Although technically one destination, Sharm el-Sheikh comprises several different areas – and constant development means more are added each year. Sharm el-Sheikh is often referred to simply as Sharm: if you’re outside the resort that term refers to the whole resort, including Na’ama Bay, while once you’re within the resort itself, the name “Sharm” refers only to the downtown area of Sharm el-Maya, home to a market, port and marina. Glitzy Na’ama Bay, 7km up the coast, is where the bulk of the best hotels, restaurants and nightlife venues are based.
Sharm el-Sheikh and Sharm el-Maya
A hunk of sterile buildings on a plateau commanding docks and other installations, SHARM EL-SHEIKH was developed by the Israelis after they captured the town in the 1967 war. Their main purpose was to thwart Egypt’s blockade of the Tiran Strait and to control overland communications between the Aqaba and Suez coasts. Tourism was an afterthought – though an important one, helping to finance the Israeli occupation and settlements, which Egypt inherited between 1979 and 1982.
Since then, Sharm’s infrastructure has expanded in fits and starts, without much enhancing its appeal. Despite some plush hotels it basically remains a dormitory town for workers servicing neighbouring Na’ama Bay – while the port area of Sharm el-Maya retains a local ambience reminiscent of Suez or Cairo which can come as a shock to tourists leaving their resorts for the first time. Whereas beachwear is de rigueur in Na’ama, tourists in Sharm el-Maya should dress modestly off the beach to avoid unwelcome attention.
The only foreigners here tend to be divers and a few backpackers who take advantage of its cheapish accommodation and commute into Na’ama Bay. Sharm has a beach, but its small bay doesn’t match Na’ama’s, although the Sharm el-Maya area does have some good restaurants and souvenir shops. The new Sharm el-Sheikh National Museum (due to open in 2013–14) will feature around seven thousand exhibits tracing the country’s history from pharaonic times to the present day.
Ras Um Sidd
Southeast of Sharm el-Maya bay, a string of hotels and villas has sprouted along the stretch of coast known as Ras Um Sidd. The swankiest resorts are perched close to the coast, while cheaper hotels fill up the land behind, although in general it’s a pretty bleak area, with poor beaches, and guests have to rely on shuttle buses to get them to the better amenities of Na’ama Bay. The main attraction is the nearby Ras Um Sidd dive site. The area is basically all coral reef, without any natural sandy beaches – what sand there is has been imported by the hotels to create their own beaches, inevitably increasing the debris many divers now encounter underwater in this area.
From Ras Um Sidd, a paved road lined with holiday resorts and hotels runs to The Tower, a fine diving beach colonized by the big New Tower Club hotel. The real lure, however, is a huge coral pillar just offshore, which drops 60m into the depths. It’s easy to get to The Tower by taxi from either Sharm or Na’ama, but it is no longer possible to access most of the reefs between Ras Um Sidd and The Tower from land, as hotels along this stretch of coast now effectively block public access to the sea. Diving these reefs by boat, you come to (in order of appearance after Ras Um Sidd) Fiasco, Paradise, Turtle Bay, Pinky’s Wall and Amphoras. Turtle Bay has sun-dappled water that’s lovely to swim in, even if there are fewer green turtles than you’d hope.
With its fine sandy beach and smart facilities, NA’AMA BAY has transformed itself so rapidly that even the residents have trouble keeping up. Now a glitzy, over-developed tourist centre with a vast array of fast-food joints, international restaurants, bars and clubs, it’s far from an authentic Egyptian experience, and the general feel of the place is much like any Mediterranean package resort. Nightlife and sunbathing are the main draws, though diving and snorkelling are popular too, with dive centres, hotels and malls being the only points of reference along the beachfront strip. The beach is divided into hotel-owned plots that are supposedly open to anyone providing they don’t use the parasols or chairs – though scruffier-looking types may be hassled and topless bathing is illegal. There are also two public beaches (£E10), though they are no more than narrow strips squeezed in beside the Novotel and the Hilton Fayrouz Resort beaches.
Hotel development continues past Na’ama Bay, and resorts – some up to a square kilometre in size – line the coast up to Ras Nasrani and even beyond to the borders of the Nabeq protected area. The once-beautiful and isolated retreat of SHARK BAY, 8km north of Na’ama, has now been overwhelmed by numerous large holiday resorts, although it still boasts a fine beach, and views of Tiran Island, and continues to attract many visitors, including scores of day-trippers from Na’ama. Despite the bay’s forbidding name (Beit el-Irsh, “House of the Shark” in Arabic), the sharks have been scared away by divers, leaving a benign array of tropical fish and coral gardens just offshore, with deeper reefs and bigger fish further out. There’s an £E10 charge to use the beach.