Al-Ahram Weekly Online   16 - 22 December 2010
Issue No. 1027
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Brave new town

A comprehensive well established seaside destination where the sun shines every day, El-Gouna offers an unrivalled lifestyle. Inas Mazhar goes out on the town

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El-Gouna beaches and lagoons attract watersports lovers who enjoy the sunny side of life

I visited El-Gouna in 2004 to report on the World Beach Handball Championship which Egypt won. Although I spent 10 days there, the hectic pace of the sports event left me no time to explore my surroundings or enjoy any of the facilities. I had heard many stories about El-Gouna and thought it sounded quite boring.

Six years later, I was there again for El-Gouna Squash International but this time I had plenty of time to discover the town.

IN THE BEGINNING: El-Gouna was born at the end of one man's quest to find a beautiful spot by the sea to build a house and small boat jetty. Around two decades ago Samih Sawiris, chairman of Orascom Hotels & Development (OHD) -- El-Gouna's parent company -- found just the place conveniently located just north of Hurghada on the west coast of the Red Sea. Wanting to know how the founder and owner of El-Gouna spotted such a spectacular piece of land in the then middle of nowhere, "it was the fishermen's recommendation," came the answer.

It was during one of his fishing trips in Hurghada in the early 1990s that Sawiris, wanting to build himself a summer house there, shared his thoughts with the fishermen. "I was immediately whisked to what I thought to be the perfect spot ever and then had a vision of making of this beautiful land the complete town."

Such an ambitious project that started with a house and a jetty attracted his friends, who struck by the splendor of the azure waters and dramatic backdrop of mountains, joined his dream.

In this way, the town slowly grew into a vibrant community, fulfilling Sawiris's and OHD's vision of "carving a paradise out of the desert".

Today, El-Gouna is home to 14 spectacular hotels built along 10 kilometres of beachfront and across islands interlinked by lagoons. Neighbourhoods of attractive villas and apartments bustle with the activity of entrepreneurs, artists, environmentalists, sports enthusiasts and families from around the world who have made El-Gouna their permanent or vacation home. The town is easily accessed from Europe via nearby Hurghada International Airport and boasts a superb infrastructure and excellent services, as well as natural beaches and year-round sunshine.

The town is immaculately maintained and has a wide variety of activities and entertainment options, world-class cuisines and an exciting nightlife. It is also the perfect starting point to experience the many historical, archaeological and cultural treasures of Egypt. The stunning natural and architectural beauty of the resort makes El-Gouna the Red Sea's premier leisure destination.

Located 22 kilometres north of Hurghada International Airport, it is only a four- hour flight from Europe's key capitals, and several major airline carriers operate weekly flights in its direction. El-Gouna receives over 100,000 visitors a year from Germany, Belgium, the UK, France, Holland, Sweden, Switzerland, Spain and Poland.

The town's location offers good access to Egypt's many natural wonders, historical sites, and archaeological treasures. The ancient temples of Luxor and Aswan and the Pyramids of Cairo are only a bus or plane ride away, and Bedouin guides are always available for tours through the rugged Eastern Desert region. Meanwhile, day and overnight trips to Luxor, Aswan, Cairo and Sinai are easily arranged from El-Gouna.

The town is officially recognised as Egypt's most environment-friendly holiday destination, and its management has worked hard in cooperation with local hotels, businesses, residents and visitors to maintain, protect and preserve its unique environment. The town's environmental programmes and grassroots environmental organisation (Green Gouna) have received several awards, including the Green Globe. Green Gouna was founded in 2002 by a group of residents who wanted to develop the resort as an eco-tourism destination. The group involves the entire community in protection and preservation efforts through education, recycling, clean-up campaigns, festivals and compliance with environmental standards and guidelines.

Both local and foreign residents participate in environmental initiatives, such as celebrating Earth Day twice a year to raise public awareness, eradicating the use of plastic bags, installing recycling bins, establishing an educational photo gallery about El-Gouna wildlife and maintaining mooring systems for diving boats in cooperation with the Hurghada Environmental Protection and Conservation Association (HEPCA).

A COMPREHENSIVE TOWN: El-Gouna is both a vacation resort and a well- established community of over 10,000 permanent residents from around the world and a few thousand Egyptians. The two main hubs of activity are downtown Kafr El-Gouna which is styled as a small Upper Egyptian village with shops, cafés, a health club, bars, restaurants and an aquarium. The second is the bustling Abu Tig Marina which is home to a variety of hotels and exclusive restaurants, cafés, bars, shops.

In terms of architecture and landscaping, the town maintains the same character and visual unity throughout, while each neighbourhood or hotel contributes its own unique flavour without detracting from the artistic whole of the resort. There is a blend of traditional and modern elements created by the town's architects, including the work of multiple prize winner Michael Graves from the US who designed several El-Gouna hotels, the Golf Club and Golf Villas in earth tones and sea-colour splashes which set the tone of the resort.

Italian architect Alfredo Freda designed the Abu Tig Marina, the first of its kind on the Red Sea, and the exclusive Tuscany-style Hill Villas. Shahab Mazhar, a prominent Egyptian architect, was inspired by Mediterranean influences in his creation of the beachfront White Villas; while the Nubian Villas are the work of award-winning Egyptian architects Rami El-Dahan and Ahmed Hamdi.

SLICE OF PARADISE: El-Gouna is comprised of islands, lagoons and secluded sandy beaches where one can retreat and be pampered at world-class spas, visit the town's Art Village, or enjoy live music at many entertainment venues. El-Gouna's stunning natural vistas are a spiritual experience, and while it is known as a lovers' paradise it is a good place to combine work and play. The resort's hotels offer conference and event-catering services, and a myriad of recreational and leisure options when work is over. The town's flexibility as an event location means that a comprehensive package can be tailored to suit the needs of any group. Several hotels feature well-appointed rooms with boardroom, theatre, and other styles of seating for 12 to 525 participants.

CHOOSE YOUR SHORELINE: There are many beaches to enjoy in and around El-Gouna. Have drinks and treats delivered to your chair at your hotel beach; groove to music on a beach overlooking wild mangroves; or pack a lunch and head to the white sands and privacy of one of the deserted islands near El-Gouna.

The lively Zeytouna Beach is located on its own island surrounded by sea and lagoons, where a 400-metre jetty extends into the sea for access to deeper water and the coral reef plateau. There are beach services, beach volleyball, snorkelling, football, dancing lessons and other facilities. Located just north of Abu Tig Marina, Mangroovy Beach is known as the Red Sea's best spot for kite surfing. Soak up the sun there while enjoying the colourful view of kite-filled skies, or go windsurfing or snorkelling, or perhaps a game of beach volleyball or soccer is more to your liking.

Located on the northern side of the marina, the Beach Club is a good spot to start or end your day, while Buzzha Beach on northern Mangroovy Beach is remote from other areas. On Tawila Island, just over one hour from El-Gouna, you can take a long walk on sparkling white sandy beaches and revel in the island's natural beauty, or swim in crystal clear waters. On the boat ride there, it is common to spot dolphins in the water. Gobal Island is farther still, located about two hours away from El-Gouna, and offers breathtaking snorkelling opportunities at the uninhabited sandy beaches.

The Mahmeya beach, just over one hour from the town, has been maintained in its natural state even as complete services have been added, making it the only island with complete services. A restaurant serves grilled platters, seafood and pizza, while you relax and listen to a hip mix of music in the background.

RECREATIONAL EXTRAVAGANZA: The town offers countless opportunities for visitors and residents to enjoy fitness and fresh air, with top-of-the-line equipment and professional staff at various sports centres. There's kite boarding, windsurfing, diving, squash, horseback riding, and golfing, among other activities.

El-Gouna's 18-hole championship course boasts year-round golfing with stunning views of mountains and endless water, on a course which challenges the strength, ingenuity, and skill of novice and professional players alike.

Gene Bates and Fred Couples designed El-Gouna's course with every level of golfer in mind, with three different men's and ladies' tees, carefully placed bunkers, lagoons, and desert rough. Tee-off times must be reserved in advance and handicap proof is mandatory. The club offers a full range of retail products, rental equipment and driving range facilities as well as PGA tuition. For non-golfers, don't miss the weekly Golf Introduction with PGA Professionals on the driving range.

There are many diving centres and easy access to the finest reefs and wrecks in the Red Sea. Its protected waters give divers an opportunity to observe and interact with undersea life, particularly dolphins. The heated pools and calm reefs are perfect for beginning divers to hone their skills, which experienced divers will find plenty on offer as well. Dive centres offer a complete range of diving education, including PADI diving certification, from beginner to professional level. Additionally, The Dive Tribe is also a certified National Geographic Diving Centre.

Diving in El-Gouna can be a family affair with diving programmes and courses tailored for kids, which include PADI bubble maker, discover scuba diving, junior scuba diving, and a junior open water diving and snorkelling courses.

The opportunity to explore the underwater world surrounding the town is also extended to guests with reduced mobility. Many disabled people are able to complete a standard scuba diver course, with minor adjustments as necessary depending on the type of disability. All divers must complete a medical questionnaire, and those with disabilities are required to produce a medical certificate stating that they are fit to dive.

Spacious beaches, excellent winds, and shallow waters bring droves of kitesurfers -- including world champions -- to El-Gouna. Kitesurfing aficionados were quick to recognise the town's enormous potential for this adventure sport, and the resort's five kite centres provide the latest facilities, equipment and training staff, as well as internationally-recognised courses for both beginners and advanced surfers.

Edged by miles of beaches and azure lagoons, El-Gouna attracts many aqua sport enthusiasts for snorkelling, fishing, and other water sports. At the same time, there are many forms of exercise on land as well, such as cycling, squash, tennis, go-karts, camel and horse rides, as well as soccer. Interestingly, within a few years of its creation El-Gouna's hometown soccer team has become one of the best 16 in the country, and moved up from the second to the first division of the national league. It trains and plays at El-Gouna Stadium which is also the venue for national and international matches.

Since the town is home to thousands, El-Gouna Sporting Club was established and hosts athletes and spectators for exercise and sporting events at the town's full-size field. Seating capacity is over 2,400 and the facility provides proper lighting for night training and events. Meanwhile, El-Gouna's Youth Centre is a favourite hang-out for teenagers and young adults.

Generally, entertainment for the youth and young is easily found. El-Gouna Aquarium and Museum is certain to intrigue curious minds, while tailored diving and golfing lessons will excite the more adventurous youngster. In town, options range from racing around in a go-kart downtown to a round of mini-golf at the marina. Even the youngest of the family will enjoy pony rides at the local horse stable or island adventures on Zeytouna Beach.

SHOP UNTIL YOU DROP: El-Gouna shopping outlets offer a range of goods from practical, to ethnic, to high fashion. The resort's many shops are grouped around Kafr El-Gouna and Abu Tig Marina. Built in traditional Egyptian style -- complete with bustling inner courtyards, winding alleys, and series of brick domes -- the town's downtown offers a variety of exotic shopping arcades, bazaars, boutiques, arts and craft galleries. Courtyard cafés, bars and restaurants are interspersed throughout to provide visitors with refreshment during their authentic Egyptian shopping experience.

At Abu Tig Marina, harbour views, a panoramic promenade and an airy waterside atmosphere are home to a large number of boats and yachts, as well as a fine selection of fashionable boutiques. Many may think El-Gouna is a place for early sleepers, but there are many places to explore after dark. Restaurants, bars, discotheques and casinos abound.

AT HOME IN EL-GOUNA: Over 2,500 Egyptian and European families have purchased property in the town as permanent or holiday homes, forming a vibrant community where solid infrastructure and continuous growth and development make it a sound investment, whether it's an exclusive private villa or cosy apartment in the heart of the town. All properties are waterfront and feature various architectural styles, sizes and locations.

Home owners are the pillars of the town and enjoy special privileges, such as exclusive access to all hotel pools and beaches, special discounts on dining, shopping, transportation and accommodation. A customer service office, centrally located downtown, handles homeowner requests and concerns, and provides housekeeping, interior design, laundry, security, insurance, gardening and other services.

At the same time, the town's developer, OHD, remains actively involved in the town, managing the day-to-day maintenance and upkeep of the city's power grid, water works, roads, school, library, hospital, golf course, marina, and security. No police presence can be seen inside El-Gouna, only the private security staff of the resort can be spotted, and there seems to have been no security issues over the past years.

Locals who work in El-Gouna live in another part of town, and I was informed that was by their own choice. Apparently, after working with foreigners all day they prefer to return home to a more conventional life, where they speak Arabic and follow Egyptian traditions and culture. Yet, they enjoy the same benefits, services, events and facilities as residents on the other side of downtown.

Since El-Gouna is a self-sufficient destination, the town offers a full range of facilities and services in terms of transportation, education, accommodation, communication, health, security, home upkeep, and more. As a private beach town, guests and residents move around using various means of shuttle transportation buses, taxis and even boats using a periodic ticket one can claim upon request. The tok-tok is a fun and inexpensive way to travel around El-Gouna. It has bright colours and some of them are also decorated with pictures of Disneyland's famous cartoon characters. The fee is set at LE10. Interestingly, El-Gouna visitors and residents can tune their vehicle's radio to the local station airing at 100.00 FM which has become one of the hottest radio stations along the Red Sea. The Info Centre downtown provides this information to residents, visitors and holidaymakers. Everyone is also provided with the latest in communications services to keep them connected, informed and entertained. Several hotels are equipped with wireless high-speed Internet in guestrooms or at hot spots on hotel grounds. Abu Tig Marina and several downtown spots are also equipped with WiFi.

SERVICES AND FACILITIES: El-Gouna is home to a number of pre-, primary and secondary schools, as well as El-Gouna Library -- Embassy of Knowledge. It is a non-profit technological and cultural extravaganza which is the primary branch of the renowned Bibliotheca Alexandrina. The library has online resources of over 150,000 digitised rare books and manuscript collections, a main reading room, private study rooms equipped with PCs, an outdoor courtyard with reading booths and a cafeteria. Home to one of six Culturamas in Egypt, the library welcomes guests to unravel the mystery of Egypt's history in just over one hour.

The John D Gerhart Field Station of the American University in Cairo is also located in town. This state-of-the-art field station houses a computer room, laboratory, restaurant, and kitchen, as well as storage and housing facilities. It offers continuing education classes such as computer science, language courses including English, German, and Arabic. There are also plans to offer business-related courses and marine biology classes.

Additionally, the German Hotel School El-Gouna offers vocational training in the hotel service sector according to German guidelines, and graduates are certified by the Chamber of Industry and Commerce (IHK) in Leipzig.

A state-of-the-art hospital provides 24- hour emergency care, in- and out-patient care, as well as a hyperbaric chamber for diving emergencies. The hospital has a total of 10 clinics which offer high-quality medical surgery, care and treatment in the fields of dentistry, plastic surgery, pediatrics, ophthalmology, general surgery and intensive care.

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