Al-Ahram Weekly Online   1 - 7 April 2010
Issue No. 992
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Between heaven and earth

Following the yellow brick road, Injy El-Kashef stumbles upon Emerald City

Click to view caption
Alexandria promises unforgettable hospitality as the Capital of Arab Tourism for 2010

This wasn't the arrangement at all. The original agreement with my editor had been to review a hotel in Nubia. When that didn't materialise, the destination shifted to two different hotels in El-Gouna. After both hotels thwarted our plans, the writing on the wall became too bold to misread: "I'm clearly not meant to leave; maybe something gruesome awaits me on the road," I resolutely informed her, "I am not budging from Cairo."

Since the Arab Ministerial Council of Tourism had designated Alexandria to be the Capital of Arab Tourism for the year 2010, as declared at a press conference on 17 March, she began waving the Four Seasons at San Stefano before my eyes. Vivid and detailed visions of impending doom if I set foot out of town suddenly shed much of their detail, and grew rather dim in my mind.

"Four Seasons? Well... Alex isn't that far away. I suppose I could, maybe. Let's see if we find reservations." The very next day everything was confirmed, travel date set and school notified that my 10- year-old Yassine would miss a couple of days -- no travelling education is worth sacrificing for any classroom learning, in my humble opinion.

GROUND FLOOR: OPEN SESAME -- The one-shot drive to Alexandria was even more pleasant than usual. For my son, now a year older and wiser, has finally shed the annoying habit of asking if we're there every 15 minutes, and replaced it with a mix of hilarious jokes and smart observations. These were dotted with moments of silent absorption in his iPod for music I would not, could not, share on the car stereo -- I grew out of the heavy metal phase about 20 years ago, thank you very much.

It was around 5:15pm by the time we emerged from the tunnel leading onto the Corniche, and the pre-sunset light enveloped the old buildings with its Mediterranean cloak in such a soft, luminous glow that our spirits rose even higher at the city's radiant salutation. As our eyes beheld the open sea extending under the pink cotton fuzz of the clouds, the warmth of the gentle air cuddled us and the crisp coolness of the breeze playfully roused us -- a perfect Spring afternoon. We cheered whole-heartedly for Alexandria, and it dawned on me at that moment that of all the places where I would gladly reside, Alex definitely makes it to the top drawers.

As the Four Seasons at San Stefano loomed majestically before us, I stretched my arm back for a high five to Yassine, who squirmed with excitement in the backseat -- an unspoken agreement was sealed: behave, discover and enjoy.

We were greeted by the signature Four Seasons magnificent flower arrangements, and smile after smile by the hotel's staff who are superbly trained in the intricacies of the art of hospitality. "Did you hear what they called me?" the beaming little one whispered eagerly, "I am finally 'Mister Yassine'!"

SIXTH FLOOR: CONTROL YOURSELF -- Now, there is something about sumptuous luxury and lavishness that causes peculiar displays of euphoria in remarkably undignified fashion. It tickles an inner something which sets off a trigger that seems to deactivate any semblance of propriety. And it is precisely because I had previously experienced a potent bout of goofiness at the Four Seasons Resort Sharm El-Sheikh (visit ), that my eyes were on Yassine. I knew what was coming, but wasn't sure what form it would take. Although I fervently anticipated its zest and mirth, both of a highly indecorous streak, I wanted to ensure it did not commence in the presence of the bellboy courteously introducing us to our room.

I heard a squeak, the origin of which I instantly identified. Turning my back to the bellboy, I glared at Yassine and gestured with my hand to wait, discreetly pointing my index finger at the stranger still with us. A couple more thank-you's and gracious smiles -- our suppressed bubbles now about to pop the cork -- and the bellboy exited. The cork finally popped: facial expressions, shrieks, arm and leg movements which qualified us both for asylum confinement -- the kind of stuff that scares little children and makes adults afraid to laugh lest they should be dubbed cruel to mock the deranged. So much fun! That is the effect of the Four Seasons' variety of grandeur: it immediately thrusts you out of predictability.

FIFTH FLOOR: OR MAKE A SPLASH -- Once we had collected our senses scattered in the four corners of Room 604, we buried our secret and gracefully strolled down the posh corridor leading to the elevator, pausing every so often to silently admire the numerous paintings adorning the walls. As Yassine pressed the floor number, the palm of my hand roamed over the velvet lining of the elevator while he, a quick learner, pressed his cheek against the soft texture. "Notice and relish every minute detail if you wish to fully appreciate any of life's gifts." I know that my words, slowly and deliberately spoken, were eternally carved in his brain.

So what exactly is on the fifth floor, that it should prompt us to leave the glorious seaview of our cosy terrace less than an hour upon arrival? None other than an indoor infinity pool of ideal temperature, where a handful of guests -- businessmen, I could tell -- shed the stress of the day's corporate meetings away. Four Seasons-style, fluffy crème-coloured towels were rolled in conical piles on elegant dark stools beside each pool ladder, waiting to be picked up by exiting swimmers who will not be abandoned to wander in search of their own towels; oh no, not here.

Sipping a delightful authentic Japanese green tea while making all sorts of plans for the morrow, I observed my little fish gleefully leaping in and out of the water. He disappeared behind a palm tree jutting out of the islet in the middle of the pool, in continuation of a game of hide and seek that only ended with our departure.

THIRD FLOOR: CON GUSTO -- We had a deal: he was to borrow a Mr Bean movie from the Concierge's long list of DVDs and order a spaghetti bolognaise from Room Service (his idea), while I was to enjoy dinner with my Alexandrine acquaintance Sara at the hotel's Italian restaurant, Stefano's. Though I had done the rounds of Egypt's finest spots as a restaurant critic for many long years, I had never tasted such divine roasted head of garlic -- aesthetic and creamy, subtle yet powerful, perfetto. Since I discovered that following the yellow brick road yields bountiful surprises, I decided to let my co-diner -- who was treating me to dinner -- to order for us, while assigning myself the task of being content with the outcome.

One succulent dish after another landed on our table -- delectably marinated beef carpaccio and artichoke salad with actual parmesan shards; tangy aubergine parmigiana with pesto sauce to sting the tongue; juicy sautéed shrimp with truffle sauce that indulge the nostrils before gracing the palate; scrumptious tonnarelli with creamy crab sauce that momentarily isolated me in sensory bliss making me unable to communicate coherently; and the pièce de resistance, seared lobster tail. I thought I would expire from an overabundance of both quality and quantity; this was the meal of 2010.

The essence of every single plate was a unique and distinctive instrumental solo while, in orchestrated unison, the supremacy of their engrossing flavours drowned the surrounding atmosphere. I vaguely remember Napolitan songs, a dimmed stylish interior, pleasant waiters fleeting among the diners occupying a great many number of tables, the sound of glass and cutlery on china, all like a faded dream. The aromas and seasonings, however, remain sharp and distinct.

All my next meals at the hotel became diminutively selective after this first dinner -- leaving a third of my stomach empty for proper breathing and make up for the top button that had discreetly come undone at Stefano's.

TROTTOIR: I AM NOT LEAVING THIS HOTEL -- Hotel showers really are something else; and the fancier the hotel, the more of an "experience" the shower becomes. Lemon verbena-scented L'Occitane shower gel, and sufficient water pressure jetting out of the massaging nozzle to invigorate you more than singing The Hills Are Alive while perched on the Alps with Julie Andrews ever could, and you are all set for a bright new day. As Yassine came swishing into the room in wet swimsuit following his morning session at the pool, a discussion erupted between us once I informed him of the day's itinerary, which included a stroll down the Corniche, a visit to Al-Mursi Abul-Abbas Mosque, Al-Attarin Market, and hopefully a peak at the Catacombs of Kom Al-Shoqafa if time allowed.

He listened politely until I was finished then expressed himself: "Why would we leave this amazing hotel while we could visit any of these places any other time?" Good question -- I hate it when that happens. "And what would we do at the hotel until tomorrow?" I responded, to which came this answer: "Notice and relish every minute detail if we wish to fully appreciate our stay here."

I'm not sure which feeling was stronger; my pride at his logical articulation or annoyance at concluding that it was only fair to proceed with the tug-of-war (which I could always immediately end with the hatefully authoritative yet sometimes practical "because I said so"), considering I had a worthy opponent. "Fine. Fine. Let's get a third opinion and see which of the two scales is heavier with votes." He called my parents -- slick -- presented the situation, then handed me the phone with a triumphant smirk on his face.

The hotel's Fresca café-trottoir, where I settled with my diary half an hour later, was distinctly reminiscent of the Terrace at the Old Cataract in Aswan. Although the Old Cataract relies on the past attesting to its glory while the Four Seasons at San Stefano casts its brilliance into the future, each provides guests with a good long look onto the body of water that has shaped the collective memory of its present locale -- the Nile and the Mediterranean, respectively. Purifying lungs, repositories of bygone times and symbols of continuity in grandeur, comfort and exclusivity. While slowly sipping my warm pineapple juice with cinnamon and nutmeg, this stream of consciousness helped me resolve how next to enjoy my stay: water was the answer.

FOURTH FLOOR: E.T. PHONE HOME -- Don't worry if you are veiled -- there is an entire ladies' section at the spa and fitness facility. And don't worry if you didn't pack a bathing suit -- they provide you with disposable ones. No excuses; you will walk down the tranquil labyrinthine passages leading to that empire of the senses.

The cinnamon-scented Relaxation Lounge, thankfully empty when I tiptoed inside, was basking in a faint light that invited mental abandon. Between every two crème-coloured La-Z-Boy-cum- armchair-cum-chaise-longue of natural leather, was a tiny table on which rested a couple of apples (the bright, luscious ones that have the potential to expel from Paradise). Complete silence reigned -- I could have just as well entered a still life painting.

There I lay for a good half hour, my mind blissfully blank, until my Asian "therapist" roused me ever so gently for our scheduled Moroccan Bath. I will not describe that multi-staged process, for it must be personally experienced, but I will give you hints: eucalyptus oil, candle-light, barely audible music, African amber, solitude -- and enough dead skin cells to compete with your son's eraser shavings at school, however clean you think you may be. Oh, and a glass door wiped so clean that you might leave with a bump on your head after walking straight into it if you are not careful. How could I have possibly noticed when I was so soothed and relaxed after the treatment, that I could not pronounce two consecutive sentences without pausing to remember what it was I wanted to say? "E.T. phone home" may well be the most eloquent communication you can muster after a trip down the fourth floor rabbit hole.

PARKING LOT: YEAR OF THE PEARL -- For several weeks, I had been driving with a dangling side view mirror. It took a Four Seasons valet to rid me of it upon his kind insistence, as he categorically refused to let me drive away without doing something about it. After two days of hedonistic indulgence, Yassine and I were ready to hit the highway with content satisfaction, and a long catalogue of landmarks to visit upon our next trip to beautiful Alexandria.

Other than a return to Qait Bay Citadel nestled in the particularly charming Al-Anfoushi area (do not miss Gilati Azza when in the vicinity), my son's increasing interest in archaeology and my passion for all things historic yielded the following: Pompey's Pillar and Serapeum in the ancient acropolis; the Roman Theatre and mosaics of the Villa of the Birds at Kom Al-Dikka; the Catacombs at Kom Al-Shoqafa; the Alexandria National Museum; and if re-opened by then, hopefully the Graeco-Roman Museum, where a delightful toga "fashion show" is represented by a series of statuettes. A stroll down the Corniche will lead to the Bibliotheca Alexandrina, Al-Attarin Market, the palm-dotted promenade with its exquisite architecture, Mediterranean sidewalk cafés at the foot of gorgeous turn-of-the-century buildings, the grand hotels of yesteryear, and finally Bahari, where "picturesque" finds its real-life manifestation among brightly-coloured moored fishing boats.

Although he is still too young to scuba dive, I may be able to sneak a glance at some of the remains of the Alexandria Ancient Lighthouse lying under the surface of the shimmering blue water by Pharos Island.

As 2010 celebrates Alexandria's prominent place on the tourist map, we will be taking many trips to the pearl of the Mediterranean -- a long-life romance has just begun. For now, before heading back to Cairo, a visit to the Mosque of 13th century Sufi saint Al-Mursi Abul-Abbas was definitely in order. Shellah ya Mursi y'Abul-Abbas.

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