Sunday 21 January 2018

Egypt for the Arab summer

Egypt's Red Sea resorts, especially Sharm el-Sheikh, are well known for their white sand beaches and rich underwater life.
Egypt's Red Sea resorts, especially Sharm el-Sheikh, are well known for their white sand beaches and rich underwater life.
STARRY, STARRY NIGHT: After night has fallen the rings of Saturn can be seen using telescopes at Sharm el-Sheikh


'Visit Egypt" and "Egypt needs Tourists" were just some of the messages seen on placards in Cairo's Tahrir Square after last year's revolution. And if, as Egyptian novelist and political commentator Ahdaf Soueif asks, you care for the environment and like to boycott nasty regimes, then, "this is an opportunity to do something positive and ethical and fun ... Come to Egypt and be part of this great experiment".

And certainly, who knew supporting the democratic process could be such a luxurious, exhilarating and hilariously enjoyable experience?

I have no idea how the good folk at Thomas Cook do it; perhaps it's because it was the first tour company to welcome visitors to the extravagant opening of the Suez Canal in 1869. Or perhaps because, in 1872, the first travel agency was established in Egypt when Thomas Cook's son, John Mason Cook, opened an office in the grounds of Cairo's famous Shepheard's Hotel. (There are 17 Thomas Cook offices in Cairo and myriad others throughout the country).

But whatever the reason, Thomas Cook can provide "all-inclusive" holidays to Sharm el-Sheikh's Hilton Shark's Bay Hotel for something a long way short of a pharaoh's ransom. And yes, as well as all meals, snacks, toasties by (or in) the pool, that also includes cocktails, beers, local wines etc. Amazingly, the Irish hotels, for the most part, don't seem to have cottoned on to the superb value of these "all-inclusive" deals as yet -- although as recession continues to bite I predict that holidays where you quite literally do not need to put your hand in your pocket will soon increase in popularity.

So, what do you get for your moolah?

Following a late-night arrival at the hotel, we were greeted with welcome drinks, a hassle-free registration and told that our luggage would be delivered to our rooms where food and drink awaited us.

All the rooms of the spacious, well-laid out hotel overlook the very pretty swimming pools, with their intersecting bars and extremely obliging staff.

If you think that an "all-inclusive" package may limit your culinary experiences somewhat, have no fear, the four Hilton restaurants included in the package offer Egyptian, Lebanese, American, British, Russian and Italian dishes, and there is also an a la carte Houses of Asia restaurant. I also managed to order and eat some delicious spiced lamb testicles (seriously) at the El Masreen restaurant in the local market.

You would be forgiven if you spent your entire holiday stretched out beside one of the Hilton's gorgeous pools having the odd (5?-7?) beer delivered to your lounger as you watch the kids happily splash down the water slides (we took these over on our last day -- our laughter could be heard in Cairo, we were told -- perhaps it was those aforementioned beers!) or if you've managed -- as I did -- to escape the children you can enjoy a quiet bliss-out at the "no kids" pool.

As I said, it would be totally understandable if you decided not to venture outside the environs of the hotel, except perhaps to head to one of the private beaches where snorkelling over fish-filled coral reefs is a beautifully relaxing pastime. And, yes, the beer gets delivered to your lounger here, too!

But if you did, you would be missing out on so much of what Egypt has to offer -- and luckily there is an array of excellently priced excursions that you would kick yourself if you missed out on.

We took three; the first was a 40-minute camel ride through the Sinai Desert followed by dinner with the Wadimander Bedouin tribe. When we arrived we were greeted by a multitude of children, fascinated with the 'foreigners' and forbidden by their proud elders to accept gifts or cash from us.

Stargazing with telescopes and a folkloric show of singing and dancing followed; which we watched while smoking those very soothing local shisha pipes. We were assured that there was nothing more than (totally legal) apple flavoured non-tobacco herbal stuff in them. But hey, the jokes were good.

Two days later, we rose at 4am to take a quick plane ride to exotic, mystical Cairo. "He who has not seen Cairo hath not seen the world," said the Tale of the Jewish Physician. "Her soil is gold, her Nile is a marvel; her women are like the black-eyed houris of Paradise ... And how can Cairo be otherwise when she is the Mother of the World?"

We sailed down the 'marvellous' Nile, ate lunch in Betek restaurant on the West Bank, saw the optimistic revolutionaries holding court at Tahrir Square and spent an extraordinary few hours examining a few of the thousands of treasures at the Egyptian Museum.

Later, it was on to the Pyramids at Giza where the experience of climbing, down, down into the core of the third pyramid (Menkaure) was worth the entire visit.

We declined the usual visit to a papyrus factory in favour of tea and peach shisha at the local tea shop. There was a lot of laughing. It was the text one of our group received saying it was a miserably rainy Monday in Dublin that set us all off.

And our last excursion was laugh-out-loud, thrill-a-minute territory: An hour and a half spent buggy driving in the Sinai Desert with a stop-off for more tea in another Bedouin tent.

The last night was spent in the fabulously trashy Na'ama Bay (oh, the irony) tourist area (an hourly shuttle takes Hilton guests there). Succulent fish and excellent local wine was served at the Buddha Restaurant and we enjoyed great views of this neon village set in the middle of the Sinai Desert from the balcony of the Camel Bar where, yes, we indulged in a last shisha pipe. Still raining at home? Oh, how we laughed.

So do your bit for democracy and justice -- support the revolution; spend a luxurious week at the Hilton in sunny Sharks Bay and I promise, you too will be laughing all the way home.

Sunday Indo Living

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