I’m a journalist, travel writer, editor and copywriter based in Melbourne, Australia. I write pacy travel features, edit edifying websites and fashion flamboyant copy. My articles and photographs have appeared in publications worldwide, from inflight to interior design: I’ve visited every continent, and have lived in three. Want to work together? Drop me a line… 

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Egypt morphs into the Gold Coast

For those of us on the other side of the world, it’s easy to forget Egypt is on the Mediterranean. Countries such as Italy and France have already cashed in on that claim to fame. But the north coast of Egypt is hundreds of kilometres of big, blue Mediterranean sea.

Mind you, it also has 80 million people wanting to swim in that same sea (and it’s a sobering reminder when you’re in the water with 200 or so other people that peeing in the water isn’t exactly a novel idea), so a little snobbery goes a long way.

On a weekend pootle along the coast, we drove west from Alexandria to Marina, half way between Alex and the famed blue waters of Marsa Mattruh, where the sea is cleaner and the action less hectic than in the cities closer to Cairo.

In the private enclave that is Marina, the bling is real, girls wander through cafes in shorts and singlets thrown over the top of their bikinis, guys are in their Billabongs and t-shirts, kids run wild on sugar and trikes.
It could be anywhere in the western world. Just the shisha pipes in the pool and a lack of alcohol make the difference. And the Remembering Allah billboards on driving into Marina. Leading into the hedonistic beachside paradise, the series ran as such: “Remembering Allah,” then “Remember…His door is always open,” followed by the ominous “Remember… He is always watching you” to the downright scary “Remember…you could meet Him now!”

Marina’s landmark is the massive Porto Marina, a clutch of towers that have been painted red-and-yellow stripes, amongst other colours. It erupts like a giant pimple from the desert, but once you’re inside, it lures you into its thriving outdoor café scene, and there’s even a fake Venice built inside, complete with canals and gondolas that were busy churning up the waterway. Yes, really.

The whole complex is built on a series of man-made lagoons and islands; Australians, think Gold Coast. In fact, when the jet boat, jetskis and parasailers zoomed past, I was taken back to Broadbeach in a flash. Aside from the hideous building, Marina is a series of tasteful villas built along the waters’ edge and it’s all so deliciously clean and shiny, and correspondingly expensive.

If you thought you’d nip in for a look, beware: Marina is a gated community which means you’d have to be hitchhiking with a member to get in there (or a friend of a friend who’s borrowed a card…).

It’s all very weird and challenges my principles of equality. But if you were the elite and money but a boring concept your accountant deals with, you’d love it – my neighbour and good mate Hosny Mubarak (aka The President), as well as the big guns in the military and anyone who’s vaguely noteworthy, all decamp here during the summer.

Check out: Tahiti beach and pool, a chic, up-market beach resort, and Studio Misr for traditional Egyptian food with gargantuan portions. The chicken fatta is exceptional, both in Puerto Marina. Zalabia (sweet dough balls soaked in rosewater honey) from Patiserrie Hamama in 6 October. Dental suicide, but worth it.


The price of Paradise

This weekend, I went to Paradise. Entrance costs 50 Egyptian pounds ($12). But if you know a guy who knows a guy, you can do it for maybe 20 ($5)…

Summer in Cairo? Insa! (Forget it!) Come Thursday evening, the highways are packed with cars and minibuses taking Cairenes away from the city and to the nearest body of water – the Mediterranean. Much of Egypt pours up to Alexandria for at least one month, while the north coast, ie. everything west of Alex, is littered with beach resorts whose names range from the chic to the corny: my favourite was the humble, unassuming, ‘Nice’ resort. A fake Dolce & Gabbana t-shirt is this year’s must-have accessory, worn by the sharp-eyed, dark-skinned boys of Upper Egypt, out for whatever havoc they can create on their holidays.

The beaches are a bewildering mix of public and private, and the private beaches can range from a strip of sand cordoned off from the great unwashed with a few beach umbrellas and seats to the lavish – bean bag at the water’s edge, shisha pipe in the pools, chaise longue on the white sand beache.

Their names are as evocative as they are global – Paradise, Cuba Cabana, Tahiti, La Plage…
Paradise is the basic number, with lifeguards on duty as this stretch of beach is notoriously dicey, with a strong undercurrent and waves that have no qualms about dumping you on the beach, swimmers full of sand, in front of hundreds of amused Egyptians.

After you have found your spot, hired your umbrella and beach chairs and settled in, guys wander past selling everything from ice creams to cappuccinos, frecia (a sweet wafer peculiar to Alex) to blow-up beach toys. You want it, they’ll run for it. They’ll even take your money and bring your change a half hour later, remembering your spot amongst the crowds. Australia, take note.

In comparison, entrance to Tahiti, a beach resort further up the coast in the gated community of Marina, costs LE75 (about $17) entrance (absolutely no alcohol, they even looked in my bag) and the scene was coooool. Lots of bikinis, lots of long hair tossed about, belly jewellery, Gulf Arab families with Filipina nannies, young actresses spotted in the mix, funky music and the smell of pizza wafting through the air. We lazed along the beach on chaise longes and bean bags and swam and drank coffee then moved to the pool and the lounges to order pizza and watch the big orange sun slide down past the palm-lined horizon.

Another night, we nipped into an open-air beach club at Agamy Bay. Slap bang on the beach, its location is impeccable. Blue has a reservations-only upstairs section, which this night was into bottle service (ie a bottle of Jack Daniels or vodka on each table, resting in an ice bucket) while downstairs was more into the dance floor.

Surely to be Dutch means you must be a great DJ? (Think Tiesto, Armin van Buuren etc). Wrong. The Blues DJ was cashing in on his famous brothers, but himself was a dud, yelling heavily-accented inanities into the mic whenever he got excited, “Take it easy, guys!” when a rare fight threatened to break out on the dance floor to “There’s a girl dancing on the beach!” as well as the obligatory advertisement for tomorrow night’s foam party, every third song.


Little black number

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how differently black is perceived in the West and here in the East.

In the west, fashion has been dominated by the LBD (little black dress) for decades. When we want to look chic, we wear black. When we can’t find anything else in our wardrobes, we throw on the standby black trousers, black shirt and black shoes. Super easy, unless you’ve washed your black clothes into shades of grey, you can’t mess up the colour coordination.

In the East, however, it’s a whole different kettle of fish. Black is ultra-conservative: think the all-encompassing chadors of Iran, the face-obscuring niqabs in Egypt, how in Oman men wear white while women wear black gellibayas (the long shapeless gown that falls to the ankles think LBD again, but in this case, Long Black Dress). Here, to wear black is to state that you’re conservative, respectable, religious, even. It’s the flamboyant, fashionable girls who are mixing gold and purple, splashing spring green with white, as opposed to flashing flesh.

In both instances though, wearing black is conformity – conformity to fashion or conformity to conservative mores. Repeat after me: we are all individuals.


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, http://www.booking.com/, 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.


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


In Alex

Twenty men hang off the sides of the train’s engine, more sitting on the roof, arms and faces hanging from the windows – this is the third-class train from Cairo to Alexandria.

In comparison, my first-class seat has air-conditioning and the windows are closed against the warm late afternoon air. Our train is watched by a man and his young son, standing in the vivid green fields, and two men bringing in their fishing nets as we cross the Nile. The train is spotted with agonizingly young naval offices, scalps still smarting from the brutally short clippings that show up childhood scars, whorls and crowns, who squeeze past the tea trolley in their spotless newly issued uniforms.

Alex’s history is written in its seafront hotels’ and cafés’ names – Omar El Khayamma, Romance, Cafe de la Paix, New Savoy, Cleopatra, Windsor Palace, Portofino, the Cecil… For sensational coffee – surely some of the best in the country – reader I urge you to visit the Brazilian café near Midan Saad Zagloul on the corniche. It could even show Melbourne how it’s done (cue to sharp intake of breath!). Also ticked off the list was Pompey’s Pillar, a 25m high pillar of red Aswan granite once part of a larger temple complex built in the 400s and is one of the few remaining true antiquities from Alex.

Embarrassingly, the last time I was in Alexandria, I managed to avoid the Alexandria Library, the modern replacement to the most famous library in antiquity. Today’s library is a round disk representing the sun – symbolizing “the flow of information from Egypt to the rest of the world,” said my guide. Sometimes you need these reminders for how influential this country has been on subsequent civilizations.

The beautiful library, with its shell of glass and stainless steel, with characters from the world’s alphabets carved into it, dominates the city’s 20km-long cornice, the promenade that runs along the Mediterranean seafront. Does it succeed in mimicking its famous predecessor? Architecturally, it’s amazing, but scholars would possibly turn in their graves at the sight of masses of schoolchildren filing through the doors. But in a country that, educationally, appears to be asleep at the wheel, that’s no bad thing…

An update: here’s a piece from the Sydney Morning Herald’s Sun Herald newspaper on Alex:

http://www.smh.com.au/travel/sacked-burnt-and-saved-20090129-7smr.html