A Tale of Two Halves
This is part one of a three part Egyptian travel story written by Jim Gaunt. Links to parts two and three at the end
INTRO ? As the England football team crashed out of the World Cup we tore it up in El Gouna and Soma Bay, Egypt for eight out of ten days on seven metre kites. Now that's a result!
As the bus ferried passengers from the plane to the terminal at Hurghada airport I caught sight of my name on a board inside the terminal before the bus had even come to a stop. Nour, our representative from Spring Tours, was waiting just inside the door with a big smile on his face. As the gaggle of passengers charged in to queue and pay for their entry visas, he guided us straight to baggage claims, having already taken care of our necessary documentation. A customs officer sat at an empty desk and waited to stamp the passports of people as organised and apparently, special, as us.
The travel market is a funny one it seems. While many businesses went to the wall in the last couple of years, specialist bonded travel agents, such as Planet Kitesurf Holidays, have actually prospered. Kitesurfers are still travelling and the security that companies like Planet offer the savvy client, as well as the astounding convenience we were experiencing, are the reasons why. No need to worry about the airline going bust, or the hotel closing down before your holiday; you're covered. A visit to their website to choose your wind venue of choice, or a phone call to the team and you're done. They take care of the rest, including the arrangement of transfers from the airport as well as any excursions you may wish to take with conscientious companies, like Spring Tours.
I have been to Egypt before, but not for about five years. Since then I had always chosen other destinations for holidays, as I like to have more to do than just kitesurfing. If there's no wind, I don't want to be stuck in the middle of nowhere on the edge of the desert. However, fed up with having to make do with the second rate flattish water close to the wave spot I'd picked out, my girlfriend, Danielle, had demanded two things this time: 'proper sunshine and flat water.' Egypt it was in June, then.
We chose to split the trip in two. The Red Sea has many famous resorts, but we thought we'd try and pick two quite different spots that were still relatively close to each other and within a short transfer from Hurghada airport, which has many direct flights from all over Europe. El Gouna was nothing like we expected; a private, self-sufficient town 30 minutes north of Hurghada. Five days later we'd head to Soma Bay. Fifty minutes south of Hurghada, it is quiet home to a handful of hotels lying close to a windy bay, littered only with kitesurfers and the odd dive boat. So, after a consultation phone call as to what we were looking for in a holiday and a couple of emails later, we were all booked up with resorts roughly just 80 minutes apart.
As we were driven up the coast from the airport to El Gouna, passing scrub desert and a couple of basic local towns on the way, ever-the-entertaining guide, Nour filled us in on some of the area's modern history. The settlements we were passing to our right had been built by President Mubarak, and were cheap housing estates for resort workers, allowing them the opportunity to be able to afford housing and homes for their families that they otherwise could not. This was apparently one of the only few good things the head of state has achieved for the people who live in their struggling economy, though.
The vast majority of Egypt's population live in towns along the banks of the river Nile with a huge percentage in and around the major cities of Cairo and Alexandria. The Red Sea coast has been primarily developed for tourism and in between resorts the land is stark and barren. The approach to the security gate at the entrance to El Gouna blew all our pre-conceived expectations out of the water. This place isn't a small cluster of conveniences handily located around a huge hotel, all set-up for the benefit of the traveller and to give the illusion of a community. El Gouna is a genuinely thriving town, home to 20,000 residents, plus the 220,000 travellers that visit each year.
20 years ago Egyptian business man, Samih Sawiris' had a dream to create El Gouna. His company, Orascom Developments, began building in El Gouna with a simple idea; 'to create a little piece of paradise on the desolate Red Sea coast'. Now, with a number of developments in existence around the world, they create living communities and transform ordinary settings into exquisite destinations. The company's website states, 'We are committed to designing a new concept for living, to building perpetual trust with our clients and to selling people the essence of what they need: a personalised ideal life.' Once undeveloped land in prime locations has been secured by Orascom, and through active partnerships with the best international hotel chains, the group controls the entire chain. From the inception of a new town, they overlook various stages of development until it becomes self-sufficient and mature.
El Gouna, the group's flagship project is set on a 36.8 million square metre plot, offering a wide range of international-standard facilities, boasting 15 hotels, 100 restaurants and bars, an 18-hole championship golf course, a world class hospital, four schools, a branch of the American University in Cairo, day care facilities, a vibrant town centre, two marinas with a 240 berth capacity (with a third marina under construction) plus, vital to any aspiring town, a landing strip. The sophistication of the French Riviera has come to Egypt and yet mixes easily with the more laid back values of most travelling kitesurfers, looking for good riding in the day, but also fantastic food and accommodation in the evening.
Visually, the town and its surrounding grounds are certainly striking. A boat trip through the intertwining lagoons with our Orascom guide, Doro, revealed a neat, polished brightly coloured settlement, with a place for everything and everything in its place. The brightly coloured private villas mix seamlessly with rental properties and hotels to form a uniquely flowing development. Unlike many expanding resort towns the world over, where evidence of building work can be unsightly and unwelcoming, El Gouna is clean cut and sharp. Doro pointed out that only 10.9 million square metres of the 36.8 available has been developed so far, and that on the outskirts development was rapidly moving forward everyday. You wouldn't know it in the areas that people live or find holiday accommodation in as all buildings are completed on the outside before work begins on the inside, helping create a visually spectacular location that is undisturbed by construction work as much as possible.
Doro originally moved to El Gouna from Germany before any of today's development had even begun. She had started a dive school which she ran for a number of years before being recruited by Orascom to head up their PR programme. Discussing El Gouna's dynamics over lunch with her and her friend, Brigitte, the Swiss manager of the wonderful Movenpick hotel that we were staying in, revealed El Gouna to be a town with no real predominant nationalities, apart from the Egyptian workers, of course. People come from all over the world to visit and live here, although the vast majority are from Europe, making for a peaceful atmosphere and friendly environment. The resort has no 'English' or 'German' areas (apart from the Smugglers Arms that I managed to drag Danielle into to catch England Vs Serbia); sit at any table at a restaurant and you'd have more luck picking out a nationality from a hat than predicting where the family on the next table are from.
At first I wasn't sure how I felt about all this. On one hand it all sounded a bit like some sort of over-controlled town from the future, where freedom and liberation are closely monitored, and on the other I was in a stunning location, surrounded by peaceful, happy people. On top of that, I realised I was certainly relaxed straight away, feeling a long way from the office.
As we couldn't see any big brother cameras anywhere (I love a good conspiracy theory ? to the exasperation of my girlfriend at times) and were absorbed by the gracious nature that all the Egyptian staff exude, motivated by their excellent working conditions and increased wages and benefits over other resorts, we began to love El Gouna. Staying at the Movenpick was a smart suggestion by Planet (although with two six star hotels and many five, I got the feeling that Orascom made sure that every hotel in El Gouna meets certain meticulous standards). The accommodation in the Movenpick's grounds is split into 'clusters' with a building height of no more than two storeys spread out in and around the foliage. Although the hotel may accommodate 3000 people, because of the vast area it covers, it never feels busy, even in the pool as there are three dotted around the grounds.
The kiting areas in El Gouna are found in two areas, split by the town and two marinas. North of town is Mangroovy Beach. This is El Gouna's public beach and where you'll find the majority of kiters launching from the three impressive stations spread out along the beach. The other spot, just south of town is part of the Movenpick hotel's grounds. Much smaller and more intimate than Mangroovy, it's also much quieter and is mostly for use by the hotel guests (although non-guests of the hotel can pay for a day ticket to ride there, if they have friends at the hotel, for example). When booking, it's a good idea to try and stay in a room in 'Cluster One'. Although it's not vital that you do, these rooms are just yards from the kite spot where there is a friendly centre on the beach set up for guests at the hotel. All centres in El Gouna have compressors, so you don't need to hand pump your kites in the heat that often nudges 40°C in the summer months, and the Kite People centre at the Movenpick provides safety cover as well as lessons, storage and gear rental, if necessary. In Mangroovy kiters have the option to launch from one of three centres located along the huge beach. A small fee is asked for by the centre from each rider to cover all their expenses, including clean beaches, showers, beach boys to launch and land your kites, compressors, safety boats and general maintenance. It's well worth it.
The basic credentials of the Mangroovy and Movenpick spots are the same. The wind blows cross-shore from the left and a reef lies a few hundred metres from the shore, creating a waist-deep lagoon between it and the beach. Outside of the reef - which you can easily ride over at most states of tide - is a large deep water channel. At the Movenpick, because the beach is smaller and the rest of the hotel lies downwind, they recommend that experienced riders head out to the deep water channel as lessons usually take place in the inner lagoon. If you venture across the channel from the Movenpick you'll come to another huge lagoon that is accessible at high tide, and it's quiet! You can see it in the images - it's as lush as it looks!
PART TWO: Read part two of the feature 'Kite Like An Egyptian' which is about some of El Gouna's local riders by clicking here
PART THREE: Read part three on Soma Bay by clicking here
Find more on Orascom's developments and projects in eight countries, panning three continents, at: www.orascomdh.com and on El Gouna in particular at: www.elgouna.com
To book an El Gouna holiday through Planet, visit: www.planetkitesurfholidays.com
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