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Seasons to be cheerful.

Byline: By Michael O'Flaherty

I was relaxing by the Red Sea reading a book when a man came up and asked me if I wanted my glasses cleaned.

The book I was immersed in was The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle by Haruki Murakami and I thought immediately that this was a wind-up of another kind.

I looked down at my glass of fresh mango juice. Did he mean he wanted to refresh my drink?

No sir, he said, your glasses - your spectacles.

Well, I have stayed at some half-decent places in my life, with impeccable service, but this was truly something else. Beyond normal duty, I would say.

I handed over my glasses and lay back in the sun while the beach attendant poured solvent on them and polished them until they were gleaming and new. Then I pondered the meaning of service beyond service. And courtesy without obsequiousness, which is sometimes a difficult division.

You can, of course, recognise paradise without the aid of spectacles. I had found it by the Red Sea Riviera at the new 136-room Four Seasons Resort, in Sharm El Sheikh, Egypt.

Note that they don't even call it a hotel. This Four Seasons, a new addition to an exclusive group renowned for superlative service, lies amid majestic limestone cliffs as a self-contained village, cascading down a hillside to the sea below.

Here you can luxuriate in maximum indolence, pampered at every whim, in rooms and suites out of a film set.

But indolence - a close relative of relaxation - need not be the only reason for a visit here.

Go out on one of the resort boats into the sparkling aquamarine Red Sea (no, it's not red) and dive into the warm waters to view the wondrous corals and dramatic vibrant fish of every colour and hue.

If you fancy learning to scuba dive, you can take courses in the resort. Or more simply just snorkel and see the incredible underwater world beneath you.

You can water-ski, parasail or windsurf or laze by one of the many pools.

Sharm, as it is known, is renowned as one of the world's premier dive destinations and for sun lovers it boasts 365 days of sunshine a year. Downing Street tries to keep it secret, but it is a place beloved of Tony Blair and family.

Don't let that deter you, because you needn't go at the same time. It is also a place visited by royalty, presidents and film stars but in the Four Seasons Resort there is no distinction between Joe Bloggs from Essex, Bill Clinton, Julia Roberts, President Mubarak of Egypt and King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia (except the latter two may have superior suites - it's only 9,000 dollars a night for the royal one).

The proud motto is 'Every celebrity is a guest and every guest is a celebrity'.

After a day's activities, or non-activities as the case may be, it is time for dinner, a gourmet affair at one of three international restaurants.

Sharm is a five hour flight from London. Welcome to the City of Peace, say the signs on the road from the airport, despite the bombs of July 2005 which killed 64 people.

With security enhanced, tourists are starting to return and last autumn there was nearly 65 per cent occupancy in hotels. And plans to build a vast security fence around the resort were scrapped after critics warned it was like constructing a concentration camp, which would deter holidaymakers.

Sharm is a year-round resort. Its 141 hotels, with 60,000 beds, account for 25 per cent of Egypt's tourist economy, and the busiest time of year is August, when it is searingly hot.

But Sharm itself is not the only drawcard. Away from the town and the hotels, there is history and culture in abundance.

Drive out into the Sinai desert into a biblical landscape of endless sands - 24,000 square miles of waterless nothing - with just a few oases. In the background are dramatic red mountains.

Sinai is steeped in history. Before the time of Christ, it was one of the world's most important crossroads as the gateway from Africa to Asia, the bridge between the Mediterranean and the Red Sea, and the direct route from Europe to the Indian Ocean and the Far East.

In some of the remaining Bedouin camps, warm hospitality abounds. Visitors can mingle and eat with the tribesmen and their snorting, belching camels. Some of the men have four wives, but others have abandoned the nomadic way of life for the towns and swapped their camels for Mercedes.

One of the highlights is a visit to St. Catherine's monastery - 'the monastery at the God trodden mount' - as it is described by the monks. It is a two-and-a half-hour drive away through the Sinai desert.

Here you can see the Burning Bush, where God first spoke to Moses. It is a place of peace and reverence, despite the number of tourists who visit. In the background is Mount Moses, where God spoke to Moses for a second time, giving him the commandments.

The Greek Orthodox monastery, which dates back 17 centuries, is a sacred biblical site. It is thought to be the oldest active monastery in the world. To preserve it from pillage, Mohammed, the founder of Islam, and Napoleon both took the monastery under their protection, as well as Arab caliphs and Turkish sultans. Today, 25 monks live there, including one from Sussex and another from Texas.

To enter the Chapel of the Burning Bush, the visitor must take off his or her shoes, in remembrance of God's command to Moses to 'Put off thy shoes from off thy feet, for the place where thou standest is holy ground'.

The roots of the Burning Bush lie under an altar in the front of the chapel, covered in silver. The bush itself - the only one of its kind in the Sinai Peninsula - is outside in a courtyard garden. Every attempt to transplant a branch of it to another place has been unsuccessful.

Outside in the warm sunshine, one of the monks spoke of his privilege and wonder at living in such a place.

Father Ioannis looked out to the mountains beyond, then to Mount Moses, and said: 'Here I am closer to God.'

He looked at me and smiled. 'And so are you. And so is everybody else here.' CHECK IN: Michael O'Flaherty was a guest of Four Seasons Hotels and Resorts, which offers seven nights' B&B in a superior village room at the Four Seasons Resort from pounds 799 per person, including flights on British Airways' franchise partner GB Airways. Extra nights cost from pounds 52 per person.

Abercrombie and Kent reservations: 0845 0700 612 or online at www.abercrombiekent.co.uk

For departures from Manchester, add pounds 7 per person.

For GB Airways direct flights to Sharm, three times a week, and Hurghada, twice a week, discounted return fares start at pounds 199 for bookings until May 27, 2006. Euro Traveller returns from pounds 259, Club Europe returns from pounds 499. Call 0870 850 9850 or visit www.gbairways.com.
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Publication:Wales On Sunday (Cardiff, Wales)
Date:Mar 12, 2006
Words:1189
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