Gateway to El Alamein

MIKE CREAN
Last updated 05:00 26/11/2012
Mediterranean beach view
MIKE CREAN/Fairfax NZ

IDYLLIC: Mediterranean beach view from Mike Crean’s room at his Marassi hotel.

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Forever linked to a famous World War II battle, the El Alamein coast is not a widely acclaimed tourist spot, despite developers' huge expectations for this Mediterranean district.

White sand, golden sun, turquoise water, azure sky - a kaleidoscope that has attracted billion-dollar investment in tourism along northern Egypt's El Alamein coast. And that's American dollars, not the local currency.

Economic woes, political unrest, crazy management, language difficulties - no wonder some developers had their fingers burned.

New resort hotels and apartment blocks line the highway beside the Mediterranean for much of the 20 kilometres from El Alamein to Sidi Abdel Rahman. They are not all pretty and not all finished. Some look as if construction has stalled.

An Egyptian driver tells me that the number of European tourists and wealthy Cairo businessmen making a getaway to these warm waters - and the gentle breezes that moderate heat - have slumped by 15 per cent. But that may be partly because summer has gone and the night air is getting chilly.

Building goes on in some places. Five or six men fussing over some small task that one worker would do in New Zealand is a common sight. Egyptian unemployment is mopped up by mass over-hiring of labour. Maybe it's not a bad thing. I see no beggars and am struck by the health and happy smiles of the ordinary people.

The company building a luxury yachting marina at Marassi claims to have 6500 workers on the project.

Entries to all sorts of premises have barrier arms tended by several men. They sit in their little boxes waiting for cars and buses to come along, then emerge to look the arrivals over before raising the barrier. They then they lower the barrier and return to their hutch for the next long wait.

Service at our Marassi hotel is similar. Try to pick up your bag, and half a dozen staff descend on you. Raise your hand for service at table and two or three waiters vie for the work. However, if they don't understand what you want, even though you say clearly "milk", and repeat it several times, and mime pouring it into your coffee, they reply "OK" and scuttle off - never to be seen again.

We nickname the head barman Basil Fawlty. Muslim countries frown on alcohol consumption, but Basil positively prohibits it. It takes a bunch of determined New Zealanders to break his embargo.

Basil's main tactic is delay. His response to every request is "One minute". It means nothing, as the length of his delays in serving ranges from five to 25 minutes. It is probably the only English phrase he knows.

Many a visitor would give up but we Kiwis, ever patient and good-humoured, devise a contest to see who can achieve the longest wait to receive their order. I fail miserably with a single-figure score. But we all get our drinks - eventually.

I offer to buy a colleague a drink, and he asks for a whisky. A bottle of Johnny Walker Red Label stands on the bar, with four other spirits bottles. The following monologue is punctuated with Basil's responses:

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"A whisky, please." He scans the bottle labels for 30 seconds to discern which one is whisky.

"It's the red one, the Johnny Walker." Another half-minute spent absorbing this helpful hint.

"The one in the middle." He picks up the bottle.

"That's right, that's the one." He holds it up and examines the label for another minute.

"Yes please, that one." He unscrews the lid, takes a full-sized beer glass and pours the whisky in, almost to the brim.

"Groan."

That last utterance is me quaking at the expected cost. Imagine my relief when he charges the same as for a glass of beer, about 40 Egyptian pounds (NZ$8).

The Marassi hotel has magnificent landscaping and a glorious beach, good food and reasonable rates (rooms from about NZ$120 to $350). Units open onto small lawns which lead to white sand. Past an endless row of deckchairs and sun umbrellas the Mediterranean rolls gently in.

Not a swimmer myself, I let others enjoy a warm soak while I gaze at ships on the horizon. They have left the Suez Canal a few hours before and are heading for European ports.

If you are not a beach loafer, you need to be interested in war to enjoy El Alamein. The post-war town, 15km east of our hotel, offers two attractions: the Commonwealth War Cemetery and a military museum. There is also the former railway station, filthy and decrepit but significant because it was the only building there when New Zealand and other Commonwealth soldiers tackled the German and Italian armies in the epic battles of 1942 that swung the African Campaign in the Allies' favour. German and Italian war memorials are a few minutes down the highway.

Look at the surrounding desert, flat and featureless, and you wonder why they were fighting over it. But of course they weren't. The "Alamein line" was a strategic location for stopping the Axis forces advancing on the Suez Canal and gaining access to Middle East oil fields.

When it is time to leave, our bus takes us 30km (50km actually, because the driver gets lost and we have to double back) to El Alamein International Airport. A grandiose name for a semi-derelict 1980s complex that looks as if it was dumped in the heart of the desert and forgotten. It looms out of the sand like a mirage, or a ghost of history. Outside the terminal stand, three abandoned DC10s, their tyres flat, windows smashed, fuselages smeared with graffiti. However, the airport is functional. It opens when charter airlines arrange to land there. It would seem not often.

I recommend a visit to El Alamein, but better to land at Alexandria and make the one-hour drive down the coastal highway by rental car.

Mike Crean, senior feature writer for The Press, visited Egypt with World War II servicemen attending last month's 70th anniversary of the Battle of El Alamein.


GETTING THERE

A six-night northern Egypt package in May, 2013, with Christchurch return airfares, is offered by Christchurch-based Innovative Travel. Air travel is with Emirates and first-class hotel accommodation for three nights in Cairo and three nights in Alexandria (with daily buffet breakfasts) is included as are return airport/rail transfers and Cairo-Alexandria return train first-class. The deal also provides a full-day El Alamein tour, a half-day Alexandria tour and private tours of the Pyramids and Cairo Museum. Total price: from $3785 a person, twin share. Phone 03 365 3910, website innovative-travel.com.

- The Press

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