An Egyptian hideaway that offers simple solitude, stunning vistas and a special respect for the local surroundings By Brian Noone
Mounir Neamatallah, founder of Adrère Amellal, was once asked by a guest about the rating of the resort. “What do you mean?” responded Dr Mounir, as he is known by his staff. “Well, how many stars does it have?” the guest continued. Dr Mounir looked skyward and smiled, “We have all the stars in the world. We don’t need any more.”
This quirky, cavalier refrain, “We don’t need any more”, tidily sums up the spirit of the extraordinary 40-room caravansary at the edge of the Libyan Desert. Do we need Internet connections? iPod docks? Televisions? No, so there aren’t any. Radios? Alarm clocks? Hair dryers? In fact, there isn’t even electricity. There are no telephones either – just the single mobile phone affixed to the manager’s hip for emergencies.
Adrère Amellal exists in the sparsest of worlds: sand, salt, water and towering date palms make up both the sinewy buildings and the landscape that surrounds them. Set at the base of a white monolith near Siwa, the westernmost of Egypt’s five oases, the area has seen only the most hardened travellers for millennia – the paved road from the coast, a three-hour drive, is only two decades old – and the impetus for change has been minimal. Were Alexander the Great to return some 2,300 years after his first oracle-seeking trek, the only feature that would be unfamiliar is the modern plumbing, a necessity thankfully deemed so by Dr Mounir during construction.
“We don’t need any more.” The expression is equally suited to artificial pesticides and fertilisers. Siwa draws its water from a closed system, the Nubian Sandstone Aquifer, which runs under most of Egypt and parts of Sudan, Chad and Libya. So as not to endanger this supply, the community decided decades ago to use only ancient growing methods – to be, in modern terms, organic. This, combined with the extreme isolation, means the agriculture has changed so little over the past centuries that many of the plants grown on the resort and used in its kitchen are of ancient stock.
How these ingredients are combined, however, is a product of modern ingenuity – a case in which more wasn’t needed but certainly didn’t hurt. Soon after the resort opened, a French guest, Alain Senderens, told Dr Mounir that he saw enormous potential in the cuisine. He wanted to, and later did, invite the resident chef for training at his own Paris restaurant, Lucas Carton. (Senderens is most famous for a quirky, cavalier move of his own: renouncing his three Michelin stars in 2005 when he relaunched the eatery in simplified form with his own name above the door.) The Egyptian chef’s return to Adrère Amellal brought European-Egyptian fusion dishes that wouldn’t be out of place in Cairo’s – or Paris’s – gourmet scenes.
All of the staff, like Dr Mounir himself, are Egyptian, and most of them were born in Siwa. The craftsmen among them, when not repairing the salt block tables, the nail-less chairs or the elaborate olive wood window clasps, make pieces that are exported for sale in Europe. “We wanted,” says Heba Abdella, a project coordinator at Dr Mounir’s primary enterprise, the international environmental consultancy EQI, “to demonstrate that private business can operate with benefit to its surrounding environment and people.” More recently, EQI has spearheaded a project to help Siwi women revive ancient embroidery and weaving techniques. The resulting pieces, in addition to being used at the resort, have made appearances on the catwalks of Milan and are currently sold at boutiques in Paris and Rome.
In the end, the most attractive aspect of Adrère Amellal is the day-to-day experience of being there. Whether pottering around the garden or relaxing in the ancient, crumbling structure that’s been converted into a library or gazing out over the horizon-bending dunes, guests can be, perhaps for the first time in years, truly alone. This was enough reason for architect Norman Foster to extend his stay here three days and for London art dealer Michael Hue-Williams to construct a holiday home nearby. It’s also enough reason to understand why Dr Mounir is against the proposed airport in Siwa. Though it would make the journey, now a head-splitting eight-hour drive from Cairo, far less arduous, the extra crowds and bits of modernity are likely to disrupt the eco-system and social fabric. Self- sustainable now for millennia, the oasis doesn’t need any more – be it tourists, technology or stars.
Earthed Hotels Across The Globe
Anatolian Houses, Turkey The conical fairy chimneys of Cappadocia have been inhabited for millennia, but only recently did the natives open their cave dwellings to foreigners. The 19 individually designed rooms combine Anatolian antiques with modern accoutrements. anatolianhouses.com.tr
Kandalama Hotel, Sri Lanka With verdant tropical flora pouring over and across the rooms, the hotel’s seven storeys appear a natural extension of the mountainside into which they’re built. Environmentally sensitive from the beginning – both in the construction and the kitchen – Kandalama pioneered eco-tourism in Sri Lanka. heritancehotels.com/kandalama
Sassi di Matera Albergo Diffuso, Italy
Carved out by shepherds over the past centuries, the vaulted caves (sassi) are now being restored very slowly and with careful attention to original craftsmanship and local materials. The first 18 rooms – minimalist in the extreme, eschewing all modern decor – opened in April. sassidimatera.com
Centurion, Q4, 2009