Real life by the Red Sea

As the shine comes off Sharm El Sheikh, the nearby resort of Hurghada is enjoying its place in the sun, says Andrew Eames
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The Independent Travel

EasyJet's twice-weekly summer service to the Egyptian resort of Hurghada has just got under way, with departures on Mondays and Friday from Gatwick. However, holidaymakers who board the service and then head downtown on arrival are in for a shock. If they expect the traditional Red Sea mix of luxury hotels on the waterfront with a hinterland of tourist bars and bazaars, they're in the wrong place: Hurghada functions as a community in its own right. Its traditional city centre, Dahar, is far more Egyptian – proper market, bazaars and shisha cafes – than the rather sterile international resorts over on the Sinai peninsula such as Sharm El Sheikh. And, unlike Sharm, its day-to-day existence is comparatively unchanged by recent events.

There has always been a certain amount of rivalry between the Red Sea resorts of Sharm El Sheikh and Hurghada, but the latter is in no way envious of Sharm's most recent high-profile acquisition. After leaving office, ex-President Mubarak went to ground in his luxury villa in this prominent holiday spot, although last week he was moved to a military hospital near Cairo with heart problems.

When Mubarak was in power, he bestowed an enviable prestige on Sharm, and his high-ranking fellow politicians (as well as our own Tony Blair) also patronised the resort. But following Egypt's ousting of the old guard, the resort now has all the wrong associations. Furthermore its downtown areas around Shark's Bay (the location of the Mubarak villa) are now bristling with security, which is not exactly conducive to a holiday atmosphere.

What's more, Mubarak isn't the only big fish to have darkened Sharm's doors recently. Just before the Egyptian uprising, the resort was struggling with the negative publicity from shark attacks (which included one tourist fatality) close to the shore.

So although the Hurghada Riviera – for there's much more here than just one resort – is unlikely to display open pleasure at the discomfiture of its rival, the hoteliers and dive companies will be feeling that the cloud of the current tourism downturn has a silver lining. When business recovers (and there are some particularly good deals out there at the moment) it could well be their turn to emerge from the shadow of their higher-profile neighbour.

So what's the difference between flying into Sharm el Sheikh for a holiday or choosing Hurghada? Flight times are the same and there's a similar cross-section of airlines, including easyJet, for both. But Sharm has attracted the big tour operators in recent years. Development here has been planned carefully, the hotel scene is dominated by big international brands and various important inter-governmental meetings have taken place here. Prices are a bit higher and security is tighter, for the Sinai Peninsula is where Islamic fundamentalists have launched three murderous attacks in the last decade.

Hurghada, a mere 88km away, is quite a different animal, and for one simple reason: it is on the Egyptian mainland, as opposed to the Sinai peninsula. That means it is more accessible by road to the rest of Egypt – three hours to Luxor, five hours to Cairo – and is a more vibrant place as result.

Unfortunately, its mainland location has also meant that there has been more of a free-for-all in terms of planning permissions and its outskirts are littered with half-completed projects. Meanwhile, the downtown areas can be crowded with Russians and eastern Europeans taking advantage of cheap holiday packages. For most British tourists, that's not ideal.

North and south of the city, however, is a different story. New self-contained satellite resorts are springing up along the coast; gated enclaves which have learned from Hurghada's mistakes. And they have a whole new string to their bow: property. They want to be the new Spain, because unlike on Sinai, foreigners can buy villas here.

The most mature example is at El Gouna, 22km north of Hurghada. Built around a network of man-made lagoons, like something that Dubai might have dreamed up, this ambitious, self-styled "Venice of Egypt" is engineering a new society with a judicious mix of apartments, luxury villas, upmarket hotels and marinas. There's also a free cinema, international schools, two golf courses, a couple of university satellites (including a faculty from the University of Berlin) and even its own professional football team.

It's a kind of carefully planned fairytale urbanisation, where the sun shines every day and the shopkeepers are completely forbidden to engage in the usual kind of Egyptian haggling, which transforms the whole retail experience.

The best address is the Mövenpick Resort & Spa ( www.moevenpick-elgouna.com), a sprawling, multi-purpose hotel with a shallow beach ideal for families and kitesurfers. I was surprised by how hip the beach bars were along Mangroovy Beach and, as for the kites themselves, they looked like a collection of giant Marx Brothers eyebrows on strings, seesawing across the lagoon.

El Gouna has boomed in recent years, but it has an emerging rival in the form of Sahl Hasheesh, a hugely ambitious project 18km south of Hurghada airport. Like the latter, Sahl Hasheesh is intended for upscale residents and visitors and covers a similar 40-odd square kilometres, or around two-thirds the size of Manhattan, with a couple of golf courses in construction.

Until recently a protected military zone – and still with the feel of something privileged and secret – Sahl Hasheesh is well on its way to becoming a careful mix of boutique hotels, monstrous, 900-bed palaces and self-contained residential developments, on a 12km-long, curved, beach-lined bay.

That beach is the best on the coast and it has been backed by a 7km boardwalk and been kept available to all, rather than parcelled up to individual properties (as happens in El Gouna and Hurghada). This will be a destination for families or groups who want more independence. You can already rent a spacious two-person apartment with a sea view here for €350 a week from Sunny Lifestyle ( www.sunnylifestyle.info). The concept is good, but the place is so big that it'll be a while before it really feels like there's significant numbers of holidaymakers here.

The next resort to the south, Makadi Bay, must be peering rather anxiously over its shoulder at its new neighbour, envying all that space. Not that there's anything wrong with Makadi Bay, another gated enclave of half-a-dozen hotels and its own golf course. But its land area is more limited and it can feel a bit claustrophobic. I found the beach cheerfully crowded, which is fine as long as you don't mind the smell of another person's suntan oil, and it was hard to resist the teams' animated entreaties to join them in a game of volleyball.

Makadi Beach is a destination for someone who wants a good-value, all-inclusive holiday in the sun, in fairly anonymous style, in a hotel such as the Sensimar Makadi Bay, bookable through Thomson Holidays ( www.thomson.co.uk), where prices are many hundreds of pounds lower than normal at the moment.

The last stop on this stretch of shore, 45km south of Hurghada, is Soma Bay, with stand-alone big brand hotel names such as the recently opened Kempinski ( www.kempinski.com/somabay).

The latter is a huge, sprawling Alhambra-style resort hotel, with the only squash court on the Hurghada Riviera. It is the sort of place where people might go in search of privacy without even leaving the premises. Nobody urges you to come to play volleyball here.

"All-inclusive" is a dirty word in this setting and, given Soma Bay's location, its golf course, its access to the Nile Valley and to Luxor (which is a three-hour drive away), the prestigious resort is intended for visitors who want to mix a bit of cultural tourism with chilling by the sea. In other words, a place for affluent, independently minded visitors who don't want to feel they're among the herd.

And that makes it perfect for the top-end displaced persons who might formerly have chosen to go to Sharm El Sheikh.

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