El Gouna: Relax in sun-drenched paradise

by clareiow

Just five hours' flight from the UK, El Gouna is a sun-bathers' paradise with a luxury marina and an underwater world to discover.

FROM the minute I checked in at the Sheraton Miramar Resort, El Gouna, I was hooked.
That was four years ago and now, after five visits to this exclusive Egypt resort, I can call the staff my friends and my spot by the pool a second home, such is its allure.

My family and I booked our holiday to El Gouna on the off-chance in March 2005, the deal was cheap and the weather looked outstanding. What we got was far more than we had ever expected and I am pleased to say those standards have not dropped, despite the speedy growth of this gorgeous resort. Almost from the minute we exited the circus that is Hurghada airport, we could feel ourselves unwind. And by the time we had checked in to the beautiful Sheraton Miramar, relaxation status was almost complete.

The Sheraton is a sprawling low-rise hotel built across several islands and locked together by rustic wooden bridges. The colours of the walls, burnt terracotta and yellow hues, match perfectly to the azure blue sky. The rooms themselves are huge, with high ceilings and cool marble floors, while the beds are cool and super-comfortable. Balconies look out onto the lagoons or the beach and the Red Sea, and are big enough to accommodate two large luxurious sunbeds for private sunbathing. The main pool area contains three pools, the first a normal pool for lane swimming, the second a large free-form pool with a central platform for exercise and entertainment, and a third area containing several shallow paddle pools for children. What is so pleasing about the pool area is that it is not swamped by the traditional early towel brigade who take the best spots hours before breakfast, as this is not permitted. Instead, when you arrive, members of the pool staff come to you with towels and put up your parasol, and within 15 minutes someone is ready to take a drink or food order.

The staff here fall over themselves for you and, if you take time out to talk to them, you will surely make friends for life. They are smart, attentive and best of all, they do everything with a smile. The food at breakfast is very good quality and plentiful, with Western cuisine as well as traditional Egyptian sweets and delicacies. Evening meals are also fantastic but I would recommend eating out at the many restaurants in the resort, which serve excellent food at a great price.

Outside the hotel there is plenty to do, it depends on whether you want a quiet, relaxing break, or a more energetic holiday. Without question the best activity is snorkelling and scuba diving, as with all Red Sea resorts. At the Sheraton there is a TGI Dive Centre branch, where staff can take you on some outstanding trips at a good price. We have been on two snorkelling trips - a two-hour dive and a whole-day trip to Gobel Island. Some of the sights are amazing - the coral is huge and so colourful, and swimming between them are whole shoals of fish, from trigger fish to wrasse and barracuda. We even saw sea cucumber, Napoleon fish, and a family of dolphins. Discovering this underwater world is a truly awe-inspiring experience, and I have lost many hours immersed in its wonder. Just looking into the clear blue sea is enough to make life feel complete.

Back on land there is the resort, and a whole desert to explore. The resort of El Gouna is split into two areas, Abu Tig marina and Downtown. Both have plenty to offer the tourist, especially for shopping and eating out. Abu Tig is a gorgeous marina which provides a home to dozens of multi-million pound yachts, more than 60 restaurants catering for all tastes and a host of designer shops including Kipling and Malaika.

Newly-opened Papas Island shows all the best sport and Premiership football for sports fans and though I did not try any food there, there was a wide variety of dishes ranging from £3 to £9. My favourite, by a mile, is La Scala, the Italian you see as you get off the shuttle bus. The meals are exquisite and at a fantastic price. The only thing I would say is the food there is rich so best not to drink too much red wine with it!

In Downtown, there are more great restaurants to try, including Hedra, where we had our first taste of Egyptian cuisine. When we asked for more traditional food, the staff at Hedra produced a feast worthy of a pharoah. Although the stuffed pigeon was an acquired taste, the rest of the food was beautifully presented and exquisite in taste. And all this for just £12.50 a head. Another favourite is Tamr Henna, which is below Hedra in the main square. This is where Egyptians eat out and you will always find a friendly, buzzing, atmosphere. Food and drink is very, very cheap. We spent five hours here, drinking, eating and smoking a water pipe while watching the Egyptian team play in the FIFA Under-20 World Cup, and the bill came to just £17 for the two of us. Their kebabs are to die for!

Overall, top buys include spices, jewellery, leather goods and Egyptian cotton clothes, towels and bedding.

I am no sportsperson but I know extreme sports fans will love the kiteboarding on offer at Zeytouna and Mangroovy Beach, as well as quad-biking, horse riding and go-karting available in the resort. There is also paintball for the completely mad! If it is night-life that you are after, sadly you will not find it here. Evenings are quiet and relaxing, although some bars are open until late. Those wishing for a night clubbing will find it around 30 minutes away in Hurghada, at Papas Bar.

After a week of sunning, snorkelling and smiling, going home is the worst part of El Gouna.
But for me, another visit awaits. My fiance and I will be going in ten weeks for our honeymoon - we could not think of a better place to spend our first fortnight as husband and wife.