Egypt's summertime escape: White sand beaches and designer cocktails, but no room for the public

Egypt's summertime escape: White sand beaches and designer cocktails, but no room for the public
As late afternoon approaches, the crowd on the beach in Egypt's North Coast, also known as Sahel ("The Coast,") begins to grow. (Rachel Scheier / For The Times)
 

Kiki’s Beach Bar offers cool breezes and $14 designer cocktails. But good luck getting in — unless you’re famous, or, better yet, know someone who works the door.

But exclusivity, of course, is a draw for Cairo’s junior beau monde, which on Thursday afternoons this time of year decamps north to the clear, cool waters of Sahel (“The Coast”), leaving the donkey carts and shisha bars of the capital far behind. Around midnight, Kiki’s and other elite North Coast drinking establishments such as Lemon Tree and Sachi by the Sea start filling with men in linen shirts and women in glittering halter tops and eyelash extensions.

The North Coast, which refers to the Mediterranean shoreline from Alexandria to the Libyan border, has seen a proliferation of upper-crust watering holes with the rapid development of ever-newer, posher resorts, even as ordinary citizens struggle to cope with the soaring cost of water, gas and electricity. If economic shocks such as the “Arab Spring” or a 2013 military coup have plunged almost a third of this country’s 95 million people into poverty, you wouldn’t know it in Sahel, where fashionable nightspots are packed with recent graduates of Western universities decked out in Ibiza- and Miami Beach-inspired ensembles.

Across Cairo and up and down the North Coast highway, massive billboards for new upscale developments such as Fouka Bay and La Vista show off spotless chalets on empty white sands against the trademark turquoise sea of this prime 300-mile stretch of the southernmost shore of the Mediterranean.

In reality, little of the shoreline has been left untouched.

“I don’t think there is a single stretch of undisturbed coastline,” said David Sims, a Cairo-based economist and urban planner who describes the North Coast as “the hottest real estate market in Egypt,” thanks to the remarkable pace of high-density construction, which has left almost no public beaches or open spaces.

On summer weekend afternoons, inside Marina, the oldest and largest — but no longer the fanciest — resort in Sahel, young women in shorts hand out party fliers to passing drivers. Of course, those functions are open only to those who can afford the door charge. Entry alone is $30 to upward of $50 at the “decent” clubs, especially if there’s live music or a known deejay, says Mohamed Rashed, a Cairo-based writer at Scoop Empire, an “urban destination” website. That’s more than the average Egyptian earns in a week. Some clubs require advance reservations, or screen prospective patrons via Facebook or other such Darwinian methods.

“In Egypt, you have two types of rich people,” Rashed said. “There are rich people who just have money, who went to good, private universities — and then there are the super rich.” On Fridays, members of the latter category begin arriving several hours before sunset at Rituals, a nirvana-themed affair where you can nibble sushi while lounging beneath a hemp umbrella on a plush white terry cloth-covered bed just a few feet from the waves.

From left, Ahmed Meteini, Farida Abdelgalil and Farida Shenawy at the Rituals beach club in Egypt's North Coast.
From left, Ahmed Meteini, Farida Abdelgalil and Farida Shenawy at the Rituals beach club in Egypt's North Coast. (Rachel Scheier / For The Times)
 

For decades, tradition has dictated that anyone who could afford to flee the heat and traffic of Cairo head for the Mediterranean shores in the summer. Under the Egyptian monarchy, the entire government relocated to Alexandria during July and August.

But it wasn’t until 1992 that Marina, the original North Coast luxury mega-resort, arose on a seven-mile stretch of state-owned land that once housed an ancient Greco-Roman trading port. With thousands of dwellings, the resort featured a golf course, man-made lagoons and even a “minister’s row” on a private island, where Hosni Mubarak-era heavyweights still summer to this day.

But most of the Pharaonic set has long since left Marina — now considered nearly middle class — for newer, more prestigious addresses farther west. “It’s fashion,” shrugged Manal Hussein, a former deputy minister of finance who is now chairwoman of Orascom Hotels and Development, one of Egypt’s largest firms.

 

RACHEL SCHEIER

 

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