Over the last 25 years HURGHADA (Ghardaka) has been transformed from a fishing village into a booming town of around 180,000 people. This phenomenal growth is almost entirely due to tourism, though it’s worth taking Hurghada’s claims to be a seaside resort with a handful of salt: its public beaches are distant or uninviting, while the best marine life is far offshore. The town itself is pretty charmless: a sprawl of utilitarian structures, garish hotels, gaudy shops and patches of waste ground. If you’re not into diving – a score of coral islands and reefs are within a few hours’ reach by boat, and many other amazing sites can be visited on liveaboards – or lazing on the beach at one of the resorts, you’ll quickly find the place lacks appeal. Hurghada is extremely popular with Eastern Europeans and especially Russians, hundreds of thousands of whom visit each year; while their custom is welcome, cultural differences sometimes cause tension with locals.
There’s a good public beach in Sigala, but to sunbathe without unwanted attention in Hurghada you’ll have to go for the private beaches. Most of the bigger hotels and resorts in Ed-Dahar and New Hurghada allow non-residents to use their beaches and pools for a fee (generally around £E30–70).
Common sense and conservation-mindedness should keep you from touching any underwater flora or fauna, particularly coral, which can be extremely sharp and is easily damaged. It’s also important to avoid aggravating any potentially dangerous creatures such as moray eels, which may bite when threatened, or stingrays, which can deliver a painful dose of venom. Contact with jellyfish, meanwhile, can cause a mild skin irritation. Very few Red Sea species behave aggressively towards people, though there have been some well-publicised shark attacks. Poisonous creatures to look out for include the spiny, bottom-dwelling scorpion fish, and the nocturnal lionfish, with its elaborate array of strikingly marked fins. The lethal stonefish, camouflaged as a gnarled rock, is harder to spot but fortunately rare.
Arguably the biggest dangers to divers, however, are their own actions and those of their diving company. In 2008, for example, two Danish tourists and one Egyptian went missing, presumed drowned, on a private diving trip just off the coast of Marsa Shagra, just north of Marsa Alam – a pertinent reminder of the importance of following full diving safety procedures. Then, in June 2009, a French tourist on a boat trip near Marsa Alam mistook a shark for a large fish, jumped into the water to have a closer look, and was attacked and killed by it.
Your life may depend on choosing the right diving centre; always check that the instructor is qualified, with valid ID and insurance, not merely photocopies. Many are freelancers who change jobs frequently, so even the best centres sometimes get bad instructors. As a rule of thumb, it’s safer to dive with the large outfits attached to the resorts than with backstreet operators taking clients sent by budget hotels (whose recommendations can’t be trusted). Of Hurghada’s hundred or so dive centres, most are run by Europeans and tend to have higher standards than the locally managed outfits. The ones listed below are affiliated to HEPCA and are thus subject to monitoring.
The dive centres that are members of the Diving Emergency Centre Organization (DECO; t 0122 218 7550, w deco-international.com) encourage clients to pay around €6 for three weeks’ cover, which includes free use of the decompression chambers in Hurghada, El Gouna or Marsa Alam, doctor’s fees, as well as equipment and medicines used in treatment, though not hospitalization or any transport for the injured person.
Most dive sites within day-trip range are to the east and northeast of Hurghada. Inexperienced divers should be wary of the northerly reefs, where the currents are strongest. While many liveaboards go as far north as Ras Mohammed, sites to the south are regarded as more prestigious. All of the following are within day-trip range unless stated otherwise.
Never hand over cash to someone on the street who promises to arrange a trip; book through a dive centre. A four- or five-day PADI Open Water course costs around €350, while an Advanced Open Water course will set you back about €250. Scuba equipment is included in the price of courses, but otherwise costs around €25 extra per day. The average rate for a day’s boat diving is €50–60; most trips include two dives and lunch. For longer trips, several centres including Colona can arrange liveaboards and diving packages (mostly lasting for a week) that go south to sites near Safaga, Marsa Alam, Wadi Gimal and Wadi Lahami, or even as far as the Zabargad Islands, about 100km southeast of Berenice. Expect to pay at least €90 per person per day.
If you don’t fancy diving, there are also opportunities for snorkelling, the gear for which can be rented for €5–6 a day from most dive centres. The small reefs offshore from the Shedwan Hotel complex in Ed-Dahar and the Jasmine Village in Hurghada have been subject to noticeable damage though they do offer snorkellers a glimpse of the fish and corals that are more common further out to sea. Most dive centres offer snorkelling trips (around €25–40/day) and can recommend good locations at the Giftun Islands or elsewhere where you may also spot dolphins. An especially good deal is offered by Prince Safaris, run by friendly Bedouin brothers, who can arrange snorkelling trips to the Giftun Islands for about €25.
Abu Hashish Cave An underwater cave in a reef that was once used by dope smugglers to hide their wares.
Abu Ramada Island South of Giftun Island, this island is surrounded by a coral reef covered in psychedelic-hued soft corals; a good place for drift diving.
Abu Ramada Gota Also known as the “Aquarium”, this spot has amazing standing ergs and 1500-year-old stony corals, with a profusion of bannerfish, sweetlips and spotted groupers.
Brothers Around 70km northeast of El-Quseir, these two islands – Little Brother and Big Brother – are home to two shipwrecks and several types of sharks, including hammerheads. Popular liveaboard destination.
Careless Reef North of Giftun Island, and only accessible in mild weather conditions, this popular reef has two coral towers and is home to an extended community of moray eels.
Dolphin House Reef A horseshoe-shaped reef 15km south of Marsa Alam, widely used by dolphins as a nursery for their young. HEPCA has installed buoys to prevent boats from entering.
El-Fanadir Located to the north of Sigala, this is one of the best dive sites in the area, with a beautiful reef slope and large table corals.
El-Fanous These coral gardens, located just off Big Giftun Island, are good for both diving and snorkelling.
Giftun Islands Most of the reefs on the Big and Small Giftun Islands have been ruined by years of dive boats dropping their anchors onto the coral, and are now mostly visited by snorkellers. Two notable spots for both snorkellers and divers are the Small Giftun Drift (fine reef wall and lovely fan corals), and the Stone Beach on the northeast side of Big Giftun.
Shadwan Island Halfway to Sharm el-Sheikh (so out of day-trip range), with sheer walls and deep trenches attracting reef and oceanic sharks.
Thistlegorm This wreck is cheaper and slightly easier to reach from Sharm el-Sheikh.
Um Gamar Island Sheer walls and caves, brilliant for drift diving. You can swim through a cave filled with thousands of silvery glassfish.
It was diving that really put Hurghada on the map. There are more coral islands here than reefs, including about ten islands within day-trip range and many more that can be visited on extended dive safaris or liveaboards. Sharks, giant moray eels and manta rays can also be found in deeper waters. More detailed information on Red Sea dive sites around Hurghada and elsewhere can be found in Guy Buckles’s Dive Sites of the Red Sea.
Hurghada welcomes hordes of tourists each week, and has more than a thousand tour boats. To help combat the environmental impact of this, the Underwater National Parks of the Red Sea and Protected Islands enforces a daily “environmental tax” (€3) for all divers and snorkellers, the proceeds of which are ploughed back into environmental projects. This is in addition to the standard per-person charge of €3 per day to dive the Giftun Islands and the nearby reefs and €5 per day for sites further south, such as Brothers and Zabargad. The problem is also being tackled by HEPCA (Hurghada Environmental Protection and Conservation Association; w hepca.com), which is trying to raise ecological awareness. Tourists can help by using dive centres which belong to HEPCA and display a certificate from the Egyptian Underwater Sports Federation.
There are decompression chambers in El Gouna and the Mubarak Naval Hyperbaric & Emergency Medical Centre (t 065 354 9150 or t 354 4195) in Ed-Dahar, about 500m northwest of the police station.
Inland from Hurghada, the barren plains erupt into the Red Sea Mountains, which follow the coast southwards towards Ethiopia. This geologically primitive range of granite, porphyry and breccia contains Egypt’s highest mountains outside Sinai. They are home to a few thousand Bedouin, who are perfectly at ease in the wilderness – unlike isolated groups of miners and soldiers, who feel almost as exiled as the slaves who quarried here in ancient times.
Twenty kilometres north of Hurghada, a track quits the highway and climbs inland towards Jebel Abu Dukhaan, the 1161-metre-high “Mountain of Smoke”. Anciently known as Mons Porphyrites, this was the Roman Empire’s main source of fine red porphyry, used for columns and ornamentation. Blocks were dragged 150km to the Nile, or by a shorter route to the coast, from where they were shipped to far-flung sites such as Baalbek in Lebanon or Constantinople. Round about the extensive quarries lies a ruined town of rough-hewn buildings with two large cisterns and an unfinished Ionic temple.
Under the emperors Trajan and Hadrian, the pale, black-flecked granite quarried at Mons Claudianus, 50km from Mons Porphyrites, was used to construct the Pantheon and Trajan’s Forum in Rome. Around the quarries, beneath Jebel Fatira and Jebel Abu Hamr, you’ll find numerous abandoned columns.
Between Jebel Abu Dukhaan and Mons Claudianus rise the highest mountains in the Eastern Desert: Jebel Gattaar and Jebel Shaayib el-Banat. Jebel Gattaar (1963m) is esteemed by the Bedouin for its permanent springs and comparatively abundant vegetation. Further south, Jebel Shaayib el-Banat (at 2187m the highest in mainland Egypt) rises to a summit that the geographer and mountaineer George Murray likened to a “monstrous webbed hand of seven smoothed fingers”.
Powerful gusts make Hurghada a great place for windsurfing and kiteboarding. Several resorts have lagoons and rent out boards (around €55/day) and kites (around €85/day), and some places offer instruction: Happy Surf (t 0122 240 9888, w happy-surf.de) at the Hilton Hurghada Plaza organizes windsurfing classes; Pro Center at Jasmine Village (t 0100 667 2811, w tommy-friedl.de) and Colona Watersports at Magawish Village (t 0100 344 1810, w colonawatersports.com) offer kiteboarding lessons.
With a couple of days’ notice, Prince Safaris (t 012 248 4015, w prince-diving.com), on Dr Sayed Koryem Street, can arrange deep-sea fishing day-trips for around €100 per boat including equipment. An international fishing competition is held off Hurghada’s shores every February.
Most of the hotels and travel agencies can get you tickets for glass-bottomed boat trips (around £E50/hr). Submarine trips are also advertised but are not recommended as there were a couple of serious accidents in early 2012 in which several tourists died.