Love, eat and swim
If you're looking for romance, relaxation, solitude or some peace of mind, Al-Tarfa Desert Sanctuary Lodge and Spa in Egypt's Western Desert is the place to go. It is the Sahara without compromise and, as its owners call it, the Romance of Arabia.
The sanctuary is located in Dakhla Oasis, northwest of Kharga, about 310km from Farafra and the ever- flowing Nile is 350km east. The oasis itself consists of 14 settlements, is home to 70,000 people, and the farthest oasis from Cairo. It is considered one of Egypt's most appealing and enthralling travel destinations. There are 14 villages and dozens of smaller hamlets, imbued with a remarkable legacy of customs, architecture and agriculture. The presence of 12 international archaeological missions demonstrates the significance and value of the history of the oasis.
When the travel editor suggested I write a piece on Al-Tarfa, I was hesitant. She had been there once and was taken by the place, and now wanted to share the experience with readers. I felt the oasis was too far away and wasn't sure if it would be worth the trip, but I agreed to take the assignment and travelled to Dakhla Oasis at the Al-Wadi Al-Gedid governorate to unveil the mystery of the place, or as I would now describe it, the fairytale.
In Arabic, Al-Tarfa means faraway place, on the edge, hard to reach and I assumed that's how this location got its name. Apparently not. It was named after a tree that grows in the area which Wael Abed, the managing partner of Al-Tarfa Lodge, chose for the site. Al-Tarfa trees abound all around.
Upon arriving at the desert sanctuary together with photographer Amr Gamal and Soha, a reporter from The Community Times, I was speechless. We'd had a hectic journey due to a flight delay and poor weather conditions which made our journey longer, but this all melted away the moment we got there. Beyond exhaustion, we fell asleep.
As soon as I opened my eyes the next morning, the fairytale began. My quarters were exquisite, and as I listened to the songs of birds outside I felt very lazy. I forced myself to get out of bed and explore my surroundings, but was quite disoriented. I wasn't even sure how to open the wooden antiquated door; was there a key I misplaced on account of being so tired the night before? Finally, I was able to get out.
Now, to locate my party. It was dark the night before albeit for hidden reflections of light coming from behind the trees, making the place look mysterious but friendly. I stepped out into the dazzling sunlight and saw plush green areas. It was calm and quiet except for chirping birds; it was magical, intriguing. Where is everyone? Oh, there's someone; Saad, the lodge manager who welcomed us last night. He smiled.
SAHARA, OASIS AND SUPERIOR: As we walked to the pool, I was informed that there are three types of rooms at the lodge; the Sahara Suite, the Oasis Suite and the Superior rooms. Al-Tarfa has six authentic suites ranging between 75 and 110 square metres located at premium spots throughout the grounds, each one mirroring the simplicity of the surrounding environment and raw elegance.
Each one of my group stayed in a different type of room. The Sahara suites feature private terraces, air conditioning and a mini bar. Two suites, Dar Hamza and Dar Al-Aziz, have plunge pools; when Robert Di Niro visited, he stayed at Dar Hamza which also has a fireplace. I stayed in Dar Al-Amir, another suite, which once housed famous actor Harvey Keitel. Di Niro and Keitel were here in May 2010 and explored the cultural sites of the Dakhla Oasis, went on nature tours arranged by the lodge, and stayed longer than they had originally planned.
Other celebrities who came to Al-Tarfa recently include Led Zeppelin's John Paul Jones who celebrated the 2011 New Year at Al-Tarfa. The legendary Led Zep bassist and record producer played some tunes on his mandolin which Al-Tarfa guests found very entertaining.
Photographer Gamal stayed at one of the Oasis suites, Dar Azzuz. Each of the eight well-placed suites has its own character and is fitted with traditional furniture and hand-made fabrics. A comfy sitting area and terrace overlooking the surrounding fields provide the best of comfort. Two of the oasis suites, Beit Azzouz 1 and 2, share a plunge pool.
As for Soha, she stayed in one of the six Superior rooms, but I'm sure she doesn't hold a grudge since she was located in the centre of the lodge, overlooking the entire site, pool, restaurant, lounge and a shared terrace with a superior view of the desert and fields.
My party was waiting by the pool, which is where we ate breakfast every day. I stood for a moment to take in the entire place. Superb.
And now it was time to dig into a feast of home-made breakfast. But as fair warning, be careful how much you eat or you could end up putting on a few kilos on a short visit. This is not your average buffet breakfast, it's Egyptian countryside homemade; the real deal: fitir mesheltet (breakfast pastry), honey, jam, bread, fuul (fava beans), falafel, falahi (countryside) bread, eggs, mesh (aged cheese) with tomatoes, and of course the famous oasis olives. A cup of tea afterwards, and you've had your fill. The chaise long nearby was an ideal spot for a morning nap to digest the splendid breakfast and surroundings.
An international breakfast could also be arranged, but when in Rome...
DAR AL-MONA: It is advantageously set at the highest point within the sanctuary, with panoramic views over the surrounding spectacles: palm trees, green fields and sun-dipped cliffs. Cool thick walls of mud- bricks and stones embracing a large fireplace come together with comfortable and elegant furniture, making the main sitting area feel like home. The lounge features The Explores Bar overlooking the pool and Roman spring. A rich Desert Library with good reads, several intimate corners and private dining rooms are also there.
THE POOL: Out of the lodge, down to the pool set atop a sand-dune and surrounded by multi-levelled terraces. The swimming pool offers an unparalleled panoramic view of the immense greenery, the distinctive rugged mountains and endless desert that embraces Dakhla Oasis. The outdoor bar, comfortable sitting areas, grass sunbathing platforms and the palm trees of an ancient Roman spring make the pool area an amiable site for dining set-ups, sunset cocktails, late-night get- togethers, outdoor conventions, special events, meditation and fashion shoots.
EZBET AL-MANSOURA: Taking the stairs down, we continue wandering through the lodge which lies within a private reserve that features oasis orchards, palm groves, cultivations, sanded-up Roman wells and desert gardens. These guided walks or horse-back rides through the sanctuary allow guests to experience the patterns of life in this simple oasis, joining farmers in the fields, sampling the local community of Ezbet Al-Mansoura in which the lodge is located, and learning about the Saharan environment. As we walk around, we are greeted by cheerful staff and two large, but tame and playful, dogs belonging to the co-partner of the lodge.
DAR AL-HANA: After the long walk, I was escorted to my priority destination: Dar Al-Hana Spa; the place for wellness, fitness and massage. The spa is located on a hill and consists of a sauna, steam room, indoor heated pool and cosy lounge area. It has a tranquil atmosphere complemented by natural light, and an extensive menu of treatments. These include indoor massage or an outdoor platform overlooking the sand dunes, and an outdoor plunge pool for guests to unwind and enjoy the sun while gazing at the oasis. For more active visitors, the gym is outfitted with a treadmill, a multi-gym, a stepper and cycling equipment.
The next day, I told my colleagues that I would be in my room relaxing before dinner but instead sneaked away to experience the spa first hand. There, I met Coya, a very skilled young Thai woman. I went into the sauna, steam room and also enjoyed the heated pool. Then I treated myself to an active facial and body care, and massage. What a sensation; I couldn't hide it from my colleagues -- they could tell as soon as they saw me at dinner. I was very relaxed, peaceful and tranquil, but glowing and fresh.
THE HOT TUB: The next day, we visited Magic Spring, which is a must-visit for anyone who goes to Al-Tarfa. It is a natural spring filled with hot mineral water that is more than 1,000 metres deep, located 10km away from Al-Tarfa. The spring is designed so tourists and locals can enjoy a swim in the natural medicinal waters which are 37 degrees Celsius, the same temperature as the body.
It was very tempting, but I didn't take the plunge. I did, however, enjoy a similar experience near the lodge at a natural hot well in the middle of a field in Al-Mansoura. Locals and foreigners use it as a bath tub, mostly at night; during the day it irrigates the fields. Although it was three degrees Celsius that night, I decided to take a dive anyway so Soha and I walked there in pitch dark guided by a torch, and found several women already enjoying the water.
I hesitated at first, but saw that a mother and her daughters were in the water while the father waited outside. They invited me to join them, and I couldn't resist. The water was hot and steamy; I tipped my head back and took a deep breath, opened my eyes and saw the starts in the sky beckoning to me.
The women told me that locals come here every night -- the men come even later and barbecue until dawn. They said the water cures and heals the body, especially from colds, and relaxes the muscles. I could only take the hot water for 15 minutes and started to feel dizzy, as if I were in a sauna or steam room. That's it; I got out.
On the walk back, Soha was surprisingly shaking with cold but I was very hot. Everyone who saw me afterwards knew that I had been to the well because my face was flushed. For the first time since I arrived, I slept with the heat off in my suite and I felt energised for the next several days.
INDULGE YOUR PALATE: Tired? Hungry? Just say the word. I ate delicious and healthy food during my four-day stay at Al-Tarfa Lodge; no open buffets, only set menus. We trusted Ma"tre d'Hotel Taha Hussein's choices as he set the menus of the day, and his three chefs made the most exquisite and delicious food ever. The menu represents traditional Egyptian gastronomy, as prepared and presented in most upper-middle class homes in Egypt. No matter the length of your stay, the chefs will unveil delicious, original meals each day.
Al-Tarfa's local chefs only use the freshest vegetables, organically produced from the lodge's eco-friendly farming project Organica. Almost 90 per cent of ingredients are bought from nearby villages. Chosen for their peerless quality, Organica products also support the local community's economy.
But it's not only about the food, it's also how and where it's served; the lodge will serve meals everywhere. Qasr Al-Mansoura is the main restaurant, featuring a stylish dining room and bar, elegantly decorated with original lamps and a display of wooden tools used during the building of the lodge. Al-Tarfa also encloses several settings suitable for outdoor dining: around the pool, at the Roman spring, or in the Court. Special or private dining may also be arranged amid the palm groves and on the dunes. Arabian-style tented dinners in the surrounding deserts are also a possibility.
ROMANCE AND LEISURE: How does it sound so far? A perfect destination to take your significant other, but you might worry that it would get boring. Not at all. Al-Tarfa management offers free excursions every day to experience the culture of the oasis which is rich with local history, tradition and sites. You will discover how local Egyptian farmers are the guardians of an immense multi-layered cultural legacy which has been preserved here.
In addition to slower-paced activities such as nature walks, local community experiences, and horse riding, the surrounding oasis offers a range of activities for the dynamic traveller who can go on daily guided trips to exciting locations within easy travelling distance of the lodge, or book a tailored excursion to neighbouring oases, national parks and protected areas.
Al-Tarfa organises morning and afternoon trips to fascinating cultural sites. Guided trips include the villages and splendid fortresses of Al-Qasr and Balat, the buried Roman city of Amheida (the Pompeii of the Sahara), the temple of Deir Al-Hagar, and several other sites.
In three days, we had many unforgettable experiences including a visit to Al-Qasr Islamic City dating back to the Ayoubid dynasty, which we toured in three hours. Our guide was none other than lodge manager Saad, a very knowledgeable native of the city which was once well populated, but five years ago most families left. There are, however, some remaining residents who are steel workers or blacksmiths.
A few metres outside the city is the only pottery factory in the oasis, and as you enter the city, local women working with reeds greet visitors. Mid-tour as we walked through the narrow alleys, we were surprised to see a familiar face waiting for us with beverages, table and chairs. Hani, one of the lodge's staff, is extending us hospitality exclusive to Al-Tarfa's guests.
On the second day, we drove through the desert in a 4x4 to watch the sunset on the sand dunes of the Western Desert. As we cruised towards our destination, we spotted an umbrella in the distance. Was it a mirage? We came closer. Umbrella, table, chairs, familiar face... Yes, it was faithful Hani with our beverages.
We watched as the sun set, gazing into the distance, each in their own reverie; it was pure romance. As soon as the sun set, however, the temperature dropped dramatically so we made our way back to our sanctuary.
Saad explained that the lodge organises guided walks through the surrounding landscape, allowing guests to learn about amazing environments, witness various forms of desertification, and search for forms of life that have remained unchanged since the kindling of civilisation. Short, medium or long range camel treks through nearby dunes and open deserts can also be arranged upon request.
Guided by native Bedouins, the joyful journey introduces one to this nomadic culture and offers a memorable experience of traversing the desert Arabian style. The lodge's stables house local Arabian horses for skilled riders. Morning and afternoon trips are arranged to surrounding oasis fields and deserts; special full moon rides along with dinner in the dunes can also be arranged upon request.
In partnership with Land Rover Egypt, the lodge offers a variety of 4x4 desert excursions. Over-day trips to the unique White Desert protected area of neighbouring Kharga Oasis give you a glimpse of breathtaking landscapes, and a chance to visit isolated antiquities of historical importance. Longer expeditions to the Gilf Kebir National Park can also be organised to explore lunar-like features, volcanic and meteorite craters, and the richest assortment of prehistoric rock-art caves in Africa. As well as these options, Al-Tarfa can also organise tailored tours and excursions to meet anyone's interests.
Our third day was the busiest. In the morning, we visited the tombs of Mozawaka, Deir Al-Haggar temple and the buried city of Amheida. The tombs belong to the Pharaonic era and are 35km away from the Dakhla oasis city centre and only 10km from Al-Tarfa. The buried Roman city of Amheida is also Pharaonic but during the era of the Roman Empire. Several missions are currently working on excavations to uncover the city.
In the afternoon, it was time to visit the last monuments of Dakhla, Balaat's Pharaonic tombs which include six huge tombs belonging to kings of the Sixth Dynasty. On the other side of the road is Balaat's Islamic village.
RESPONSIBILITY: Al-Tarfa's co-partner Abed talked about the lodge's social responsibility, as well as ecological and social programmes for the community. "Aside from offering quality lodging and services, Al-Tarfa is a model of sustainable tourism development in the Egyptian oases," he asserted. "By completing the lodge, we achieved one of our main objectives -- revive the classical style of architecture of the oasis. As such, we have established a base for further archaeological and geographical research and have journeyed on, committed to our belief that every good retreat consists of three main elements: the people and their well-being; a healthy respect for culture; and the ecology that embraces it all. Al Tarfa proudly embodies all three."
Located 500km west of Luxor, you can reach Al-Tarfa Desert Sanctuary by road. While Dakhla Airport is conveniently located 20 minutes from the lodge, and usually has three weekly flights on Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays from Cairo, the airport is currently closed for renovations and is expected to reopen soon. There are daily flights from Cairo to Luxor and/or Assiut airports, and from there you can continue by road. Alternatively, a weekly flight by an oil company connects Cairo to Kharga Airport, and then you can take a two-hour drive to Al-Tarfa. Flights and transfers from anywhere in Egypt can be also booked through the camps and lodges company.