duty and major vocation to preserve and protect the sea under our slogan: In the Name of Life," Caramelle confirmed.

Stadermann ranks the Red Sea, with its reefs directly on the shores and incredible diversity of fish, as the most beautiful in the world. It all needs to be fiercely protected. "I started placing mooring ropes in 1987 myself, because anchors were destroying the reefs and we consequently lost some big fish, like Napoleons. The sea doesn't just produce new ones all the time. We may need 30-40 years to reproduce them, and the reefs are their home," he noted. While boats are legally prohibited from using anchors, some still do so, making the SWDF's close collaboration with HEPCA in these efforts all the more pertinent.

Dolphins are another of SWDF's priorities. "First, we catalogued 80 dolphins in the area, including their scars and everything related to them, and now we are working with HEPCA to specify areas where boats aren't allowed to enter -- like Phanous and Shaab Al-Erg -- in order to provide safe areas for the dolphins to rest and take care of their babies. The governor signed the papers, and it is about to take place soon," he said. After all, the boats near Giftun Island, for example, by constantly revolving around the dolphins, give them no respite from inhaling carbon monoxide.

Caramelle mentioned that Stadermann met a dolphin, which they baptised Ferdinand, bitten by a Mako shark in 2002. Stadermann looked after Ferdinand through his wound, and they have been friends ever since. "They meet until now. Dolphins know us through voices and movements," she explained, adding that though dolphins are friends of humans, they sometimes retreat to rest, sleep, or take care of their young.

Stadermann recalls when he first set foot in Hurghada, back in December 1984. At that time, he reminisced, Al-Sekala district -- now a Hurghada hot spot for shopping and nightlife -- was still a small fishing village. With just a few hotels, including the Sheraton, Magawish Club Med and the Hurghada Hotel on Al-Dahar coast, Hurghada was more of a family place. "Fishermen, boat captains and foreigners, we all knew one other. I learned a lot about the sea from old Egyptian captains and fishermen like Ahmed Said and Shazli Moussa. There was a 100 per cent trust between us, and I learnt that a true Muslim is a good person. I found Egyptians to be a very simple and peaceful people. Everything I ever wanted I found here, and that is why I stayed," he explained.

SWDF's work includes shooting documentary films revealing the magnificence of the Red Sea, attracting people to it, and fighting the destruction threatening it. One such film, titled Into the Blue, features a beautiful song with this enticing invitation:

"Come with me,

I'm gonna show you a world so free,

Where you can fly without gravity,

Into the blue."

For more information, contact: 002 065 344 2375/ 002 065 344 3332, or visit redsea@swdf.de and/or www.swdf.de

Desert Safaris

The desert provides the perfect setting and opportunity to shed the trappings of modern life for a momentary return to basics. Quadding amidst the Red Sea mountains is the answer to every adrenaline junky or adventure seeker. The typical trip includes driving a quad off-road -- more relaxed desert adventurers may opt for a jeep instead -- or "the spider". The destination is the Rada Bedouin Village, 30km from Hurghada, at the beginning of the Red Sea Mountain Range. According to trip guide Safwat El-Nahhas, the village is a 45-minute off-road drive away, where the adventurers are welcomed into a tent for Bedouin tea before being introduced to other features of Bedouin life. "We also take the guests to a nearby hill that they can climb to watch the sunset," he adds. The trip, including quad, dinner and a folkloric show costs 40 Euros for foreigners and LE250 for Egyptians. The same trip by jeep is 30 Euros and LE200 for Egyptians.

For more info: Safwat El-Nahhas 014 343 5935.

Boat trips

The most famous destination of the many boat trips available in Hurghada is the Giftun Island. Multiple stops on the way offer various glimpses of the Red Sea's fascinating underwater realm. It was 8am when we joined a long queue of holidaymakers waiting to board. A while later, confused and bewildered, we learned from the captain that we had boarded the wrong boat, which was heading towards an island called Magawish Al-Kebira (Big Magawish), where the sand is soft and strewn with fossils.

You need to be a good swimmer to summon the energy needed to reach the island where, indeed, the sight of the underwater world is well worth the effort. Since coral reefs are everywhere near the shore, care must be exercised for the sake of both swimmer and reef. Abu Monkar is another spot to enjoy a good swim among the reef's colourful fish . If you are into snorkelling and diving, this trip is a must try -- but remember to double- check your destination before boarding.

NIGHTLIFE

There is plenty to do in Hurghada after dusk, especially from Wednesday to Saturday. There is always a big party somewhere, at Little Buddha's, Papas Bar, Ministry of Sound, or the Hedkandi beach bar. Saturday is the big day in the life of party animals. A big house music party with an international guest DJ was luckily taking place at Hedkandi when we were there, while a big Hip Hop and R&B gag rolled at the Ministry of Sound. Since we arrived earlier than the warm up time at the Hedkandi party, we checked the nearby Papas Bar, also on the Marina Boulevard, where singing girls were hilariously missing all the tunes at the karaoke night.

Hedkandi

Everything in the place spells luxury, so make sure you are dressed well enough to match. Girls -- replicas of Paris Hilton and Megan Fox -- stroll in one after the other, stilettos and all. The half-circle sofas upholstered with pale lilac velvet stand in contrast to a backdrop of creamy natural stone, while the dim light of the brass lantern-shaped appliqués add warmth to the atmosphere. The unparalleled view of the moored yachts glistening under the stars on the moonlit water had a soothing quality. Though busy, the place was far from crowded, with some sipping drinks at the bar, couples taken in by the romantic view, and just a few people on the dance floor despite the inviting music. Perhaps the night was just warming up.

Ministry of Sound

Now, that was a party. We started dancing before we had even entered, as David Guetta's "Sexy Chick" blasted away. The place was full of night owls dancing everywhere, on the beach, on stage, on the stairs, on tables and by the bar.

Ministry of Sound is perfectly designed. Chairs are set far from the dance floor by the sea to allow those seeking rest or a chat to find their space. By the bar, you sit on swings rather than chairs. T-shirts with the Ministry of Sound logo and music CDs are also available along with some snacks at a separate spot.

Though the vibrant atmosphere and music are great this club suffers a serious flirting problem, especially as the "no single men" policy is quite lax despite appearances. The place was full of single men hitting on any single woman, so if you are planning on taking your partner or female friends, keep your eyes wide open.

Friends Bar

As the sun sets over the Marina, it turns the sky ablaze, and the water seems like molten lava. At night, it is a completely different flavour. While Ahmed and I were taking a lazy stroll, shopping for a place to sit and eat, I was led by the ears to the tunes of a Spanish guitar. "Can we please sit here," I pleaded while almost pushing Ahmed inside. "But this is a bar, and I'm hungry," he said. I promised to eat wherever he chooses, once I have enjoyed this place first. When the waiter saw us, he offered the only vacant table in the house which was behind a wooden pole, with no view to the stage. "But I want to see," I said with an impatient, authoritative tone. In the blink of an eye, the table was lifted over the heads of the other customers, along with two chairs, and placed almost on stage. Wow, that was quick -- it must be my outfit, and the tan.

Timmy the singer, who turned out to be British-Egyptian, had the best of both worlds: looks, sense of humour, and talent. He was like a chameleon, switching from Joe Cocker to Michael Bubble with the utmost ease. I knew almost every song he sang. Ahmed started to loosen up and, forgetting all about food, was clearly having a good time. When I had worked up some appetite myself, he took a leap of faith and decided to try Sushi rather than have us leave in search for food.

As I began to loosen up a little, Amira convinced me to try Salmon Sushi. I had never tried Sushi before, and many of my friends had warned me against it. I ventured with two pieces, which the waiter took an awfully long time to bring. The chop sticks turned out to be much easier to handle than I thought: just keep one still, and hold the sushi piece by moving the other one. I tried the first piece without sauce and was instantly reminded of my friends' warnings. If this is sushi, what's there to rave about? So I dipped it in the sauce, and suddenly, WOW -- it tasted great! I ordered another six pieces on the spot.

The next day, Monday, was for a Latino music performance. Amira wanted to enter again, but I preferred to try another place. After dinner, as we passed by the Friends Bar on the way back to the hotel, we found everyone inside dancing and enjoying their time to the max. "I told you we should have dined here," Amira lamented, to which I nodded regretfully. Recognising us from the previous night, a waiter invited us in and off we swung to Pachata. Music performances are hosted every Sunday, Monday and Thursday; if in Hurghada on these days, don't miss the chance of spending a wonderfully friendly time at the Friends Bar.

Alf Leila wi Leila

Alf Leila wi Leila (Arabian Nights) is another Hurghada spot decorated to a distinctly Andalusian feel, with beautifully- ornamented high ceilings and a prevalent white and mandarin colour scheme. Mattresses strewn on the floor are perfect for a pre-show chat among the statues depicting the Arabian Night heroes next to whom visitors smile to flashing cameras.

Two shows are performed every night. The first consists of a Sound and Light experience -- similar to that of Luxor's Karnak Temple narrating prominent eras of Ancient Egyptian history -- followed by an unusual spectacle of dancing horses. The second show features a number of traditional performances including folk dances inspired from the Arabian Nights tales, whirling dervishes and belly dancing.

The show starts at 9pm and ends at 11pm, while the venue closes at midnight -- by Hurghada standards, just when the nightlife begins warming up. Entrance fee: LE50 per person.

Where to shop

DOWNTOWN Hurghada is the area where the local shops are located. You can find a variety of shops, supermarkets and bazaars. However, although there are many shops, the products they sell are almost the same. If you want to buy cotton goods, the famous Egyptian brand Qarqosha should be your target. They have good quality cotton at moderate prices.

The Sea Gull Mall will lure you into browsing its shops with the promise of variety, only to discover that it has only one or two shops with imported clothes, over-priced compared to the same quality you can find in Cairo, and the rest of the shops sell the same products as the ones in the bazaars.

The Al-Souk Mall is another shopping complex in the Al-Sakkala area, with the same shops but more variety. The promenade area is more touristic, so although you will find the same products, the prices of souvenirs and cotton clothes will be higher.

Although the Esplanade Mall in the promenade has a glamorous façade, with a promise of a fulfilling shopping experience, inside it is quite poor. There are few shops on the ground floor, mostly selling jewellery. The first floor has shops selling imported clothes, mostly from Thailand and China, and sometimes of poor taste and quality. The mall is also still a work in progress, and the second floor was not functioning.

The Senzo Mall is the newest mega-shopping complex in Hurghada, and it looks promising and enticing from the outside. It is home to many international retail brands for men, women and kids.

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