Monday, October 30, 2006

The guide to Sharm el Sheikh

Times Online
October 04, 2006

The guide to Sharm el Sheikh

Tricia Holly Davis returns to Egypt's Sharm El Sheikh to find a bouyant package crowd on budget holidays, but says they haven't ruined the resort for everyone else

The sun-faded signpost that stands in the centre of Naama Bay reads, "Sharm El Sheikh, the City of Beauty and Peace." Standing only a hundred metres from the rubble-strewn site of the former Ghazala Gardens Hotel, which was devastated by last summer's suicide bombings, the sign sends a defiant message to terrorists and offers reassurance to visitors.

"It is safe now, don't worry," says Zizo Safan, a shopkeeper, as we sit outside the San Marino café, one of the many cushion-clad restaurants that flank King of Bahrain Street in the centre of Naama Bay. Zizo tells me there are now at least five security checkpoints on the road to Sharm from Cairo. "Before the bombs there was only one stop but now they check you several times."

Security inside Sharm's city limits is also tight. All the hotels I visited had airport-style, walk-through metal detectors and guarded gates to prevent random traffic from entering the hotel property. There are also a number of guards posted along the main tourist thoroughfare.

Like most of the proprietors in Sharm, Zizo has learned to speak fluent English, Italian, and Russian - the three most prevalent tourist ethnicities there.

"The Italians are coming back so that's a good sign because they were really scared," says Zizo. "On the night of the attacks they all slept on the beach because they were scared that their hotel would be blown up. The Brits are better. They'll go anywhere."

And so it seems the British are a resilient bunch... or they just find it hard to resist a good deal. Perhaps it's a bit of both, but the end result is the same. Tourism is trickling back in, as evidenced by my full flight to Sharm aboard British Airways (operated as GB Airways), which commenced direct flights from Gatwick in October. Taha Abdalla, director of sales, Jolie Ville Movenpick Golf & Resort hotel, says Sharm has seen a 30 per cent boost in British tourists since the new flights began.

While the cheap beach package crowd can't be avoided and are helping to rebuild Sharm's tourism market, they are mostly confined to one area of the coast, and have thus far avoided giving Sharm a downmarket feel.

Back at the San Marino, located adjacent to the Diar Nama Hotel, the café's owner, Hassam Zaky Mohme, or Sam, chuckles lightly as first-timers puzzle over the menu, whispering, "Shisha? Is that one of those water pipes?" But he is happy to have customers again. "Business was not so good after the bombs but it's getting better."

From what I observed it's getting a lot better. I went back to the San Marino three times and on my last visit I had to wait for a table. Still, I could tell tourism wasn't at the same level it was when I first visited Sharm in February 2005.

Located on the Southern tip of the Sinai Peninsula, Sharm El Sheikh's expansive coral reef and crystal clear water have earned it the reputation as one of the best scuba diving spots in the world. Over the past 10 years, people have flocked from Cairo and Alexandria to build elaborate resorts and casinos, and set-up "Sea Food" restaurants and shops selling "Genuine Egyptian Perfume", spices, and other tourist trinkets.

Off the beach, the city resembles a Hollywood set, with unfinished buildings and roads lurking behind the shadows of grand resorts that line the seaside. Sharm seems to be waiting patiently for the world to notice it, and inject enough into the economy to help it realise its full potential.

During the day, quintessential seaside activities abound. The men shuffle off to play cards or balls, while the women flock to their water aerobics classes. Although there are signs everywhere that scream, "No topless!" many women, namely the Italians, ignore this rule. Another observation about the Italians is that they have taken a page from the Germans, sneaking down to the beach at first light to lay their towel on the best seats.

Those unlucky enough to be spotted sitting idly on the beach will be quickly recruited by the "animation" staff, whose job is to encourage guests to get up on a large stage in the centre of the beach and perform YMCA. At the Marriott, this pleasure occurred everyday at 1 pm. Although I never danced on stage, by the third day I had developed a Pavlovian response to the song, complete with a rumbling belly and strong desire to break open the first Sakara Gold (the local lager) of the day. Admittedly, I kind of miss it.

Where to stay

In terms of value for money, service, food, rooms, amenities, cleanliness and proximity to Naama Bay, the five-star Marriott and Hilton Beach Resorts are the top choices. Those in search of something more exclusive should book at the Ritz Carlton, Four Seasons or Conrad, all of which are about a 10-minute drive to Naama Bay and offer complimentary shuttle service. Of the three, the palatial Ritz Carlton is my favourite, but a word of warning: the rocky beach is more like Brighton than the Red Sea.

Eating out

For food, Naama Bay has a plethora of restaurants which are priced at a fraction of the hotels, but are a better choice for dinner. Marriott has a great outdoor pizza restaurant, Parmizzano's, which is good for lunch or dinner. For a late lunch and a good happy hour pad over to the Hilton, located five minutes walk from the Marriott.

The Hilton also has an outdoor shisha bar and restaurant, grilling up lamb koftas and the catch of the day. Sunset cocktails are best had on the terrace of the Sofitel, which sits atop the main resort strip and overlooks the sea. For dinner, the buffet at Jolie Ville is a must-even if you're not a buffet fan. If you can afford it, head over to the Ritz Carlton's Lebanese restaurant for a full feast (£100 with wine), and good belly dancing show, otherwise just go there to check out the bar.


At night, downtown Naama Bay is a buzz of activity, with tourists crowding into row upon row of restaurants and bars. The Camel Bar is a favourite with the Brits, and its rooftop turns into a lively club at the weekend. The Alf Leila Wa Leila, located a few kilometres from Naama Bay, holds the best shows in Sharm, despite the fact that its prized performer is a male belly dancer named Tito. For late night partying, head to the Hard Rock Café.

What to do

In Sharm, as in Cairo, bartering is the currency of choice. Unlike Cairo, however, where the vendors practically assault you as you walk by, Naama Bay is far more relaxed, and the sales pitch far more subtle. Trying to guess the nationality of passer-bys is the favoured approach. "English? Italiano?" vendors persist in an effort to lure you into their shops.

For a town whose tourism market has barely reached adolescence, Sharm has a mature, western approach to tourism, which recognises that service sells. Old Sharm is worth seeing once, but it is still in the early development stage, and the vendors are far more aggressive than in Naama Bay.

Unfortunately, vendors such as Wella Ramadan, a former economics student from Cairo, feel people take advantage of the negative impact terrorism has had on Sharm's tourist trade. "They know we are struggling so will accept lower prices than we would normally," he tells me.

As I watched people haggle to death the simplest of purchases ("Three [Egyptian] pounds for water! I'll give you one!"), I realised he had a point. Perhaps this is why, much to my husband's dismay, I didn't bother to bargain down the price of my shisha pipe, which cost me the equivalent of £20, including charcoal and what I estimate is a five year's supply of apple-flavoured tobacco. Now if only I could remember how to assemble it.

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