Pharaohs, Fairways, Sand and Sun: playing golf in Egypt

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Pharaohs, Fairways, Sand and Sun: playing golf in Egypt

By Peter Ellegard

February 2024

 

I love Egypt. But it isn’t just in my heart, it’s also in my blood.

My paternal grandfather was Egyptian. Born in Alexandria, on the country’s Mediterranean coast, he spent the last two decades of his life living in Cairo after the marriage to my grandmother – an English dancer with the Bluebells dance troupe resident at the famous Folies Bergère in Paris where they met, married and lived – broke down and she returned to London with her two teenage sons, one my future father.

Sadly, I didn’t get to meet him as he died when I was just two and he never left there again.

Yet, every time I visit Egypt it feels like a sort of homecoming, as it does again early this year on my first visit back there for 15 years.

Despite turmoil elsewhere in the region, it feels safe and peaceful as it always has done. Its people are gracious, friendly and are happy to go the extra mile to make me feel welcome. Not just me, though. It is how they treat all visitors.

With more than 3,000 years of history, still evident in its numerous surviving relics and monuments, and a stunning Red Sea coastline dotted with classy resorts boasting wonderful beaches and high-quality hotels, Egypt makes a great holiday destination combining sunshine and culture.

It also serves up golf of the highest quality, particularly on the Red Sea and around Cairo, with designs by such eminent names as Gary Player, Greg Norman, Nick Faldo, Fred Couples, John Sanford, Robert Trent Jones Jr and the Nicklaus Design firm founded by Jack Nicklaus.

I have always been a fan of Egypt’s golf. But since my previous visit, its golf product has come on in leaps and bounds. Facilities have been improved, new courses have opened and construction is under way extending and building others.

For those yet to discover Egypt as a golf destination, it truly is a land of fairways as well as being the home of the pharaohs.

Nowhere else on earth can you play world-class golf alongside spectacular coastlines and azure-blue sea as well as being able to see the only surviving one of the Seven Wonders of the World – the Great Pyramid of Giza – while you are teeing off or sinking a putt.

Not only that, it is also excellent value, with rounds costing a maximum of between €65 and €85.

 

GOLF COURSES – RED SEA RIVIERA

If you can tear yourself away from its inviting sands and clear, warm waters, Egypt’s Red Sea Riviera offers glorious golf.

Just 20 minutes south of Hurghada International Airport, Somabay is an upmarket resort where the signature Gary Player-designed championship course, recently re-laid with salt-tolerant Paspalum Platinum grass to help cut water usage, is at its heart. Several holes of the 7,000-yard course are set along low cliffs edged by the Red Sea, leading to Player describing it as “the Pebble Beach of Africa”.

The Cascades Golf Resort, SPA & Thalasso

Its signature hole, the par-3 5th, plays just over 200 yards from the back tees to a green on a promontory jutting out into the sea and a wraparound bunker catching shots that are too short or scoot off the putting surface – which is where I stick my shot from the blue, 170-yard tee.

The par-4 6th is another wonderful hole, playing right along the coast to a raised green with panoramic sea views. The day after my round, I video former world golf trick shot champion Geoff Swain nail his drive straight down the middle of the fairway after the ball is juggled into the air for him by Somabay head golf pro Mohammed Kahoul, having done the same onto the green on the 5th after throwing it up in the air himself. I’m left in awe of both shots.

Other standout holes on the course are the 14th, a shorter par 3 with a carry over a desert ravine to a green guarded by bunkers with the sea directly behind, the par-4 15th that arcs around the rugged coast to a green set just above waves breaking on the coral shelf, the par-4 12th with its split fairway, and the 9th and 18th holes, a par 5 and par 4 respectively. They both play towards The Cascades hotel, ending the front and back nine loops at greens either side of a lagoon in front of the hotel.

I’m thankful for the light zephyr of a breeze during my round. When the wind comes up off the sea – which it does frequently, hence Somabay’s popularity for kitesurfing – the course can be brutal.

Somabay recently opened a new Par 3 Challenge Course, designed by Tim Lobb and EDI Golf’s James Edwards under its Sustainability Vision after the previous par 3 course was torn up in 2019. I play it under floodlights and its tricky, sloping greens and water hazards on some holes are just the job for honing my short irons, wedges and putter.

Also floodlit are a double-ended driving range and a brand-new Short Game Arena, the brainchild of Edwards that offers 20 zones of differing lengths for dedicated short-game practice and also provides a testing putting course.

Dedicated chipping, putting and bunker areas and a golf academy staffed by PGA pros, make Somabay the complete golf destination for learning, practicing and playing.

Work is also under way on a second 18-hole course by Tim Lobb that has been designed for playability and will be less demanding than the championship layout.

Half an hour north of Hurghada is the resort town of El Gouna, created over the past 30 years from virgin desert and resembling a latter-day Venice with interlinked canals and lagoons and striking, colourful modernist architecture.

El Gouna Golf Club’s 18-hole golf course was designed by Gene Bates and Fred Couples and weaves around and between waterways. Wind is again a factor, as I discover during my round, thanks to its proximity to the sea and El Gouna being another top kitesurfing location.

That is even more the case when playing holes running alongside the canals, among them the sinuous par-5 17th – one of the signature holes – and par-4 18th on the back nine and the par-5 9th which plays towards the distinctive clubhouse tower that looms over the course like a pyramid-shaped lighthouse.

The two toughest holes on the course, the par-5 4th and par-4 10th, play straight into the prevailing wind.

One thing to remember if you play El Gouna after Somabay, is that distances are in metres rather than yards, with the course measuring 6,269 metres from the back tees. No wonder my approach shots keep coming up short!

Before your round, head to the golf club’s aqua driving range to hit a few balls towards a series of greens in the lagoon. They float if you miss your target and are scooped up to reuse. After playing, climb to the observation deck at the top of the clubhouse tower for incredible views over the course and beyond to the sea and mountains.

Nine holes of El Gouna’s second golf course, the Karl Litten-designed Ancient Sands, are open and the second nine are due to be completed in the near future. Water again features strongly on the course.

Between Hurghada and Somabay, Madinat Makadi Golf Resort’s 18-hole course – named Egypt’s top golf course six years running in the World Golf Awards – is also metric and measures 6,871 metres from the back tees.

Here, there are no coloured markers to differentiate between men’s and ladies’ tees. Instead, the six tee positions are named after Egyptian cities, from Dahab to the longest tees, Cairo, via Luxor, Suez, Aswan and Giza.

Every hole is also named after an Egyptian pharaoh and there’s an explanation about each one on an information board alongside a pictorial diagram of the hole, such as the par-4 3rd hole, Khufu, also known as Cheops and who commissioned Giza’s Great Pyramid, and the par-5 9th, named after ancient Egypt’s last ruler, Cleopatra. So as you play, you not only enjoy the course and its setting but you also get a fascinating history lesson.

The boards and tees were the idea of director of golf Simon Bowler, who was brought in to revive the John Sanford design after its water supply was turned off for two years during the Covid crises. He has also been refining the look of the course by adding flower beds and shrubs and improving its cart path and borders.

The result is amazing. The course opened in November 2008 and I stayed at the on-site resort hotel – then under the Jaz Hotels flag but now a Steigenberger – and played it soon afterwards. Laid out over hilly terrain above the hotel, I enjoyed the layout and panoramic views out to the Red Sea from the higher elevations but the transplanted juvenile palm trees gave it the feel of a course that hadn’t bedded in.

Now it has matured and it is a visual feast with verdant tees and greens, fairways liberally sprinkled with bunkers and surrounded by huge sand waste areas, all enhanced by splashes of colour from the vegetation.

I love the series of ponds linked by a stream that add to the challenge of holes 6, 7 and 8. And the par-4 11th, with its plunging fairway, and par-3 16th can’t be beaten for dramatic effect and stunning vistas.

Besides its championship course, Madinat Makadi also has extensive practice facilities that include a nine-hole executive course, a short-game area and double-ended driving range.

 

GOLF COURSES – CAIRO’S PYRAMIDS GOLF TRAIL

In the western part of Egypt’s capital, Cairo, is a group of golf courses that make a perfect two-centre combination with the Red Sea. Close to Giza’s Pyramids, they collectively form the Pyramids Golf Trail.

The only course in this part of Cairo that I have played before, is Dreamland Golf Club, another Karl Litten design that was renovated in 2010 by David Jones.

The 7,205-yard parkland-style course is flat but is a beauty, its manicured fairways lined by mature trees, flowering bushes and shrubs, and several greens are shaded by tall palm trees.

You can’t help but know where you are playing, as the tee markers are miniature pyramids and the hole numbers and information panels by each tee box are on tall obelisks, although you can’t see the actual Pyramids from the course.

Most holes are slight doglegs, both left and right. The par-4 3rd hole is a stunner, teeing off next to a lake and curving to a green protected by bunkers on either flank and with mounds topped by towering palms behind.

Water comes into play on several holes, including the par-4 9th and 18th holes that play towards the Hilton Pyramids hotel and end in greens next to ponds.

The Allegria is one of three courses built in this area since I was last in Cairo. A Greg Norman Signature Course managed by Troon Golf that opened in 2010, it is set on hilly terrain in an exclusive residential community and stretches to just over 7,200 yards.

The course is in immaculate condition and a joy to play. Its generous fairways give you confidence if your drives are a little wayward, making it eminently playable for beginners and high handicappers, but it bites back with cavernous bunkers, lakes edged by steep-sided waste areas, streams and rock features as well as fast and large multi-tiered greens. I love the sculptures dotting the course that include a giant angel guarding the 7th green.

My favourite hole is the par-4 14th, which has a stream tumbling down the entire right edge of the fairway from a pond by the tee. But it’s hard to pick out a poor hole as they are all so well designed.

Complementing the course is a large driving range with separate short game practise area and an academy with all the latest hi-tech gear to help golfers improve their game.

Palm Hills Golf Course and Newgiza Golf Club are just minutes from each other and both offer views of the Pyramids, just five miles away.

The 7,351-yard Newgiza, the last design by golf architecture firm Thompson Perrett & Lobb, opened for play in early 2019 14 years after the project began. Its holes meander through an old quarry, creating a striking layout with fairways winding below sandy cliffs and elevated tee boxes playing down to sunken greens.

Epitomising that is the delightful par-3 4th hole, which has a 100-foot drop to the green. From the tee box you can see the Pyramids – or at least part of them. They were fully in view from the tees when the course first opened, but it forms part of a residential development and new homes on a ridge half encircling the hole have blocked out all but the very tips of the two largest ancient structures.

That’s a shame, but it doesn’t take away from what is a course of real quality, boasting a variety of holes with clever bunkering and large undulating greens. It will leave you beaming after your round, as it does me.

The Pyramids are very much in sight when you play nearby Palm Hills. John Sanford partnered with Nicklaus Design on this 27-hole course, which opened in 2014. I play the A and C nines, at just under 6,100 yards off the white tees – much friendlier for my 22.8 handicap than the 7,264-yard back tees. Long hitters can test themselves on the other two course combinations, both of which are almost 7,500 yards from the tips.

The course spans an epic desert setting with wide, lush fairways, lakes, sculpted bunkers and huge waste sand areas planted with cacti, flowering shrubs and palm trees. As its name suggests, the course is draped over hills with many elevation changes. You can clearly see the Pyramids from the uppermost holes. Putting on the uphill par-5 9th with them in the background is a stirring sight, as it is when driving from the high tee box on the 10th by the clubhouse.

Again, there isn’t a hole that seems out of place or lacking compared to others. But I particularly enjoy playing the back nine, and my two over par on the closing five holes helps me beat club member and Egyptian Golf Federation board member Omar El Tawil, a 6.6 handicapper, 3 and 1 – even if he does give me a shot on each hole.

There is one other golf course I vividly remember playing on my last Cairo visit – the nine-hole course that was part of the Mena House Oberoi hotel, now a Marriott, and right in the shadow of the Great Pyramid. It has been closed for some years but I decide to check it out for myself. The security guard lets me in through the locked gates and I’m delighted to see that the tee boxes, fairways and bunkers are still there and are being maintained to a degree. There are even some youngsters putting on a green at the far end of the course, and I can’t resist an air putt on a green below the mighty monument. There are rumours that the course will be restored for play in the near future. I fervently hope so. There is truly no more magical a place to play golf.

Egypt has other excellent golf courses to the east of Cairo as well as by the Suez Gulf and on the Mediterranean. But I need to come back again to play those.

 

ACCOMMODATION AND ATTRACTIONS

Somabay is located on a peninsula and offers plenty to do besides golf, with accommodation in five hotels. I stay at The Cascades Golf Resort, Spa & Thalasso Resort and indulge myself in its huge Aquatonic Pool, one of the region’s largest hydrotherapy pools. The palatial facility is sub-divided into more than a dozen different zones with a series of powerful underwater jets, currents, counter-currents, bubble baths and showers to pummel and tone every part of your body with sea water. I walk back to my room feeling battered but totally relaxed. The spa also offers an assortment of treatments in its 65 treatment rooms.

Outdoor activities include biking, horse riding and footgolf, and there’s boat golf where you hit a bucket of 50 balls from a platform at the back of a catamaran cruiser to a floating green before snorkelling to retrieve the balls. Sadly, the wind is up and the sea is too choppy for my scheduled boat trip.

The wind is perfect for kitesurfing and sailing, however, and several people are taking advantage of it in the shallow bay off the soft, wide sands of S Cape Beach on the peninsula’s west side. On the seaward side, you can snorkel and dive on a coral reef teeming with tropical fish, turtles and other marine life.

And at the end of the day, enjoy a sublime sunset with a sundowner overlooking Somabay’s marina and the mountains beyond from the rooftop Sobar bar and restaurant.

El Gouna was the first destination in Africa and the Arab Region to receive the Global Green Award, in August 2014, for environmental sustainability under the United Nations Environment Programme. The resort town recycles more than 85% of its waste, recycles all its used water and also has a desalination plant. Getting around is mostly by electric tuk-tuk taxis while visitors can also rent electric bikes.

There are 18 hotels from three-star to luxury, among them the recently-renovated Steigenberger close to El Gouna Club, plus spas and wellness centres, while activities include kitesurfing, snorkelling, diving, horse riding, and safaris and hiking in the desert.

Besides the Steigenberger Makadi Golf Hotel next to Madinat Makadi’s golf course, there are another 10 hotels in the beachside resort town, where one of Egypt’s largest waterparks augments the sports options.

From all three resort areas you can make a day trip or longer visit to Luxor, between three and four hours away by road, to see the magnificent temples, tombs and monuments of the capital of ancient Egypt.

The big draw in Cairo is, of course, the Pyramids at Giza. Staying at the Hilton Pyramids, one of two hotels next to the Dreamland course, I’m just 20 minutes away and spend a day visiting them and the nearby, new Grand Egyptian Museum.

My heart races as I approach the Great Pyramid. It is my second time here and its size, and that of its neighbouring two Pyramids, still defies belief. It is made from 2.3 million granite and limestone blocks, each of the giant blocks weighing up to 10 tons and dwarfing me as I climb steps up to a small walkway carved into the fifth level of stones.

It takes 20 minutes to walk around the mighty edifice, the circumference of its base measuring almost one kilometre. From there I head to the Sphinx, the awe-inspiring statue of the mythical creature guarding the Pyramids, before being driven to a viewpoint across an expanse of desert to the trio of Pyramids.

There I grab the chance to have my picture taken sitting on a camel with them as the backdrop – emulating a cherished black and white photograph I have of my dad and granddad doing exactly the same.

From there I visit the nearby Grand Egyptian Museum, first planned almost 20 years ago and still not completed. The imposing building has allowed the public inside since its soft opening in December, with just a tenth of what will eventually be displayed currently on view.

Even now, it wows you from the moment you step into its soaring atrium, where a colossal statue of Ramses II, ancient Egypt’s greatest pharaoh, takes centre stage. Tutankhamun’s golden mask and other treasures are still housed in the historic Egyptian Museum in downtown Cairo, although they will be moved to their new home when it fully opens, which authorities say will be “soon”. Another wow moment for me is the 30-minute Tutankhamun – The Immersive Exhibition, with its eye-popping 3D graphics that totally envelop you.

The only other part of the museum currently open is the Grand Staircase. It leaves you breathless as you climb up through the vertical gallery’s four themed sections – not just for the number of steps, although you can use an inclined lift and an escalator instead, but also for its 60 pharaonic sculptures – before you reach the top to gaze at the Pyramids through a huge glass wall.

I glimpse the Nile crossing it en route to the airport for my flight home, also passing by the medieval, hilltop Cairo Citadel. Cairo has many more riches I don’t have time to see.

Those are for my next trip back to the land of my grandfather.

 

 

WEB LINKS TO FEATURED GOLF COURSES & ATTRACTIONS:

 

WHERE TO STAY AND PLAY

Somabay Golf:  https://somabay.com/golf

The Cascades Golf Resort, Spa & Thalasso:  https://thecascadeshotel.com

El Gouna:  www.elgouna.com

Madinat Makadi Golf:  https://madinatmakadigolf.com

Hilton Pyramids: https://www.hilton.com/en/hotels/caipghi-hilton-pyramids-golf/

Dreamland Golf Club: https://www.dreamlandgolf.com

The Allegria: https://www.theallegriacairo.com

Newgiza Golf Club: https://www.newgizagolf.com

Palm Hills Golf Course: https://palmhillsgolfcourse.com

 

WHAT TO DO

Activities at Somabay: https://somabay.com/directories

The Pyramids:  https://egymonuments.com/locations/details/Pyramids

Grand Egyptian Museum:  https://grandegyptianmuseum.org

 

GETTING THERE

Egyptair flies from over 50 countries and serves 10 domestic points: www.egyptair.com

 

TOURIST INFORMATION

Egyptian Tourism Authority: www.experienceegypt.eg

 

DESTINATION FEATURE BY GLOBAL GUIDE EDITOR, PETER ELLEGARD, DESTINATION GOLF.