Travelling Cuba – Get there before It’s Ruined!

Varadero

Because a lot of friends have asked, and because travelling to Cuba is trendy now ‘before the Americans get in and ruin it’ (please stop saying that), I’ve decided to write up a brief guide on what to do and how to do Cuba. Here you go:

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Havana

Travel in off-peak season: we went in May, also known as hurricane season, which ended up being one or two rainy days, nothing serious. As a plus, there were fewer tourists and we managed to get discounts on travel and entertainment.

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Havana

Fly direct if you can: Direct flights leave from Paris and take about nine hours. I made the stupid mistake of flying from London, which took 20 hours with two stopovers.

Havana's corniche looks like an older, more beautiful version of Alexandria.

Havana’s corniche looks like an older, more beautiful version of Alexandria.

Book ahead: flights from London often drop as low as 350£ if you book well ahead. Good hotels in Havana will fill up months ahead, and trust me on this, you need good accommodation there.

Varadero's beaches look photoshopped. They're not.

Varadero’s beaches look photoshopped. They’re not.

Get your visa sorted in advance: while I got mine in less than 15 minutes in London, my travel companion in Egypt had a massive run around with the embassy in Cairo; so make sure you’ve got several weeks, not days, to go when you apply. You’ll need a hotel booking as well as a flight itinerary to get the visa. Our hotel was nice enough to send us a booking receipt before we’d paid our deposit, as they were familiar with the visa process. Keep a print out of your hotel booking; you will need to show it to Havana airport passport control. Also, if you’re worried about getting your passport stamped, don’t worry: the Cuban visa is literally a slip of paper that they will stamp when you enter and exit the country, so there will be no proof of your stamp on your passport. Note: you pay an entry and exit tax at the airport: around 30 CUCs as far as I remember.

My beautiful room at La Rosa

My beautiful room at La Rosa

Stick to casa particulares: these are bed&breakfasts where you stay with a Cuban family for an authentic and much cheaper experience than a hotel. Hotels are either state-run or foreign franchises, ridiculously overpriced and not worth it. If you can afford it, definitely go for boutique hotels.For Havana, I highly recommend La Rosa D’Ortega, a stunning colonial villa on the hills on Havana’s outskirts, where the in-house chauffeur drove us around in his vintage Mercedes for 10CUCs return (a great deal btw), and we slept in large rooms with four poster beds and high ceilings for around 35Euros a night, breakfast included. Trust me on this; don’t stay anywhere else in Havana, you will not find the quality and also wonderful hospitality of Rosa anywhere else.

Massive breakfasts with fresh fruit juice, pancakes, and thick coffee.

Massive breakfasts with fresh fruit juice, pancakes, and thick coffee.

As a tourist, you’re being scammed anyway. Accept it: You pay in CUCs, a currency that is the equivalent of a US Dollar. However, Cubans pay in pesos, which are roughly 26 to one CUC. This means that you’re paying a lot more for everything than the locals. As a tourist, you can’t buy pesos but you may get them in small change if you buy off street kiosks etc. Before you complain, please note that Cuba is still cheaper than you will expect, and the Cubans you meet are a lot poorer than you, so…

The beautiful porches of Vinales

The beautiful porches of Vinales

Don’t trust your guidebook: Cuba is changing rapidly and even if your guidebook was published this year, it’s already out of date in terms of prices and reviews. We used two guidebooks and found them to be completely inaccurate, sending us to tourist traps and unimpressive restaurants around Havana.

Don’t trust Trip advisor either: you’re better off sticking to digital travel articles by travel experts, because a lot of restaurants, hotels and destinations highly praised by Trip advisor users were absolutely crap.

Walking through the mangroves to get to a public beach in Trinidad

Walking through the mangroves to get to a public beach in Trinidad

Beware of the tourist traps: first of all, if it’s called a restaurant then it’s aimed at tourists, you’ll get tourist prices and tourist-targeted foods. If it’s called a paladares, it’s most likely to be frequented by the locals with more affordable prices.

Havana

Havana

Beware that food may disappoint you: Cuba has some of the most delicious fruit you’ll ever have (I tried to smuggle a mango home), and their coffee is so rich that it will burn a hole in your stomach but you won’t care. HOWEVER, most of the meals we had were nothing worth writing home about, unless you like bean based meals with overcooked meat and little to no seasoning. An exception was La Guarida in Havana, a beautifully decorated and high end restaurant where we paid a hefty 80CUCs for a three course gourmet meal for two (I say hefty compared to our average of 30CUCs or so). If you can’t afford the meal, go for a drink at the bar and fawn at the celebrity photos covering the walls.

Trinidad

Trinidad

Get out of Havana: there is so much more to Cuba than its capital, which we found to be lovely but overrated. You can do Havana in two nights, and be sure to visit nearby destinations like Varadero for its incredible beaches (a few hours by bus), Trinidad for its quaint and colourful houses and the best live music we’d heard. My longest trip was to Vinales in the mountains, a beautiful village with barely one main street, a handful of restaurants and horses that take you on treks through the waterfalls, tobacco plantations and countryside.

Along the road to Varadero

Along the road to Varadero

Haggle for a taxi: we found taxis parked outside every cross-country bus stop, offering us more or less the same rate if we travelled with them instead of the bus. Haggle the price down and the larger your group, the better. Don’t be shy and ask nearby tourists if they want to pitch in for the same destination. If it’s summer, you’ll really appreciate the A/C and speed of a taxi versus the mundanely slow and less comfortable bus.

Our slightly insane taxi driver posing with one of the thousands of red crabs crawling across the freeway to Trinidad

Our slightly insane taxi driver posing with one of the thousands of red crabs crawling across the freeway to Trinidad

Don’t fall for the tobacco scam: don’t buy bundles of cigars off people on the street or even off tobacco plantation owners. I was lucky to be travelling with a cigar expert, who showed that – when unravelled – the cigars we purchased were full of sawdust. You’re safer if you stick to the state-run shops, where cigars are still massively cheaper than if you bought them in Europe.

Inside my salsa teacher's salon in Havana

Inside my salsa teacher’s salon in Havana

You need to dance salsa: every street corner of every city we visited seemed to have the best live music we’d ever heard, and venues known as ‘casa de la musica’ usually had evening concerts where people dance till the early hours of the morning, and you’re served overflowing rum cocktails for 5CUCs. If you’re intimidated by how good everyone dances in Cuba (and you will be), try a private class for under 20CUCs an hour; a fun and sweaty experience that will leave you in awe of the Cuban’s rhythm and elegance.

Horseback riding in the mountains of Vinales

Horseback riding in the mountains of Vinales

Learn Spanish: a few words will go a long way, especially if you’re dealing with markets, shops, pharmacies, bus stops… Actually pretty much everywhere outside of your tourist bubble.

In Vinales, our hostess brought us fresh juice and cigars to accompany our lazy rocking chair afternoons, watching people pass.

In Vinales, our hostess brought us fresh juice and cigars to accompany our lazy rocking chair afternoons, watching people pass.

Be tactful and respectful: The Cubans we met were incredibly sweet and accommodating, but sometimes conversations about politics or socio-economics can be a little stilted. It is still very much a communist state, with CDR signs (Committees for the Defense of the Revolution, a defacto civilian-based intelligence system) everywhere; so be aware that some may not be as forthcoming about their political views or lifestyle choices as you may want them to be.

Cuban dress bought in the Havana Exhibition Hall market.

Cuban dress bought in the Havana Exhibition Hall market.

Don’t be a snob and use their public beaches: first of all they’re free and just as good as the private, secondly no one cares that you’re there and they’ll ignore you. Thirdly, you’ll get a taste of the real Cuban life, and the occasional band might come along and break out into an impromptu concert if you’re lucky.

Havana

Havana

Hope this helps! Love Cuba? Been there before? Let me know your favourite destinations and experiences there! 

Weekend in Rome: Travel Survival Tips

View of the city from Villa Borghese

View of the city from Villa Borghese

The stuff of every art enthusiast’s dream, Italy’s bustling and delightful Rome is a perfect destination if you’re a history/art/architecture buff or a foodie/drinkie, and one of the easiest cities to explore on foot. Thanks to a childhood of Italian films and cheesy songs courtesy of Egyptian Channel 1 and 2, my trip to Rome was a dream come true and fulfilled all my expectations.

If, like me, you prefer hanging with locals to falling for tourist traps, here are my tips:

Speak Italian: you won’t be able to get around the city without basic phrases, such as asking for directions, ordering food at a restaurant, and small talk. Italians are polite and friendly (well at least compared to London), so make sure you say permesso (permit me), buonasera/buongiorno and grazie mille (thanks a lot) whenever you can.

One of the many fountains of Rome.

One of the many fountains of Rome.

Even better, befriend an Italian: I lucked out completely with my Air BnB host, who not only knew Rome like the back of his hand; but was free in the evenings to take me out around the city. I got to see the best vantage points, visit hidden spots that are off the tourist map, and I got to enjoy conversations with his Roman friends over dinners and drinks that lasted for hours.

A fountain in the middle of the Borghese park

A fountain in the middle of the Borghese park

Eat as many Cornettos as you can: Breakfast like an Italian and have a cornetto (Italian for croissant) with your coffee. Go for the custard, the pistachio cream or the chocolate; the bursting flavours will melt in your mouth and you’ll never want to leave. Word to the wise: avoid the tourist jaunts and seek out a cafe in a more residential area for more reasonable prices and better produce. I stuffed myself at a Sicilian joint and paid 1Euro for two pastries and a latte.

Cornettos and cannellis at a Sicilian pastry shop

Cornettos and cannellis at a Sicilian pastry shop

Use Air BnB: If, like me, you find the hotel prices ridiculous and the hostels unappetising (8 rooms to one bathroom? Eek, no), try Air BnB in Rome, with every affordable options outside of the centre. Downside is you’ll spend more time on public transport to get places, upside is you can find your own place +bathroom for 20Euros upwards). Even better, your host may – if you’re lucky – be a tour guide as well. If you can, stay with this guy, he was an excellent host and guide to the real side of Rome, with an eye for amazing views of the city and a great conversationalist.

One of the Vatican's many stunning frescos.

One of the Vatican’s many stunning frescos.

Skip the Roma Pass: Don’t fall for the Roma Pass sold at airports and hotels that should get you access to all museums and sights: most of Rome’s best sites are free of charge anyway, and the only two you want to see are the Vatican and Villa Borghese: book these online to avoid queues, and aim to visit the Vatican in the morning and Villa Borghese at sunset for some stunning views of the city.

The ruins at night. What a view!

The ruins at night. What a view!

Good luck taking a bus: I’m a big fan of public transport when travelling, but Rome’s buses seemed to always be late or infrequent, no matter what Google Maps promised – one 5 minute wait ended up being 45 minutes and a different bus came, so I gave up – so try the metro system instead. Rome’s trains function perfectly and the system is pretty easy to figure out. A 3-day pass will cost you around 16Euros and a one-way trip is 1.5Euros, so go for the pass if you plan on moving around a lot ( you will).

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Eat/Drink like a Roman: Italians have four course meals – no kidding, their dinners last up to four hours. First you have the antipasti, which can include pasta, then the first plate (pasta or pizza), second plate (go for meat or chicken), followed by coffee or a shot of liquer as a digestive. Then come the desserts. Prepare some space and mental capacity for the Italian sweets as they are more than likely to blow you away. On one evening, the waiter (whom we had nicknamed the devil) brought me a homemade recipe of sponge cake drenched in a lemon syrup and covered in a mold of light cream. It made me cry with happiness.

Try something different and be sure to try a lemon sorbet with vodka out in the area of Trastevere, don’t miss the limoncello shots made out of milk chocolate at Rivendita libri, cioccolata y vino, a cheesy tourist haunt that’s nonetheless quite fun, especially since the shots are named after sex positions that you may not understand unless the locals explain with lots of graphic hand gestures. Drinks-wise, ignore the Negroni (too strong and bitter) and go for the lighter Spritz instead.

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Fall in love with cheese: Try as many as you can, and good luck avoiding a heart attack of bliss. My favourite was the provola pizza, though the buffalo mozzarella came in a very close, delicious second.

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I had the gnocchi at this high-end restaurant in the Jewish Ghetto, a bit pricey but a wonderful experience. Try the artichoke pies as well.

Skip the taxis, use a Car-sharing app: Romans use enjoy, a car-sharing app with cars parked all around the city. Download the app, and your credit card will be charged automatically, at ridiculously affordable prices: one trip into the centre of the city cost 5Euros with Enjoy compared to 15 with a taxi.

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Whatever you decide on doing in Rome, you’ll probably have a fantastic time if you avoid staying in the centre, don’t spend too much on an overpriced hotel and walk around as much as you can to get the most out of this stunning city.

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For more photos of this trip and other escapades, follow me on Instagram.

Visa Travel Adventure: Living it up in Port Ghalib and roaming the Southern Red Sea

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The Nayzec is one of the many beautiful swimming spots along the Marsa Alam coast

Every now and then it’s nice to pamper yourself and plan an easy, comfortable trip that’s just a click of the mouse and a swipe of your Visa card away. The Western coast of the Red Sea has been a favourite destination of mine for the past few years, and it’s full of luxurious holiday resorts close to Hurghada and Marsa Alam airports that can be reached in less than an hour’s flight from Cairo.

While the name and appearance of this resort may liken it to Porto Sokhna or (even worse) Porto Marina, what Port Ghalib has going for it is its strategic location on the Southern Red Sea coast. Just ten minutes away from Marsa Alam airport and 45 minutes away from Marsa Alam town with its multitude of dive sites and kite-surfing centers, Port Ghalib is a clever option if you’re travelling with your Visa Card and need a comfortable rest before heading down the coast.

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The Intercon’s bed is comfortable and irresistibly luxurious

Located on the Northern point of Port Ghalib’s coast, the Intercontinental Port Ghalib is definitely a comfortable albeit pricey option for the solitary traveler. 910LE for a standard single room half-board was a pretty hefty price for me to pay; a double room would have cost just 200LE more.  Then again, a sign of a good hotel is great service when you drop in spontaneously. Although their website and booking.com claimed they had no vacancies, I called up the reservations desk and they found me a garden-view room within an hour upon arrival. All I had to do was flash them my Visa card and my room was ready and waiting.

Another good sign of a good hotel is genuine courteousness when they don’t know they’re being reviewed: all the hotel staff members were extremely polite, accommodating, professional and eager to help; and not because they wanted tips.

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Apart from the spacious and pretty room as well as its ample bathroom (with a shower AND a bathtub), the Intercontinental has a lagoon-like pool in the back and an ok-sized pool in the front that is more for paddling and sunbathing than swimming laps. Chaise lounges are arranged around the pool as well as along the beach, where a small pier will drop you off straight into a perfect snorkeling spot.

Aside from a fitness center, the Intercontinental hosts the Six Senses Spa, a luxurious spa that caters to the whole area with high-quality treatments like a 90-minute hammam with red sea salt scrub (670LE) or a 90-minute Oriental Fusion massage (550LE), which combines Swedish, Thai, aroma and shiatsu techniques.

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Port Ghalib has its share of family-friendly dining chains, including Costa Coffee, Fish Market, TGI Friday’s and El Divino restaurant, which makes decent Italian cuisine and serves the cheapest beer in the area.

As the InterContinental’s buffet meals were fresh but uninspiring and tourist-friendly; El Divino’s food was a pleasant alternative with tasty tomato soup and fresh gnocchi with strips of beef in cream sauce, as well as local wines and spirits.

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Getting ready to monkey dive with Red Sea Explorers and their scooters at Tondoba Bay’s reef

If you can’t sit still and need to fill your day with activities, the hotel organizes full-day trips to Luxor, private fishing boat trips, snorkeling and dive trips as well as camel and horseback riding through the deserts.

With Marsa Alam less than an hour away, it is worth leaving the hotel to visit the different beaches and try kite-surfing, diving or off-roading in the desert. Though the hotel offers a one-way limousine service to Marsa Alam for 350LE,  you can opt for the cheaper service of Am Salah (012 2362128), a driver with a seven-seat Peugeot car that works in the Marsa Alam area.

For diving sites near the Intercontinental, the Ducks Diving Center at Marsa Gabal Rosas is a short drive away and with full equipment. The staff is friendly; the beach has sunbeds and umbrellas, and Egyptians get a sweet discount for a house reef dive at just 12 Euros, which includes the full equipment. We spotted three eagle rays on our house reef dive, and some divers get to spot sharks if they’re lucky.

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Embarking on our trip to Elphinstone – just 25 minutes of a mad and rather wet boat ride away

The center also organizes boat trips to Elphinstone, one of the best diving spots in the Red Sea and a favorite for shark-spotting. Adventurous divers should try Red Sea Explorers, a diving company based in Hurghada that offers underwater scooters during your dive. The scooters are incredibly fun and also a necessity at Elphinstone; the currents are quite strong so the scooters help you swim faster along the plateau. For a 40-minute boat trip and about 50 minutes of diving with scooters, Red Sea Explorers charged a corporate rate of 330LE. The dive center accepts Visa card, which is frankly a relief since ATM machines are few and far away, and I spent most of my day on the road without cash.

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The way into the incredible Wadi Gemal Park

For the perfect road trip, I took a trip with friends into Wadi El Gemal Park, where the remains of Roman emerald mines are three hours in, where we parked our cars at the gates and took a walk for a few hours through the valley. We were lucky enough to have a local guide, who taught us how to scout for gazelle and camel tracks, and we played games and learned the songs of the Ababda tribes that live in the valley.

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Staying in Marsa Alam is never complete without a trip to the mangroves of Golaan or a night spent in Deep South Camp, where live music was played around the campfire every night and the camp outsources tasty grilled meats from Mashrabeya restaurant in Marsa Alam town. At just 100LE per person per night, Deep South is a great option for a low-maintenance stay by the sea.

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Relaxing under the moonlight at Deep South camp – what an incredible view!

The area of Marsa Alam has so much to offer in terms of beautiful natural landscape, kind and hospitable people and exciting outdoor activities. The only downside is that you will need a car to enjoy all the different spots; as they are all quite far apart. Port Ghalib makes sense if you prefer comfort and ease over low-maintenance camps like Deep South, but you will pay a fortune in transportation to explore the area.

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Just one of the many valleys along the road between Port Ghalib and Marsa Alam – makes for an incredible off-road trip

Holiday Hurghada: Beyond the Seedy Stereotypes

I’ll be honest with you: I’m not a fan of Hurghada. Due to a series of short stops in the city, I’ve gained several first impressions that are far from positive. Maybe it’s the shoddy collection of urban architecture that I can’t help compare to its slicker, admittedly elitist neighbour, Gouna, or maybe it’s the package tour groups and persistent hustlers that have always prevented me from seeing past the reputation this town has gained over the past few years.

It didn’t help that on my first day of my recent visit I watched local tourist workers boast to each other about getting laid with foreign tourists, and those who approached me were borderline sleazy in their friendliness, one even offering me a ‘glamorous photoshoot session’, showing me photos of barely dressed Russians in suggestive poses. Ew ew ew.

My friends who’ve been coming to Hurghada for years told me that this is a sad truth, but not neccessarily all there is to the town. With their advice, I found fun things to do and see in this Red Sea town.

How to Get There

Hurghada is a five hours’ drive from Cairo or a 50-minute flight via Egypt Air. Go Bus (dial 19567) offers daily buses as early as 7AM from Ramsis Station for around 80LE one-way. Once you’re in Hurghada, you’ll be using cabs a lot to get around: make sure you ask them to turn on their meter; if it’s not working, haggle on the price before you get in. Most hotels offer limousine services: the Hilton Hurghada Plaza for example offers a car service to anywhere in Hurghada as well as to Gouna for a set fee of 40LE per person.

Where to Stay

The Hilton Hurghada Plaza has one of the best locations in town at just 15 minutes away from the airport and barely 5 minutes to the center of Hurghada and the marina. The hotel is located on the old port of Hurghada with a great sea view and access to a diving center as well as a pickup spot for glass boat trips and dive boat trips.  The hotel’s standard double rooms are surprisingly spacious with very comfortable beds and sea-view balconies, and its beach is located on a circular bay where you can snorkel and windsurf.

Downsides include a small and crowded pool, subpar buffet dining and just two elevators for a whole hotel that were broken at the time of my visit.

What to Do

Take advantage of the coast’s proximity to pristine islands in the Red Sea by booking a ticket to the Mahmya. Located on the National Park of Giftun Island, Mahmya is a beach that you can reach by boat and spend the day sunbathing and enjoying the fresh seafood, juices, ice cream and the cocktail bar. Tickets cost around 150LE per person, and your hotel can arrange for tickets to be booked or contact Mahmya on www.mahmya.com. Another worthy beach is Orange Bay, also on Giftun Island, which is less crowded but offers a day trip that includes lunch on the beach, beverages and lounge chairs in the shade. Expect to pay around 150LE if you’re renting out a boat for a large group.

You can also arrange for a full-day boat trip to dive and snorkel in the Red Sea; your hotel can arrange it for you. Kite surfing is also a great option here; try Colona Water Sports center in front of Magaweesh Hotel, which offers kite surfing classes as well as equipment rental.

Red Sea Explorers is gaining quite the reputation for its adventurous dive trips that include monkey diving and kite surfing off islands in the sea. The company’s liveaboard Tala offers full-day or several-day dive trips North and South of Hurghada, as well as technical and recreational diving courses. The trips aren’t cheap, but you’ll have an enjoyable, luxurious boat stay surrounded by fun, easygoing people that’s well worth the price.

Where to Eat

Hurghada’s marina is a great destination if you want a variety of dining choices and you enjoy dining al-fresco to enjoy the Red sea evening breeze. Additionally, it’s nice to take a walk along the marina and fawn at the different boats while perusing the various tourist shops and swimwear boutiques. For breakfast, try B at the Marina’s crab omelettes, creamy fuul breakfasts and Italian espressos. Also if you’re feeling adventurous, the restaurant is known for its camel mignon tenderloin with chocolate chili sauce. If you’re up for Asian cuisine, Thai Elephant offers generously portioned fish cakes and tangy red chili sauces – but avoid the pad Thai – while Masala offers Indian cuisine and a cozy outdoor lounge area with shisha.

When it comes to nighttime entertainment, Shade is a favorite among residents for its regular live band nights, smooth shisha and elaborate cocktails. The bar has a lounge area full of bean bags and low tables where you can sit and watch the night’s performance. Next door, Papa’s bar has karaoke nights and an open-air bar area where you can people watch while enjoying draft beer and finger food. If you’re up for dancing, White Beach is recommended by locals as a good option on Fridays and Saturdays. Located on the Sheraton Road, the nightclub regularly hosts Egyptian and international DJs and plays the latest popular house music tracks.

While Hurghada may lack the sophistication of Gouna or the quietness of Soma Bay, the city has a lot more to it than meets the eye; as long as you spend most of your time at sea enjoying the watersports and boat trips.

Visa Traveler Blog: Diving and Dining in Soma Bay

It’s strange to feel like a stranger in your own country; and I definitely felt like the odd one out at the Breakers Diving and Surfing Lodge, a quaint hotel on the Red Sea’s Soma Bay, where the clientele is predominantly German save for a handful of Egyptians. This hotel seems to be a well-kept secret that only foreigners have discovered, which is shame as it has a lot to offer for us Egyptians as well.

Located along a small bay alongside the Kempinski Soma Bay and the Sheraton Soma Bay, the Breakers is just 45 minutes away from Hurghada Airport and 20KM before Safaga. With rooms facing either the small bay or an even smaller swimming pool, the hotel is a self-described ‘watersports lifestyle hotel’ with an Orca Dive Club branch that offers snorkeling and scuba diving courses and trips, while 7BFT is a water sports center ten minutes away from the hotel that offers kite surfing and water surfing courses. I was able to book my diving course online using my Visa card, while the hotel booking merely required an email confirmation to keep my room ready for me.

Aside from a small swimming pool in the hotel’s central courtyard, the other swimming option is the very shallow sea, but a long wooden pier will take you out to the deeper end for a swim in pristine water full of colorful marine life. If swimming, diving and surfing haven’t exhausted you sufficiently, a small but well-equipped gym by the pool offers an adequate workout space with TechnoGym treadmills and elliptical machines.

The Breaker’s standard rooms are spacious with excellent bedding, a flat screen TV and an overpriced minibar, as well as balconies either facing the sea or the desert depending on your choice. The housekeeping service is impeccable and perhaps the only flaw in the rooms was the weak ADSL internet service.

Perhaps the biggest perk to the hotel is its cuisine: the breakfast and dinner buffets are dominated by fresh fruits and vegetables, large salad bars and freshly baked brown bread, as well as muesli and healthy milkshakes for breakfast. Each night, different cuisine is served at dinner with creative and innovative takes on the standard menu. My least favourite night was the Egyptian night, which -predictably- involved the German guests dressing up in galabeyas and a bellydancer shaking her candelabras at me.

During the day, the dive club bar offers pizzas, burgers and healthy chicken wraps. Another bar by the restaurant offers a pool table, bean bags and comfortable lounge seats as well as a fully stocked drinks menu. The bartender was very sweet and eager to talk to a fellow Egyptian for once, which means I got constant refills of peanuts and chips in return.

It’s easy to slip into a healthy routine here: diving in the mornings, sunbathing in the afternoon, drinks in the evening and plenty of healthy food and sleep. The only downside is that I was confined to staying within the hotel at night: without a car to drive to Hurghada, there’s not much to do in Soma Bay- no restaurants, cafés, shops or pharmacies nearby. A stroll along the bay will take you to other nearby hotels, and that’s pretty much it for any nightlife plans.

The beach at Soma Bay is rocky and the waters are quite shallow, so it’s not the best swimming spot on the Red Sea; but it’s the water sports centers and the diving spots that make this hotel a perfect choice for an active holiday.

Orca Dive Club has several branches all over Egypt, including Dahab and Safaga. The club is managed by German staff and Egyptian dive instructors. Available courses including the PADI open water, adventure diver and rescue diver course, and you can also go out for half-day and full-day dives off the coast of Soma Bay. If you book your course or trip online using a Visa card, you get a decent discount: for example, the open water course is down from 350Euros (2400EGP) to 315Euros (2205EGP) if you book online with a Visa card.

The course’s instructor Essam was affable, careful and clear in his instructions. Despite my incessant freaking out underwater and squeezing his hand till I cut off his circulation, Essam managed to get me through scary exercises that included cleaning your mask while underwater and losing your oxygen thingie (clearly I’m well-versed on diving lingo- so far I’ve learned how to gesture ‘ARGH!IS THAT A SHARK?’, ‘OOH Can I touch this pretty looking tiger striped fish?’ and ‘Did you just pee near me or is this water naturally warm?’).

At the end of my course, he took me to two half-day dives in Tobia Arba’a and Gamal Soraya, dive spots filled with napoleon fish, lion fish, blue-spotted rays and moray eels. While Orca Dive Club’s prices are higher than other centers, the club did provide the safe and easy learning environment that a paranoid beginner diver like me would need. Also, Orca Dive Club is one of the few centers where you can pay for everything on your Visa card or have it charged to your hotel room bill.

The hotel’s rates until October 2012 are 67 Euros for a single room, 52 Euros for a double room, with great mid-Summer deals. Sea-view rooms are more expensive.  Reservations are made via email, and any changes have to be requested over email as well. Airport transfers can be arranged for 30Euros (210EGP) a person, which is expensive when compared to the average cab ride from Hurghada.

I’d definitely come back to the Breakers for a quiet, healthy weekend with friends. The cuisine was incredibly fresh and healthy, the service providers were polite and efficient, and the sports facilities definitely encouraged an active day. Soma Bay’s dry, sunny weather makes it a great alternative to the oppressive heat and humidity of Gouna and Hurghada, and the fact that few know about it means you don’t have to deal with the crowds or the noise customary of Red Sea resorts these days.

This post was published in Egypt Independent‘s travel section, out soon.

Beirut: Three Nights in the Middle East’s Most Expensive City

One of many graffiti around the AUB

When it comes to travelling, I have often found myself in rather distressing situations, where a combination of excessive optimism and poor arithmetic finds me penniless in a foreign country. No credit card, no backup plan, no savemebaba.

In Beirut’s case, I found myself with just US$150 to live on for three days. Seasoned travelers to the city and locals will laugh hysterically at this, and I can hardly blame them considering Beirut was reported to be the most expensive city in the whole wide Middle East, even beating Dubai.

So clearly I was screwed. Yet, funnily, I was not.

You can call it seriously good luck, or favorable circumstances; but I ended up having a wonderful time in Beirut, seeing a lot of the city on a non-existent budget.

Here’s how.

A tradition that can’t be mocked.

First of all, have friends in Beirut. If you’re not planning on couchsurfing Beirut, having a place to crash at will save serious cash. Plus your friend will act as a local guide, showing you the real side to the stereotype of flashy, ostentatious Beirut.

I had a wonderful time walking around Hamra with my Lebanese friend, taking photos (predictably) of the graffiti around the American University in Beirut, stopping for cherry ice cream at a nearby stall and browsing through a dusty thrift shop selling vintage Beirut t-shirts for 20,000LL. We lunched at T-Marbouta, where she bemusedly watched my cooing about their delicious, creamy hummus (I have an embarrassing and incurable obsession with hummus) and their batata bel kosbara. The meal was cheap for Beirut standards, working out to 15,000LL each.

Near AUB, we ventured into Ants, a tiny shop filled floor to ceiling with exotic jewellery and fabrics brought back from Thailand and India. Incense filled the space as I had to be forcefully removed from the shop after trying on copper rings; intricate bangles and batik print skirts that I clearly couldn’t afford. Despite my friend’s best efforts, I did walk away with a scarf. That I paid for.

We then trotted down to Dar El Mousawer, a beautiful villa between Hamra and Clemenceau that is part-café, part-bookstore, and part-photography studio. After picking up copies of Salamander, a quirky Lebanese comic strip, and browsing through the dozens of Lebanese bands’ CDs, we checked out the photography exhibition on the second floor and stumbled into a room full of antique and limited edition cameras (cue hyperventilation).

Later that night, another friend took me bar-hopping along the supposedly bohemian but very trendy Gemmayze, where we passed the long queues outside of Ahwet Laila and tried to avoid the reckless Vespa drivers – the people of Beirut have fully embraced the Vespa, and some try to make it look badass when in fact it’s very pretty – to stop in Margherita on Gourand Street, the first and only non-smoking restaurant I found in Beirut, followed by Torino Express down the street, a tiny, dark bar where the bartender has piercings and looks like Jesus, the music is loud and the clientele is achingly hip.

The following night, I was taken to BO18, an underground nightclub in Quarantine for a quintessential Beirut nightlife experience. This nightclub’s design is described as ‘war architecture’, and it’s famous for its open ceiling and its cheesy eighties music night. Once inside, I found the Lebanese dressed to the nines and dancing on tables, just as the stereotype goes. Being a fan of tables, I was thoroughly impressed.

Grilled potatoes or batata as the Lebanese call it at T-Marbouta

Cheap, delicious vegetarian food at T-Marbouta

Second of all, it’s good to be an Egyptian here. I’m not used to being treated like a celebrity purely for my Egyptian nationality and accent; but that’s exactly what happened here. People cooed at my accent, pleaded me ‘ehky bil masry, shu mahdoumi’, and me, being a fan of the Lebanese accent, complied.

Apart from strangers being ridiculously hospitable and buying me drinks/food purely for my accent, everyone felt compelled to introduce me to other Egyptians at their tables – thinking that three days away had left me homesick already- and they watched with fascination as we conversed ‘just like they do in the mosalsalat’. I felt part-puppet, part-spoiled poodle, but I enjoyed it immensely, especially at Metro Al Madina, a cool though cramped underground bar in Saroulla building, Hamra, where the uncomfortable seats fold like bus seats beneath the low glass tables.

Driving through Beirut at night is beautiful, especially if you run across busking musicians on street corners of Hamra, or catch a glimpse of the mountains in Jbel with their cherry trees as you drive along the coast to Byblos. Traffic in the city is a nightmare during the day, but I have a high threshold for traffic thanks to Cairo.

Feb 30 in Hamra is a quirky, popular bar that has crowds spilling onto the sidestreet at night, a nightspot recommended by NYT

My friend and I couldn’t stop taking photos of the crazy furniture at Feb 30

An old photo of St. George. The hotel now carries a massive ‘STOP SOLIDERE’ sign. this photo does not belong to me.

Third of all, take a service taxi. Taxis are expensive and will drain most of your budget, and most of them drive like they’re fleeing a crime scene. You can use a cheap taxi service like Yorgo’s (009611202270) and they’ll give you their rate over the phone, or you can opt for the service (pronounced serveees), which is a taxi that you share with several other passengers and usually pay 2000LL per person.

Fourth of all, find a public beach. The public beach at Byblos just after Edde Sands is everything Agami used to be in the eighties and nineties. Crowds of people swimming, sunbathing and playing racket, where no one bothers you or makes you feel bad for wearing a bathing suit. For something a little more ostentatious and expensive, my friend took me to Hotel St. George in Ein Meraisa, which she promised to be another quintessential Beirut experience. True to her word, I found scores of tanned, buff, and silicone Lebanese bodies lounging by the hotel pool and smoking shisha. It’s apparently a Lebanese thing, and I was fascinated.  Entrance to the pool costs 25,000LL and includes nothing, not even towels. But it was worth to get a feel of the Lebanese high life and check out the marina’s docked yachts nearby.

Bangles and rings galore in Ants, a little shop in Hamra

The public beach in Byblos

During my time in Beirut, I was struck by how totally diverse the people are.  ‘No Lebanese is one and the same,’ my friends told me, whether in their political affiliations or religious beliefs. It was strange for me to see a woman in full veil standing nonchalantly next to a kissing couple on the street, but this is Beirut, in all its shrapnel-filled buildings, sprawling beaches and narrow alleys filled with tiny bars- glory. I was fascinated by how resilient and elastic this city seems to have been – with civil wars spawning over the past three decades and with current tensions rising, locals shrug it off and share stories of nonchalantly partying through the bombings. During my night in Hamra, apparently a shootout had left one man killed, yet no one heard or noticed anything. We didn’t run for cover, or tweet frantically or freak out Egyptian-style. Life went on lazily and care-free, Beirut-style.

Having survived the city on my ridiculous budget, I’m excited to go back soon; this time with enough money to actually eat a full meal.

The bookshop at Dar El Mousawar, a great collection of art books, music and comics

How to Speak Lebanese

Tekram Einak – You’re welcome

Lahsek Teezy – Kiss my ass

Yaateek el ‘afya- Yaateek el Se77a/ May you have good health

‘Elke – Gum

Msakkar – Closed

Aaj’aa – Traffic

Kess Ekhtek – Ask another Arab what that means. It’s about your sister.

[The Lebanese have the most imaginative, elaborate and dramatic swearwords I have ever heard- not only will they tell you what they want to do to which part of you, but also what will happen to your family, your neighbours and your dog. In the rain. On a washing line. God bless them]

Visa Traveler Blog: A Weekend in Gouna

Sometimes, the best type of a holiday is where you lie very still doing nothing, preferably in a cold swimming pool with a colder drink in hand. After the adventure of Tripoli, a lazy, fluffy, politics-free weekend in Gouna was much needed.

I managed to bully two easygoing and long-suffering friends into 48 hours at the Red Sea shishifoofoo town. Was it worth the four-hour drive, especially when the season of migration to the North Coast was in full swing? Definitely. Were we mad to choose the Red Sea in mid-July with its high temperatures and surprising humidity? Absolutely.

If you’re not up for driving or taking an early GoBus ride from Ramsis Station (around 80LE a ticket), Gouna is just a 30-minute flight away. If you book early, flights cost around 750LE and can be booked online or via Egyptair‘s hotline 1717 72 hours ahead. All you need to do is dial in your Visa Card number and you get your e-ticket emailed to you minutes later.

Gouna’s hotel prices are delightfully low this summer, with luxury resorts like the Steigenberger and the Moevenpick Gouna Resort charging around 500LE and 750LE respectively for a standard double room on a half-board basis with free airport pickups. Less swanky but still comfortable hotels like Dawar El Omda in Downtown Gouna offered rates of 350LE for a double room on a bed&breakfast basis.

Our standard double room at the Moevenpick was surprisingly spacious and swanky; not what you’d expect from the term standard. While the beds were deliciously soft and comfortable, and the loveseat wonderful to recline on in front of the large flat-screen TV; it was the bathroom that won us over. Large, spacious and decked out in glass and granite, the bathroom includes a dresser and closet spaces, as well as several mirrors and a powerful hairdryer – it’s the little details that made us happy.

Because we were on the ground floor facing the lagoon, our terrace was literally in the garden and surrounded by sweet-smelling flowers. The lagoon was just a few steps away, which – if you’re familiar with the scorching sun at the Red Sea- is a relief.

The sea itself is not swimmable, a fact that applies to all of Gouna in my personal opinion – unless you don’t mind swimming near the marina.  Here at the Moevenpick, the waters are too shallow and too rocky for a simple dip, making the lagoons and pools much more viable options. Plus the odds of colliding with the wind-happy kite surfers and windsurfers seemed rather high at the time, so we stuck to the lagoon by our room.

Although we were totally up for a two-day course in windsurfing or kite surfing, we somehow ended up lying very still on chaiselounges, refilling our ice-cold drinks and reapplying sunscreen. Oh well.

After a quick, much needed nap in our plush beds, we headed to Downtown Gouna via toktok – all toktoks in Gouna charge a standard fee of 5LE per person, 10LE for two to anywhere –and we made our first stop at Jobo’s Restaurant in Downtown. This place makes arguably the best, juiciest burgers you’ll ever eat in Egypt.

Located in the pebble stone courtyard, Jobo’s is an outdoor, shaded sport’s restaurant with wooden tables and large TV screens continuously airing sports games. Hands down, their best products are their char-grilled burgers and their loaded potatoes (filled with sour cream, chives, cheese and beef bacon). We stuffed ourselves sick and were ridiculously happy and full afterwards.

As with all restaurants in Gouna, Jobo’s accept Visa cards. In fact, all of Gouna is easily manageable by credit card. The only cash you’ll need is for toktok rides and windsurfing/kite surfing if you absolutely insist.

Our next stop was at the Clubhouse – across from Dawar El Omda- for refreshing drinks and a dip in their pool. The Clubhouse always has good music, friendly staff and a relaxed atmosphere of regulars and friends. You feel like you’re hanging out at someone’s house – unless of course you’re there on a national holiday or peak season, when the music is loud and the kids are jumping relentlessly into the water. I don’t know what it is about me and kids, but a good holiday can be made or ruined proportionately to the number of loud kids I’m forced to be near.

Every day from 6PM to 8PM, the Clubhouse offers a happy hour deal with prices at 50% less, but you have to pay by cash not Visa.

After recovering back at the hotel from our long day of relaxing, we stepped out again via toktok and headed to Abu Tig Marina, known for its great restaurants and bars as well as the seasonal party. The marina is all about al-fresco dining by the port, and Gouna evenings are usually pleasantly cool with a nice breeze- unless it’s mid-July and you’re dealing with a sticky, humid evening like we did.

Pier 88 is literally a boat docked in the marina where you can enjoy pil-pil shrimps and cocktails while rubbing shoulders with the locals and celebrities, while Le Garage is a gourmet burger joint with outdoor seating and waiters dressed in mechanics’ uniforms. Garage serves fancy burgers with toppings like wild mushrooms, French cheese, pineapple and quality beef.

Another restaurant worth dining at is Saigon, which offers rather pricey Vietnamese cuisine at the cusp of the Marina (next to Coffee Bean &Tea Leaf), but their raw spring rolls are delicious. Speaking of delicious, Le Deauville’s beef fillet in grenobloise sauce is a highly recommended dish – but on a hot night out, a heavy meal is difficult to stomach. Although the marina offers a nice walkabout with a few random bars blaring loud, catchy music, we were honestly too stuffed to move our limbs anywhere other than back into our wonderful beds.

The next morning, we decided to head to an actual beach instead. While Mangrove Beach offers kite surfing and windsurfing courses, there was barely a breeze when we visited, which means we got the beach to ourselves. At 30LE per beach use, Mangrove’s water is shallow and steaming hot on a glaringly sunny day.

Nearby at the marina, Moods Restaurant and Bar offers a small beach with large umbrellas and bean bags. The downside is that you’re swimming smack-dab in the noticeably oily water with speed boats often whizzing by. The upside is that the water has large bean-bag-like floaties that you can lie on while paddling lazily. The beach charges 50LE for beach use, but doesn’t provide towels.

Further up north is Club 88, a pool club and bar with large, comfortable white chaise lounges and bar seats in the pool. If you want good music, good company and a cool pool dip, this is a great way to spend your afternoon. Pool use costs 60LE and cocktails start at 63LE. We reached the pool in the late afternoon, and spent our time between lounging on their towel-covered beanbags reading and watching relentless suitors/predators hit on two long-suffering foreign girls. It was frankly fascinating to watch, like a National Geographic lion-gazelle hunt.

In the evening, you can always go go-karting at the race track or rent out bikes from Downtown Gouna for a spin around the neighborhood, or if you’re feeling adventurous and have a car, drive down to Hurghada (45 minutes max) for a different range of restaurants, bars and pink-tourist-sighting.

Gouna is truly well worth a short getaway, all the hotels are accessible online and easy to book over the phone, and with the plane ticket one easy phone call and Visa Card detail away, the only actual planning we had to worry about was where to eat and where to swim, which is not bad at all.

Check out my travel guide to Gouna here on Visa Explorer’s blog and on Egypt Independent.

Tripoli: Unexpected and Exciting Libya

Al Safir Restaurant serves pretty good Indian cuisine in a schizophrenic interior design of Tunisian hammam meets Libyan meets Indian palace

One of the greatest perks of unplanned travels is that you find yourself in unexpected cities trying to navigate exotic routes and interpreting new cultures. Although Libya is right next door and I’ve always wanted to visit, especially since the Libyan revolution, I unexpectedly found myself in Tripoli with time on my hands to get to know the city. I was warned that there’s nothing much to do and no good food to eat, but thanks to a network of helpful locals and a lot of walking around, I found a lot more to Tripoli than meets the fragile foreign eye.

First of all, once you’ve got used to the sporadic gunfire every day and night, the shrapnel in buildings and the photos and graffiti of martyrs on every wall, there is a lot to be appreciated about this coastal Libyan city that’s reminiscent of Alexandria (or Maamoura if you’re being nasty) in the 60s – just minus the beaches, nightclubs and women in miniskirts.

Secondly, Tripoli is a fascinating blend of Italian, Tunisian and Turkish influences in its architecture, dialect, cuisine and heritage. Even though many of the younger generation don’t speak English, Italian words have been integrated into the local dialect and many buildings have Italian designs – their archways reminded a fellow Cairene of Korba.

Things you should know:

1. Libya is a conservative society. Nightlife in Tripoli consists of cafes and shisha places dominated by men, few women are seen, though some shisha places offer segregated seating. Beaches are rarely frequented by women, at least not during my stay. No alcohol is served officially.

2. Many restaurants shut during the afternoon, some re-open in the evening, but you’ll be lucky to find a restaurant open past 11PM unless it’s a shawerma shop.

3. Service is not included in restaurant bills, nor are tips expected, so tip out of courtesy whatever you deem to be appropriate.

4. There is no such thing as a building number or an exact address. Rely on directions like ‘turn right after the mosque, second alleyway on your left’ and you’ll be fine. Locals are helpful in giving directions. Some might even walk you to your destination.

The greatest discovery I made in Tripoli was Souq El Turk, a massive market along winding alleyways (yes, zengas) selling silk, traditional brocaded galabeyas, turbans and vests, as well as gold, spices and incense. I stumbled upon a beautiful little shop on the Gold market alley selling heavy traditional necklaces in silver and stones, intricate silver rings and stained-glass lanterns -on your left before the bird shop and Obeya restaurant if you’re walking towards the Hammam.

Also worth visiting is Hammam Dargouth, a 16th century Turkish hammam where you get scrubbed down mercilessly for 10LYD.The hammam is open to women on Sundays, Tuesdays and Wednesdays till 3PM. Bring your own towel and scrubbing towel and don’t be a germaphobe. The authentic interior and baby-smooth skin you leave with are well worth the trip.

stained glass lanterns at the tiny jewellery shop, one of many along the winding Souq Al Dahab alleyway

The best Libyan cuisine in Tripoli is homemade, so don’t turn down any invitation to a homecooked dinner. Your second-best options are restaurants like Tripolis, a restaurant facing the Mediterranean that serves hearty, basic Libyan fish dishes. The fish tagine (below) is served with potatoes, tomatoes, grouper fish and a generous serving of harissa. Warning: they put harissa on everything. Unless you enjoy the roof of your mouth crawling with pain and your sinuses flaring with fire, ask for your dish without. A dish is served with complementary dips. Expect to pay around 12LYD. Tripolis is one of the few restaurants in the area open past 10PM. Turn left on Omar Mokhtar at the Turkish fort arch and head past Midan El Saa’a until you find it on your left.

Heartbreakingly hot harissa on top of Tripolis’ filling fish tagine

Close by, Athar is a tourist-friendly restaurant with its outdoor seating and front row view of the impressively intact Marcus Aurelius Arch. Most taxis will know where it is; or just ask for the arch by the sea next to Souq El Turk. The fish broth mixes spices with orzou and a hint of mint, while the couscous is served with roasted vegetables, mutton and a lacing of cinammon. Expect to pay around 20LYD for two dishes and a soft drink.

Couscous and mutton at Athar Restaurant at the Marcus Aurelius arch

I heard a lot about Obaya‘s stuffed calamari, but when I finally found the restaurant open (it shuts at 4PM), the kind waiter said it’s out of season and they don’t use frozen seafood. Kudos for his honesty. Located in the gold market in Souq El Turk, Obaya serves cheap and very gratifying dishes. I opted for the octopus salad (6LYD), which was steamed and absolutely delicious, and came with complimentary dips of spicy green olives, salad, and a Tripoli trademark: shredded pumpkin in garlic and oil. The whole meal cost 10LYD. Call Helmy if you need directions to Obaya on 00218-928646785.

Octopus salad and shredded pumpkin at Obaya in the old city of Tripoli

For non-Libyan cuisine, Al Safir restaurant behind Al Kabeer Hotel serves pretty tasty Indian food in albeit small portions. The butter chicken was delectable and vegetarians will appreciate the grilled vegetables and curried vegetables. Two dishes and a drink will cost around 20LYD.

Further behind and next to an open parking lot, 5Stars is a Turkish restaurant that serves massive portions of lahma be ajeena (below) and juicy meat, kofta and chicken on skewers. Definitely go if you have a large appetite. They’re one of the few places to serve pita bread; everywhere else in Tripoli seems to serve only baguettes. Call 00218-926081439. Also worth checking out is Coba Cabana on Omar Mokhtar street across from Al Madina club, which makes juicy, greasy, cheesy burgers just the way I like them for 10LYD a meal.

yuuuuuuum

For dessert, try italian ice cream at Zazá in Dahra (behind the Libya Museum) or cheesecake at Lamma in Gelgersh by the beach – call 00218-214770943 for directions.

Lahma be ajeena at 5 Stars Restaurant, behind Al Kabeer Hotel

How  to Speak Libyan – at least the Tripoli dialect:

Bahy – Ok

Gdeish – How much

Tawa – Just Now

Metsakkar – Closed

Keef Halak – How are You

El Zooz – Both/ the two

Hoot – Fish

Kujina – Kitchen

Forka – Fork

You’re constantly confronted by remnants of the recent war- in this case, what’s left of Bab El Azizeya, the Gadafi compound that was bombed by NATO strikes and stormed by rebels.

Libyans filled the streets of Tripoli in celebration after voting in the historical first democratic elections in the country. It was wonderful to be a part of their joy and capture these moments

Martyrs’ Square or Sahet El Shohada. Just don’t call it Green Square to anyone

Light clothing like these eclectic galabeyas in Souq El Turk are highly necessary in the heavy and humid Tripoli heat

The indoor alleys of the silk market are airconditioned, making for pleasant mid-day shopping, especially when it comes to their traditional garb and bridal suits

The influence of Tunisian heritage is clear in the painted pots and plates sold in hidden corners off the alleyways of Souq El Turk

Patriotic murals and graffiti fill the streets and decorate the walls of hotels and restaurants

Hammam Dargouth is at the far West end of the gold market in Souq El Turk, dates back to the 16th century

Marsa Alam – Diving with Turtles in the Deep South

I’m officially ruined. It’s going to be difficult to beat the Marsa Alam experience anytime soon. Although it’s the furthest beach I’ve ever been to – 8 hours from Cairo by car- and is just a few hours from the Sudanese border, it’s every bit worth it: there are kilometres of semi-untouched shores, of mangrove beaches unobstructed by construction and crowds, and the bays are full of turquoise blue waters and beautiful reefs. It takes a 600km drive to witness what Egypt’s Red Sea coast once looked like, what beaches look like in their original state before they were eaten up by massive construction projects and overambitious tourist resorts.

We stayed at Deep South, a small, simple camp perched on a desert hill overlooking Tondoba Bay. The camp’s huts are basic, African-style rooms with concrete floors, surprisingly comfortable beds and walls carrying the poetry of Salah Jaheen. Electricity is provided in the hut until midnight, as is clean bedding, but no table or chair or mirror. But who cares about that anyway?

The separate men and women’s  toilets are kept clean, but you need to bring your own towels and toiletries. The huts come with bedding and electricity outlets. Electricity is turned off around 11PM and on again at 7AM. Because we were visiting at a low season during a petrol crisis (the electricity and water are powered by fuel generators) we had to ration the electricity consumption, but we honestly didn’t care.

You don’t come to Deep South for standard definitions of luxury; you come for the clean, dry desert air, the incredible diving spots nearby and the magnificent open skies that you relax under. Food is simple but fresh and tasty and is delivered from a nearby grilled meats restaurant. Drinks are an additional expense and well-supplied in the bar area’s fridge.

Our days in Marsa Alam started with an early breakfast at 8AM, followed by a trip to the dive site of our choice, where we’d spend the whole day in the pleasantly chilled waters or resting between dives. On lazier days, we’d lounge around in the shade of the bar area, watching the dive boats drift across the sea in the distance and debate where we should go diving next. Ah, the sweet luxury.

The top hill is a perfect spot for meditation, star-gazing and bonfires. The camp’s staff would make us their specially brewed coffee, where the beans are slow roasted on the fire then mixed up with ginger and sugar into a shot glass of sweet espresso deliciousness.

Deep South’s dive centre is a five minute walk down from the hill. It’s located on Tondoba bay, which has a good house reef to the North and a sea grass bed to the South where, if you’re lucky, you might spot turtles or -if you’re very, very lucky- a dugong. I was one lucky diver; on my first dive to the sea grass, we spotted a guitarfish, which is from the ray family but looked suspiciously like a shark and led me to hide casually behind our guide. Then we spotted a gigantic male turtle (at least twice my width and about my height) with a small fish attached to his back, we swam after it and our guide imitated his moves; it was like watching a strange but exciting water ballet. THEN we saw two giant stingrays just a few metres away, one of which had a torn stinger. Their graceful movement underwater is incredible to witness first-hand. Did I mention this was all in one dive?

On our second day, we drove out to Golaan in the South, which is part of the Wadi Gemal National Park. There, we had grilled tuna for lunch and parked ourselves under the famous mangrove tree for the day, after playing with starfish and the beautiful sea shells lined next to the tree.

At sunset, the locals made us more of that incredible ginger coffee. It was like a spicy Caffeine dessert, one of our most memorable experiences on the trip.

Other amazing dive sites were Abu Dabbab, where I spotted bluespotted eels, and my very very lucky friends got to see the dugong (which is very rare- some divers spend months in Marsa Alam before they spot it), and the Dolphin House/Samadai reef, where we took a 40-minute boat trip out to the sea to a HEPCA-protected spot. There, the area is divided into three areas, one is completely off-limits to divers and that’s where the dolphins rest, and the other two are open to snorklers then divers. Even though I never got to see the dolphins, I was so taken aback by the beauty of the marine life there that it didn’t matter; massive Napoleonfish, short-nosed unicorn fish, bicolour parrotfish, barracuda and all sorts of colourful, fluid forms were fascinating to watch, even just by snorkeling around the reefs there.

Of course, all this healthy activity worked up a mean appetite; we were eating four to five massive meals a day, and the Italian bistro called Dolce & Salate in Hurghada town was our favourite destination. Seriously, you don’t get authentic Italian food like this in Cairo. Mara made fluffy pizza dough, homemade tiramisu ice cream, pastas and ice coffee that has us humming and cooing with gluttonous pleasure.

Marsa Alam seems to be that place that everyone comes back swooning about, and rightfully so. We were surrounded by friendly, easy-going people who went out of their way to make us comfortable, the diving was incredible, the food was delicious and the weather was pleasantly hot. Seriously, the only thing to complain about was that we couldn’t live there forever and had to go back to Cairo – but only to make money so that we can come back again ASAP.

Flights to Marsa Alam cost around 1200LE for a return ticket. Buses are available but take an incredible 15 hours, so you’re better off stopping in Hurghada or Gouna for the night before continuing your trip. accommodation at Deep South starts at 100LE per night excluding drinks and taxes, and dives start at 140LE for the equipment per day. An open water dive course costs around 2000LE. If you’re spending five days or more in Marsa Alam, budget for 1000LE not including dives and boat trips. For more information, check out Deep South.

Sidi Abdel Rahman – Egypt’s North Coast Nostalgia

Sidi Abdel Rahman is one of my fondest childhood summer memories. The beautiful beachside resort on the North Coast of Egypt was my family’s favourite destination, back in the days when you didn’t have to own a villa on the North Coast to be able to swim on the North Coast, and there were large expanses of undeveloped land where you could drive down to the shore for a swim. Ah the good-old days.

Located between Marina and the Diplomatic Beach, and formerly known as Al Alamein Hotel because of its proximity to the World War II battlefield nearby, the hotel has seen more changes in ownership than Mubarak has seen hair dye. And though I remember the hotel itself as a dusty, rather derelict and rundown building, it never really mattered because it more than compensated with its pristine white beach and a turquoise blue sea. Hands down, Sidi Abdel Rahman has the best swimming spot on the North Coast, apart from Sidi Heneesh and Ras El Hekma.

If you’ve been to Sidi Abdel Rahman as a kid, you’ll probably fondly remember the sand dunes on the left side, where we’d spend afternoons rolling, tumbling and boarding down, and the playground, which once had a roller skating rink and sturdy swings that we’d push ourselves way up into the air.

And then there are the villas with the barbeques on the lawns, and the plastic tubs in front of the terrace that you’d dip your feet into before stepping onto the mud-coloured tiles. Behind the hotel, a large garden full of sky-high palm trees and sweet-perfumed flowers make a perfect backdrop for the picturesque desert sunset. Yes, this hotel is full of nostalgic memories for me, embodying the perfect Egyptian holiday in its simplicity and impeccable natural landscape.

Sadly, like every other stretch of sand on the North Coast, Sidi Abdel Rahman has changed drastically and is currently part of a massive construction project called Marassi, which is transforming the barren land into buildings, villas and manmade lagoons. I’m old-fashioned about this stuff, I’d prefer to keep the hotel as is, but word is that the building will be pulled down soon to be made into several massive hotel chains, including the Ritz Carlton.

Marassi has admittedly done a great job in renovating the hotel; the rooms are now quite plush compared to their former derelict selves, with wicker seats on the balcony, comfortable bedding and clean bathrooms with glazed window paneling.

Still, the hotel’s prices are not for the faint-hearted: last summer, a ground floor double room cost around 2350LE per night. This summer, the price is up to 2800LE. That’s arguably the same amount you’d pay for a month’s flat rent in Maadi. Ridiculous, if you ask me, but then again; all hotels along the North Coast have stupendously high prices in the range of thousands per night. The theory is that the North Coast is closer to Cairo and Alexandria, making it an easier and more popular destination, so the Ministry of Tourism decided to exploit the situation and up the prices.

Hopefully, one year, the prices will match the market situation; i.e. we can’t afford to turn away tourists, we need as many people as we can get; so let’s be cheaper. That is, unless Emaar has already started destroying the hotel and replacing it with extravagant chains that we will never ever be able to afford.

But I digress. I love Sidi Abdel Rahman’s bay; I know the rocky end and the best shallow spots to swim in when the sea is choppy (on the left to next to the dunes). I love the tiny beach next to the two presidential villas, which once housed Abdel Nasser and Sadat with their families. And the presidential villas, as I remember them, were gloriously nostalgic remnants of 1950s architecture: two floors with seven rooms and an elevated terrace facing the waves, the kind of villa that needs its own butler and chandeliers to complete its image. By the way, you can totally rent it out for 10,000LE a night. Ha. Ha.

It’s a shame that Sidi Abdel Rahman will eventually be lost to a possibly overdeveloped urbanized resort, and its sea will eventually become polluted by jet skis, motor boats and loud nightclubs. But the child in me remains hopeful that maybe we’ll get a few more lovely years before reality sets in and we can no longer roll down the sand dunes. In the meantime, I look forward every summer to getting my swimsuit full of sand as I act like my four-year-old self on the dunes.

To book at the hotel, call 046 4680140 or visit the hotel’s website.