In Egypt, simplicity in the desert

Sun Journal

Vacation: This seaside escape is the antithesis of most beach resorts -- it's simple, quiet, has its own chicken coop, and its bamboo huts are environmentally sensitive.

January 27, 1999|By Ann LoLordo | Ann LoLordo,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

BASATA CAMP, Egypt -- The only stars at this desert resort are the ones above your head.

There are no phones at this collection of bamboo huts nestled beside a sapphire cove in the Sinai desert. There's no television. No pool. No perky aerobics instructor in spandex leading exercises on the beach. If you want a hearty breakfast or a sumptuous lunch, you'll have to fix it yourself.

That's the way Sherif El-Ghamrawy planned it.

When Ghamrawy founded his paradise by the sea, the word "simplicity" -- "basata" in Arabic -- came to mind. Basata boasts none of the amenities of the five-star hotels in the Red Sea resort towns of Sharm al-Sheikh or Hurghada. But it offers travelers "a piece of nature" that keeps the 16 beach bungalows occupied nearly year-round.

"I called it Basata not just to be a name but to be a way of living," says the green-eyed Ghamrawy, an engineer from Cairo who opened the resort in 1986. "We don't need complications in our life." Communing with nature, he believes, is the antidote to whatever ails you.

Wedged between the gulfs of Aqaba and Suez, the Sinai Peninsula features a range of craggy, sienna mountains that rise from the shores of a lapis-colored sea. Ba-sata is about 25 miles south of Egypt's border with Israel.

Snorkeling along the reef off Basata reveals a Technicolor world of black-spotted puffer fish, blue-lipped clams, feathered turkey fish and orange clown fish. Tai chi on the beach, sunbathing with a favorite book, swimming in the placid sea -- life is no more complicated than that.

At dusk, the mountains of Saudi Arabia loom from the distant shore. The setting sun etches the mountain face, coloring it pink, then coral, before the rock swells ashen in silhouette. The landscape is stark and glorious.

"The reason I go to Basata is it's so quiet. It's the best way to relax," says Iris Havillio, a 33-year-old lawyer from Israel who first came here 10 years ago. "Whenever I get to the sea, I feel like everything is slowing down. I like the people who come here. You get to speak to people you usually don't meet."

Basata does attract a varied and eclectic lot:

A Swiss couple bicycling across two continents; an English teacher from Scotland traveling with her niece; an Israeli grandmother and her artist friend on a getaway weekend from their families; a Bavarian couple, pierced and tattooed like circus performers, contemplating a camel trek through the desert.

Except for a worn volleyball net, a weathered swing set and a barrel full of snorkeling gear, Ba-sata offers no organized activities. As Ghamrawy puts it: "I respect the minds of my guests. I'm not telling them what to do."

Children, he adds, "are the best entertainers of any kind." Left to their own wiles, some parents "start communicating with their kids for the first time." Ghamrawy lives on the compound with his German-born wife, Maria; 5 1/2-year-old daughter, Sohaila; and infant son, Faris.

Before the term "eco-tourism" was coined, Ghamrawy built Ba-sata with an eye toward preserving the environment. The individually designed huts are constructed of natural materials -- bamboo lashed with twine. The sand floors are lined with grass mats and hand-woven cotton rugs, which also cover the floor mattresses and doorways. The trunks of felled palm trees serve as back rests and porch dividers.

In the water-scarce Sinai, Basata maintains a small desalination plant. Fresh water is reserved for cooking; the slightly salty runoff feeds the toilets and showers in the two public baths. Signs in the bathrooms alert guests to the "stop" taps installed to preserve water -- after a few seconds they shut off.

Generators supply the compound with electricity. The communal kitchen -- housed in an oversized bamboo hut that fronts the sea -- is equipped with six gas burners and a large refrigerator.

An in-house bakery sells rolls, pita bread and pizzas. The chicken coop provides a steady stream of eggs. Guests bring coolers filled with supplies or choose from baskets of local produce -- tomatoes, potatoes, cucumbers, onions, oranges -- and the stock of eggs, cheese and yogurt available for breakfast and lunch.

Guests mark the items they use on a clipboard and pay for them at checkout time. The honor system epitomizes Ghamrawy's philosophy of inn-keeping and the homey atmosphere he encourages.

The bamboo-covered, open-air dining area serves as Basata's central gathering place. A guest eager to learn how to make Arabic coffee asks the German receptionist, Kristin, about the secret to the rich brew bubbling in a brass pot.

Said, the Egyptian cook, provides a different method. Um Mahmoud, a local Bedouin woman who works in the kitchen, offers a third recipe.

Two Germans cycling around the world compare notes with the Swiss bicyclists camping on Basata's beach. An Israeli couple talk about communal living in a kibbutz.

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