Club Magic Life, (Sharm El Sheikh, Egypt)
We recently spent two weeks in Sharm El Sheikh, Egypt and we stayed at the all-inclusive resort Club Magic Life in Naqb Bay. I was a bit dubious about Sharm as I haven't heard the best things about the area, but the need for a holiday of sunbathing and generally relaxing, plus a couple of recommendations from friends meant that I went ... ahead and booked it.
Location and First Impressions
Naqb Bay is about twenty minutes away from Naama Bay (which is the main resort in Sharm El Sheikh) and it is closer to the airport. It is just a fifteen minute transfer from the airport, which is great for getting there quickly, but also means that the hotel is pretty much under the flight path. It's not a massive problem as the flights aren't continual throughout the day but there do seem to be busy periods where the planes overhead are quite low and quite loud. You can get a shuttle bus from the hotel to Naama Bay for five Euros return and the fairly new Soho Square is about ten minutes away in a taxi.
We arrived at the hotel at night so first impressions were of quite a grand hotel that has a sweeping driveway that is all lit up and lined with well-manicured gardens. This turned out to be the standard of the whole resort; everything about it is well presented and meticulously maintained. The whole place is like a little village and we were there for days before we found our way around completely. The resort is made up of lots of little buildings linked by gardens and paths. The buildings are all only two or three storeys.
Checking in is a simple and relatively quick process. The hotel is obviously aware of when guests are due to arrive as there are extra staff at reception to help speed things up. When you arrive, the porter will take your case and direct you to the reception desk, where you fill in a little form and hand over your passport for the staff to take a photocopy. Once this is done you get your room key and you have to tell the porter which room you are in. It seems fiddly but the whole process is surprisingly smooth. I think at this point you are supposed to wait for the porter to show you to your room but we decided that we wanted to catch dinner before it closed so we headed off on our own. It only took a few minutes for our cases to arrive after we did - pretty good service considering the number of people that checked in at the same time as us!
We were on the third floor on our block (number fourteen) there are about twenty rooms in each block spaced over three floors. I'd definitely recommend requesting a third floor room, because they seem to offer much more privacy. However do bear in mind that there are no lifts to higher floors so if can't use stairs then you will need to be on the ground floor. We had a garden view room which was excellent. I don't remember being given the option to upgrade to a sea view room, but having now been there, I wouldn't bother. As the highest rooms are only on the third floor, much of the view of the sea is obscured by the tall palm trees, even if you are right at the front of the resort by the beach. The other thing with the sea view rooms is that they tended to be near the restaurants that are all close to the beach as well so in the evening, you'll be overlooking people eating their dinner, which isn't my idea of fun. The balconies are large and it seems such a shame to waste them by not being able to use them for fear of hungry people looking up at you!
The rooms themselves are very spacious and bright. I have read people elsewhere say that they are a little dated and could do with a refurb, but I didn't think that at all. I thought that the rooms were well presented and comfortable. They aren't the most luxurious rooms on the planet but they are very of a very good standard. Our room had a double bed that was huge and the mattress was so comfortable - I had fourteen extremely good night's sleep! The rooms are kitted out with the usual - LCD TVs, dressing table, sizeable wardrobe. There is also an electronic safe in each room. The TV channels are pretty basic - there are a few English channels including BBC World News (which I loathe) and a movie channel. Normally i wouldn't mind about this because I don't watch TV on holiday, but with the sun going down earlyish ( around 4pm), there was quite a gap between leaving the beach and going for dinner and it might have been nice to have more variety for that.
The bathrooms again are very suitable: large and well lit with a walk-in shower cubicle and oversized sink. I particularly liked the fact that the shower cubicle was slightly lower than the rest of the bathroom, meaning that the water was contained rather than soaking the floor. The showers are powerful and there was never a dip in the hot water despite it being such a big resort. There is also a hairdryer in the bathroom, but it's about as powerful as a hand fan so not really worth the effort!
Housekeeping came every day and they did a very good job. i would always recommend using the safe for valuables because you can never be too sure, but on a few occasions, we accidentally left money or phones left out and they were always there when we got back, so no problems with security.
The Restaurants and Bars
The hotel is all-inclusive and, unlike some of the others I have stayed in, everything is actually included in terms of food. Main meals are taken in the Magico Restaurant which is a buffet. You can have breakfast lunch and dinner in there. Breakfast is good and includes everything you would expect; sausages, eggs cooked to order, fruits, yoghurt, cereals, pastries, fresh bread and so on. I found that, after two weeks, it did become a bit samey as it was the same choice every day - it's up to you to vary it I suppose. Lunch and dinner were similar and included a huge salad station, lots of fresh bread and a wide range of main dishes that are all served from show counters. Dinner offers a bit more variety as they have different theme nights every night, repeated every two weeks. Themes include Mexican, Chinese, seafood and Egyptian, although lots of the staple popular items appear every night regardless of the theme. These tended to include things like pasta dishes and curries as well as basics like pizza and chips, so fussy eaters will always find something to eat. For a bit of extra variety, you can eat at the Buffet Around the World at lunch time. This one is open from 12 until 4pm and is based down by the beach. It is partially open air and so makes for a great place to for a break from the beach. The variety isn't as good as the main restaurant, but it is great for a snack rather than a full meal.
There are three a la carte restaurants as well; Mai Thai (Thai), Sofra (Egyptian) and Baia (Seafood). We enjoyed all of them although Baia was our favourite because it was a little more sophisticated and the presentation and quality of the food and service was particularly good. In both Baia and Sofra there are a couple of the dishes on the menu that you get automatically so just bear that in mind when you are deciding what to order. In Sofra we were going to order starters and main courses but when the bread and selection of dips came we decided against a starter because it was such a large portion.
The food in general is well cooked and fresh. They managed to keep more or less everything warm as well which is always difficult in buffet type restaurants in particular. We found it much more pleasant to eat in the a la carte restaurants as they offer a much more sophisticated dining experience. You can really tell that the hotel have tried hard to make it a different experience from the hustle and bustle of the buffet, with all the little touches like warm towels to start and being able to order full bottles of wine, and it really does make a nice difference.
Having said all of that, there were a couple of issues I had with the dining at Club Magic Life. Firstly the booking process for the a la carte restaurants was a pain. You have to go to guest services the day before you want to eat and book a table. It's supposed to be open from 2pm until 6pm, but the limited places are usually gone by half two at the latest because people queue up before it opens. You can only eat at each restaurant once per week, so it isn't really awful but I could have done without it.
The other problem I found was the opening times for the restaurants, particularly the buffet. It is open for four or more hours at both breakfast and lunch, but in the evening it is only open from 6pm until 9pm. We found that very few people used it before seven thirty and so after then it was completely packed until it closed. I'd have thought it would be much better to open until 10 so that you can stagger it a bit. The a la carte restaurants too are only open until 9.30 and the latest time you can book to sit down is 7.30, which again I thought was a bit early, because it then means that you are at a loss for something to do once you've eaten, rather than being able to make an evening of it.
There are a few other places to relax around the hotel including a coffee shop that offers cakes and pastries as well as an American bar (which incidentally is one of the only places in the resort that you can get a decent internet connection) and The Eagles Lounge, which is a bar both inside and outside that offers a comfortable place to sit. All of these places are included in your holiday price and, together, they mean that you can get something to eat or drink pretty much anytime of the day. I think I worked out that the only time you can't get food is from midnight until 6am.
Entertainment and Passing the Time
Sunbathing is obviously the first choice of 'activity' in these parts and there is plenty of opportunity to do it. We preferred the beach because it was generally quieter and I love looking out tosea. It can get a bit windy by the beach, but they have huge wind breakers and the beach staff are happy to move them around to make them into a little den for you. There is also a beach bar so you don't have to wander far for a drink! If you prefer the pool, there are two in the resort. The bigger one is absolutely huge but is where all the daytime activities take place so it can get very noisy. There is also a DJ booth near this pool, so it creates more of a party atmosphere. The sun umbrellas here are also fixed so it can be difficult to find a bed that isn't completely shaded for large parts of the day. The other pool is the relax pool which is much smaller but a lot more people. We noticed that a lot of the older guests seemed to gather around this pool during the day.
There is an entertainment team at the hotel and they do work hard. With it being a resort that is a bit in the middle of nowhere it does need to provide something to do, particularly once the sun has gone in. There are a lot of exercise based activities during the day that you can just turn up for including beach volleyball, boules, meditation and step aerobics. There are also five tennis courts and you can borrow equipment for free and there is a gym which is small but has pretty much everything you need. Almost everything is included in the holiday price, the only things that you had to pay more for were tennis lessons, spa treatments and hire of snorkelling and diving equipment. If the latter is your thing, there is a jetty leading out past the shoreline reefs and, as long as the flag isn't red, you can go swim and snorkel during the day. I'd highly recommend it because the reefs and the fish around them are absolutely stunning - I am absolutely not a fan of the sea, but I loved it, as long as I didn't think about the scary stuff that might be in there!
Every evening there is some form of show, usually at the amphitheatre. I'm not one for shows generally but they passed the time. Some of the shows were terrible, others were actually much better than I expected. The only problem with the shows is that they are outside and it does get pretty cold in the evening. They do provide little blankets, but you'll need some warmer clothes anyway.
Price and Is It Worth It?
We booked the hotel as part of a package so I'm not entirely sure how much the hotel cost us. There was a price list inside the room that said our room was 120 per night per room. It didn't say which currency it was in though and I wouldn't like to guess because they do seem to use all kinds of currencies in these parts. Our package was around £1700 for two of us for two weeks to give you an idea. The hotel is a five star hotel and it certainly does have the facilities to warrant this so I'd say it is worth it. It isn't the most luxurious in the world, but it is clean, the staff are very friendly and there are plenty of facilities. I would recommend the hotel but perhaps only for a one week holiday because the food and surroundings can get a bit repetitive, plus there isn't very much to do outside of the hotel either. Overall I'd say it is a lovely place for a nice relax and to enjoy some time in the sun.
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Hotel and Tavern Gurko (Gurko, Bulgaria)
Location You can find Hotel Gurko on 33 Gurko Street in Veliko Tarnovo, Bulgaria. It's a tavern and a hotel joined together and situated on one of the prettiest streets in Veliko. The street is ancient and a treat to walk down with it's old houses overhanging and bulging with bright red geraniums, trailing foliage, potted ... plants and lots of handcrafted watering cans, wheelbarrows, troughs. You can't miss the folk art - it is everywhere on this street.
How did I find this hotel?
We came across the Gurko when we were staying in a pension just a little further up the street. On the first night in Veliko we decided to go out to eat and this tavern, brightly lit with candles invited us in. We had a first class meal with a jug of Bulgarian wine and decided we really liked the decor and atmosphere and would probably visit again for a meal. As our pension was basic and we were staying for a few days I decided that it would be more comfortable if we could stay at the Gurko.
The following morning as we were walking down the street we bumped into a lady busy with her cleaning duties outside the Gurko Hotel. She was one bundle of energy and never stopped sweeping and watering plants all the time we were talking to her. The lady in question was the owner of the hotel. We asked if she had any vacancies and she said she could fit us in if we came back at 3pm when the rooms would be ready. My husband wanted to see the room on offer and asked the price. I could see she wanted to get on with her work but we insisted on seeing the room just to make sure it was in good order. The room she showed us was on the second floor and to reach this we had to walk up some steep stairs. The room had just been vacated so the laundry was in a pile on the floor and the beds were unmade. For 35 Euros it looked great. A deal was made, off we went sightseeing and said we would be back around 5pm. The pension was much cheaper at 17 Euros but basically it was just a room with a bed, chair and that was about it. Nothing wrong with the place at all but I just fancied a bit of luxury on this trip.
On entering I certainly got a whiff of cleanliness in the form of floral disinfectant. The maid/cleaning lady had certainly done an excellent job. The room was large with two beds made from heavy oak with carved headboards. The bedding consisted of two huge pillows filled with duck feathers. These were very soft and comfortable. The top cover was white and had been hand embroidered. Apart from this there was a sheet and a medium weight blanket. I thought at first that we might be cold but we were fine and both of us enjoyed the comfort of the beds while we were snuggled up watching footie on Cable TV every night of our stay. Furniture in the room was made from the same wood as the beds; simple yet elegant. Wall lights hung on the wall above our beds and opposite was a desk with a mirror above. It was here were the coffee machine, tray and cups were situated. I really liked the double windows in the room which overlooked the River Yantra. The curtains were orange and folky in design and tied back to give the room a more rustic look. The view from the window was one of the best I came across in Bulgaria.
Yes, there was an en-suite. Average in size with a bath and a shower. The tiling was quite attractive in two shades of brown with a fancy flowered border around the mirror hung over the washbasin. We had a mixture of towels - two bath towels in a beige colour and two smaller white towels which were big enough for me to wrap around my hair to form a turban. These were hung on a rail next to the washbasin and close to the hair dryer. The bathroom was fine really. I would have liked a window to look through but it wasn't too important.
We did have a phone in our room and a mini bar but didn't use either.
The hotel downstairs is split into two restaurants and a reception area. The first restaurant you come to having walked down the stairs is the evening restaurant. It was delightful to eat an evening meal in as the room was so atmospheric with a log fire, chairs and tables made from polished wood, with carved animals around the edge and wagon wheels supporting the tables. A varety of seating arrangements: some quirky, made from barrels and others coming out of the stone walls decorated in Bulgarian tapestries. Both nights of our stay we sat in the same table nearest to the door. This is because I like to see the new arrivals.
Service was a bit slow due to the fact that there were only 2 people serving and attending to the bar next door as well. The evening menu consisted mainly of Bulgarian dishes like Tarator, Kavarma and meatballs (Kiufte). We ate the same dish both nights which was Drob Sarma: a popular Bulgarian dish made from chicken livers. We had a Shopska salad to go with it and a big bowl of fresh yoghurt followed by a jug of local wine. I was surprised at the quality of the wine - I was expecting it to be rough but it wasn't - it was fruity and smooth. The only thing I was a bit annoyed about was the smoking aspect. The No Smoking ban doesn't exist in Bulgaria. Not just in this restaurant but in others we visited. They have separate sections but still have ash trays on tables in the non-smokers section. I have never smoked and I find the smell quite offputting. Let's hope the next time I visit things will have changed but I doubt it very much. Apart from this moan I loved the restaurant.
The room on the other side of the building doubles up as a bar and breakfast room. It isn't as ornately decorated but it still has a good atmosphere. You choose your table and as soon as you sit down one of the staff will bring a menu and take your order. Service in the mornings was very quick and efficient. I think they wanted to get on with the cleaning. We had a choice of fruit juices, tea and coffee, cereal (cornflakes and muesli), ham and eggs (poached, fried or boiled) and a selection of fresh rolls. Feta cheese was also on offer. I choose a plate of this the first morning but the portions were enormous and as much as I love Feta cheese this was too much. The following morning I went with the ham and eggs. Bear in mind that this is cooked ham and not bacon. Slices are paper thin too.
I enjoyed staying in the Gurko Hotel and would go back again. For 35 Euros a night, I think it's a bargain. The hotel is traditional, clean and has a great restaurant. Shame about the smoking but it's part of Bulgarian culture and I think they find it hard to change. The location is terrific, overlooking the River Yantra, walking distance of the centre of Veliko and right slap bang in the vicinity of Samovodska Street - a haven for traditional crafts. Highly Recommended.
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Hotel Center (Ljubljana, Slovenia)
Between me and Himself we have stayed in a total of ten different places - rental apartments, hostels and hotels in Ljubljana. When we first started visiting in 2004 there wasn't very much at the cheaper end of the market but now the Euro40 - 50 section of the market is pretty healthy and while this won't buy luxury, it will generally ... get you a good location somewhere clean and comfortable.
Needing a room for one Saturday night in January 2012 we booked at Hotel Center, a two star place which, as the name suggests, has the advantage of a central location. We booked through Expedia (taking advantage of an attractive rate of cash-back through www.topcashback.co.uk) which gained us 200 lovely Nectar points.
While this method had financial advantages it also had some drawbacks. We knew the location of the hotel having walked past on numerous occasions so we were aware that it is above a café-bar. However we would have assumed that it would have closed, like most such establishments that have residential accommodation on the floors above, around 10.00pm, or 10.30pm at the latest. If you booked through Expedia and didn't do any additional research you wouldn't know this.
The other thing we knew was that Hotel Center does not have a 24 hour reception and that you have to check in downstairs in the café when reception is not staffed. We'd made the booking a while back and had mentioned it to a friend who lives in Ljubljana and knows a lot about what goes on. She told us that the guy who runs it also has the café and that although it's called "Hotel Center" it's really a hostel; she was right on the first count, wrong on the second.
The booking confirmation gave a telephone number for the hotel. I'd fully intended ringing the hotel on Thursday or Friday to tell them our arrival time in Ljubljana on Saturday but then it slipped my mind. On the way down to the capital we tried and tried to get through but there was no response. When we arrived at the hotel a notice on the locked door directed us to a shoe shop on the main street where the manager knew of our reservation and telephoned the owner. The shop manager then took us to the hotel and checked us in. She had been told that we were to have room 2 but when she opened the door she found the room hadn't been made ready for us, so after another call she gave us room 4. We'd reserved the room by credit card but paid in cash at the hotel.
Hotel Center occupies part of the first floor of a typical Ljubljana apartment building. Entry is via a passageway from the main street Slovenska Cesta and the entrance to Companeros Café is in the passageway. When the café is open you can ask the staff to let you go into the hotel through the café, however the café was not open all the time we were there even though a notice on the door said it was due to be open from 9.00pm until 5.00am.
There are only a handful of rooms off the reception area; this is essentially a very large apartment that has been divided into smaller rooms. Although it was by no means large, our room was sufficiently spacious to permit normal walking around and there was lots of storage space. The unlined curtains looked as they might be useless but they turned out to be rather good at keeping out the light, permitting a reasonable lie in on Sunday morning.
The rooms are rather basic although the furniture is good quality and we both thought the bed was comfortable. The property has lovely high ceilings but the small rooms combined with the very simple décor make the ceilings seem oppressively high; if the rooms were bigger and the décor more elegant, this property could look very grand and stylish.
The rooms all front onto the main street and Slovenska Cesta is essentially the main traffic street cutting through the city centre. However, if you are staying on a weekend you'll find that it's very quiet. Shops in the city centre close at lunchtime on Saturday (except for very touristy shops by the river) and don't open again until Monday morning. Usually the street is full of traffic but at weekends there are just a handful of buses and almost no cars. Although some cafes and restaurants in this newer part of the centre don't open at the weekend there are a few open in this area and you are only two minutes walk away from the more lively areas and the Old Town. The train and bus stations are five minutes walk away and you're also in a good location here for Trg Republiky and its major concert venue the Cankarev dom. Tivoli Park and Roznik Hill (and also the Tivoli Hala concert venue), the green lungs of the city, are five minutes walk away.
It is a worrying sign when a hotel gives complimentary ear plugs but if you're really, really sensitive to noise this may not be the place for you. If the bar downstairs is really noisy I can't see how ear plugs are going to help. My suggestion would be to contact the hotel directly to find out whether the bar will be open when you want to stay as there is no indication as to why it did not open when we were there.
All rooms come with en suite bathrooms as standard. Ours appeared to have been recently installed. The under-floor heating was particularly appreciated in January though we had no complaints at all regarding the temperature in our room.
The hotel offers free wi-fi throughout and if you haven't brought your own device there is a PC with internet access on the reception desk that guests may use. There is also a telephone that can receive incoming calls and which allows you to make calls free of charge to other landlines in Slovenia. Useful numbers are listed (taxi companies, etc) beside the telephone for those occasions when reception is unstaffed and numbers are provided should you need to contact a member of staff.
When we got back to the hotel late-ish on Saturday night there was a young man rooting around in a cupboard in the reception area. He said hello and asked if everything was alright but when we left the hotel the next morning leaving the keys on the reception desk there was nobody around. A notice said that the hotel is staffed between 8.00am and 4.00pm but that does not appear to be the case on Saturdays and Sundays. As there was nobody to ask and we couldn't risk not getting our stuff back, we had to take our luggage to the station and leave it there until it was time to go to the airport.
We were happy enough with our experience at Hotel Center but we are Ljubljana old timers and very independent travellers. If you like more facilities or want help on hand, perhaps for suggestions for restaurants or tips on getting around, this probably isn't your kind of accommodation. Although it's not off the beaten track, this hotel is really best suited for people who've visited before. Although it's perhaps a tad overpriced (I'd say that Euro45 in the low season would be fairer) the slightly higher price may have the effect of putting off noisy groups of rowdy visitors (not that Ljubljana gets many of them anyway). Prices rise to Euro60 in the mid season (roughly April to the end of June) and Euro66 a night for a double between July and September. (Correct in 2012)
When we got back to the UK there was a telephone message from the hotel asking about our arrival time but they had called the day before we were due to stay there. I should really have also given a Slovenian mobile number but hadn't thought of that when making the reservation. If you do plan to stay in this hotel, let the staff know in advance what time you'll be arriving; it will make your stay so much easier.
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3 Stars Hotel International
Address: Via Tre Olmi 19 / Hotel International / 41010 Modena / Italy
Address: Remera / Hotel International / Kigali / Rwanda
Sterneckstrasse 20 / Hotel International / 5020 Salzburg / Austria / Tel: +43662 882031
Hotel International / Pasa beach hotel in Dalaman, Marmaris, Turkey.
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Hotel International / Hotel in Halkidiki, Greece.
Address: Sulhasenkuja 3 / Hotel International / Helsinki / 00180 / Finland / Tel: 358 9 41521000
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