Friday, April 17, 2015

Red Sea Voyages

I left San Francisco on Tuesday evening (April 14) on Turkish Airlines' new non-stop service to Istanbul, arriving Wednesday evening (April 15). There was a bit of drama at check-in because the counter agent wasn't sure I could fly to Egypt without a visa. I told her and her supervisor that Americans can get a visa on arrival. They then told me that I can only stay 14 days in Egypt, which is also untrue. I was in the middle of pulling up the Egyptian embassy's visa web page when someone relayed the message that yes I am fine and please check me in. I think they were a bit confused because there are a few places (especially Sharm Al Sheik) where you can go without a visa for up to 14 days, but Port Ghalib/Marsá Al'alam isn't one of them.

The 12-hour flight with 10 hours of time zone changes was pleasant and uneventful. I sat "up front" which meant I had a lay-flat seat and a dinner that would have gone on for hours if I hadn't bailed. First there was strawberry juice with mint, with a piece of Turkish delight. Then champagne and pistachios. Then an amuse bouche of three mini savory tarts -- which I thought was the appetizer. THEN they wheeled in an appetizer CART, with about eight selections on it. They looked amazing, I had sliced grilled chicken with avocado, hummus, beet salad with goat cheese, and a smoked trout canapé. They were all scrumptious. I was shocked at the arrival of a soup course: roasted tomato bisque with croutons. At this point I was full, and had about four bites of the main course (a dried out steak with roasted potatoes, they were out of the mushroom ravioli). I skipped the dessert cart entirely, but it looked incredible: chocolate pots de creme, baklava, various cakes and tarts. And there was also a cheese course! I don't know how anyone could eat even part of all the courses. I brushed my teeth and settled down for a 5 1/2 hour nap.

Once in Istanbul, I waited for my midnight flight to Hurghada, on the Red Sea in Egypt. The Turkish Airlines lounge in Istanbul is even more insane than dinner on the plane: pool table, movie lounge with popcorn, TV walls with wireless headphones so you can tune to the screen of your choice (including a professional netball game), virtual golf, a PlayStation bar, a bank of desktop computers with a printer, a piano lounge, shower rooms, lockers for your bags, and SO MUCH FOOD. There was a pasta station, grilled meats/vegetables, soups, salads, flatbreads with toppings, a café with a pastry buffet, a tea garden with an olive bar, and a fresh fruit bar. Bar carts stocked with a good variety of booze, wine carts, and fridges of water/juices/beer were everywhere (and self-serve). I don't know how they do this but OMG it was better than even the Cathay Pacific business lounge in Hong Kong or the Lufthansa first class lounge in Munich. I'm stupefied by the excess of hospitality.

My connecting flight left on time, and was scheduled for a mere two hours, but that didn't stop Turkish Airlines from loading me up with more food. Turkish delight and lemonade, more drinks (I stayed with lemonade, it had fresh mint in it), a mezze plate with zucchini stuffed with creamy blue cheese, something delicious involving eggplant, and salmon tartare. There was a fresh salad, a cheese plate (on a SLATE!!) and a dish of chocolate mousse. They offered me an entree TOO but I said no. After crossing the Mediterranean and flying over the Nile River delta and Cairo, we landed at about 1:45am Thursday morning (April 16). I had pre-arranged for a driver to meet me, which was great because he turned up pre-Immigration with my visa in hand, and slapped it into my passport, eliminating any waiting in line for me. I was the first person through, but then had to wait over half an hour for my baggage. I had pre-booked the night at the Hurghada Marriott Red Sea Resort, about a ten minute drive from the airport. I arrived, checked in, and was in bed sleeping by 3:30am.

I woke up at 10:00am so I could get breakfast and take a walk. The hotel is nicely situated and the area is pretty in that there is a beach, a little island reachable by footbridge from the hotel, and many yachts tied up along the waterfront. My driver picked me up at 11:30am, took me to a bank to change money (I couldn't get any at the various airports I passed through), and to Vodaphone so I could get a local data SIM (about $10 US for 3.5gig). Then we began the drive south to the planned resort community of Port Ghalib, between Quesir and Marsá Al'alam. I had been told that this was going to be a four hour drive, but it turns out it was only 2 1/2--through the most unrelenting desert I have yet seen. There were low craggy mountains to the west, the Red Sea lay to the east, and EVERYTHING else was rocks and sand. The dry parts of California are lush in comparison. It's Dune, seriously. I have no idea how people live here, even the villages and towns we passed through were unrelentingly dry and sandy. Every so often there would be a tree shading someone's front door, but that was it. No gardens, no farming, most of the time not even any scrub grass. There was a building boom here at one point, which has gone completely bust. Apartment complexes and resorts stand unfinished, abandoned. In 500 years people may marvel over this, wondering what it is about Egypt that compels people to build so much. My silly theory, and this extends back to the days of the pyramids, is that there is NOTHING else here, so people build. What else there to do?

After passing through a few police checkpoints and by a couple of mobile military radar tracking stations (only one in use), we arrived at my hotel, The Palace Port Ghalib. It used to be run by InterContinental, but was taken over by an Egyptian company in February. Fortunately the transfer of reservation information had taken place, so my room was waiting for me. Unfortunately when I tried to pay all my cards were declined. I paid in cash (US dollars) and was shown to my room. It was quite pleasant, overlooking a garden, with a bit of the Red Sea and the marina in view. I called my banks and got the card situation straightened out, the upshot being that they need to enter my card number manually to process charges here. I advised them of the possibility of fraud, and was reassured that so far they had seen nothing and that they'd keep an eye on things. The hotel is "all-inclusive" of meals for an extra 25€ per day, but it appeared to be buffet food only and I *hate* large-scale buffets, so I declined this option. There is a small collection of shops and restaurants nearby, so I set out to explore.

The hotel's pool is lovely, and there is a large beach area with shaded lounge chairs and cabanas looking east over the Red Sea. I walked out on a long pier, and gazed into the crystal clear water to see abundant corals and reef fish. This bodes well for actual diving. The shoreline curves into to the port itself, so I walked by the marina and the harbormaster to the shopping area. Many units were empty, again evidence of the economic situation, but I found an Italian restaurant with upholstered sofas for lounging on and eating. After a tasty dinner of gnocchi bolognese, I returned to the hotel for the night. This morning is very windy, so I've forgone lounging by the pool to sit in a (chain) coffee shop, having a latte and a croissant for breakfast. I am amazed at the number of dive boats here. The boat I'm getting on tomorrow is still out for the week, so I haven't seen it yet.

Camels! I keep forgetting to mention the camels! I've seen four so far: three here as an attraction in the tourist area, and one "in real life" as we were driving down the coast yesterday. We were passing a small village, and Bedouins were camped nearby. The camel was drinking water out of a trough. It was the first time I'd ever seen one not in a zoo. I plan to spend today lounging and reading, and will eat dinner later at an Egyptian cafe/bar/smoking place in the shops near the hotel. I'm going down to the boat tomorrow afternoon, and then it's a week at sea. We'll be heading out to some pinnacle islands called The Brothers. They are 50 miles offshore--half way to Saudi Arabia! From there we go to Daedalus, which I think I read is a coral atoll here in the Red Sea, and finally to Elphinstone Reef. All these sites are far enough offshore that I probably won't have data coverage, but if I get any and can post an update I will. We'll come back in to Port Ghalib at the end of the week for a night, and then will head for some reefs to the south.

To read about the rest of this two-week long trip, keep hitting "Newer Post" below.

No comments: