El Gouna, Egypt
We turn out of the Egyptian city of Hurghada and into the desert. The road is straight and disappears towards the horizon. On either side sand blows. Not the rich yellow sand of Saharan postcards – the dirtier variety that gathers near cities like this.
As we drive further from the urbanity, though, the sand begins to take a more pleasant hue. We’re also leaving behind the large Red Sea resorts of Hurghada that I saw when flying in an hour ago.
From above, they look like small theme parks, I had thought at the time. Large pools that stretch across almost the whole property; building after building of hotel rooms surrounding them; water slides and beach umbrellas and tennis courts to amuse. You can see what I mean in the map below.
I am told later these Egyptian resorts are particularly popular with groups of Russian tourists. It brings back memories of almost being crushed to death in the stampede for the all-inclusive lunch buffet at a similar resort one time in Turkey.
After about 30 minutes of driving, I arrive at my destination – El Gouna. To call it a resort would be unfair. El Gouna is actually more of a town. I realise that straight away as I’m driven from the front gate of the site to my hotel, Captain’s Inn, by the water of the marina. It takes at least ten minutes to get there through what look like suburbs (it’s hard to tell exactly because the sun has set since we passed through the gate).
It’s not until the next morning that I’m able to start exploring properly. El Gouna is not somewhere that you walk around, though. Like any town, it’s important to have proper transportation but you would not expect a town surrounded on three sides by North African desert to use boats. But it’s from deckside, cruising the artificial canals, that I get my first real glimpses of El Gouna.
As you can see in this map, El Gouna is larger than you might expect.
On one side is the Red Sea, which provides the beaches, the marinas, and a cool breeze in the evenings. There’s a golf course in the middle of the development (and another one currently being built in the northern section), a cable park where I will later fail spectacularly at water-skiing, hotels, restaurants, a university, schools, a hospital and houses. This is clearly more than just a holiday destination, even if everything feels like one.
What is El Gouna?
So how did this rather unusual town end up in the middle of nowhere Egypt, prosperous and green with water flowing through almost every vista? Well, it was the creation of Egyptian billionaire Samih Sawiris. The story one person tells me here in El Gouna is that he chose a site where he used to fish as child to build his dream home and it grew from there. The description on El Gouna’s website says he searched the Red Sea coast for the most beautiful spot he could find to “carve paradise out of the desert”. And in a direct interview I read, Samih Sawiris explains that he wanted to build a small community for family and friends but chose the site because it was not too far from the city of Hurghada but was also just far enough.
The exact details of how the idea was conceived are irrelevant now, 25 years on. What is important is what has happened since then. The small settlement on the coast did indeed grow and it now has about 20,000 full-time residents and 17 hotels. The whole town is owned by Samih Sawiris’s company which means development can be managed in a sustainable way, all the different areas of operation can work together easily, and there is a consistent atmosphere to the entire town.
It certainly does feel a bit odd in El Gouna. Not bad – just odd. It’s almost like the Truman Show… if the movie had been set in the desert. You know that shambolic Egypt is outside the gates but here, inside, everything is clean and efficient and friendly. There are no beggars, no harassment, no safety concerns.
It may be a town but it still has the semblance of a resort. I don’t realise that at first but it comes to me peacefully after my golf lesson, while I’m being massaged at Future Spa, and dreaming about the evening’s dinner to come after a sunset stroll along the beach.
At first I thought maybe I would be too young for somewhere like El Gouna. Certainly it has, at times, the feeling that many of the guests are spending their children’s inheritance here rather than in an empty nest. But as I explore, I realise this is the great benefit of this rather unique mix between town and resort.
Each of the 17 hotels offers something different – from high-end luxury, to easy access to the golf course, to adults only (which is not what I first assumed), to younger nightlife. At my hotel, Captains’ Inn, many of the guests are 20-something Europeans who are here for the excellent kitesurfing conditions. But no matter where you stay, all of El Gouna’s facilities are available to you.
In fact, there is even a rather novel Dine Around program where, if you have paid for full or half board at a hotel, you are able to have your dinner at the restaurants of other hotels on some of the nights. Although the steak I have the first evening at Captain’s Inn is delicious, I am particularly impressed with the Egyptian feast on offer at the El Tableya Restaurant of Dawar El Omda Hotel.
The food may be authentically Egyptian but El Gouna isn’t. The whole complex may appear sometimes to be a resort but it isn’t. At other times it may appear to be a town, but it isn’t really that either. It’s unique. It really is just how it was described – it’s billionaire Samih Sawiris’s little bit of paradise carved out in the desert.