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The Modern Oasis

The pool is hidden in an ancient grove of date palm and olive trees that also shelters the ecolodge's organic produce gardens. Built around a gurgling spring that dates back to the Romans, it is a chic stone affair, surrounded by palms, oleanders, and locally crafted palm-reed deck chairs and chaise longues. I'm glad I followed Salama's advice: The water is cool, and I quickly forget the stress of the road.

Back in my room, I nod off, and wake up to the last of the Saharan sunset. The views outside are positively biblical: palms and reeds framing mud huts and stables, backed by low mountains. Across the courtyard, a few guests are assembling at a terrace bar. Lighting some candles, I prepare to meet and greet. (I can handle showering and dressing by candlelight, but shaving is another story. Five o'clock shadow will rule from here on.)

The group gathered around a long, low table is soon joined by Mounir Neamatalla, a dapper fiftyish gentleman in a blue button-down shirt, white trousers, and desert boots. He is our host, and for the past 20 years he has headed a Cairo company that consults on low-impact economic and social development projects throughout Egypt, north Africa and the Middle East. The Adrère Amellal ecolodge is his baby, his obsession, the place where he is bent on proving that ecology and luxury are not mutually exclusive concepts.

In 1997, Neamatalla bought 150 acres on and around Adrère. Then he spent several years working with local craftsmen and builders—employing as many as 120 people at a time—clearing the area, reintroducing indigenous trees and plants, and bringing back the ancient Siwan technique of building with kershef, a mixture of salt rock and clay that not only sparkles but also insulates from both heat and cold.

"I don't want people to think of this as a hotel. It is an oasis—a place for travelers who want to learn and to teach," says Neamatalla. "All my life I've been racing against time without direction or purpose. Patience is a valuable lesson I've learned from the Siwans. Like artists, they take joy in the work itself, the creation—they're not thinking about the result. The important mission is to be at peace with oneself. Not enough people know that—I have to share it."

I TAKE A SEAT ON THE EMPTY VERANDA THE following morning—am I early for breakfast?But in a moment, Salama materializes, bringing coffee, orange juice, just-out-of-the-oven pita bread, liquidy goat's cheese, olives, and marmalades made from recipes passed down by Mounir's grandmother. As if this weren't enough, he tempts me with fuul (mashed fava beans) and a date omelette so yellow that I suspect food coloring.

"Healthy chickens here," Salama explains, pouring more juice from a cut-glass decanter.

"Beautiful," I say of the vessel.

"Everything here is beautiful," Salama remarks unequivocally.

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