An entrepôt since ancient times, the RED SEA COAST, stretching 1250km from Suez to the Sudanese border, was once a microcosm of half the world, as Muslim pilgrims from as far away as Central Asia sailed to Arabia from its ports. Though piracy and slavery ceased towards the end of the nineteenth century, smuggling still drew adventurers and explorers long after the Suez Canal had sapped the vitality of the Red Sea ports. Decades later, the coastline assumed new significance with the discovery of oil and its vulnerability to Israeli commando raids. The latter led to large areas being mined, which is one reason why tourism didn’t arrive until the 1980s – although it has boomed since then, fuelled by the region’s good-value resorts and superlative dive sites.
Along the coast, turquoise waves lap rocky headlands and windswept beaches, while inland the Nile Valley is divided from the coast by the arid hills and mountains of the Eastern Desert, home to the Red Sea monasteries. Cairenes appreciate the beaches at Ain Sukhna, south of Suez, but the region’s real lure are the fabulous island reefs near the brash resort of Hurghada and the less touristy settlements of Port Safaga, El-Quseir and Marsa Alam to the south.