Where to stay
From the days of Alexander the Great to the Battle of Alamein, history has played out on the shores of Marsa Matrouh. Today, the North Coast city on the Mediterranean is an ideal escape for anyone who wants to travel. This Mediterranean diamond in the rough has been serenaded in songs and served as the backdrop of legendary love. Sahar El-Bahr remincised, while photographer Sherif Sonbol captured all the eye can behold
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Clockwise from top: Marsa Matrouh fondling with the crisp white curtains of the loungers; the wondrous beach of Agiba; an open vista for the azure sea from the Beau Site terrace; guests enjoying the succulent dishes of La Hutte
SOME seven million Egyptian holidaymakers visited Marsa Matrouh this summer, most of whom prefer to stay at one of the 120,000 flats for rent either overlooking the sea or downtown, or at any of the 83 resorts which are cheaper than hotels. Most middle class Alexandrians spend summer in Marsa Matrouh because the sandy beaches in their hometown have become rocky due to corrosion.
Renting flats for holidaymakers has become a booming business, as the rate for a flat with a sea view is between LE250 to LE400 per day in summer. Downtown flats average LE180 to LE200 daily. This summer in particular, hotel and rental rates are high because the season is shorter since schools closed late and Ramadan is due on 11 August.
In the past, campsites were the only means of accommodation in Marsa Matrouh. Ibrahim Mahmoud, 50, recalls the joys of outdoor camping as a college student with his friends. Mahmoud also remembers the beaches being cleaner, the water clearer and the city calmer.
San Giovanni Cleopatra Hotel and Resort (five stars) : When I first called San Giovanni Hotel, I was delighted to hear their automatic welcome tune: the famous song of Laila Murad about Marsa Matrouh. San Giovanni is the only five- star hotel in Marsa Matrouh, but it remains smaller than others of the same chain in Alexandria. It is located 12km from downtown Marsa Matrouh and a few kilometres from Cleopatra Beach.
San Giovanni Hotel was built seven years ago, with spacious rooms and standard amenities. The hotel has 70 rooms and six suites, with ambitious plans underway to add another 250 rooms. Egyptians in a double room are charged LE1,350 per night on half board basis, and foreigners pay $295 for the same terms.
The lobby is simple and lit by a skylight and furnished with bamboo chairs with rose-coloured cushions. The names of the outlets here were chosen to fit the setting. The Caesar Restaurant serves meals from 7am until midnight; the Antony café offers a variety of hot and cold drinks, with a spectacular view of the beautiful lagoon.
Waikiki Beach is the name of the private seashore for guests, where there is a beach café serving a wide variety of snacks and cocktails. In the backyard of the hotel is a marvellous open-air cinema located in the garden, where foreign and Arabic movies are screened daily for guests. The gift shops next to the lobby sell goods similar to those found in Khan Al-Khalili. Also on the lobby level is a small amusement park and entertainment centre packed with computer games, play stations, a billiards table and table tennis.
San Giovanni arranges trips to Alamien cemeteries, Roman monuments, Cleopatra Beach, Siwa Oasis, Amoun Temple in Siwa, as well as safari trips. The hotel is also equipped with banqueting and meeting facilities with a capacity of 150 people, including off-site catering for up to 500 persons. Alongside standard Internet and WiFi services, the hotel also offers secretarial services for businessmen, audiovisual equipment and a business centre.
The health club incorporates a gym, sauna, Jacuzzi and massage therapy. Daily entertainment programmes include beach games, fishing and sailing trips, as well as marina and water sports. Barbeques on the beach are arranged at least twice a week for guests, and every day at 8:30pm a live band performs until midnight, as does the Folklore Dance Troupe.
For reservations call 046 494 7600/046 494 7608 or (202) 2634 0092/2240 4050
Jaz Resorts (five stars) : Three Jaz resorts -- Almaza, Crystal and Oriental -- are located 37km east of Marsa Matrouh on the southeastern shores of the Mediterranean sea, covering an area of 95,000 square metres. They are located on Al-Zayyat bay, the most attractive on the North Coast. Almaza has 395 rooms, Crystal 263 rooms, and Oriental has 212, all housed in two-storey buildings with a panoramic view of the sea or pool, as well as a number of suites and a handful of royal suites with a private garden. There are several swimming pools in each resort.
Most of the guests herald from Italy, although I spotted a number of other nationalities, including Swiss and Britons, but no Egyptians or Arabs. Most of the staff speak Italian and English, and the signs around the hotel were all written in Italian and sometimes English as well. The animation team consists of 30 Italians and run by an Italian company called Bravo.
Each resort has its own distinguished style. Almaza's lobby is ultra modern combining modern Spanish and Oriental décor, whereas Crystal is more classic and luxurious. The prevailing colours there are mauve, white and black with many crystal accessories. On the other hand, Oriental draws heavily from Arabic design and architecture. The rooms are similar at all three facilities, except for the themes of the rooms, suites, restaurants and bars.
They are all luxurious, with queen or double beds, mini- bars, standard amenities, Internet and safe boxes. The rooms are divided into three categories: superior room, the larger family room, and suites which are more than double the size of the family room covering 114 square metres. The sofas in the family rooms open up into beds for the children, and are separated from the main bedroom with a curtain. The suites have all that, as well as Jacuzzis, large balconies with a panoramic view of the sea, two 34-inch LCD television sets and DVD players.
All the resorts have a gym with sauna and steam rooms, an indoor pool and Jacuzzi, as well as massage services. Beach loungers -- small wooden beds with white curtains on all sides -- rent for 50 euros a day. An assortment of restaurants and bars offer a variety of food all day long.
The opportunities for exercise are endless. As well as adult and kids swimming pools, there are two floodlit tennis courts, beach volleyball, archery, table tennis, billiards and a giant chess court in the garden. There is also a multipurpose court suitable for various sports such as handball, basketball, volleyball and football. Water sports on offer vary from a catamaran, barracuda bike and clear kayaks.
Other facilities to enjoy are the amphitheatre with a capacity of 450 seats, where the animation team performs dance shows and drama productions. There are also shopping zones, a kids' club with a covered playground, two jungle gyms and a clinic.
The hotel also offers an impressive high-tech adaptable conference room with a capacity of 160 seats.
For reservations call (2) 046 436 0000 or 046 436 0020
Riviera Beach (four stars) : While I was wandering through the streets of Marsa Matrouh, I stopped at a small building on a quiet street at the end of the Corniche. There were black and white statues of musicians holding instruments on the stairs leading into the building. Inside, a small elegant lobby with soft lighting greeted me. I had arrived at Riviera Beach.
Beyond the lobby doors is a quaint garden with a large fish pond, hammocks, bench swings and a play area for children. For those seeking privacy and class, Riviera is a good choice. The resort only has 16 chalets, eight on the ground floor and eight on the first, with an exclusive beach for in- house guests. Another beach is open for day-use visitors at LE30 per person, plus LE10 to rent an umbrella and four chairs.
Up to four people can stay at a chalet which is designed like a large room or studio, fitted with a kitchen, bathroom with Jacuzzi, Internet service, LCD computer, TV and sound system. Most guests come from Arabian Gulf countries or the West. Prices for both Egyptians and foreigners are LE1,000 per night. During the winter season, the Riviera chalets are renovated from top to bottom every year.
For reservations call 046 493 3045/046 493 0472/046 493 8818
Beau Site Hotel (three stars) : I was excited to stay at the Beau Site. I had visions of the historic hotel (which means Beautiful View in French) from the tales which former guests had told me. It was a cosy, family-oriented hotel, where its owner Dimitri Madbak -- who died five years ago -- made every guest feel at home. Madbak and his family would even sit with guests and ask them what they thought about the food and service. A welcome band greeted new arrivals, and Madbak was keen to introduce guests to each other so they feel like one family during their stay.
But, alas, those days are gone. Today, the hotel has expanded to accommodate 158 rooms and in July it was fully booked. At its inception in 1959, Beau Site had 18 rooms housed in a one storey building plus six camping tents. Fifty years later, it stands as one of the oldest and most renowned hotels in Marsa Matrouh, sprawled across five buildings which are three storeys high each.
Beau Site General Manager Fayez Fikry believes that Marsa Matrouh needs more hotels, as more visitors are attracted to the pristine waters and beaches. In fact, his hotel alone averages some 10,000 visitors between mid-July and early September. When it first opened, the Beau Site was the only decent facility in the city, but today there is fierce competition from other hotels sprouting around Marsa Matrouh. To keep up, the management is building another 50 rooms, according to Fikry.
The Beau Site hotel is located at the Beau Site Beach in Marsa Matrouh and has two private beaches, stretching almost 100 metres. It has two restaurants; Panorama, is a mirrored room with a panoramic view of the sea; the other is La Hutte, the main open buffet restaurant serving breakfast and dinner. It's a five minute walk from the hotel and is located at the old Beau Site building.
Children will greatly enjoy staying at this hotel because the staff are ready to please the little ones. A dress-up party is held every Thursday, and children pick from scores of costumes and are given prizes for best in-character performances during the event.
The single rooms here are very cramped and have a side view of the sea, however double rooms are better. The rate for a single room on half board basis is LE561 for Egyptians and resident foreigners, and $172.5 for non-residents foreigners. Double rooms are LE873 for Egyptians and resident foreigners, and $250 for non-resident foreigners. Suites for two cost LE1,283 for Egyptians and resident foreigners, and $401.5 for non-resident foreigners. If you only want to go there for day use, it costs LE350 and friends of guests pay LE65 to enjoy the beach. Rental for a beach chair is LE12 and playing billiards costs LE18 per hour.
For reservations call (202) 2256 4464/2258 9603.
Arous Al-Bahr (Mermaid) Hotel (three stars) : The location of the hotel is the best. The 50-room establishment is on the Corniche and very close to downtown. The hotel was completely renovated early this summer, and on the same block there are numerous fast food chain restaurants. Moreover, the Beach Theatre where the Folklore Dance Troupe performs daily at 10pm is located opposite the hotel. A single room per night is LE360 and a double is LE560.
The hotel's outdoor coffee shop is lovely because it sits a few metres above street level, giving visitors an unobstructed view of the sea and street. Another coffee shop that should not be missed is off the premises a few blocks away. Saber open air coffee shop is famous for dairy delights and desserts -- sample the rice pudding, mehalabiya (vanilla pudding) and homemade ice cream. The spacious café has a distinct look with colourful Andalusian-style domes.
Unlike most hotels in Marsa Matrouh, Arous Al-Bahr has a gym with a variety of exercise machines and impressive aerobics classes led by professional athlete and Karate champion Neama Said Ahmed, who represented Egypt in 1998. This holder of numerous medals has created inventive new steps by mixing different dance steps, mainly belly and Latino, with aerobics steps. Ahmed also utilises sticks during sessions for ultimate control of body muscles. The music is purely oriental, making the class full of energy and fun.
The gym is only for ladies and there is sauna, steam, massage and body peeling therapy using natural Egyptians herbs. The gym is open on Sundays, Wednesdays and Fridays from 8:30pm and costs LE10 per session, or a monthly membership fee of LE50.
For reservations call 046 493 4420.
Negresco Hotel (three stars) : Like most Marsa Matrouh hotels, Negresco is three stars, although this one could easily compete with a five-star hotel because of its superior rooms and suites. At first glance, it is obvious that this hotel ranks above the rest because of its elegant off-white and grey Italian design façade.
The light green lobby is small with simple chairs of various styles and colours, where you can enjoy the tunes of golden oldies. The restaurant with elegant mirrored doors serves an open buffet dinner for LE125. The hotel also has a pleasant pavement café, houses 70 rooms and 20 suites on six storeys. Egyptians and foreigners pay LE750 per night for a double room on a half board basis. Suites go for LE2,000 a night.
The hotel was built in 1985 on the Corniche near Al-Awam district, and completely renovated six years ago. Its owner was a physician who stayed at a Hotel Negresco in Spain once and was inspired by its name. After leaving his post as the director of Marsa Matrouh Hospital, he decided to open a hotel with the same name. Today, it is managed by his children.
For reservations call 046 493 4491/046 393 4492
Al-Forsan (Knights) Hotel: Al-Forsan Hotel is not listed by the Ministry of Tourism, but it is a very good place to stay. Three years ago, the 80-room hotel was bought by a Libyan businessman and has picked up a lot of clientele.
The lobby is spacious and characterised by a number of large pillars decorated with colourful Pharaonic drawings at the top. The lobby is divided into two sections, one for the guests of the hotel and the other rented out as a cafeteria. There are two large TV screens displaying music channels most of the time.
I stayed at Al-Forsan for four days early this summer and enjoyed my stay very much. The rooms are sizable, well- furnished and clean, and the bathrooms are wider than many in five-star hotels. There is a large refrigerator and a 25- inch television in each room. The sea view from my balcony was spectacular because it looked onto the splendid Gulf Beach.
The hotel restaurant only opens in summer (June- September), but that is not a huge disadvantage because the hotel is located among many restaurants and food outlets on the Corniche. The taf taf (street car) terminal is opposite the hotel, and many open-air cinemas are within walking distance. There are also amusement parks, shops and a theatre.
Prices vary depending on when you book, and it is cheaper than many three-star hotels in Marsa Matrouh. To ensure you have a reservation, book in early April before the hotel becomes fully booked in early June until mid-September.
For reservations call 046 493 4090.