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A Taste of Arabia Located on the tip of the Sinai Peninsula, Sharm el Sheikh is a sophisticated modern resort – a world away from the problems of the rest of the country. Liz Gill is impressed by the warm climate, choice of interesting activities and authentic spa treatments....

Sharm el Sheikh

A Taste of Arabia

Located on the tip of the Sinai Peninsula, Sharm el Sheikh is a sophisticated modern resort – a world away from the problems of the rest of the country. Liz Gill is impressed by the warm climate, choice of interesting activities and authentic spa treatments.

Legend has it that Cleopatra bathed in asses’ milk to enhance the beauty that captured the hearts of both Julius Caesar and Mark Anthony. Today, over two thousand years later, I’m going to try out a modern version. True, there won’t be any actual asses – nor hunky Roman generals for that matter – but there will be a potion made from milk powder and hopefully, the sort of pampering that might make me feel like a queen of the Nile – if only for a day.

The Egyptian theme runs through many of the treatments at the Arabian Spa in the Savoy Hotel, Sharm el Sheikh. There are, for example the Red Sea salt scrub, the carob body scrub, the Black Nile mud wrap and the Pharaonic massage which involves local aromatic oils and heated poultices of Egyptian herbs. The one I’m going to have is the Essence of Egypt scrub, which claims to be the most luxurious and soothing of therapies.

It starts with a few minutes in the steam room to open the pores and get me in a relaxed mood. I’m helped here by the fact that this being an Arab country, one has to wear a swimsuit or a towel: there’s none of that Nordic let’s-get-naked nonsense which always makes me rather uncomfortable. It also suits me that Temmy, my Thai therapist, speaks little English so after a few smiles and nods we can dispense with the pleasantries and get on with the pampering.

First come rough salt grains vigorously worked into my skin with a liquid made from milk powder, natural yoghurt and almond oil. Temmy is a slip of a girl, but like many spa therapists her slightness masks her strength. I was originally scheduled to have an Egyptian massage designed to stretch the muscles after diving or snorkelling but I wimped out after a chum told me it was a serious pummelling. As she works me over, really kneading my skin and paying special attention to rough areas on my heels I know I’ve made the right choice – this is as forceful as I fancy.

The face mask which comes next is a wonderful contrast. It’s chilled and has a fabulous fragrance called Mist. Temmy applies it with the lightest dabbling motions so that I feel I am being nuzzled by butterflies. My head and neck are massaged firmly but so gently that I almost drift off to sleep, only kept awake by the delicious finale of being smoothed in body butter.

The 45-minute experience has delivered what it promised, combining massage, exfoliation and mini-facial and all for a very reasonable £50. Other treatments are similarly affordable: massages range from £33 for an anti-cellulite one to £58 for a Thai; scrubs and wraps start at £33 going up to £58 for a Javanese Lulu which uses sandalwood and cinnamon. The small but pretty spa also has fitness rooms, a sauna and a rooftop rest centre.

Five star luxury at value-for-money prices is what the Savoy – and many of the other hotels in Sharm – specialise in. The 400-room Savoy has six restaurants, three adult and two kids’ swimming pools in extensive gardens, a range of bars and its own private beach. It also has a ‘hotel within a hotel’ the Royal Savoy with 80 rooms with four posters and outdoor Jacuzzis, champagne breakfasts and its own lounge with canapés and fruit throughout the day.

Sharm is a long ribbon resort, maybe only a hotel or two deep at most points, stretching for about seven miles with the sea on one side and the Sinai desert on the other. There are activities and excursions both wet and dry. I tried a £35 ‘sampler’ scuba diving course, encouraged by a smiling and supportive instructor to overcome my fears and let the Red Sea close over my head for a magical visit to another world. There are more than a thousand species of fish in these waters and I must be seeing hundreds of them, some singly, some in big shoals, all dazzlingly coloured and wonderfully shaped.

We also did snorkelling – you can still see a fantastic array of marine life this way on a pleasant half day cruise with lunch and an escort of exuberant dolphins. The ship sounds its horn and we’re all encouraged to clap and cheer and holler – apparently the noise attracts them.

On dry land we ride camels up to Echo Valley to shout our names and laugh when they bounce back. I learn an amazing bit of camel trivia: they have transparent inner eyelids, which they can close against a sand storm but still see.

On our return, our Bedouin hosts mix flour, salt and water into a thin pliant dough and cook it on a convex sheet of metal over a wood fire. We eat it with sheep’s milk cheese and sweet herb infused tea. They live in tents, they tell us, but still show off their new iPhone 5s. On another afternoon we swop four legs for four wheels, swathe our faces in checked keffiyahs against the dust and gleefully bounce quad bikes over sand and rocks for a couple of hours.

At first sight on the way from the airport this had seemed rather monotonous scenery. On closer contact though it looks amazingly dramatic, the mountains rising from the scrubby plain like knives against the sky, their colours changing with the light and the time of day. They stretch rank upon rank into the interior, a reminder of the scale and ancient mysteries of the Sinai Peninsula. This, after all, is where Moses received the Ten Commandments, where he saw the burning bush (St Catherine’s monastery, a four hour drive away, is said to mark the spot) and where Mary and Joseph fled with the infant Jesus, refugees from the wrath of Herod.

The resort itself, of course, is dedicated more to the pleasures of the flesh with sun-bathing, swimming and other water sports, spa treatments, shopping and general jollities in casinos, nightclubs, pubs, cafes and restaurants. Adjacent to our hotel and owned by the same businessman is Soho Square, a monument to Emad Aziz’s love of England where he was educated and where he spends part of the year. So you get this rather kitsch combination of statues of Churchill, red telephone kiosks and a Queen Vic pub alongside statues of pharaohs. There are eating places with cuisine from around the world, an ice bar, an ice rink, a bowling alley, a disco, a ‘culturama’ cinema about ancient Egypt and shops where the assistants have obviously been schooled not to hustle customers.

The idea that Europeans dislike being pestered has also reached Old Sharm. “No hassle here,” shout shopkeepers, selling jewellery, glassware, lamps and leather goods – I’ve never seen so many fake designer handbags. “No bloody hassle here,” emphasises one would-be Del Boy, “just lubbly jubbly.” They do though still engage in the age-old tradition of bartering: you can get one of those leather handbags for around £20.

Earlier we have visited the town’s Al Mostafa mosque, which can accommodate 2,500 worshippers. Non-Muslims are not allowed beyond the courtyard but we listen there to the call to prayer and gaze at the evening star with a sliver of moon rising above the minarets and it’s all rather spine-tingling. Not far away is the Coptic Heavenly Cathedral where almost every inch of the interior is lavishly illustrated with Bible stories. It took two artists and a team of 17 assistants two years to paint them. The cathedral was only finished in 2010, a tangible reminder of just how new this town is, the result of the 1978 Camp David peace agreement between Israel and Egypt and the demilitarisation of the Sinai. Before then it was a fishing village of maybe 2,000 souls, today it has 10,000 plus as many as 40,000 visitors in high season.

Sharm el Sheikh is obviously not the ‘real’ Egypt either ancient or modern: it’s not for those who want mummies and museums, the Sphinx and the Pyramids. What it does offer is indulgence in a sunny international playground where you can be as idle or as active as you please.

Monarch offers 7 nights bed and breakfast at the five-star Savoy Hotel from £681 per person (based on two sharing) flying from London Gatwick. Monarch also operates from Luton, Birmingham and Manchester.
Individual flights to Sharm from £57.27 one way.
Rooms at the Savoy start from £62 per person per night low season. The hotel is also launching yoga themed holidays in 2014.Further information
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