Saturday, May 30, 2009
Relaxing with the Pharaohs
Last August, we took a trip that was quite unlike any other I had ever taken before. We went to a place that everyone knows and everyone would probably consider a cool place to go on some level. It is also a place that hardly any Americans ever venture to (especially not lately) yet many other countries (especially European countries) think of as a fairly standard vacation destination.
I am talking about Egypt.
Why did we even think about Egypt? One of the main reasons for me to go was water sports, and in particular windsurfing. I love to windsurf, but in Houston it is difficult to do (at least in the way I like to do it). So I have gone quite a few places in search for good windsurfing conditions. From Maui to Hood River, to Costa Rica and to Greece. Most of those places have one thing in common: You generally spend a lot of time waiting for wind, and with only a week or 2 or even 3 on location, one always runs the danger of not having any wind at all. So my hope was that in Egypt, things might be different. And to make a long story short: they were!
But let’s start at the beginning: We started our trip in Salzburg, as we already were in Europe (our second home) rather than in Houston. We had a direct flight from Salzburg to Hurghada, our destination of choice. Hurghada is on the Red Sea and a windsurfing and scuba diving paradise. The flight wasn’t long and it also wasn’t expensive. In Europe, one can always find a pretty inexpensive charter flight to all major vacation destinations, as long as one can live with the set schedule. Charter flights usually leave on weekends and one mostly books such vacations in one week increments. If you want to go for 10 days, you are out of luck, but otherwise, this deal is great is it is a very inexpensive way to go. We stayed for 2 weeks.
Note: I am not sure what the least expensive way would be to get to Egypt from the United States. I am sure there must be decent ways to do this, although in some ways, it may not hurt to first go to London, Munich, or Amsterdam and try for a charter flight and hotel package from there on. I would not at all be surprised if that turned out to be the least expensive option.
After a few hours flight that turned out to be very pleasant (and the plane being one of the most modern I have ever flown on… the airline was “Fly Nicky”, Nicky Lauda’s new airline). Entrance into Egypt was also straightforward. One buys an entry visa on the spot (for cheap) and there was nothing to it. I had some concerns at first, because most people on this flight were either Austrian or German, yet Ellen is American, so I wondered if being American could make it more difficult to go to a middle-eastern country. (One of the many advantages to being Austrian is that one is welcome just about anywhere in the world). However, it turned out to be no problem whatsoever.
In fact, let me get this out of the way before I go on: Egypt is a tourist destination. Other than the Suez Canal, tourism is their main income stream and Egyptians generally welcome all foreigners, regardless of where they are from. This was my first trip to a Muslim country (or “mostly Muslim” I should say, as about one fifth of the population is Christians… and they all seem to get along just fine) and I wasn’t sure what to expect. There were many unknowns, such as the overall culture and the attitude towards Westerners (especially Americans) or little things, such as drinking alcoholic beverages. As it turns out however, the Egyptians are a fun bunch of people. They always have a joke on their lips and seem generally in good spirits. They are very communicative. And they were genuinely happy to see Americans. (As it turns out, the US now is the country with the fewest visitors to Egypt and they would love to change that).
We took several trips last year, and I have to say that this was one of my favorite ones, and being pleasantly surprised about the people was a big part of that. Over the last 12 months, we went to places such as Costa Rica, Hawaii, Alaska, Jamaica, Greece, and more. And I have to say that while Costa Rican’s seem to have been the friendliest and the people I was most comfortable with (except for perhaps the Greek, but I have spent so much time there, it would be an unfair comparison), the Egyptians run a close second in my list. Don’t get me wrong: I don’t have anything against the Caribbean, but I much prefer Egyptian people over pushy Jamaican drug dealers and other weirdoes.
Anyway, back to the topic at hand: After we cleared customs, we went on a bus trip to the Intercontinental Abu Soma Hotel in Soma Bay, a little south of Hurghada. As is common in these types of arranged trips, the transfer to the hotels can be lengthy, as a few buses drop people off at various hotels and our hotel was one of the furthest from the airport. So this was a bit of an ordeal, but it was not too bad. We arrived at our hotel and were pleasantly surprised. It was a very nice facility, and it was somewhat sizable, with not a lot going on (only crazy people like us Houstonians venture into the African desert in the middle of August).
The pool with an pool-side restaurant and bar at the Abu Soma Intercontinental Hotel.
This shows a little less than half of the hotel’s beach. Blue skies, nice sand, and turquoise water. And you won’t see a cloud during the entire trip.
I was very pleased with the service and our room and everything else in general. The only bad thing about the hotel is the food. For some reason, the standard restaurant everyone goes to tries to cook international food, and it just isn’t very good. (It was quite an experience to have Tex-Mex night in Egypt, with all the Egyptian girls wearing jeans and cowboy boots and sombreros). As it turns out however, the local food they prepare is quite good. And all the separate restaurants were also very good. I really enjoyed their Arab-themed restaurant and really like that type of food. It is a very tasty combination of meats and pastries (well, at least the dishes I ordered were… Ellen stuck more to the vegetable things). We also enjoyed the Greek restaurant as well as the Italian restaurant the hotel had. (Note: There is nothing but dessert around the hotels, so you are likely to eat most of your meals in one of the hotel’s restaurants). On our next trip to Egypt (and we are def. planning to go back), we will probably only buy the breakfast package and just go to the different restaurants and pay every night.
The other thing a I heard people complain about was the beds. Egyptian beds are hard as a board. That’s just the way it is. I have heard the same thing about other Egyptian hotels. Get used to it and don’t let it ruin your vacation. I personally like firm beds, but this was a bit beyond firm. But you get used to it after a few days. (I actually read the Terry Pratchett book “Pyramids” while I was there and even that book made fun of the hard Egyptian beds… it was quite funny, actually).
We spent a lot of time just relaxing and hanging out at the beach. We slept late, went windsurfing until the early afternoon (I will post a separate entry on windsurfing as it was easily good enough to deserve its own post), and then we just relaxed on the beach. There are tons of water sport things to do. You can rent sailing boats for instance. You also absolutely MUST at least take one of the boats out to go snorkeling. The Red Sea has to be just about the best place to do that. I have snorkeled in places like the Caribbean, Costa Rica, and Hawaii, but the Red Sea is orders of magnitude better! There literally are times when you can’t see the bottom of the sea 10 feet below you, because there are just too many fish. It is absolutely unbelievable and one must experience it to believe it.
Note: Due to our windsurfing activities, we missed the regular snorkeling and scuba diving boats that leave from the hotel. However, we ended up paying one of the boys that operated the boats a little bakshish (tip) and he took us out for a few hours later in the day all by ourselves. We went to 3 different locations, and it was awesome. The guys operating the boat being very friendly and even getting into the water with us to have some fun themselves and showing us the good places. I think the next time around, I will avoid the boat with all the people on it, and spend a few bucks again to get my own private ride.
You can also take scuba lessons and tests right on location. We had originally considered doing that, but the windsurfing was jut too good and left us too little time. It is def. something you should consider doing there if you are interested. The schools are either German or British-run, and the licenses you get are regular international licenses.
They even had their very own camel at the beach (and horses), which I thought was very funny. For a small fee, one was allowed to ride the camel up and down the beach. Camels have quickly become one of my favorite animals. With their odd legs (apparently they must be very intelligent, but most of their brainpower is used up operating their awkward legs… at least according to Terry Pratchet) and funny faces. They always look like they are smiling. (I think they are planning something…)
A Camel in action. Well, they never move very fast.
Of course this is Egypt, and we didn’t just sit on the beach and windsurf every day. We went on several trips to see the sights the world has enjoyed for the last 5,000 years. After all, one can’t go to Egypt and not visit the Pharaos, right? (Especially if you, like me, enjoy Egyptian history).
Here I am, proving that my head indeed is bigger than the Sphinx’es. And we apparently also have the same hairdresser. I do have a much nicer nose though…
At first, I wondered whether we could just rent a car and drive around to see some of the sights on our own. That wasn’t possible however, since tourists can’t drive cars in Egypt. Instead, one has to rent a local driver and drive in convoys. We ended up going to Luxor that way. We could have gone with a larger tourist group, but for very little money, we rented a car with driver and a guide for the sights. We saw the temple of Hatshepsut and the Valley of the Kings that way. We also went on a short Nile cruise that day. On a different day, we took a small plane to Cairo to see the Egyptian museum and (of course!) the Pyramids and the Sphinx.
All these things were awesome, and I will create separate blog posts for all these things. It was the trip of a lifetime, and I am sure to come back, if for nothing else but the windsurfing.
The author, enjoying himself tremendously…
This post belongs to a series of post about our Egypt trip:
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