A day trip to the Western Desert

It’s always good to get out of your comfort zone and last weekend that’s what I did with a group of my fellow colleagues and friends. At work we have a staff wellbeing group who do a great job organising various social events throughout the year and this trip was about exploring the Egyptian desert south-west of Fayoum.

In a convoy of 4×4’s we left New Cairo at 7am. After a quick briefing and a stop at a service station we headed into the desert. I’ve always found the desert fascinating and terrifying in equal measure and we spend most of the journey staring out at the ever-changing landscape and rock formations.

After about 2hrs we entered Fayoum Oasis and the shimmering blues of Qarun Lake became visible. We all excitedly reached for our cameras but, as usual, no photo could really do the view justice. It would have been a lovely place to have a quick tea break if we’d had time.

We actually saw a film crew set up here which was a rather odd sight in the middle of the desert!

Qarun Lake is the second largest lake in Egypt and is used primarily for irrigation, fishing and sailing. The drive through farm lands was beautiful and gave us a glimpse into a bygone era. Herds of sheep and goats passed us by and we could see workers in the fields. We soon came to a small crossroad with a few shops selling food and drinks. There were tuk tuk drivers available taking visitors to some of the nearby attractions around Fayoum and Tunis village. It was fascinating to see a snap shot of more rural life here.

We drove on and entered the protected area, on each side we could see the rocks rise up to form a plateau and the gorgeous blue, green and turquoise lakes.

This was our first stop and we got out to stretch our legs. There were a number of people on top of the rock formations and those of us who were feeling energetic also decided to try to climb them. There’s an ‘easy’ one and a ‘hard’ one. I chose the more difficult one but my shoes didn’t have the grip I needed and I was soon defeated. The ground is fine pebbles like shale and it’s quite hard to get a grip so decent shoes are a must …….it’s a long way down! The views were incredible.

At the bottom there were a few locals offering camel and horse rides but I didn’t take any photos of these or enquire about prices. I’m very reluctant to use animals as I’m not always convinced they are particularly well cared for but it’s up to you to make that judgement. Once we came back from our short hike, we had a quick snack of sweet tea and fatayer filled with cheese, molasses and honey. A much-needed sugar hit before heading further south.

We soon packed up and after a 30 minute drive we arrived at Samuel Dunes. This area has wonderful soft sand and the dunes are great for the adrenaline filled ‘sport’ of dune bashing. The car tires were let down and we went off-road. For the next 2 hours there were honestly times when I thought I might die. It was sheer terror mixed with laughter, gasps of breath, gritted teeth, white knuckles and a fair bit of bad language.

We were given a couple of chances to get out and basically play about on the dunes or simply enjoy the beauty of our surroundings. It was pristine, so beautiful and serene.

We also stopped as one car misjudged a dune and got stuck!

I’m not going to lie; it was scary. However, our drivers were really experienced and they worked as a group communicating with each other via walkie talkies. It is stomach churning though, being tossed up, down, left, right – an activity to be done before lunch!

After the dune bashing, with our nerves well and truly frayed we took the scenic route to ‘magic lake’.

Situated just behind the rock formations where we’d stopped previously this was where we were going for a late lunch, to swim and sand board. By now I was feeling simultaneously hungry and sick. So as soon as we arrived I drank tea and laid down!

My fellow day trippers took the chance to take a cooling dip in the water and freshen up.

This area is open to the public but Desert Adventures has a small area sectioned off and provided 2 portable, clean toilets and a shaded tent with rugs. Lunch was salad, pickles, bread, pasta, pasta sauce, kebab and kofta with fruit and Arabic desserts. It really was tasty and freshly prepared.

With our tummies full and sand in our hair we sat back and relaxed as the sun went down, although some of the more energetic found went off sand boarding! About 6pm with the sun setting behind us we headed back to Cairo.

What an amazing experience. It was a very long day but I have so many wonderful memories of stunning landscapes and great people.

I’d definitely recommend exploring this part of the Western desert. We paid 850LE each for our bespoke trip with Desert Adventures, other companies probably do these trips too. If you want to escape the chaos of the city and find peace, tranquility and get back to nature then this is something you’d enjoy.

The Oberoi, Sahl Hasheesh

Over the years my views on holidays have changed. When I lived in the UK and only had the chance to go away for a couple of weeks a year all I was bothered about was that the sun would shine, the beach was nice and I could go a day trip or two. Now I’m much more interested in experiencing the places that I go to, living in ‘hot’ countries for the last 4 years, I’m not to fussed about lounging by a pool or beach. I love visiting historical sites and understanding local culture, I don’t even mind if it’s cold. But, now I’m going to completely contradict myself with this write-up of our stay at The Oberoi Sahl Hasheesh, where we did pretty much nothing other than lie by the pool – our own private pool!

Sahl Hasheesh is about 30 minutes south of Hurghada and the journey from New Cairo took us about 5 hours. After the long drive it was lovely to be warmly greeted by the security guard and shown to reception. The grounds of the hotel are absolutely beautiful, credit to the staff who maintain the grounds they were always immaculate and it’s clear they are expertly cared for. There was some grounds work going on, I assume they are getting it in tip-top shape for the main tourist season.

I think check in was the smoothest I’ve ever experienced. We were given cool towels, a refreshing glass of hibiscus juice and sat on comfortable chairs in the reception area while the paperwork was carried out discretely by Sami.

Once this was done we were taken on a brief tour of the main facilities and then given complimentary tea and coffee while we waited for confirmation our room was ready. We arrived at 11am and luckily our room was ready shortly after. The property sits on 48 acres of land so golf buggies are available 24hrs a day if required. After a short ride we arrived at our grand suite which was just beautiful. I had read so many glowing reviews of the hotel that I had very high expectations and it didn’t disappoint.

Our suite

The suite we booked was a grand suite and it aptly named. With a light and airy open floor plan, a spacious lounge led through to the king size bedroom, a walk in closet and stunning bathroom with rainfall shower and sunken bath. I really loved all the local touches such as the rugs, furniture, lights and artwork. The Egyptian linen was such excellent quality and many items in the room could also be purchased from the hotel boutique which I thought was a lovely idea. The lounge had a comfortable sofa, TV, fridge, mini bar and all of the windows were fitted with blinds so it was completely private. Each day we received complimentary fresh fruit and bottles of mineral water. Small cartons of milk are also provided free of charge from the mini bar so you can make your own tea and coffee.

The bed was extremely luxurious with feather pillows and duvet and each day it was made up and decorated with ‘towel art’.

The huge walk in closet ensured there was plenty of room for suitcases plus lots of hanging space, drawers, a full length mirror and a safe. We were also provided with slippers and robes. I loved the attention to detail such as proving electrical adaptors, a beach bag and insect repellent!

The bathroom gave us some serious interior design inspiration. I loved the wall of glass onto the small garden creating an ‘inside outside’ feel. The shower was very powerful and the sunken bath with candles was just lovely.

At times we did struggle to get hot water, we had to run the water for a while (which felt wasteful) but it did heat up eventually. The toiletries and towels were very good quality and it was always spotlessly clean. I have a real dislike of hair dryers which are hard-wired into the bathroom drawer so even though it was powerful, next time I’ll take my own because I hate drying my hair in the bathroom due to the bad combination of humid air and frizz! During our stay the housekeeping was superb. Each morning when we came back from breakfast our room had been made up and each evening the turn down service took place when we were having dinner. This discreet service was excellent, we didn’t need to wait around so they could carry out the service.

The garden

This for me was my favourite part of the suite, I have never stayed anywhere with my own private pool and this one has set a high precedent for future holidays. Leading off from the lounge a glass door opens onto a shaded patio area complete with a dining table and chairs. The sizeable pool takes up the majority of the rest of the garden and it’s just wonderful. It benefits from the sun all day with occasional shade provided by the palm trees.

There are also 2 sunbeds and a big umbrella. I loved only having to walk a few steps before plunging into the pool. It’s about 4ft deep but there is no shallow end; something to consider if you are staying with children. I have to say we spent the majority of our time by the pool and it was blissfully quiet (this is quite rare for Egypt) with only the occasional sound coming from the birds in the trees. If you order in room dining they set up the indoor or outdoor dining table so it feels like you’re still at home! On an evening the pool was lit up so you could enjoy a bit of night swimming and, if you’re staying in winter, the pool is heated.

Food

We really enjoyed the food during our stay, it wasn’t outstanding but it was consistently good from breakfast to dinner and in-room dining. Our stay included breakfast but all other food and drink we paid for separately. Breakfast is either served outside overlooking the pool or indoors with views across the sea.

Two options are available; an open buffet or you can order from an a la carte menu.

I can definitely recommend the crepes, French toast and eggs Benedict.

The hotel also caters for dietary requirements offering gluten-free, organic and low-fat options. You can also order breakfast to your room for no extra charge which we did on our last day as it was more convenient.

We ordered in room dining for lunch, and again the food was delicious. The pepperoni pizza in particular was very good as was the chicken shawarma. The in-room dining menu isn’t huge but there’s enough variety if you’re only staying for a few days, a children’s menu is also available.

Dinner is served either under the stars in the courtyard or indoors. Both have wonderful musicians playing traditional instruments which added to the atmosphere rather simply creating noise. It really is a lovely place to spend the evening and the service was good.

It is obvious the hotel prides itself on its menu, offering seasonal dishes and themed nights. I wasn’t aware that the menu changes daily so if you see something you fancy order it because it may not be available the next night!

The bar offers a variety of drinks and snacks. We became rather partial to a gin fizz cocktail, berry mojito and shisha while playing cards! A couple of times the chef came out to ask us about our meals which was a lovely touch.

The beach

To be fair we hardly made it to the beach but it is very pretty. Fine golden sand fringed with palm trees and crystal clear water. Like many places on the Red Sea there is a lot of coral which makes it ideal for diving and snorkeling but dangerous to walk on without shoes.

However, the hotel has this covered by providing shoes free of charge and also the option of going into the sea via a jetty to avoid walking on the coral reef. There are many sun-beds and umbrellas, plus staff are on hand regularly bringing over complimentary cold towels, drinks and suntan lotion!!

I imagine if you’re staying in one of the suites at the ‘top’ of the hill the walk to the beach in the summer could be quite a challenge. But, as I said, there are loads of golf buggies around so if you have mobility problems or you just don’t fancy the walk you can just grab a buggy back!

The pool

During our stay the hotel was operating at 40% occupancy and it was blissfully tranquil. The only time we really noticed the number of guests was at dinner when most the table were taken. As many people have their own pool and other guests use the beach the pool area was generally quiet. The pool is ideal for children as it has a shallow end and steps at each side.

The setting overlooking the sea is lovely. Even on an evening it was nice to sit by the pool watching the sun set.

Other services / facilities

There is a tennis court on site and all equipment can be loaned from the hotel. The court wasn’t busy when we were there but in high season you may need to book.

There is a gym (which I peered at through the window) which looked well equipped. I’m really annoyed that I never booked a spa treatment, next time I will for sure because based on the rest of the hotel I’m sure it’s superb. As mentioned earlier there is a Boutique selling beautiful fabrics, ornaments, jewelry and toiletries. This is a perfect place to pick up a souvenir as the quality was very good and the prices fairly reasonable. It was nice to be able to browse without being hassled! I loved the reading room which was styled like a gentlemen’s club and had lots of book about Egyptology. This was a quiet, relaxing place to sink down into a sofa and find out more about the history and culture of the country.

The hotel offers a daily program for children and adults such as cooking classes, games and activities. They also have selection of trips available such as a boat trip to Giftun Island, glass bottom boat trips, visits to a nearby monastery, quad biking and snorkeling. On leaving the hotel, within walking distance there are a few souvenir shops and further towards Hurghada there is a mall with a Spinney’s supermarket and KFC etc. Although there is no ATM in the hotel you can use your bank card at the front desk to get cash back, they charge 5% for this useful service.

Some other points

The hotel doesn’t encourage the use of mobile phones in the restaurants and this was actually quite refreshing. We didn’t have to endured listening to other people’s conversations, in-fact I rarely saw anyone with their phone out. This made it quite awkward for me trying to take photos of the food and rooms as I was definitely the odd one out!

The hotel discourages individual tips. They ask at the end of your stay to place a gratuity in an envelope which is distributed amongst all staff. I loved this, we didn’t have to try to find small bills each time we got a buggy or ordered food and drinks. However, I did write onto the envelope the name of our housekeeper who did an excellent job so I’m hoping he received his share.

Unlike our recent stay in Ain Sokhna the prices at the Oberoi do not include service charge and taxes but I personally much prefer having everything included. I’m not sure if this is hotel policy or all hotels in the Red Sea Governorate operate this way. It’s something to take into account if you’re on a budget, you need to add roughly 25% to each bill.

As you can probably tell we absolutely adored our time at the Oberoi. I don’t think I’ve had a stay where everything was so relaxed and the staff were so professional, we came home feeling totally refreshed. I can’t recommend the hotel more highly if you’re looking for a total escape and luxury. This all however comes at a price……..I’d say taking the room, food, drink, taxes, tips into account we probably paid about £400 a night. Was it worth it? Yes, we will always look back at our 5th wedding anniversary with very fond memories (especially considering we spent our honeymoon in a Premier Inn!). If you are considering making a booking I’d recommend you book directly with the hotel as you will get a better rate. If you do go, please let me know what you thought.

Now, I’m pretty sure Hani, one of the waiters, told me the Oberoi brand operates a luxury Nile cruiser between Aswan and Luxor so I’d best look into booking that……!

Thank you for reading, liking, sharing and commenting 🙂