Five-star in Dubai not quite the same in Sri Lanka

I learnt two lessons from my recent summer travels: don’t trust the international star-rating system of hotels; do trust the judgements of Cairo’s camel drivers. Let me explain.

I got back from a very enjoyable 10-day trip to Sri Lanka last week. Many friends had recommended the “teardrop” in the Indian Ocean, and I was not disappointed.

It ticked all the holiday boxes for me and six-year-old Amira: endless white beaches washed by crashing breakers, spooky jungle surroundings complete with dripping palms and simian screeches, and animals – elephants, monkeys, turtles, snakes, even the vaguest, shadowy glimpse of a leopard.

There was plenty to keep me interested apart from the wildlife. We stayed on the south coast, which had been badly hit by the 2004 tsunami, and it was fascinating to see how ordinary Sri Lankans had suffered in, and recovered from, that tragedy.

The fact that more than 10 years on they are still coming to terms with the disaster is testimony to the violence of the event, and their determination to recover.

I booked the trip via the DIFC branch of Sharaf Travel. It’s quaint these days to actually use a travel agent, as several friends pointed out, but the Sharaf agent was from Sri Lanka, so I valued his local knowledge.

Maybe he could have arranged for something better than the bone-breaker jeep that took us round Yalla national park on our leopard hunt. But the roads were so bad I suspect even a top of the range safari-adapted Land Cruiser would have made little difference.

I’d take issue with him in only one area. I’d insisted on five-star accommodation throughout the trip, and he complied, but without telling me that there is a wide disparity between Dubai definitions of five-star and those of Sri Lanka.

The Cinnamon Bey hotel, in Beruwala on the south-west coast, might be billed as a “five-star resort”, but it’s a long way from Dubai’s standards of five-star luxury and comfort. We compensated by paddling around the coral reef just off the resort beach, which kind of made up for it.

Before Sri Lanka I went on a trip to Egypt to report on president Abdel Fattah El Sisi’s unveiling of the “new” Suez Canal. It was (inexplicably) my first visit to the country, and a stirring occasion, made all the more memorable by the emotional reaction of the local press corps to the event.

All pretence to objective journalistic detachment went out the media tent window as hacks and hackettes applauded, whooped, and jumped on tables to lead chants of “Sisi, Sisi” as the president declared the canal extension open.

And why not? The canal is some good news for the country, supported and welcomed by the vast majority of the people, as far as I could tell, despite the curmudgeonly doubts of economists and the foreign media.

To get a real feel for the popular mood, I asked the camel driver who accompanied me on my tour of the pyramids the next day how he felt about the new canal.

“It is good for Egypt and good for us. The president has made a big thing of it, we know, but he is all we have standing between us and bad things. Without him, Egypt would be like Libya and Syria, and the Middle East would be lost,” said Mohammed, a married family man in his mid-thirties.

I reckon you could pay a strategic consulting firm millions of dollars and get more or less the same verdict.

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