I must admit that I am not very spontaneous. At least not for normal, every day life things. Call me on a Friday evening when I’m sitting on the couch and ask me if I want to go for a drink to the corner bar, chances are, I will say no. But call me on that same Friday night and ask me if I can be at the airport in a few hours to fly to a random destination and I will fly off said couch and start packing. Needless to say I didn’t need a lot of convincing when I was spontaneously invited to El Gouna in November and my fingers couldn’t type my response fast enough. Egypt in November? Yes, please!

While I was fast to reply I will admit that I didn’t do a lot of research on the destination beforehand. All I kind of knew about Egypt was pyramids, cats, the Red Sea and the fact that my aunt is convinced she was Cleopatra in her former life and therefore loves Egypt. So upon my arrival at Hurghada airport I am not only a little cranky because it is 3am, but also – where are the pyramids, where are the cats, where is the general mess of African airports?

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But as Lillian already described, there is more than just pyramids to Egypt. I am slightly mollified when we get into our van because while there are none in El Gouna, it does boast a pretty amazing starry night sky, even visible from the back seat. We have to drive through military property to get there, but the road is still properly bumpy as one would want a road that leads to adventure. And even at this time of the night I can appreciate being carried around on little golf carts once we arrive at the Sheraton Miramar, but only because it means I get to my room much faster to start my first El Gouna adventure – sleep till noon.

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The second adventure is to explore the resort and find food the next day. The last time I was at a resort I was eleven and got a concussion due to my friend’s father hitting me with the sail while windsurfing. Despite that incident I remember the place fondly for its bi-weekly dessert buffet and kids fashion show that made my parents buy me the stripey sailor dress I was modeling. These days I am more a boutique hotel or guest house kind of traveler; big resorts only hold a rather odd fascination to me, kind of like Kellerman’s in Dirty Dancing. Luckily we are not serenaded with a themed song at the Sheraton, but instead it offers its very own beaches and jetty, bougainvillea lined jogging trails, and little bridges connecting it all that makes it look like an Egyptian Venice.

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Actually the whole of El Gouna, born to the dreams of Samih Sawiris, a prominent Egyptian businessman and billionaire (sorry girls, he is already off the market!), resembles Venice with its lagoons, canals, and countless bridges. While one can argue whether a city should evolve and grow naturally or can be created from scratch as it has happened here, the end result is undeniably pretty. El Gouna is green, literally and figuratively as it has been recently awarded the Green City Award by the UN’s Environment Program, the first in Africa and in the Arabic region. New energy sources are being used throughout and the city strives to be as sustainable as possible. Even the recycling bins are colorful and seem to imply that living green is not a chore here.

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During sunset we explore the lagoons and the town from the water on our very own boat. Mind you, our boat is puny compared to what’s docking in the marina and cruising by, I instantly get the impression of a miniature version of Nice. However a little boat like ours has the perk that it is available to each and everybody: they are also used as public transport and don’t cost more than the bus fare. Another way to get around is by tuk tuk, also called Tucxi here and in case you didn’t bring your South East Asia bartering skill, fear not, because prices here are set (and much cheaper than in Thailand I should add!). Alternatively you can steal borrow a cart from golf club or resort to get around; it seems anything goes on the roads of El Gouna. And if you dare you are even allowed to drive your own boat sans license as long as you don’t break the speed limit of 20 knots. While I start calculating how long it would take me to save up for a boat, maybe I should just wait a little longer and go straight for a yacht, we have arrived back at the Sheraton’s jetty only to be enfolded in a huge smoke cloud. Luckily nothing is on fire as we learn, it is just the Mozzie Man, a public exterminator who paroles the shores of El Gouna at dawn to fume away mosquitos and flies. While I am a bit in awe at this organized war against creepy crawlies, I am still kept up by some very loud mosquitos till 3am; nature:1, mozzie man: 0.

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The next morning I not only have four bites to show, but am also tired and terrified by the idea of facing my ultimate fear: board sports. Ever since the above mentioned surf sail went down on my head, I have successfully stayed away from all boards there are. I don’t snowboard or skateboard and even after seven years in South Africa, I have yet to come close to a surfboard myself. Needless to say I am not thrilled that wake-boarding is on our agenda and to add insult to potential injury I have to squeeze myself into a wetsuit. Wetsuits are never flattering at the best of times, but particularly not after a three-course meal that included a plate with nine different desserts the previous night.

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Luckily Adam, our teacher at the Sliders Cable Park, is the sweetest and so encouraging that I find myself kneeling and strapped to the board first (why do I always have volunteer to go first?). The practice run goes well enough and I have tasted blood as well as very salty Red Sea water. This is fun! While I’m not proficient enough yet to do one-handed stunts, I have my two seconds of glory standing up a few rounds into our training and already google Wake-boarding in Germany in my head.

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Over lunch at the chilled, little Fanadir Hotel I am rewarded for my efforts and finally get what I came for – some real Egyptian kittens and mezzeh. The mother cat meows her way around the table in search of scraps for her little ones and our host Nicolas informs me that the rule is ‘If you feed it, you got to take it’. And by the way, a vet certificate would only take two days. Needless to say I am incredibly tempted. As soon as I have decided to just do it and share my crepe suzette with the little tricolored kitten and thus take him home, they have vanished. So it is just as well that next on our agenda is wine tasting to drown my sorrows.

If I like anything more than mezzeh it is a bottle of rosé champagne and while the bubbly from Kourom of the Nile Winery cannot call itself Champagne it is done according to méthode champenoise. Labib Callas and his wife are originally from Lebanon and have taken over this little wine gem in order to reinvent and reinstate Egyptian wine. “It’s after five now,” says Labib and hands a glass to his wife who is talking us through the different varietals we are tasting, “I can have a drink now.” I like his logic and politely ask for a refill too. French expertise, local and foreign grapes, Egyptian sun, and obviously love for wine come together here and it shows in the results.

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In fact it shows so much that I take two bottles as Christmas presents, no small task in a duffle bag, but as wine export is still tricky in Egypt I have to take it from the source. Luckily the local demand is big enough to keep Labib busy and it comes as no surprise as El Gouna is a very relaxed place for Muslim standards. While the expat community is big also thanks to two university campuses, Egyptians come here as well to enjoy the sun, party up a storm and to walk around like an Egyptian in a bikini (sorry, I couldn’t help it…).

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The next day I can barely walk, bikini or not, due to severe wake-boarding soreness everywhere. How I manage to wiggle myself back into a wet suit and get on a boat, I do not now. But not for nothing had I been singing ‘Under the (red) sea’ for days, because this is what I had come for in addition to kittens – snorkeling in the Red Sea. On our way to Nemo’s home we cross paths with some kiters, coming from the KBC beach where the local kite boarding clubs are located. I start counting and give up at fifty. Have I mentioned that El Gouna is a windy city? Great in sweltering summer heat, but not so great for my panama hat, which promptly goes overboard. Thanks to our very awesome crew it is rescued and actually in better shape since, the salt water seems to have gotten the creases out.

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Thanks to that wind which the kiters enjoy, the water is choppy to say the least and it takes more than a little determination to find and take pictures of Nemo & Co. Especially as I have considered to go old school and have to hold on to my disposable underwater camera for dear life. But as per usual it is oddly peaceful underneath the surface, something I love about snorkeling. If I remember to not open my mouth in excitement when I see something colorful, I do remarkably well at not swallowing the entire Red Sea or drowning.

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Our last meal at fancy Moods in the marina is a quiet affair. We are too tired to speak much after a day on and in the water. I’m also too busy to stuff my face with king prawns and lemon mint juice, food always a priority over polite dinner conversation for me. After our meal we make our way to the golf course for one last treat: a Thai massage at the adjacent spa. While I feel like I’m cheating on my beloved Thailand, I am having one of the best massage of my life and never want to leave again.

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But leave I must and I leave as I have arrived – in the middle of the night under a starry sky, just slightly more relaxed, albeit still sore. I eat a last Turkish Delight for breakfast on the plane and then the holiday is truly over. The first steps off the plane bring be back into reality: winter has arrived in Germany. My newfound love for wake-boarding will have to wait a few months and now I really wish I would have brought the kitten along to keep me warm.

 

Check out what else to see in Egypt in the Lonely Planet travel guide.

 

Thank you to Turkish Airlines for taking me and giving me Turkish Delight for breakfast, to the Sheraton Miramar Resort & El Gouna for having me and special thanks to the Fanadir Hotel for almost making my kitten dream come true.

All images by Annika.