By Anna Gouldman
Everyone has been talking about Sharm El Sheikh, The Red Sea Riviera, so I paid a visit to one of the region’s 5 star hotels, The Savoy, to find out why. In the past 10 years, Sharm El Sheikh has re-invented itself into a destination that caters for a diverse range of visitors, from diving fanatics to sun-worshippers, to shopaholics. The plethora of beach resorts which line the coast of the Red Sea promise sun, white sand and underwater adventures, while the nearby Na’ama Bay boasts a vibrant nightlife.
Egypt has soared to the top of consumers’ destination wish lists and is frequently featured as a top 10 destination for Brits, Italians and Russians. The World Travel & Tourism Council (WTTC) recently reported that visitor exports led the way to a healthy 2004 for Egypt Travel & Tourism. Capital investment was also strong showing long-term confidence in new business development.
According to Deloitte, Middle Eastern markets have improved occupancy rankings considerably in 2005. iExplore has also reported increased demand for travel to the Middle East in 2005, including increased sales in Egypt.
For those of you who are not familiar with Sharm El Sheikh, it is situated on the Southern tip of the Sinai Peninsula, between the Red Sea and the mountains of Mount Sinai.
And now for some history: It was the Israelis who first saw the potential of the site when they occupied the Sinia Peninsula during the 1967 war. At this point Sharm was merely empty an beach and palm trees. When the peninsula was handed back to Egypt, the Egyptians continued to develop it.
You don’t need a visa to travel to Sharm if you do not intend to leave the area. However if you plan to leave the region, for example to take a day trip to Cairo, a visa will be required at the cost of £10 and can be arranged on arrival at the airport. (So don’t panic about contacting your local Egyptian Embassy in advance).
Accessibility is quite easy with direct flights from the UK to Sharm El Sheikh or you can fly via Cairo. Additionally, British Airways franchise partner, GB Airways, will start direct flights to Sharm El Sheikh from 22 October 2005. Flights will operate three times a week to Sharm El Sheikh.
The flight to Sharm takes only 5 hours from London Gatwick. I flew with Excel Airways for the price of £260. I boarded the plane at 12.30pm and six hours later, I had checked in to my hotel, had unpacked my luggage and was ready to explore the wonders that The Savoy had to offer.
The first thing that I noticed about The Savoy, apart from the sheer size of the complex, was how many of the guests were young couples. In recent months, Sharm has become a popular escape for both couples and groups of friends, with the guarantee of superb 5* hotels at 4* prices. This was certainly the case at The Savoy - with rates starting at £60 who could resist?
Located on the fabled White Knight Beach, The Savoy is an ambitious project spanning 233,000 square metres, with 408 guest rooms. The resort is beautifully landscaped with tropical, cascading water features and rock formations.
I soaked up the serene sense of privacy, which I rarely have the pleasure of experiencing on my travels. There is a fine line between being well looked after and feeling harassed by staff who are a little too eager to please, but The Savoy have the right balance, with staff on hand to assist when asked. You can even sunbathe in peace and quiet along the 300 metres stretch of sandy beach belonging to the hotel.
Home to one of the world’s greatest reef dives, Sharm is famous for its incredible diving. Since I do not have a diving certificate, I chose to use my week for some serious relaxation, but it was well worth dragging myself away from my sun-bed for a day and experiencing a boat trip out to the coral reefs followed by some snorkelling where I caught an extraordinary glimpse at some rare, tropical, aquatic beauties.
For those guests who feel like a day out, The Savoy offers excursions in Sharm including boat trips, jeep safaris, camel rides and desert experiences. Those guests who are feeling more adventurous can take an excursion to Cairo. Popular attractions in the national capital include The Pyramids, The Sphinx and The Egyptian Museum.
The Savoy offer a host of activities to keep guests occupied within the resort. As a keen swimmer a decent sized, clean swimming pool tends to head my list of priorities, (alongside a comfortable bed). I was not disappointed when I set eyes on the three large swimming pools, which came alive at night with beautiful lighting, forming the centre point at The Savoy. Other facilities include a fitness centre, spa centre, pool table, snooker, table football, tennis courts and an outdoor cinema.
For business travellers wireless Internet access is available throughout the entire resort. Although I would primarily recommend the resort to leisure travellers, it is also a great venue for executive travellers, offering the facility to host corporate functions and conventions with a variety of function rooms with state of the art equipment.
My favourite restaurant at The Savoy was the Rosmarino. I chanced upon this Italian delight on my first evening in Sharm and found myself returning twice during my stay. Each visit to Rosmarino was an entirely new experience since the menu was so varied. An in-house guitarist set the atmosphere for romance while serenading guests with his sweet music.
For more lively entertainment at The Savoy there are 5 bars and a disco. I enjoyed many a night in The Safari bar, a beautiful African-themed bar with stunning pieces of furniture and life-like paintings of wildlife to help set the scene.
The Savoy also offers guests the opportunity to get in touch with the local culture and smoke a shiha and drink traditional tea at Le Balcony.
I personally enjoyed visiting the Bedouin style cafes in Na’ama bay, where much of the action takes place. Many hotels are located along this lively strip with an array of shopping malls, discos, bars and restaurants. If you don’t feel daring enough to sample some Middle Eastern cuisine, there is a KFC, McDonalds, Pizza Hut, Baskin Robins and a Hard Rock Cafe. Food is very inexpensive, but you do get what you pay for! Alcohol on the other hand, is quite pricey as most of it is imported. For example, two pints of beer cost me £6.
There are some excellent shopping opportunities - with some great designer fakes available if you look in the right places. I picked up a £20 “Louis Vuitton” handbag and a pair of £30 “Diesel” jeans. If you are looking to pick up some inexpensive jewellery, then Sharm is the place. There is an overwhelming selection of jewellery stores selling some very beautiful pieces, but do check the items carefully for imperfections and never accept the first price offered - the locals are always ready for some haggling.
Sharm El Sheikh is a lively location, with guaranteed sunshine, superb diving opportunities and a great choice of upper tier, inexpensive accommodation, not to mention the cheap food and shopping opportunities. So next time you are considering a beach holiday, perhaps its time to look beyond the Caribbean and the South Pacific for a spot of African sun, sea and surf.