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Sharm el Sheikh, Egypt: I can't believe it's a package holiday



By Judith Woods :

"Mummy, where shall I put my croissant? And the bananas? Do I hide them in my napkin? What about yogurt, shall I get us some yogurt?"

It was Day One of our stay at the five-star Sensatori hotel in Sharm el Sheikh, and as my daughter’s anxious tones trilled across the lavish acreage of the breakfast buffet, I turned to her with an exaggerated expression of confusion.

"Darling, I can’t think what you mean," I murmured, wrenching baked goods from her grasp. "But Mummy, when we stay somewhere posh, we always steal."

 "Not here, we don’t," I answered, with a beatific smile.

"What about our lunch? Does that mean we won’t eat again all day?"

"No it doesn’t, my angel, because for once, we don’t have to debase ourselves like the middle-class misers we are, squirrelling away rolls and cheese to fill up you and your little sister until supper. We have gone all-inclusive."

I’ve previously harboured a snobbery about package holidays in general and all-inclusive ones in particular. But parenthood is nothing if not an ongoing exercise in revisionism.

To anyone who has ever had to manage a fussy four-year-old’s unpredictable appetite in a faraway country where there is no ham and the bread is a funny (ergo inedible) shape, the phrase “all-inclusive” is a life- saver. And if package holiday equates with other people’s children entertaining yours, it’s not to be sniffed at.

Moreover, if the winter sunshine is guaranteed, the snorkelling world-class, the parade of swaying camels endless and the Great Pyramid at Giza a short plane hop away, what’s there not to love?

My family had come for R & R. I had come on a mission: namely, to suss out Sensatori, Thomson’s new premium package holiday, offering “affordable luxury” to those who want an upmarket break without the need for a defibrillator when the heart-stopping extras bill appears come checkout time.

All meals and local drinks are included, as are a variety of activities for children. It’s pricier than a standard Thomson holiday, but less expensive than trips offered by those established brands Mark Warner and Powder Byrne, both of which specialise in classy family packages with wraparound childcare.

Having travelled to Tunisia with Powder Byrne, I was curious to know how Egypt with Sensatori would compare. Would it rise above the standard tour-operator experience?

 Sensatori, which I must confess on first hearing I thought sounded like a brand of condoms, was started in 2008; thus far there are dedicated Sensatori hotels in Tenerife, Crete, Mexico and Sharm el Sheikh, and one is due to open in Turkey this coming summer.

The location was fabulous; right on the edge of the Red Sea, where the sandy beach gradually sloped to the coral reef – some other Sharm hotels are dramatically perched on cliffs, which, although picturesque, aren’t child-friendly in terms of access to the water.

Thanks to the gradual incline, our four-year-old, Tabitha, could snorkel in the shallows, entranced by the long transparent cornet fish, vividly striped butterfly fish and scuttling hermit crabs.

A deeper part of the reef was easily reachable via a floating walkway, beneath which a school of five extravagantly finned and spiked lionfish had made their home, and obligingly swam about showing off for most of the day.

The water was so clear that just by strolling the length of the pier my husband, who doesn’t swim, spotted nine different species.

Underwater was another world; like Finding Nemo on acid. Our 10-year-old, Lily, who had never snorkelled before, was so astonished by the kaleidoscope of colour and movement greeting her – raspberry coral, giant blue clams, pink spotted groupers and pouting yellow sweetlips – that she immediately lost her mouthpiece, and surfaced, choking and squealing with excitement.

In a single 20-minute period I counted more than 50 species in the teeming waters, and gave up only because I spotted an octopus and got distracted. In parts, the reef was so shallow that we could hear the garish parrotfish crunching against the hard coral with their beaklike mouths, and because it was so accessible, we went snorkelling every day – sometimes twice a day.

Back on land, the staff were the most charming and personable I have encountered anywhere. The waiters’ delight in interacting with Tabitha extended to magic tricks and providing a high chair for her teddy bear.

Once, we returned to our room to find that the housekeeper had created a magnificent elephant from twisted towels and pillows and decorated its trunk with flowers.

Even though our holiday coincided with Eid, the Muslim equivalent of Christmas and a time of family reunions, the staff remained upbeat and genuinely seemed to enjoy their jobs. We got to know a few of them during our stay and the banter added to our sense of well-being.

 The other guests, all British, were a mixed bunch, encompassing everything from Boden to bling – more tattoos than in Aldeburgh, fewer than in Faliraki – and I confess that I was once moved to reproach my husband that he obviously didn’t love our children enough to have their dates of birth tattooed on his body.

The childcare provision, which was staffed by British girls, was something of a disappointment to parents who really craved a few hours’ break, however. While babies could be booked into the nursery, for which there was a session rate of £15, children aged four and upwards were accommodated in the “Play House” area for set periods of either one hour or two, which was free, but wasn’t enough to provide significant downtime.

To add to the frustration, parents had to queue every afternoon to book a slot next day, and as canny holidaymakers arrived as much as 30 minutes early, the business of standing in line as dusk fell became the recognised low point of the day, which was a shame and a bit unnecessary; a more creative solution needs to be found.

Older children could take part in activities such as tennis or archery or beach volleyball, which, although free, again had to be booked.

While we weren’t unduly affected by any of this, what did dismay us was the lack of a babysitting service, which is the norm at most other five-star hotels. Instead, children could be dropped off at an evening club to watch movies and play while parents dined. For an extra fee they could even have a sleepover.

But as Tabitha was much too tired to stay up late, we kept both children with us, even if it did mean sometimes eating earlier than we would have liked.

On a more positive note, one of the best aspects of the hotel was its layout, which meant that four different families could quite effortlessly have four entirely different holidays.

Those with small children gathered around the waterpark area with flumes, parents with older children congregated in and around the infinity pool, couples could slope off to the adults-only zone and party poopers like us could luxuriate in the ultimate hedonism of our swim-up room.

No, I didn’t know what a swim-up room was, either, but now I’ve found out, I’m not sure my life will ever be the same again.

It meant that our hotel suite had a long swimming pool like a moat in front of it. It was precisely five steps from the bedroom to the water, which meant the children could be immersed in splashy fun while we watched over them from the comfort of our bed.

No nagging to take them to the pool, no competition over sun- loungers, and, as the water stretched the length of the accommodation block, everyone’s children could swim to and from each other’s rooms. In a further decadent twist, when our lovely waiter, Mina, brought us drinks (all-inclusive means you never have to argue with your husband about the cost of another beer), he would skilfully transfer them to the children’s Lilo and float them across to us with a flourish.

We also had some very nice next-door neighbours with two children of their own, hence no need to book childcare.

Tempting though it was to stay put and relax, we decided that we would take a couple of trips, so we booked Sinai by Starlight and a day excursion to Cairo.

The desert jaunt to meet the Bedouin was hugely entertaining (another axiom of parenting is to shelve all notions of being cool), and involved a camel ride, a magical sunset, smoking apple-scented shisha from a pipe, which left us feeling pleasantly light-headed, and trying our hand at making flatbread before our evening meal, which we ate while reclining on cushions.

When the music started I’m not sure what I expected, but it sure as heck wasn’t dancing the conga with the Bedouin.

It didn’t look terribly authentic and it felt utterly ridiculous, but then they all had huge 4 x 4s, mobile phones and security men slung with Kalashnikovs, so that was a quibble. Besides, the children loved it.

After that came the buying of trinkets by torchlight in the dark, stargazing with an expert and an opportunity to gaze at the moon through a high-resolution telescope. Then it was back on the coach.

A few days later we rose at 4am and flew to Cairo for a tour that took in a demonstration of papyrus-making, the Citadel mosque, the Giza Necropolis, the Sphinx and, after lunch on the Nile, a visit to the astounding treasures of Cairo Museum.

It was an unforgettable, jam-packed day of heat and dust and awe. The scale of the Great Pyramid reduced us to mute amazement, and the bustle of the hawkers wasn’t as annoying as the guidebooks claim – in fact, the effusive gratitude from one old man when I bought a trinket served as a salutary reminder, to the children in particular, that Sharm el Sheikh luxury is far beyond the reach of most Egyptians.

Travel advice: The best package holiday options

The next day was spent in swim-up-room relaxation, followed by a walk to a parade of shops where my attempts at haggling were so bad that I actually offered to pay 10 times more than the asking price, reducing the previously loquacious trader to puzzled silence. Thereafter, I left all commercial transactions to my husband.

By the end of a week, we weren’t quite ready to go home, but after a final snorkel, during which we saw gorgeous Picasso triggerfish, which have bright yellow eye markings and all manner of odd stripes, we bade a smitten farewell to the beguiling charm of Sharm.

telegraph

By: manager Date Added: 2013-03-05 Comment: 0 Views :3479

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