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Ramadan by the Mediterranean

For many Egyptian holiday seekers, the beginning of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan doesn’t necessarily mean the end to the summer season on the North Coast. While many have returned to the city for the traditional family gatherings of breaking the fast together, others have sought out North Coast resorts for a non-traditional break.

The allure is obvious. With the high temperatures of the mid-summer reaching scorching degrees and Cairo traffic resilient in its mercilessness, quiet time by the beach is both appealing and necessary — that is, if you can afford it.

The North Coast’s Al-Alamein Hotel is situated on the bay of Marassi. It is a massive, ambitious resort managed and constructed by Emaar Group in the area known as Sidi Abdel Rahman. The hotel itself has existed for several decades, experienced several different managements and has been a favorite destination for many families seeking its simple standard rooms or villas with gardens by the sea.

While the hotel’s rates are considerably high when compared to premium hotel franchises by the Red Sea — in fact, all North Coast hotels charge dramatically higher averages when compared to Red Sea rates — one could argue that you are getting your money’s worth for the most beautiful bay on the Egyptian Mediterranean.

With pristine blue waters and ivory white sand, Al-Alamein Hotel’s beach is a dream when compared to overcrowded, polluted and less impressive beaches along the coast. A single row of chaises longues and large umbrellas is spread out along the spacious beach for hotel patrons, while the far west end of the beach features beanbag chairs and chaises longues on grass for the Marassi clubhouse, a venue frequented by residents of the Marassi villas and flats.

If your idea of a perfect day at the beach is to swim, sunbathe, play a game of beach volleyball and paddle out in a paddleboat, then Al-Alamein is a great choice, without the crowds and noise that you may experience elsewhere.

Located an hour and a half away from Alexandria and an easy half-hour away from the Marina and the Wadi al-Natrun route exit, Al-Alamein Hotel has lowered its high season rates for the month of Ramadan — a little tip that seasoned visitors have jumped at. Down from around LE2,800, a standard double room now costs LE1,600 per night on a half-board basis, or LE1,850 for a ground-floor room. A three-bedroom villa, meanwhile, costs more than LE3,000, which makes it a more economical option for large groups.

The hotel has about 20 villas and two presidential villas, as well as three floors of double rooms. All double rooms have views of the sea, with large balconies and comfortable wicker armchairs to enjoy the evening breeze. The bedding was comfortable and clean, while a small fridge, a kettle and mugs were available, although complimentary water or tea bags or sugar were not.

The bathroom includes a tiled window and a standing shower space as well as toiletries, large towels and a hairdryer. That, in addition to two meals and the impeccable sea, is what you get for LE1,600.

Arriving in the first days of Ramadan, we were surprised to find the hotel at full capacity — at least according to the reservation staff member, who would not change our room to a ground-floor one for a family member who could not climb the stairs. In fact, a quick stroll along the bay found that most of the hotel’s villas were full of large families enjoying the shade and the water throughout the hot day, and later on, when dinner was served at the iftar time of 7:05 pm, the dining space was filled with families breaking their fast by the sea instead.

It’s a rather strange experience to spend Ramadan by the beach, especially since the absence of Ramadan pop culture and visual or aural stimulation can make it easy to forget; the only two indications of Ramadan were the call to prayer that reached the beach during the day and the serving of the buffet dinner at iftar time. The restaurant and beach bar were open and operating throughout the day.

The buffet dinner included a soup station with traditional lentil soup, fresh salads and pumpkin seed bread, beef goulash and freshly prepared shrimp pasta as well as the mandatory hibiscus drink. An outdoor grill prepared kofta, chicken and beef patties, while the dessert table included fresh watermelon and tarts.

After iftar, it was pleasant to stroll across the beach and subtly peek into other villas to see what TV series they were watching, while a more restless traveler could be tempted into taking a quick car ride to the Diplomatic Beach and Marina, where many supermarkets, restaurants and shops offer post-iftar dessert and mindless entertainment.

A children’s playground in the back and ample beach space means that you never feel encroached upon by your neighbors, and noise doesn’t carry unless you make the mistake of booking a room right above the restaurant area.

Anyone who’s frequented the North Coast knows how hard it is to find a decent, quiet beach with clean water. The fact that Al-Alamein’s sea is not full of dangerous currents and big waves is an added bonus.

Here’s the fly in the ointment, though: Check-in is at 3 pm, and anything earlier comes at an extra fee worth half a day’s stay; i.e. LE800 for a LE1,600 room. This didn’t go down too well, especially after we were informed that this is standard hotel policy and has been the case for several years now.

After asking to speak to the manager to complain, we were kindly told that the fee had been ceremoniously waived for our sake. While it’s understood that Egypt’s tourism sector is suffering, and that Ramadan can cause a financial dent in the usually lucrative peak season, it was difficult to shake the feeling that the aim was to make as much money out of us as possible.

Considering the high price being paid for a pretty standard room without any extra frills or benefits, it would be disappointing to see this early check-in fee imposed, as it would probably deter us from future visits to what was — in our opinion — hands down, the prettiest beach hotel along the Mediterranean.

This piece was originally published in Egypt Independent’s weekly print edition.

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