Sunday, 22 May 2011

TRAVEL: Egypt's Red Sea Coast

Published: PLANET CONFIDENTIAL,  22nd May 2011

"Red Sea R&R: Thalia Allington-Wood swims, relaxes, drinks, then relaxes"

Say the words Egypt and holiday in the same sentence and you’re likely to be met with a raised eyebrow. Yet the placards and rallying cries that surge Cairo’s streets and our news pages are a far cry from Egypt’s Red Sea coast.

So much so, in fact, the reporter in me was a little disappointed: bar a few stickers exclaiming ‘We Love Egypt: 25th January’ on local taxis, signs of revolution were non-existent. I did, once, get to pass a military post: a military post, that is, where soldiers and locals were enjoying a good game of cards and a smoke.

I had no choice it seemed, when touching down in Sharm El Sheikh, but to put on a sunhat, slap on the sun cream and truly have a holiday.

“Weather as you would expect, clear skies with a ground temperature of 35 degrees”.

This isn’t very unsual. It has rained once for the past two years in Sinai, meaning tooth, named for the fang like shape of this Egyptian peninsular. Prior to that, our guide informed, the soil last quenched its thirst in 1999: welcome, dear readers, to a land of eternal summer.

This continual scorching is reflected geographically: harsh, arid, and, of course, red, earth stretches as far as the eye can see. As the girl to my right exclaimed, leaning her heavily perfumed self over my lap to look through the window: “It’s like landing on Mars”.

Yet it is not just for the florid, rusty landscape that I quote my fellow passenger. For the resorts of Sharm El Sheik and Hurghada, (my second destination), are slightly like being on another planet, a very new planet. Thirty years ago nothing was here. These hotels have practically been airlifted in, if not from outer space, then certainly a planet of luxury holiday production lines.

This is not a criticism. If you’re looking for Egyptian culture, then the Red Sea is not the place for you. That the resort’s corner shop has an Aldi sign hanging above its door says it all. Yet culture is not the aim of being here. What is, as I quickly learnt, is relaxation, with a large and capital R: to wash away worries in crystal waters and bake away cares.

Off growling roads, lined with pyramid casinos and the obligatory Starbucks and MacDonald’s, both Ghazala Garden Hotel in Sharm el Sheikh and the five-star Makadi Palace in Hurghada, certainly know how to help you succeed in this task.

Porters swoop, doors are opened, the next glass brought before you’re half way through your first. A companion once found himself with three gin and tonics, so fast did the waiters preempt his beverage desires.

This is not the all-inclusive package nightmare of square pools and concrete high-rises. Rather, architecture displays Middle Eastern influence: wooden trellis, pointed arches and impressive domes.

In Ghazala Gardens no building is higher than tree level, small pools are interlinked, and winding paths lead to small accommodation blocks. Balconies are given seclusion by the reaching flowers of Bougainvillea and Jacaranda trees. Makadi Palace, though much bigger and fully booked when we stayed, miraculously manages somehow to create the same atmosphere of quiet and privacy.

The rooms are spacious and the beds capacious. I don’t think I’ve ever slept in one three pillows wide and then some. Décor is pleasingly neutral, with treats for nibbling on arrival and imaginative towel decoration: my favorite being a crocodile with TV remote in jaw.

Both have their own stretch of beach, where looking out over an aquamarine horizon, waiters bring ice cold drinks to your sun bed. Life is tough here when impersonating a vegetable.

To avoid becoming a complete baked potato, the Sinai desert is a short excursion and well worth it. Be it via hair raising Quad bike or stomach jostling Jeep Safari. Auburn and terracotta hews fill sandals and crunch beneath feet. Fiery monoliths tower out of the ground, with jagged tips meeting paint box blue. The Bedouin herd their camels across the sands. It is stark and beautiful.

Yet, the true highlight of coming here is, unsurprisingly, the water itself: the turquoise blue one never believes on postcards, warm and calm. The many shallow waters and coral reefs make the Red Sea a top diving destination and perfect place to come as a beginner.

We took a snorkeling trip (highly recommended). Jumping of the boat into the deep we saw a Broomtail wrasse, a multitude of Parrotfish and stingless jellyfish, an eerie boat wreck and thankfully no sharks, before heading off to ‘Paradise’ for lunch (no joke - it had a sign).

A bay on a most desert like desert island where we did some more of that prime occupation, relaxing, before cruising back as the sun descended: the Red Sea truly turning the color of Vermillion.

The resorts of Sharm El Sheik and Hurghada are void of anything that remotely resembles a museum, art gallery or authentic ancient market. But here is a destination where sunlight streams be it January, July or October, where that warm gust of air, hitting your cheek as you exist the plane, is a given. Where beaches are perfect for a wind down. Where a world of underwater delights waits to be explored.

And order seafood. Never have I attacked so many meaty prawns of shockingly large proportion. My mouth waters at the memory.


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