There’s little point stopping during the 338km journey between Suez and Sharm el-Sheikh, unless you are an avid windsurfer or kiteboarder. Such attractions as exist along (or off) the route are otherwise awkward to reach, so most travellers pass them by. Although the resort of Ras Sudr is essentially an oil town, its proximity to Cairo (130km) means it is becoming popular with Cairenes as a weekend getaway, while it also attracts windsurfers from further afield year-round. Further south, and inland, the pharaonic ruins at Serabit el-Khadim also draw visitors. Beyond El-Tor, the area’s administrative capital, there’s little of interest until you reach Ras Mohammed.
Famed for the variety of seashells washed up on its beach, the flyblown town of RAS SUDR (or Ras Sidr) is marred by a reeking oil refinery that doesn’t seem to bother the middle-class Cairenes who frequent its holiday resorts. This part of the coast is so windy it is often overlooked by travellers who seek the calmer reef-fringed shores of Sharm el-Sheikh, although the year-round cross-shore gusts make it a haven for kiteboarders and windsurfers – for equipment and tuition try the Moon Beach Resort.
Fifty-five kilometres south of Ras Sudr, a turn-off leads to HAMMAM FARAOUN (“Pharaoh’s Bath”), several near-boiling hot springs which Arab folklore attributes to the pharaoh’s struggles to extricate himself from the waves that engulfed his army as he chased the Israelites. Local Bedouin use the springs for curing rheumatism, and it’s possible to take a dip in the waters. A cave in the hill beside the shore leads into “the sauna”, a warren of chambers awash with hot water, but it’s more comfortable to bathe where the springs flow into the sea.
Built upon a 755-metre-high summit reached by a tortuous path, the rock-hewn temple known as Serabit el-Khadim is Sinai’s only pharaonic temple, surrounded by some of the region’s grandest scenery. Erected during the XII Dynasty, when turquoise mining in the area was at its peak, it is an enduring symbol of pharaonic power. Though Bedouin still glean some turquoise by low-tech methods, the amount that remains isn’t worth the cost of industrial extraction.
Wadi Mukattab and Wadi Maraghah
Serabit el-Khadim is becoming a popular stop on jeep safaris from points south, approached via a track leading off the road from St Catherine’s into Wadi Mukattab – the Valley of Inscriptions. There are dozens of hieroglyphic texts carved into the rocks, alongside Proto-Sinaitic inscriptions that continue into Wadi Maraghah, where ancient mine workings and stelae were damaged when the turquoise mines were revived by the British (before going bust in 1901). Most travel agencies in Sharm el-Sheikh and many in Dahab can organize day- and overnight trips here, while Desert Divers run a four-day tour (€220) taking in Serabit el-Khadim, Wadi Mukattab and St Catherine’s.
There’s little to see along the coastal highway besides a scattering of holiday resorts all the way to EL-TOR (or El-Tur), the administrative capital of south Sinai. The town itself is a mass of modern housing, government buildings and construction sites, though the Greek Orthodox Raithu Monastery, which was commissioned by Byzantine emperor Justinian (527–65), is worth a quick look. As with Ras Sudr, the main reason to come here is for the windsurfing and kiteboarding – the Windhaven Hotel offers classes and equipment rental.
North of El-Tor, the hot springs of Hammam Musa (Moses’ Bath) lie in the shadow of the looming hill named after them. According to legend, Moses asked an elderly woman for a drink from the spring, but the woman refused him, so Moses called upon God to bless the water with therapeutic properties, making it unfit to drink. A path leading halfway up the hill affords spectacular views; facilities include changing rooms with towels and a cafeteria.
At Sinai’s southernmost tip is the not-to-be-missed RAS MOHAMMED peninsula, fringed with lagoons and reefs. Covering 480 square kilometres of sea and land, it was declared a nature reserve in 1983, then Egypt’s first marine national park in 1989. Bordered to the west by the relatively shallow Gulf of Suez and to the east by the deep Gulf of Aqaba, it has strong currents, making the waters very nutrient-rich and supporting around one thousand species of fish and 150 types of coral. The age of this amazing ecosystem is evinced by marine fossils in the bedrock dating back twenty million years; on the shoreline are newcomers only 75,000 years old. Though the area is chiefly one for divers, there are calmer reefs for snorkellers too. The park is also home to terrestrial species such as foxes, reptiles and migratory birds such as the white stork.
Various trails – accessible by regular car – are marked by colour-coded arrows. The blue one leads to Aqaba Beach, the Eel Garden, the Main Beach and a Shark Observatory 50m up the cliffside, which affords distant views of the odd fin. Purple and then red arrows show the route to the Hidden Bay, Anemone City and Yolanda Bay, while green marks the way to the Crevice Pools and the Mangrove Channel, where children can safely bathe in warm, sandy shallows. Divers head by boat to sites such as the Shark Reefs off Yolanda Bay (the place to see sharks, barracuda, giant Napoleon fish and manta rays), and the Mushroom or the wreck of the Dunraven, out towards Beacon Rock.
Protecting the reefs
Protecting the reefs
Egypt’s coral reefs are fragile organisims, vulnerable even to wave motion and excessive sunlight, as well as accidental damage from tourists. Dive boats that come too close and divers who break or disturb corals have resulted in many sites near Sharm el-Sheikh being “over-dived”, while other reefs have been damaged or destroyed by tourism-related work. For divers and snorkellers alike, the fundamental rule is to look but not touch. In marine parks such as Ras Mohammed, it’s also forbidden to feed the fish or remove anything from the sea. And don’t buy aquatic souvenirs – their export is illegal. Even shells from the beach may be confiscated when you leave Egypt, with a hefty fine given in return.