Rough Guides Senior Editor Andy Turner has just returned from the Egyptian dive spots around Dahab. Here he explains why the area is so great for scuba enthusiasts, and why everyone should consider this underrated destination.
Strung along the shimmering Gulf of Aqaba, the laidback resort of Dahab has long been Egypt’s answer to Ko Samui or Goa. It certainly ticks all the boxes: reliable 30C+ weather, kaleidoscopic coral reefs, boutique and budget accommodation and plenty of languorous bars and restaurants where you can puff on a sheesha pipe all night and munch on a banana pancake in the morning. All this comes minus the jetlag, visa hassle and tropical vaccinations of its farther-flung rivals.
Yet perhaps what’s most attractive about Dahab is that it has retained a large part of the bohemian, low-key appeal that first attracted alternative travellers here in the 1970s, when it was little more than a Bedouin fishing village. Yes, there may be a Hilton and a Le Mériedien in town today but you hardly notice them thanks to their low-rise, sympathetic architecture. A glance at Sharm el Sheikh, 100km south, will give you an idea of the alternative – a wannabe Las Vegas of faceless five-stars with almost every patch of private beach covered in lobster-pink flesh.
Image by Diana Jarvis
So paradise found? Well, we ought to mention the elephant (or should that be camel?) in the room – Egypt’s security issues. Rocked by terrorist bombs in 2006, Dahab has since seen 2011’s Arab Spring spook ever-more-timid travellers, while a recent spate of tourist kidnappings at Mount Sinai, a popular day trip destination, set off alarm bells again (in each case the tourists were promptly released having spent a few hours drinking tea with their captors). Unsurprisingly, all this prompts warnings on government travel sites but how you interpret them is up to you (see our recent article on Mexico). Security is now reassuringly tight – your first impression of Dahab will be an AK47-toting soldier waving you through a roadside checkpoint – and scores of repeat visitors hint at how easy it is to fall in love with the place.
Let’s start with the diving: Dahab is arguably best place to learn to scuba dive on the planet.
1. Safety is taken very seriously and instructors are invariably patient, friendly, speak good English (among a host of languages) and focus on teaching small groups with top-quality equipment.
2. Beginners can start learning in the sea rather than a hotel pool thanks to calm conditions, warm water and great visibility (not to mention the thrill of spotting reef fish on your first dive).
3. It’s simply great value with PADI Open Water packages starting around €299 (versus €499 in the UK). Experienced divers have smorgasbord of sites to choose from, most just a short wade offshore.
World-renowned aces in the pack include the Blue Hole, a deep-violet abyss popular with freedivers, and Gabr el Bint, an extraordinary series of coral heads pulsing with neon-bright anthias and, inshallah, the chance of spotting a passing whale shark.
If you don’t dive, ma feesh mushkila! (no problem!). Dahab also boasts world-class windsurfing and kite surfing thanks to its stiff sea breezes and waist-deep lagoon, perfect for beginners. Turning to (very) dry land, the vast expanse of the Sinai desert is a ready-made playground for camel rides, quad biking and horse-riding, while overnight desert trips allow you to sleep under the stars and sample Bedouin culture and cuisine.
Image by Diana Jarvis
After dark, Dahab takes on a Riviera feel, its dozens of waterside restaurants decorated with twinkling lights and floor cushion seating and offering everything from wood-fired pizzas to Thai green curry. After a couple of nights you may tire of the touts shepherding you towards “Number one restaurant in Dahab!” but you can easily escape by heading inland to Assalah, the “real” Dahab. Here you’ll find Egyptian joints knocking out roast chicken, falafel and delicious tahini dips for the price of a hotel beer. Clubs are thin on the ground but there are plenty of places to down an ice-cold Sakara (the local brew) and shoot some pool. If you can time things right be sure not to miss April’s Dahab music and cultural festival, an eclectic mix of yoga classes, film screenings and live music – a fitting tribute’s to the resort’s hippie heyday.
Dahab is around an hour’s drive from Sharm-el Sheik airport (connected to the UK by easyJet, Monarch and Egyptair). Recommended dive companies include Black Rock Divers, Poseidon and Sea Dancer. For accommodation try the stylish Acacia or Coral Coast.