Sahl Hasheesh – Not for Explorers

I gave my camping gear — a clumsily folded dusty tent, sand-riddled sleeping bag that I suspect still harbors that dead spider from my last desert trip, oversized torch and an ear-piercing whistle suitable for emergencies — one last look before I pulled an empty suitcase out of my closet and packed it.

I’m a nature-loving girl who’s gotten a bit too used to camping and finds sleeping under the stars familiar but never unimpressive. But this time I was breaking ranks with tradition and heading to a five-star hotel: Premier Le Reve in Sahl Hasheesh.

Sahl Hasheesh had often brought to mind a picture of seclusion — it remained for years a faraway land where those who had just tied the knot enjoyed a pristinely azure sea walking hand-in-hand. I firmly believed that the law of the land forbade the single, heartbroken or formally non-committed from going anywhere near it. I thought it would be scandalous and frowned upon to plan a trip with friends there or, God forbid, with family.

But recently, the area has slowly gained some prominence and become increasingly popular as a weekend getaway, with event organizers taking their DJs, booze, party spirit and rowdy customers to Sahl Hasheesh, only 20 kilometers away from Hurghada’s international airport.

It’s easy. Spend one hour on a plane (the flight costs less than LE 1,000, even in the high season), arrive, check in, throw your bags in the room, tan by day and party by night.

Fun? Not to me. I always loathed places like this with a passion, and I secretly judged people who could have “fun” staying in a fancy hotel and living it easy. In recent years, travel for me has become an adventurous affair. If there’s no risk of being stung by a scorpion or pillaged by rogue Bedouin gangs on the road, it’s not fun enough.

But here I was — the desert girl— heading to the airport with my sister and mother and actually looking forward to staying in a hotel with a French name that offers deluxe rooms with king-sized beds, pillows softer than a baby’s skin, delightful buffets and premium service.

Once I set foot in Cairo airport’s departure hall, something looked awfully wrong. It was unnaturally overcrowded as queues of travelers zigzagged toward empty stalls, members of staff on site were very few and shouts could be heard in the distance.

It turns out that air-traffic controllers had halted their work in protest of their low wages. Negotiations were underway while the airport was left in a half-crippled state.

Flights were delayed for days, planes took off or landed every few hours, instead of regularly and many were caught up in the mess of it all — one woman even wailed to airport staff telling them she’d been stranded with her kids in the airport for two full days waiting to go to Syria, afraid to leave lest her flight was suddenly announced. Some of the male passengers had started to become violent, cursing and pushing staff and throwing around threats left, right and center.

Three hours later than scheduled, our plane took off. An hour later, we were in Hurghada’s airport, where a hotel chauffeur carried a sign with my misspelled name scribbled in pencil in tiny font on plain A4. It took several minutes and a few calls back and forth between me and the hotel to actually realize that, indeed, this was my driver.

The road to the hotel would have been scenic if Hurghada’s streets weren’t stacked with concrete resorts and big hotels lined side by side crowding the clear skyline left and right. We finally arrived at Le Reve in a secluded spot in Sahl Hasheesh, which literally means “the grassy plain.” The hotel was pretty traditional in its general architecture. If you spent your childhood years vacationing in Alexandria’s Montazah or summers in its famous Palestine Hotel, you’ll know what I mean.

The lobby of Le Reve was vast — with a small pool of red flower petals right in the center. The feel of the place — its design and the art it carried — were modern albeit with an exotic piece here or there.

We were escorted to the VIP lounge and offered cold beverage as we waited for our rooms to be prepared. I had previously informed the hotel that I would be quickly reviewing their resort as part of my travelogue. But armed with two pre-paid Visa cards, I said I’d pay for everything myself. It pleased me as a writer, because I didn’t feel an obligation to be too nice — though a tinge of guilt did creep up when the hotel assistant informed me that they’d decided to bump me up to a deluxe room instead of the standard one I picked.

I took the keys, thanking him warmly. But as I looked around the hotel, humungous and stacked full with rooms along a U-shaped structure that hugs two large pools and opens up onto the sea, I suspected I would not like the place. The rooms’ terraces were narrow, and only very few rooms had a proper view of the sea.

When I was taken up to my room, my doubts were confirmed. The room was small, and quite plain for a deluxe room, and the only thing I actually liked was the spacious bathroom.

And, mind you, it wasn’t an inexpensive stay. A double room costs a little over LE 1,200 per night. Even the minibar had few options, which did not include nuts, chips or any of the requisite calorie-packed snacks that any self-respecting hotel fridge should have. Considering that more often than not I snuggle up in a sleeping bag under a curtain of stars with only a sheet of rubber beneath my bag to protect my back from the harsh ground, my standards are not high. Still, I couldn’t get myself to like the place.

My mood steadily plummeted until dinnertime, and I became slightly hopeful again. Perhaps I’ll get my money back in food, I thought.

My sister, mother and I took a small tour of the hotel’s restaurants. There were good Japanese, Chinese and Italian options, but it turned out that we had to book in advance for these. So we settled on the main restaurant, Turquoise, and the open buffet was not bad after all.

There was an explosion of color in the salad area and the choices were quite inventive. I went straight to the salmon and tuna wraps then stacked my plate with cold cuts and fresh, neatly chopped veggies. By the time I got to the main course I was already full, so I nibbled on some chicken kiev (delicious nonetheless), then went straight for dessert and a medley of fresh fruit.

The breakfast menu was no less satisfying — with an impressive variety of baked breads and mouthwatering pastry.

On my last evening, the friendly staff managed to squeeze in a table for me at Bella, the Italian restaurant — as an exception since I had forgotten to reserve a table in advance — and, as promised, it was a deliciously appealing gourmet experience. The hush, classy and cozy atmosphere of the small and tranquil diner was a nice change from the spacious noisy restaurant hall, echoing with the clickety-clack of tens of knives, forks and plates. They don’t offer pizzas, but they have an indulgent array of pastas and other savory traditional dishes.

If I ever go back to Le Reve, it’d be for the food; it’s consistently terrific.

As per the tradition of out-of-Cairo relaxing laid-back holidays, I spent my mornings and afternoons lazing by the pool, sipping on a cocktail or taking a swim while trying not to immerse my entire body in the water to protect my eyes. Only a day earlier, I had to undergo an invasive eye surgery that left me almost blind in one eye. The other eye was watery and my vision was blurred. I had to keep my shades on at all times, including at night, and had to shop for goggles so that no water would touch my eyes in case I went for a swim during the trip (and of course I was going to, corneal transplants be damned!).

The staff around the pool were friendly and quick to deliver on any request.

The hotel also carries a well-equipped gym, but I was in no mood for vigorous training. I felt that if I wanted a brisk walk or some exercise, I would have rather done that in the open.

I was quick to notice that during my stay, in the second week of October, my family and I were the only Egyptians at the hotel. All around me there were tourists, and when I inquired at some point at reception, I was told that it was a full house. Impressive, I thought, considering the tourism scare we experienced following the January 25 Revolution.

Following one of my dips, I decided to splurge on a spa treatment. Le Reve promotes itself as a spa hotel, and, in this regard, it does not disappoint. The Egyptian and Asian staff at the spa are passionate and professional. There was a long list of massage therapies and packages on offer that include sauna and jacuzzi use, scrubbing and a variety of Turkish baths.

I went for a hot stone massage which cost around €70. I can attest that the therapist that was assigned to me knew exactly how to tenderly release my stress and lengthen and stretch my fatigued muscles. She had a magical touch and I came out of that spa rejuvenated and feeling fresh.

But nights in Le Reve are not exciting.

There are a few bars — one a few meters from my room, whose emanating noise guaranteed I didn’t doze off before midnight. There’s also an “oriental show” that features a classic belly-dancing routine, which I found stale and unimaginative. Tourists sat perched up on plastic chairs around a small make-shift stage watching “whirling dervishes” dance and a belly dance show.

Sahl Hasheesh itself seemed like a cluster of resorts and hotels, without a bustling town center except for the one in nearby Hurghada.

Ridiculously bored one night, my family and I decided to take a limousine into Hurghada, which is rowdy and much more lively. It’s a $25 car ride to Hurghada and around $40 to Gouna, so not for the traveller on a tight budget. There’s a shuttle bus that goes to town, but it’s not regular.

Hurghada, its famous marina and Gouna have numerous shisha seaside cafes, bars and night clubs. If you’re a crowd and are up for a late night of raving or dance music, take yourself to Little Buddha on the Village Road, a safe option. If you prefer a more intimate atmosphere or if you’re a fan of Italian food, head straight to Divino diner and bar.

By the end of my stay, I grew restless and increasingly disenchanted; Le Reve failing to either impress or provide engaging activities — except for those few hours by the pool and in the spa. I remember thinking that whoever did the photography for the hotel’s website is a genius, because he or she made it look more beautiful that it actually was.

On the last day, I took my beloved Visa card and paid one last visit to the spa, which was truly the highlight of my experience, and I treated myself to another relaxing massage.

I was happy to leave, but I showered the staff with praise for bending over backwards to give me a better experience, with wide smiles and a friendly disposition.

Would I ever go back? Maybe. Next time I may pick a cozier hotel though; its sister boutique hotel, Premier Romance, perhaps?

But honestly, I’m not making plans to return any time soon.

What I learned from this trip? Luxury is an art, so no, modern decor, a grand pool, supreme service and a comfy bed might not be enough to impress even the roughest of travelers, if the setting and ambiance are not right. And if I’m paying a hefty sum, I expect a lot.

I also learned that my payment cards are slowly becoming my new best friends. Love big corporations or hate them, you have to admit, swiping your plastic for fancy services is deliciously fun, and for a traveler like myself, very practical.

 – Pakinam Amer 

In next installments of the “Visa Explorer Series,” I try another luxury resort, albeit one that doesn’t disappoint and leaves me wishing I had ten more loaded debit cards so I could take myself there every week. Then in my first Visa-related adventure, I take it all the way down south for a road trip that saw me and a friend driving more than 11 hours from Cairo to Aswan to spend a few nights on a charming island in the heart of Nubia. Stay tuned!

Originally published by Egypt Today Specials here: http://specials.egypttoday.com/travel/visa-explorer-sahl-hasheesh/

Feb 2012 Update: Unfortunately, due to personal reasons and travel plans, I’ve decided to halt this project. However, one day, when I feel like it, I promise I will come back here and blog about both the Ain Sokhna, and Cairo-Nubia road-trips. And I’ll have amazing pictures for you! Until then, love and light xx

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