My pandemic holiday: Covid travel, Czech style

On a journey from Prague to Marsa Alam, Egypt, a writer reflects on Covid-era travel, Czechs on holiday, and sea cows.

Dinah Richter Spritzer

Written by Dinah Richter Spritzer
Published on 09.06.2021 12:19 (updated on 10.06.2021)

It was a Covid horror film turned comedy. There were multiple nose stabs and piles of forms to complete that seemed more onerous than a citizen application. I had illicitly traveled 3,236 kilometers on a 1:30 a.m. flight with two exhausted 9-year-olds in an effort to escape the misery of lockdown. 

But in April what I wanted most to escape was the Czech Republic, where I felt imprisoned, like much of the local populace. I wanted sea, warmth, and just something dramatically different. Instead, there I was in a sea of Czechs on a bus, with an Egyptian travel agent making announcements with perfect ž’s and ř’s. How did this happen?

I had lost my decades-long fight to FOMO. After having drooled over (so-called) 5-star seaside resort photos year after year on tour-operator sites, I could no longer resist.

I'd already had one vaccine shot l so I thought, Well at least I won’t die at an all-inclusive resort. And my luxe-life fantasy was finally being offered at a price I could afford: around CZK 40,000 for the three of us at El Malikia Abu Dabbab, an Egyptian 5-star on the Red Sea. A Covid discount! Snorkeling! Waterslides! Me not cooking! Freedom!

And forget the crowds because what kind of terrible person travels from one Covid-infested country to another during a pandemic?

Here was my chance for some mommy bonding with my twin trouble makers. (My erudite husband would rather be run over by a tram than endure a packaged holiday). 

So now to reveal the answers to those pressing questions we all have before such a trip concerning safety, intercultural communication, faux luxury, and how what you see is never what you get:

A view of El Malikia Abu Dabbab resort from the Red Sea. The calm, clear waters full of colorful fish are a major draw for tourists.
A view of El Malikia Abu Dabbab resort from the Red Sea. The calm, clear waters full of colorful fish are a major draw for tourists.

The mausoleum

Arriving into an empty lobby at 7 a.m. that looks like the marble interior of a Soviet memorial is uninspiring. Everything was closed, not even a bottle of water was offered at check-in and food wasn't “part of the package” until lunchtime.  

Whoever heard of bring-your-own-food-and-water to a five-star hotel? 

Indoor playgrounds were closed due to Covid, so the main hotel amusement for kids was sliding (and going kaput) on the hotel lobby's marble floors.
Indoor playgrounds were closed due to Covid, so the main hotel amusement for kids was sliding (and going kaput) on the hotel lobby's marble floors.

Upgrading to a family room with a tiny bit of extra space was easy for EUR 70. But I couldn’t figure out why our so-called "sea view" room was really an overview of the pool. 

Tip: Seaview is not the same as “seafront.” Learn the lingo!

BUSINESS REVIEWS

Bohdan Dyak electrician

Bohdan Dyak electrician

Professional and very efficient.

Little Van that Can

Little Van that Can

Little Van That Can

In fact, the seafront rooms were in an empty building reserved for anyone testing positive during the stay. There was plenty of room for them, as the village-sized complex was only a third full. 

The Monster

Despite a strong wind, we ventured out to the pool. I could finally relax on a lounge chair. And there was no one there, which seemed heavenly.

I opened my eyes, looked up, and took in one of the ugliest pieces of half-constructed cement I have beheld since visiting Kaliningrad in the mid 1990s. (There was a bridge to nowhere there dubbed “the monster”).  

El Malikia Abu Dabbab's colorful waterslide is next to a construction site that will eventually be a restaurant-pool complex on the beach.
El Malikia Abu Dabbab's colorful waterslide is next to a construction site that will eventually be a restaurant-pool complex on the beach.

And then, the drilling began. My son pointed to the reams of dust flying into the air as the workmen pummelled the living F out of the monolith. 

I could hear my neighbor’s reconstruction in Vinohrady when I closed my eyes.

Turns out they were building a restaurant-pool complex (or gladiator arena for tourist-eating lions). It was an eyesore. A hotel manager smiled when I complained and said, “well just look at the sea instead!”

PRIVATE PROPERTIES

The representative of the Blue Style agency, which sells the travel package through Invia, noted that the construction is mentioned on its Website. In fact, the Invia Website now has a note about the construction on its website as well, although I do not recall seeing it there when I booked. The note promises that “The scope of hotel services is not affected in any way by the construction.”

Tip: Ask about construction before booking?

Touts

Another disturbance to our mostly peaceful week-long interlude was the nonstop harangue by purveyors of camel rides, spa treatments, fresh juice, haircuts, and other indulgences. I was relentlessly approached on hotel grounds, which elicited feelings of guilt and annoyance.

After a few days on the beach, I surmised that placing a red flag on our chairs kept touts at a safe distance. When I asked a manager if we could all wear red flag t-shirts to avoid being bothered, he gave me a wry smile. I softened on this subject towards the end of the trip. I have great empathy for people who lost their livelihood to Covid. The sellers were just doing their jobs, and I learned to reject their offers without causing offense.  

We could not resist the lure of sand art. Unfortunately this souvenir was crushed in our hand luggage on the return trip.
We could not resist the lure of sand art. Unfortunately this souvenir was crushed in our hand luggage on the return trip.

Tip: Practice your best thanks-anyway smile before visiting this resort. 

Traveling with Central and Eastern Europeans

The best part of my vacation was basking in the attitude of my fellow travelers. 

They never complained -- unlike me -- and were polite, respectful, and tranquil in a way that I found as soothing as an herbal bath. Czech hotel guests, much to my surprise, sought me out to chat and were curious as to how I ended up being the only American at the resort. But perhaps the biggest revelation was the kids. 

My own bilingual children attend an international school. They don’t always catch on to Czech school customs, and children outside their orbit do not always engage them. 

The resort water playground was a huge hit with kids, especially when the overflowing seahorse teacup spewed a waterfall onto an expectant young audience.
The resort water playground was a huge hit with kids, especially when the overflowing seahorse teacup spewed a waterfall onto an expectant young audience.

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The Czech children at the resort were insistent on inviting my sons to their sand-castle building and water-polo games. They smiled and said "hello" every time we saw them. It was a big party where nationality and language were irrelevant. This brought back wonderful memories of my own childhood vacations in Florida. I started to wonder if perhaps people who venture far from home during Covid are not only adventurous but uniquely open-minded. 

Tip: Whatever you assume about a culture you think you know, you’re probably missing something.

So this is five-star?

The desert-themed architecture and interior design of El Malikia is enchanting. The staff was friendly and kind.

AGENCY PROPERTIES

Apartment for rent, 1+KK - Studio, 24m<sup>2</sup>

Apartment for rent, 1+KK - Studio, 24m2

Pernerova, Praha 8 - Karlín

Apartment for rent, 2+kk - 1 bedroom, 60m<sup>2</sup>

Apartment for rent, 2+kk - 1 bedroom, 60m2

Koněvova, Praha 3 - Žižkov

Apartment for rent, 3+kk - 2 bedrooms, 62m<sup>2</sup>

Apartment for rent, 3+kk - 2 bedrooms, 62m2

Chudenická, Praha 10 - Hostivař

Apartment for rent, 2+kk - 1 bedroom, 46m<sup>2</sup>

Apartment for rent, 2+kk - 1 bedroom, 46m2

Československého exilu, Praha 4 - Modřany

Nonetheless, there were some oddities. There were cigarette butts and plastic cups scattered on the hotel grounds. On the snorkeling trip we took, our hosts smoked nonstop. (Where do you think the cigarette butts ended up?) Our room had a faulty shower hose (it was fixed quickly upon request) and there is no beside light in the children’s sleeping area, which was inconvenient.  

A seafront room view provides a panorama of the El Malikia Abu Dabbab resort.
A seafront room view provides a panorama of the El Malikia Abu Dabbab resort.

There was the continuous temptation of added costs. Of course, my kids wanted the three-euro Oreo ice cream in a waffle cone instead of the free small dollop of a less fanciful flavor in a cup. And who could resist some pricey fresh strawberry juice served poolside versus whatever was in the mysterious juice mixture served at the buffet?

But by far the most irksome extra was wifi. 

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Escape game Magic Mirrors

Escape game Magic Mirrors

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The weak lobby wifi was free, which turned everyone into a phone-staring zombie before and after meals. I paid EUR 25 for a week of access outside of the lobby and it drove me to madness. Anytime I wanted to check the Internet I had to log in with an un-memorizable code and password, which took many minutes to type in. And you couldn’t be logged into two devices at once. 

Tip: God commanded on the 7th day: You shouldn’t be on your phone during vacation!

Tip 2: Use the pricey ice cream as an incentive for good behavior for sand-kicking son. 

Buffet vs. Covid  

The buffet brilliantly combined some Czech favorites with Middle Eastern and Asian dishes. There was no pork, which provided a nice respite from Czech hotel buffets. The cuisine was varied and delicious and there was plenty of choice, with pasta as a daily option for kids. 

On the other hand, due to Covid, it was not a self-service buffet but was instead staffed by kitchen employees who struggled to understand the guests and often could not see children begging to be served. The most daunting experience was the salad bar -- reminiscent of the Seinfeld soup-Nazi episode -- where the chef would battle with impatient hotel guests over which beans, tomatoes, or cucumbers they deserved.

The most daunting experience was the salad bar where the chef would battle with hotel guests over which beans, tomatoes, or cucumbers they deserved (photo via Facebook/@MalikiaResort)
The most daunting experience was the salad bar where the chef would battle with hotel guests over which beans, tomatoes, or cucumbers they deserved (photo via Facebook/@MalikiaResort)

Unfortunately, after I finally got my salad, my children had typically finished their meal. I wondered if I was the only one who was struggling, but a guest from Wroclaw approached me and said she was so tense during meals she thought she would explode! It didn’t help that the hotel was supposed to have four restaurants, but only one was in operation.

AGENCY PROPERTIES

Apartment for rent, 1+KK - Studio, 24m<sup>2</sup>

Apartment for rent, 1+KK - Studio, 24m2

Pernerova, Praha 8 - Karlín

Apartment for rent, 2+kk - 1 bedroom, 60m<sup>2</sup>

Apartment for rent, 2+kk - 1 bedroom, 60m2

Koněvova, Praha 3 - Žižkov

Apartment for rent, 3+kk - 2 bedrooms, 62m<sup>2</sup>

Apartment for rent, 3+kk - 2 bedrooms, 62m2

Chudenická, Praha 10 - Hostivař

Apartment for rent, 2+kk - 1 bedroom, 46m<sup>2</sup>

Apartment for rent, 2+kk - 1 bedroom, 46m2

Československého exilu, Praha 4 - Modřany

Tip: Try not to give a lecture on intercultural sensitivity when you hear a Czech diner comparing the arrival of Russian-speaking guests at the buffet to the 1968 invasion.

Tip 2: This trip is worth it for the Baklava. 

Safety, privacy, and bureaucracy

There were many ways I felt safer from Covid in Egypt than I did back in Prague, where children crowded onto playgrounds and parks due to, at that time, the inability to leave the city. Resort guests had been PCR tested close to departure, and we were PCR tested again during the trip so we would be allowed back into Czech Republic. Every public space in the resort was well ventilated or open air. The staff all wore ventilator masks.

However, I couldn’t get a straight answer on how often they were tested. I knew airport and airline employees were tested frequently. The Covid rate in Marsa Alam seemed to be quite low according to my research, but I do not have confidence that the reports were entirely accurate. There were many signs encouraging guests to wear masks in the hotel, very few, if any, did so. 

I asked a manager if guests had tested positive since the resort reopening in March and he said a few did, but they were all now fine. Were other guests informed when this happened, I asked. No, he replied. And then with the voice of Ricardo Montalban in Fantasy Island, the manager added, “Why should we upset people?"

I felt like we were in a giant game of Clue and everyone was a suspect. After getting a PCR test in the hotel lobby, we were told we would only be informed about the results if we were positive. But how would you find me? I asked. My phone was on airport mode, the hotel phone seemed nonoperative. “Someone will knock on the door,” it was suggested. So for three nights, I could not sleep because I was sure I heard knocking on the door. 

Tip: Don’t ruin your vacation worrying about what you cannot control (or find some really good valium).

Great Expectations

Despite my great expectations, my children were sick of the sunburn, sand in the bed, slides, and Arabic-dubbed cartoons. I was reluctant to take them on a cultural trip because it meant hours on a motorcoach and extra whining. They didn’t need to relax as much as I did and in the future, I would take them somewhere that was more accessible to historic sights and a town. They steered clear of the children’s animation team, which one son sarcastically called the directors of fun. 

The author was more enthusiastic about snorkeling than her sons.
The author was more enthusiastic about snorkeling than her sons.

So was it worth it? Yes.

I will never forget the Czech father who got my sons to join in a game of water polo so that I could finally have a break. Or his wife, who empathized when my sons fought and swore the minute I tried to have a conversation with another adult. Or the fellow Praguer who turned out to live one block from me and was interested in having deep discussions in the pool about education reform.

I went on vacation to find another world, and instead, found solace in the discovery that after 20 years living in the Czech Republic, its inhabitants still surprise me. And on top of that, we saw a sea cow. 

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