Escape to Egypt - Golf in El Gouna
Carly Frost - January 2013
If you have woken up to snow today and are suffering from sunshine withdrawal then there's a destination where blue skies are virtually guaranteed at the moment, and the best part is it's not a long-haul flight away. Carly Frost discovers why there's more to Egypt than the pyramids!
Egypt is a country steeped in wonderful history. It's a destination famous for the Pharaohs, home to one of the Seven Wonders of the World, the pyramids, and among other things world-renowned diving in the Red Sea. The last thing that you associate a holiday in Egypt with is great golf, yet there is a hidden gem of a resort on the Red Sea that I have just discovered called El Gouna that has the quality and facilities to rival any warm weather destination in the world.
But before I go on and enlighten you about what makes El Gouna so special I must start by mentioning the political situation in Egypt, because I'm sure you have all been watching the news. When it comes to sensationalism the press are brilliant at scaring us all of travelling to certain parts of the world. As I woke up this morning there was a terrible story of missing troops in Algeria. Yet the truth is that there really is nothing to be worried about in Egypt right now, I've flown into and out of Cairo in the last week and the airport was like a ghost town. The people were warm and welcoming and so delighted to see visitors.
Now to El Gouna...This seaside resort is just 30-minutes' drive from Hurghada International Airport, and only four and a half hours direct flight from the UK. So you can fly in the morning and be on the course by the afternoon! You can also connect to Hurghada via Cairo as I did, which gives you the option of tagging on an extra night or two to see the sights.
If you head out to El Gouna right now you'll arrive to balmy temperatures around 26 degrees and virtually cloudless skies. This sparkling seaside resort is built around a series of manmade lagoons that feed off the crystal clear waters of the Red Sea. It is modern and clean and has the feel of a gated community, like somewhere you would visit in the USA. There are 17 hotels within the resort, dozens of restaurants, duty free shops, a marina and beaches - all presented in immaculate condition.
Because El Gouna is controlled by one up-market development company (Orascom Development) everything is done to a very high standard. The Egyptians who work here are polite and well educated and you won't get a single street seller hassling you.
The golf course at El Gouna acts a centrepiece to the resort, surrounded by lagoons. It is an 18-hole championship course designed by US PGA Tour star Freddy Couples and Gene Bates, which maximises the use of the lagoon landscape and has a spectacular backdrop of the distant desert mountains. The course is great fun to play, presented in first-class condition, and is typical of a resort course in that it has been designed to appeal to all standards of golfer, with six teeing grounds to choose from to make the challenge as easy or as difficult as you like. I met a bubbly husband and wife who had come here on a golfing break from chilly Wetherby in Yorkshire. She played off a handicap of 35 and was enjoying the course and taking the money off her husband every day. By the same account, a young aspiring German professional from Munich was using the facility to get some warm weather training under his belt before his golfing season at home began and he found the course a great challenge off the back tees, playing around the 7,000 yard mark.
Even if you are not a keen practiser you will enjoy hitting balls here because the driving range is so unique. From a wide teeing ground you hit out to one of four island green targets in the lagoon. Missing the greens is as much fun as hitting them as you get to watch your ball splash into the water and then bob up and down and wait to be collected by a man wearing a hard hat in a little fishing boat. Even though the range balls are 'floaters', they still feel and perform just like real range balls.
The golf course has recently enlisted the help of world-renowned course management group Troon Golf to help raise the standards of the running operation. So whereas in the past visiting golfers here may have complained about slow play behind groups of Germans with no official handicaps, I have no doubt that by my next visit this will be a thing of the past. In any case, it wasn't evident during the week I was in El Gouna.
Troon will also be overseeing the completion of a new golf development in El Gouna. This second course is called Ancient Sands and will be every bit the championship lay-out. I was lucky to get a tour of the sands, and although not yet seeded, you can already sense the scale and grandeur of this course in the making, with signature tee shots played over lagoon waters, and an elevated hilltop position affording it sweeping views out to the Red Sea in the South and the dramatic desert mountain landscape in the North. There will be an extensive golf academy built here with driving range, short game practice areas and even a 4-hole academy course. Plus a modern clubhouse, on-site hotel and fairway villas, which incidentally, if you are thinking of a spot of speculative property investment, represent excellent value with prices starting from £150,000 for a studio, with a rental programme that gives you 45 days stay and 6% return on your investment. The first 9 holes are due to open at the start of 2014 so watch this space...
As I mentioned earlier there are plenty of hotels to choose from in El Gouna, ranging from 5-star down to self-catering apartments (in fact there's even a six star exclusive hotel!) I was fortunate to stay at the best location for golfers, the 5-star Steigenberger Golf Resort, which is right on the golf course. Well, almost, it's actually right in the centre of the course and the water of the lagoons separates you from the fairways, allowing you to choose to walk across the many bridges that link the course to the hotel or take a short boat trip across the lagoon with your clubs.
I have visited Egypt before and found that in general a 5-star hotel here is more like a 3-star hotel at home. This however, is not the case in El Gouna. The Steigenberger is every bit the 5-star hotel that it looks in the pictures. The hotel rooms are large and lavish, the service is exemplary as every member of staff always has a polite smile on their faces, and the Egyptians speak excellent English and are friendly. The food is fresh and tasty and the facilities, including several large outdoor heated pools, a Jacuzzi and a huge spa are modern and clean. Upgrade to a suite and you'll have a room with a wonderful private terrace with views over the course and lagoons. The Steigenberger Golf Resort really does make that extra effort to ensure that your holiday is perfect. Every week the hotel manager, a very switched on German guy called Thomas Meyer, chats to his guests at a welcome cocktail reception. He makes sure that his key staff are on hand that evening, including the head chef, to chat to the guests and they really do listen to your feedback.
On the subject of food and drink, Steigenberger guests staying on the half board or full board basis have the option of dining in the hotel's main restaurant, which offers a lavish buffet with different themes every evening and live cooking stations, or you can book into the hotel's fine dining French restaurant La Rotisserie, with its enviable location at the top of a viewing tower in the centre of the golf course, and eat for free off a set menu every evening. If you enjoy the variety of eating out and exploring different places then you'll be in heaven here. The Steigenberger is one of a host of hotels in El Gouna that share a programme called 'Dine Around' which gives you a generous credit to go and eat in one of various different restaurants owned and run by different hotels. I took advantage of Dine Around and hopped in a tut tut, the fun little location bike-style taxis that whizz you anywhere you want for about 50p, to go and eat in Tandoor, an Indian restaurant owned by the Ali Pasha hotel on the marina. Chef Vijay serves the most delicious fresh dishes I have tasted at any Indian restaurant anywhere in the world. If you enjoy a good steak then I'd highly recommend the Captain's Inn steakhouse, also on the front at the marina, for another night.
Aside from the golf El Gouna has lots to offer visitors. It is actually one of the kite surfing capitals of the world and they regularly host championships on the sandy, windswept shores here. That's not to say that a day at the beach is ruined by winds, as many of the hotels have their own private beaches positioned on the edges of the shallow lagoon waters, which are sheltered from the wind.
Perhaps the most famous attraction to this part of Egypt is the diving on offer in the Red Sea. There are diving schools galore and a great set-up in El Gouna where you learn in the shallow waters of the lagoons before they take you out to dive down deep and see the wonders that await in the depths of the Red Sea.
For a less exhilarating experience you can take the leisurely cruise around the lagoons on one of the many boat trips that depart daily from the hotel jetties. Cruising around the calm lagoon waters reminded me of a gentle gondola ride along the canals in Venice, except the temperature of the water is warmer and it doesn't smell! Most of the lagoon trips make a stop in the marina at El Gouna, where you'll find dozens of impressive white speed boats and yachts have dropped anchor. It has the feel of San Trope in the South of France but without the high price tags when you step foot on shore, as there's duty free shopping where you can bag a bargain, lots of water front bars and restaurants offering great value dining and trendy bars like my favourite called 'Mood' that transform into the 'in place' to be seen in the evenings.
I could go on and on all day about why you have to ignore the news and go and discover what El Gouna has to offer for yourself, trust me it is as safe and welcoming as anywhere in the world, but I think one elderly English couple I met summarise it perfectly. They were in their mid-eighties and have been travelling out to stay at the Steigenberger Golf Resort for the last nine years. They stay here for six weeks every winter on an all-inclusive basis and are treated like a King and Queen, drinking a glass of the finest wine to accompany a good meal twice a day, and enjoying a dance to live music played in the hotel several times a week.
They play golf four times a week and on the days they don't golf they wander around the lagoons. They told me that the Steigenberger is one of the best hotels they have stayed in anywhere in the world and that they come here because it's the closest place to home that they can fly to with a guarantee of warm weather in the middle of our winter. They look like they could live forever here. That for me is proof enough that this place is safe. El Gouna has left a lasting impression on me, so much so that I'm already planning to come out here again next winter.
STEIGENBERGER GOLF RESORT WINTER DEAL
7-nights half board (breakfast and dinner), welcome drink reception, use of the spa with pools, sauna, steam bath and fitness centre. Prices start from £325 per person, including VAT and service charges. Offer valid until April 2013, on request and subject to availability.
All inclusive per person per day: £26
5 days green fees, 18 holes per person: £285
Airport return shuttle per room: £20
Fax: +49 69 66564-888
Toll-free booking hotline:
00800 - 78468357
HOW TO GET TO EL GOUNA
Thomas Cook, Thomson and EasyJet fly direct to Hurghada International Airport with prices starting from £200 return. However these airlines will charge you extra for your baggage, so you might want to consider flying with Egyptair, which offers a very generous baggage allowance of 46kg per passenger, allowing you to check two bags in for free - a set of golf clubs and a suitcase. If you to connect via Cairo but you'll only have an hour or so to kill, just enough time to get a bit of currency changed up ready for when you arrive. Visit www.egyptair.com for prices.
TRIED & TESTED
SAWYER SQUEEZE WATER FILTER SYSTEM
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I say: What an ingenious idea! I've lost track of the number of foreign golf destinations I have visited where I have had to purchase bottled water and even then the local bottled water is not guaranteed to be safe to drink. £60 might seem like a big expense but when you think of how many of bottles of water you will drink in a round in a sunny destination, not to mention with meals or sun bathing, the cost soon adds up to the Sawyer water filter being a sound investment. It's perfect to carry in your golf bag as it rolls up into a compact pack, with three sized pouches (half a litre, one litre and two litres). All you have to do is fill up your pouch of choice with water from any local source, be it tap, or even a stream, screw the filter onto the pouch and squeeze the bag to filter the water, which you can drink directly from the filter or pour it into your own water bottle, cup etc.