The charm of Sharm part II

Sorry for the delay on this second installment on Sharm, I’ve had flu, deadlines and no internet. I’m going to do a shameless plug for two things – one, the hotel, Creative Grand Sharm, a 3-star with the most fantastic pool, and the hotel booking website,, which got me a room for US$20/night, less than half the price of rack, including breakfast. Check them out, that’s the pool below.

Unlike the Ritz, My hotel was around the corner, a slightly less fabulous, though more friendly affair, where the room was more an apartment with a fridge and kitchen (though no utensils), a lounge room and large terrace. Great value.

Across the road is the staggering Alf Leila We Leila (1001 Nights), which quickly was rebranded as the Kremlin. “It’s sooo Arabic,” said Mohommad, the super-helpful pharmacist whose shop was nearby. It’s so Russian. What do you think?

Inside is a cinema, several nightclubs, a sound and light show including a reproduction of Abu Simbel and a hotel is in the making. It’s massive. All around are shops selling the usual gumpf – shisha pipes, riotous belly dancing costumes, fake Dolce & Gabbana bags and perfume. They also offer to organise you anything from quad biking to slightly illicit activities.

The resort that is Sharm el-Sheik stretches across several bays, from the original fishing village in the south where the Old Market is located, up to the pumping Na’ama Bay, home of countless shisha cafes which use various tactics from pleading with visitors to enter to dressing the staff in white gellibayas and making them dance what looks suspiciously like the Bus Stop to the nasal whine of Akon.

Further north, the area around the airport is booming, with new high-end hotels and restaurants coming on line as we breathe – featured are restaurants from Ukraine, Britain and Russia. I’m not sure there’s an Egyptian one, but there in Naama Bay is a branch of the sensational Abu El Sid, which has its roots in Cairo’s Zamalek, and serves excellent Egyptian food in up-market surrounds.

My chemist Mohommad also dispensed advice (as well as Viagra and Cialis, as announced by the display cabinet on his desk), which led me to Sadiki Café on a hilltop at Faraana Bay, in Hadaba, which looks out onto the pontoons and dive boats in the blue ocean below. It would be awesome at sunset, but alas, I found it on my last afternoon, and sunset was already booked to be viewed from the pool at the Ritz. Tough gig.

The charm of Sharm, Part 1

It’s a mark of what to expect when I hit the southern Sinai resort town of Sharm el-Sheikh when am chatting with a guy in the sandwich queue in the town before Sharm, and he shows me, using fingers hidden beneath the counter, how much the sandwiches really are, and not the foreigner price.

Sharm is known throughout the northern hemisphere as the land of cheap package tours, and I was addressed in Russian more than Arabic or English.

The trip to the Sinai peninsula passes through the Ahmed Hamdi tunnel, an hour from Cairo. The tunnel goes under the Suez Canal, 1.5 minutes of darkness broken rhythmically by flouro lights through the tunnel, so we flicker between dark and bright light and back into the flat, hot, grey sky and stony sand on either side of the bus.

The tunnel was where were first checked over by a plainclothes guard which a black holster at each hip, who meditatively picked his nose as he watched us drive off.

Our tickets were checked twice and our identity documents also twice, though the second time, the guard didn’t bother making it to the end of the bus, where I sat. Sure it won’t be like that when Obama hits town.

When Bush stayed in Sharm el-Sheikh years ago, he booked out the entire Hyatt, which strikes me as just being greedy.

The Ritz-Carlton is another contender for a presidential visitor, and people, trust me when I say the security is up for it. I wandered into the hotel (yes, that’s the pool up above) several times for dinner or drinks or pool time with the swinging London contingent who’d drawn me down to Sharm in the first place, and the hotel is gorgeous.

I just WISH they’d stop escorting me off the premises like a criminal. Albiet a fabulous criminal, as the escorting has taken place on golf buggies at times.

El Ahly stops the nation

If you wanted to tear through the congested Cairo streets at 200km/hour, last night would have been a good time to do it, as 20 million people were all glued to the TV or at the football stadium in Alexandria as the reigning champions of Egyptian soccer, El Ahly, played the young guns of Ismalia. It was billed as a match between youth and experience. El Ahly scored in the fifth minute, the ball headed in by Flavio, the player they call, rightly, the Golden Head. In the crowd, boys pulled off their bright red Ahly shirts leapt up and down in unison. The crowd was a sea of red, a marked absence of the blue and yellow of Ismalia. Other giants of El Ahly included Wael Gomma, who looks suspiciously like Vin Diesel, and the god of football, Abu Treka, widely tipped to do all the scoring.I was half listening to the commentary while I worked and thought, How impartial is this commentator? Then I realized, it’s El Ahly TV (yes, the football team has its own TV station). So what do you think? Even I could it work out, cos the commentator yelled ‘mabrook’ (congratulations) on every forced offside and foul.El Ahly won, 0-1, the captain, Shady, climbed up on the goal posts, goading his fans on to get louder, and the station showed its colours…“Your sympathy is not enough,” said the (totally partial) commentator in the glitter-laden post-match dissection of other teams in the league who were supporting Ismalia in a bid to end El Ahly’s iron grip on the league. “You can compete with us, but you can’t take it.” Humility, obviously, is not a quality prized in the Egyptian league.

Getting porked

Rumour has it on the streets that the government is selling pork meat for the stunningly low price of LE5 (just over a US dollar) a kilo. Of course, the pork comes from the pigs who have been slaughtered in the fever of swine flu. A further rumour, which I’m SURE is not true, is that unscrupulous butchers are mixing the meat with that of beef and lamb to flesh out their supplies. I don’t rate this one because surely no butcher would be so bad as to mix what’s considered unclean meat to Muslims, who comprise around 80% of the Egyptian population. But rumours, like the flu, have no boundaries.

Crossing the lion(s)

On the way to Alexandria the other afternoon, a big billboard reared its head up on the horizon 59km till Alex. Lion Village. What to be done? We pulled over, of course.

So there they were, the show-stoppers of the African continent: the lions, the ostriches, the flamingos, a solitary baboon…the differing breeds of deer, hyenas and big-eared desert foxes. And the cocker spaniels. Can I put my hand up at this point and say this is the first time I’ve ever been to a zoo that has had cocker spaniels on display.

Then we hit the naughty Dalmatian puppies, the Newfoundland hounds clipped to look like lions and last, but not least, three beautiful little dachshunds, one of which snuck through the bars for a casual wander around the little open-air zoo.

Later, the largest of the Newfoundlands would do the same, wandering sad-eyed through the café tables hoping for scraps of cooked ostrich. No wonder the ostriches looked so disturbed, pecking viciously at the paint on their bars.

There were also some crazy little beasts labelled ‘Egyptian kangaroos’ (Who knew? Certainly the Egyptians in the party were shocked to discover them). For the record, they looked like little desert rats, all tangled together sleeping, their naked limbs like a heap of raw chicken wings dumped in a glass box.
There were turkeys and chooks, buzzards and a range of monkeys, and Egyptian nims, who looked like big tasty rodents that slept heavily on each other. They didn’t seem to be perturbed snoozing while the lions roared. There are six lions at the Lion Village, and all were out cold while we were there. In fact, we walked straight past two of them.
“Where are all the lions?” we asked after a while.
“At the entrance,” said the attendant looking at us like we were insane. We retraced our footsteps to find Ashraf and Tony (Tony? What kind of name is that for an Egyptian lion?), who was um… cleaning himself and taking great pleasure in doing so. I couldn’t take a photo. Oh. Ok, I did, but it didn’t turn out so well..

The other lions were Samshoon and his wife Nancy (asleep), and Dollar and and his missus Farah, who is actually a tiger. They weren’t on display, Dollar was yelling somewhere in the background, but a sign told us they have had babies, who are ‘ligers’, a cross between tiger and lion, the first to have been born in the Middle East.

There were also signs up about a strongman, Ahmed the Crocodile, who puts his head in lions’ mouths while wearing tight pants. In all, an excellent diversion on the road to Alex.

Lion Village, Km 59, Alex-Cairo Desert Rd., Alexandria, phone 010 4976028 – 010 573086

Kevin lost in translation?

Is anyone else getting bombarded by Turkish Airlines ads featuring Kevin Costner? It’s one of those weird ‘Lost in Translation’ famous-people-go-to-weird-places to make-a-lot-of-money scenarios, I think. Is it confined only to this part of the world?

The statement from Turkish Airlines says it all: they chosen Kev because he was a very good actor and that he was very famous and handsome. Nuff said.

Touching the Pyramids

Sometimes life throws nice gigs at you like the other night, when I spent a night at Mena House Oberoi , Egypt’s classic grand hotel, for a review for UK website Travel Intelligence.

The hotel’s celebrity list reads like a who’s who of all worlds – Roger Moore stayed here when filming The Spy Who Loved Me (1977), John Travolta opened Egypt’s first disco here back in 1972. Omar Sharif has been a regular as was Egypt’s (and the Middle East’s) most famous singer, Umm Kalthoum, who dossed here each month and now has a suite named in her honour.

Royalty and diplomats include the Aga Khan, Prince Philip, Spanish kings, Saudi princes, Thai princesses, and King Gustav of Sweden, a noted archaeologist, whose name also hangs on one of the hotel’s suites. Winston Churchill stayed here while orchestrating the North Africa campaign in WWII, while Jimmy Carter helped broker peace between Egpyt and Israel from the hotel in 1979.

Charles Heston used to ride a horse into the gardens every afternoon after filming the Ten Commandments, and on a slightly less noble note, an Australian soldier was arrested for running through its halls naked chasing a woman when the hotel became the HQ for the Australian army during the First World War (word has it the army turned up with a baby kangeroo in tow). The soldier defended his nudity saying the army rulebook says not to wear uniform when engaged in activities deemed unfit for its honour.

Every hotelier has their fingers crossed that Barak Obama will stay when he visits Cairo in June – most likely he will stay at the embassy or one of the city’s many palaces – but he could pop in for tea and to see the treasures of the original hunting lodge which is now the hotel’s Palace wing, its furniture inlaid with ebony and mother-of-pearl, the massive chandliers and corridors of pale grey marble.

The real reason you’d stay at the Oberoi in Cairo is for the reason show in the pic: this is a shot from my room. Take a look out the window, people, at that hulking great beast. Yes, it’s the Pyramid of Khufu (Cheops), one of the three Great Pyramids of Giza, so close you could spit on it. If you wanted. Of course I don’t want to. I don’t want to incur the wrath of the mummies and much less the Egyptian government.
I lolled around by the pool (see pic 😉 and had my first proper curry in three months in the hotel’s Moghul Room, which won best hotel restaurant in Africa by Conde Nast, and is reportedly the best Indian restaurant this side of Mumbai. Richard Nixon has sat at its restaurant’s tables and I reckon he also enjoyed the naan, which, friends, was memorable and made me miss serious Indian food. Thai food is forgotten, I’m on the hunt for the perfect Indian curry now…
The other great thing about the Oberoi is the golf course, at 110 years old, the country’s oldest. Golf freaks, beware the green monster before you view the next pic! Suprisingly, the green rates are seriously low, less than A$15 for a hotel guest and $40 for non-members. The only others on the course this morning were a few delighted Japanese guests.

The course is just across the road from the hotel, which is also a two-minute walk to the ticket office of the Great Pyramids, where touts try not too hard to lure you onto a camel, horse or into a carriage.

Which brings me to price: of course you want to know how much it costs to stay at the Mena House. Sure it’s not cheap. It’s a five-star hotel, and the rate card on the hotel counter reads E230 for a double room in the Palace wing with one of those jaw-dropping views of the Pyramid., which has stood here for 46 centuries.

Conversations from the Haut-Savoire, France

Conversation 1: We had walked around the beautiful Lac e Montriond till we reached a bustling restaurant populated by way too many blonde children wearing pink.

Adam: I don’t think I’ll drink. I’ll just have a beer.Me: You’re becoming French, Adam.
Conversation 2: Emma, having once again managed to smear her face, up to her eyebrows with pain au chocolate. Leah: Adam, do you think our children eat too much chocolate? Are we bad parents?Adam: Leah, they live in France. Another aside: when I first arrived in Milano it was grey, raining and I was lost. Well, it’s raining in Milano and nobody speaks English. I couldn’t even begin to think in Italian, my head was full of Arabic. So when I was looking for the hotel this afternoon, I asked a man from Fayoum, south of Cairo. We had a very nice chat (aiwa, bil Araby) but he didn’t know where the hotel was. But the girl from my own suburb of Misr el Gedida did… So in the first day in Italy, I spoke more Arabic than Italian. The trip ended in a multi-country hop from the Haut-Savoire (France) by car to Geneva (Switzerland) by train to Milano (Italy) and finally by the bumpiest flight to Cairo (Egypt) where the naughtiest boy alive, four-year-old Ahmed slowly spat on my laptop bag during the flight. All done avec grand bagages. My arms are considerably longer as a result.

Boyzone plays Tuscany

Is this the most perfectly Tuscan pic? Aside from the crappy sky. There was a ladder, an old bike and a low-slung chair perched against an olive tree. Hello, is there a Vogue stylist walking ahead of me? I thought, as I hummed my way through Boyzone’s hitlist (ok, so there IS a downside to solo walking).

Other highlights included the thermal baths at the hilltop village of Bagno Vignoni (population 53), where 40-degree waters gushed from the hillside into the public pools or, if you were a tad more posh, the Hotel de Terme, with its newly built bathhouse, all glass roofs and walls, so you could bathe in sunshine and waters designed for soaking thighs weary from schlepping up the hill to get there. No wonder it was a hot spot on the old pilgrim route to Roma.

Weirdly, when you photograph Tuscany, with its crumbling stone, washing strung outside the windows and old-fashioned signs, it looks so poor. But those leather boots and hand-crafted cheeses will strip your euros from your pocket faster than you can say ‘artisanal fromagerie’.

The landscape was all green, lush rolling hills often cloaked in a veil of rain (let’s not be picky here, it had to get green somehow), and rows of Roman pines that had me thinking back to the opening scenes of Russell Crowe’s house in Gladiator. Tacky, I know but your mind plays with your mind when you’ve many hours alone.
And the trip couldn’t go without a mention of the Eurostar from Florence to Milan, which hit speeds of 300km/hour, with barely a jiggle.

PS other hits from the Tuscan mental soundtrack included Jimmy Barnes’ Cheap Wine and the War of the Worlds soundtrack. A tough one to sing along to, but consider it achieved.

High life in France

Turning far north after Tuscany, I had a couple of days in the Haut-Savoie town of Les Gets, close on the French side of the the Swiss border. Will it surprise you to learn landscape is absolutely, chocolate-box spectacular?

Mountains rise steeply from the collection of villages which number 500 in the off-season, but still manage to sustain three hairdressers and four boulangeries or bakeries. You’d think the locals were fat and well-coiffed, but this long weekend was pretty quiet, and most of the people we met were English, so I can’t report back.

When they are in town, the locals (originally drawn from just three families and includes the surname ‘Bastard’, proving the old design motto that anything said in French sounds better) can choose from the reputedly sticky-carpet venue of igloo, the Dublin bar or even Le Boomerang Bar, reportedly run by an Australian (no, really!).

The regional dishes of the Haut-Savoie would also lend you to believe the population is a capillary away from heart failure – the fondue is a big pot of melting, winey cheese in which stale bread is dipped (great for small kids, despite the open flame beneath the pot), while tarteauflette is a mix of sliced potatoes sprinkled with bacon and smothered in local cheeses which include Reblochons, Tommes de Savoie and the stronger Abondance.

The find of the decade was the artisanal fromagerie, Fruitere des Perries, shelves loaded with local wine and cheeses.

A short drive up the hill and you can spot the skirts of Mont Blanc, hiding behind its sisters, glacial lakes and the winter photographs show snow up above the windows, making the view from the kitchen window a distant memory…or a beer fridge, if you were so inclined.