An aerial view of the Steigenberger Hotel & Golf Resort in El Gouna
RESORT FOCUS: EL GOUNA, EGYPT
Golf News Editor Nick Bayly and family enjoy a week-long stay at the Steigenberger Golf & Hotel Resort in El Gouna, a purpose-built holiday destination located on the sandy shores of Egypt’s Red Sea, where cloudless skies and a gentle breeze provides the perfect backdrop to pristine and uncrowded fairways…. and a whole load of kite surfers
For a country not short on sand, it’s somewhat surprising that Egypt has so far failed to produce a professional golfer of global renown. But then again, with just 25 courses to go around a population of just over 100 million, and with a certain Mo Salah doing his thing, it’s safe to say that golf isn’t high up the list of activities that young Egyptians are looking to pursue after the school bell rings.
Of course, as with most holiday destinations, golf isn’t provided in Egypt exclusively for the locals, however much the national golf federation no doubt insists that they are. They are there to attract tourists. Hotel? Tick. Spa? Tick. Swimming pools and beach club? Tick. Restaurants & Bars? Tick. Kids club? Tick. Golf course? Tick. These are the things that draw millions of people to leave the comfort of their homes in search of something different for two or three weeks of the year. That, and some decent weather.
Fortunately, El Gouna, a man-made, purpose-built temple to hedonism located on the western side of the Red Sea – some five hours drive south of Cairo, if that’s your only geographical touchpoint in Egypt – ticks all of those boxes and some. The dream-turned-reality of Egyptian billionaire Samih Sawiris, chairman and CEO or international property and hotel and development company Orascom Holdings, El Gouna is described on Wikipedia as a ‘self-sufficient, fully integrated resort town’. Built on 36 interconnected islands surrounded by lagoons along a 5km stretch of coastline, El Gouna is located 20 miles north of Hurghada International Airport, the main hub for southern Egypt’s holiday hotspots.
The first hotels and houses went up in 1990, and some 33 years later the number of hotel stands at 18, and the number of residential properties at around 10,000. Interspersed between the hotels and the houses – and the accommodation for the 12,000-plus employees that work in the town – are three marinas stacked with superyachts, miles of sandy beaches, seven kiteboarding centres, dozens of shops, 80-plus restaurants and bars, a school, a hospital, churches and mosques, a winery and, thankfully, a couple of very decent golf courses.
Like Sharm El Sheikh, which is located on the northern shore of the Red Sea, El Gouna is designed to provide a safe space for well-healed visitors to relax and unwind – the travel industry calls it ‘Fly & Flop’ – between trips to the historical sites for which Egypt is famous. Hence, you’d be hard pressed to find a guest at El Gouna that hasn’t snuck in a day-return trip to Cairo to check out the Pyramids and the Sphinx or hopped on a tour bus for a guided tour around the Valley of the Kings or the temple at Luxor. My family did, and it was something none of us will ever forget.
Our ‘flop’ for the week was the Steigenberger Golf Hotel & Resort, a five-star venue that, in addition to 268 recently renovated guest rooms and suites, six bars and restaurants, three swimming pools, a spa and a private lagoon-side beach, also boasts its very own 18-hole championship golf course at El Gouna Golf Club. As it turned out, it was also our ‘very own’ golf course, in that during our two-round experience, my youngest son and I didn’t see any other golfers during the first 18 holes, and only two during our second – but that might have been something to do with the fact that only mad dogs and English golf journalists and their offspring play golf in Egypt in early July, where the temperature is a steady 35°c (although it is much more comfortable mid-20s during the peak visitor months between November and March).
Fortunately, El Gouna enjoys an almost persistent on-shore breeze, which not only helps wick away perspiration, but also explains why the oversized luggage collection area at Hurghada airport was mainly populated by fit-looking young people picking up bags filled with unfeasibly large amounts of heavy kit, which I soon discovered were kiteboards. Yes, 35°c is a little on the warm side for us lily-livered Brits, but with factor 50 sunblock applied, the aforementioned breeze on our backs, and the welcome shade provided by a golf buggy, conditions were manageable provided you didn’t dally too long over your bunkers shots or agonise over the read of a curling 25-footer for a double bogey.
While we certainly weren’t for dallying, neither were we up for rushing around, as the El Gouna course demands your full attention, especially when you miss a fairway and end up in the semi-rough, which is capable of swallowing a ball whole. Designed by Gene Bates and Fred Couples – yes, the very same no-socks wearing, smooth-swinging, 1992 Masters-winning Floridian – El Gouna GC first opened in 1999 and has been providing travelling golfers with a very decent standard of holiday golf ever since.
Before we get into the golf, the journey from our hotel to the course was an adventure in itself. With the bridge that leads directly to the clubhouse undergoing repair during our stay, the only alternative mode of transport was by boat. Arriving at a golf club by sea, or in this case, lagoon, felt very James Bond, and although we didn’t have to battle with any evil villains en route to the first tee, it did get our early morning round to a suitably memorable start. Sadly, the standard of our golf wasn’t quite so memorable, but there was plenty to enjoy about the quality of the course, which circles its way around the lagoon. With water coming into play on the left side of holes 5, 7, 8 and 9, this is certainly not a course for right-handers suffering from a dose of the hooks, while the final two holes will be equally troubling for slicers, with the lagoon very much in play on the right side.
With the course a testing 6,858 yards off the competition tees, we were grateful of the 6,358 yellows, and even more so for the blues, which took the course down to a gettable 5,816. There are also two sets of more forward tees at 5,300 and 4,750 yards, ensuring there are tees to suit all levels of golfer. Playing alongside a novice golfer, and me being a decidedly average golfer, we found the blues very much to our liking, making it challenging but without busting a gut, especially on the holes that played into the wind, which required considerable clubbing up.
In addition to its standard practice facilities, El Gouna also boasts one of the world’s few aqua driving ranges, where you tee off from dry land and aim at a series of greens that are located at various distances across the lagoon. Thankfully, the balls float and are regularly scooped up. The clubhouse, it should be noted, is currently undergoing a complete rebuild, and will be open in all its glory, complete with restaurant and gym, early next year.
Warming to our task, our next game was at the impressive sounding Ancient Sands Golf Club, a delightful full-length 9-hole course that opened in 2017 and winds its way around the resort of the same name. Occupying the highest point of the town, the course was designed by American architect Karl Litten – who has a reputation for being able to work with difficult terrain – and enjoys superb views to the distant mountain range and the Red Sea and also enjoys a pleasant breeze. With holes running alongside and intersected by the inland waterways, it’s a desert-style course that requires careful shot management to avoid reloading, but it is beautifully presented, with generous, pristine fairways, superbly kept bunkers (which didn’t seem very ancient), and large, well-watered greens that ran smooth and true. Design and presentation-wise, I think it just edged El Gouna, hole for hole, and the opening of a second nine next year will only enhance the offering at this excellent venue, which is also attached to a five-star Moorish-style hotel.
Golfers prepared to travel further afield can drive an hour or so south to the Madinat Makadi Golf Resort, while Soma Bay, another resort owned and created by Mr Sawiris, is a further half-an-hour on from there and has an 18-hole championship designed by Gary Player on offer. But with so much else to do in El Gouna, we saved that experience for another time.
And what of the other experiences? Well, as previously mentioned, El Gouna boasts 18 hotels and, although you’re obviously only staying at one, guests welcome to take advantage of the other hotels’ facilities. Thus, if you fancy a luxury spa experience – or some seriously good sushi – you can head to The Chedi, while if you want to try your hand at kitesurfing you might want to mosey over to the Club Pardiso. Regardless of where you are staying, you can sign up to El Gouna’s ‘dine around’ programme, which enables you to eat at a variety of hotels and restaurants around the town for discounted prices. It certainly provides a welcome break from your own hotel’s dining options for those staying on a bed & breakfast deal only, which is the norm for guests in El Gouna now, after initially mainly offering all-inclusive packages.
That’s not to say the Steigenberger was short of dining options, with the main restaurant and poolside bar offering an excellent choice of freshly cooked dishes, while Harumaki, a brand new Japanese restaurant, offers diners a ringside seat to watch skilled chefs preparing a variety of tasty teppanyaki and sushi dishes with a dazzling display of knife skills.
The Steigenberger hotel itself is designed in what is described as a ‘contemporary Nubian’ style, with the the main buildings featuring arched windows and large domes that are a feature of houses in the Nubian region, an area which links southern Egypt to northern Sudan. Guest rooms, which come in various shapes and sizes – all of which are spacious and tastefully furnished – offer terraces with views over the lagoon and are all a short walk away from the hotel facilities, and just a few yards from a private beach, where rows of low-slung barusti huts offer welcome shade between darts into the cooling salty waters of the Red Sea. The staff are super friendly and extremely professional, and many were keen to know my thoughts on Liverpool’s chances of winning the Premier League this season.
While some visitors to El Gouna rent cars to make the 40-minute journey from Hurghada airport, many chose to take advantage of airport transfers and then travel around the town in one of the many three-wheeled TukTuks that whizz around the byways and highways at breakneck speed and can flagged down for just £1-£2 to take you anywhere in town, although that will mainly be to the central marina, where the majority of the bars and restaurants are to be found.
At night, the marina – which is packed with rows of large and very expensive-looking superyachts – has a party vibe, with live music sounding out from various clubs and bars, while the water’s edge is lined with diners and people out enjoying themselves. At times it felt like an adult version of Disneyworld, where the only people are tourists, but without the fairground rides, popcorn and Mickey Mouse.
In between our rounds of golf, endless all-you-eat breakfast buffets and magnificent dinners, we packed in a trip on glass-bottomed boat to the check out the amazing coral reef that lies 20 minutes off the coast of El Gouna that attracts divers from all over the world. We also enjoyed a 45-minute boat tour around the lagoon, which is worth doing just to get an understanding of the scale of the place, as well as to have a nose at some of the impressive waterside mansions that line the waterways. Keen to tick off a big box, we also got up at 4.30am one morning to take the 45-minute flight from Hurghada up to Cairo to explore the Pyramids and visit the Museum of Egypt. It was a very long and hot day, but a local guide with an air-conditioned car made it a thoroughly recommended trip if you are prepared to drag yourself away from the sun lounger for a few hours.
On our final night, we joined a group of Italian kite surfers on a desert mountain safari that saw us board a trio of battered-looking 4x4s and drive deep into the mountains that are some 45 minutes inland of El Gouna. Covering some challenging terrain through Wadi Bileh and stopping along the way to explore some impressive geological sites, and do a thankfully limited amount of hiking, we eventually reached a plateau and set up a makeshift camp. Here, under cloudless skies, we enjoyed a barbecue as we watched the sun go down across the endless sands. The silence was golden and after the sun dipped below the horizon the sky was so dark that we saw stars that we’d never been able to see at home. It was a magical moment, and is just one of the many reasons why a trip to El Gouna will live longer in the memory than most beachside summer breaks.
EL GOUNA FACTFILE
WHERE TO STAY: Nick Bayly and family were guests of the five-star Steigenberger Golf Hotel & Resort in El Gouna, which offers seven-night B&B stays from £540 for a double room. For more details, visit hotels.elgouna.com/hotel/steigenberger-golf-resort-el-gouna WHERE TO PLAY: El Gouna Golf Club, 18 holes, Green Fee: €85/€50 (Oct-Apr/May-Sept) Bookings: [email protected].
Ancient Sands GC, 9 holes, Green Fees: €50/€30. Bookings: [email protected]. HOW TO GET THERE: EasyJet offers non-stop flights from London Gatwick to Hurghada, with a flying time of 51/2 hours. Flights from £400 return. If flying via Cairo, connecting internal flights to Hurghada are around £100 return.