Sinai rises and tapers as the peninsula runs towards its southern apex, red rock meeting golden sand and deep blue water along two gulf coasts. Even the Gulf of Suez, as E.M. Forster noted, looks enticing from offshore – “an exquisite corridor of tinted mountains and radiant water” – though it’s nowadays transformed after dark into a vision of Hades by the flaming plumes of oil rigs.
For most travellers, however, Suez is merely an interlude before the Gulf of Aqaba, whose amazing coral reefs and tropical fish have given rise to a number of popular resorts. The beach scene here is the best in Egypt, and trips into the interior are easy to arrange. Even from the beach, the view of the mountains of Sinai and Saudi Arabia is magnificent.
Crossing the Israeli border
The border with Israel is open 24 hours except during Yom Kippur and Eid el-Adha. Avoid crossing after mid-morning on a Friday or any time on Saturday, however, as most public transport and businesses in Israel shut down over shabbat. The whole process can be very quick, unless you get caught behind a large group. If you’re arriving from Israel, don’t listen to any taxi drivers who say you need to take a taxi to reach Taba bus station – it’s less than five minutes’ walk.
Israel issues free three-month visas to EU, US, Australian and New Zealand citizens. However, if you plan on travelling to Syria or other Arab countries that do not recognize Israel, ask immigration on both sides of the border to leave your passport unstamped. Travellers must walk across the no-man’s land between the Egyptian and Israeli checkpoints; from the Israeli checkpoint you need to catch a shared taxi or #15 bus for the 10km trip into Eilat. If you need to change money, the exchange rate on the Egyptian side, at Bank Misr, which also has an ATM, is better than the Israeli bank where you pay your exit tax.
Jagged mountains ranged inland accompany the road 95km northwards from Na’ama Bay, providing a magnificent backdrop for Dahab’s tawny beaches, from which its name – Arabic for “gold” – derives. For travellers, Dahab divides into two main parts: a cluster of resorts set around the lagoon, close to Dahab City, and the settlement of Asilah (or Asalah), 2.5km up the coast, where younger and independent travellers hang out in a kind of “Goa by the Red Sea” – though as Asilah gets smarter, the distinction between the two areas is blurring.
Like Sharm and Taba before, Dahab’s relaxed ambience was shattered when three bombs went off in Asilah at 7.30pm on April 24, 2006, destroying several restaurants, shops and a supermarket, killing 23 people and injuring 60. Today there is a noticeable security presence, and whether you are on public or private transport, you’ll probably be asked to show your passport at checkpoints on leaving or entering Dahab.
Dahab City and the lagoon
Don’t be discouraged by DAHAB CITY’s unappealing sprawl of municipal housing and government offices – the only time you’re likely to come here is when you arrive or depart from the bus station. To the south of Dahab City is the far more attractive lagoon area, home to numerous holiday resorts and boasting a great stretch of sandy beach, while the lagoon itself is a great place to windsurf or kiteboard (see Watersports and activities around Dahab).
With its breathtaking views, quiet ambience and string of great beachside restaurants and hotels, the gentrified hippie colony of ASILAH is the Red Sea coast’s best backpacker hangout. Its reputation as the place for hippie travellers emerged in the 1960s, when Israeli troops started coming here for a bit of R&R. Nowadays, buildings stretch back behind scores of restaurants and hotels, while a section of the beach has been paved to create a pedestrianized corniche. There are two main areas: Mashraba, which is south of the bridge, and Masbat, which is north of the bridge.
Such is the lure of Asilah that visitors often stay longer than they’d expected, getting stuck in a daily routine of café life, or if they are more active, diving and snorkelling. Given Asilah’s reputation, it’s important to stress the hedonistic limits: women can generally sunbathe without any hassle, but going topless is illegal, and there are periodic crackdowns on drugs. Finally, stick to bottled water to avoid the risk of hepatitis from contaminated cisterns.
Diving and snorkelling in Dahab
Shore diving is the norm in Dahab. The nicest reefs are to the north of the lagoon; the reefs at Asilah are meagre, except for the area around the lighthouse, and much of the seabed is covered in rubbish. Experienced divers should look out for occasional free “trash dives”, organized to clear the rubbish, mostly plastic bags blown into the sea, which sea turtles can mistake for jellyfish and choke on.
Most divers head 8km up the coast where you can find the Eel Garden, Canyon and Blue Hole dive sites, trips to which are arranged by most dive centres. The Canyon is a dark, narrow fissure that you reach from the shore by swimming along the reef and then diving to the edge of a coral wall. It can be frightening for inexperienced divers, as it sinks to a depth of 50m, but there’s plenty to see at the top of the reef. Further north lies the notorious Blue Hole, which has claimed several lives (usually experienced divers who dive too deep for too long). This spectacular shaft in the reef plunges to 80m; the challenge involves descending 60m and swimming through a transverse passage to come up the other side. Divers who ascend too fast risk getting “bent”; inexperienced divers should not attempt this dive under any circumstances. Fortunately, the Hole can be enjoyed in safety by staying closer to the surface and working your way round to a dip in the reef known as the Bridge, which swarms with colourful fish and can even be viewed using snorkelling gear.
The main destination for day-long dive safaris is the Ras Abu Galum protected area, a 30km stretch of coast with three diving beaches, accessible by jeep or camel. Naqb Shahin is the closest to Dahab of the three, and has fantastic coral and gold fish, but the sea is very turbulent, so many divers prefer Ras Abu Galum or Ras el-Mamleh, further north. All three sites have deep virgin reefs with a rich variety of corals and fish.
While renting equipment is generally costlier than in Sharm el-Sheikh, diving courses are normally cheaper. Competition means cut-price deals, especially when business is quiet, but you should keep a sense of perspective – the rockbottom outlets are unlikely to be rigorous about your safety. The more established centres charge around €35 for an introductory shore dive; around €90–110 for a one-day dive in Ras Abu Galum; around €120–150 for a diving trip to Ras Mohamed; around €125–170 for a diving trip to the Thistlegorm; and around €200–250 for a PADI Open Water course.
Free diving and snorkelling
Expert training in free diving – which is done on a single deep breath, without the aid of scuba gear – is available from Lotta Ericson of Freedive Dahab (t 0100 545 9916, w freedivedahab.com), who offers a two-day beginner course (€170), as well as more advanced courses lasting up to four days. Most participants find they can hold their breath for up to four minutes after the longer course, enabling them to dive to 15m or deeper. As for snorkelling, for a more ambitious jaunt than just wading out from the shore, arrange an excursion to the Blue Hole (€10–15 for a half-day), which can be done through a number of operators, including Desert Divers.
Watersports and activities around Dahab
The wind blows for an average of around 270 days a year in Dahab, making it a haven for windsurfers and kiteboarders. Five Square/Go Dahab (t 0122 756 8358, w go-dahab.ru), based at the Panda Resort by the lagoon, run beginners windsurfing classes (€40/1hr or €145/3 days) and kiteboarding (€90/2hr), and rents out equipment (from €10/day). The Hilton, Iberotel and Le Meridien hotels also have windsurfing/kiteboarding centres.
Riding, rock-climbing and desert safaris
If you fancy riding on the beach, local boys rent out horses or camels (around £E50/hr); they tend to hang out by the restaurants in Masbat. Alternatively, Blue Beach Club offers more organized horse rides down the beach (£E100/hr), as well as lessons (£E150/hr); you can also do overnight trips into the desert and the mountains.
A more exciting option is to sign up for trips into the rugged interior, which can be organized at most hotels, travel agencies and dive centres. Trips can involve trekking, camel rides and quad biking, cost around €40–50 per day, and range in length from a single day to around two weeks. Desert Divers also offer a range of rock-climbing courses and day-trips for both beginners (from €65) and those with previous experience.
Diving and snorkelling
Much of the diving in Sinai is easy to access and relatively sheltered from harsh winds and currents, making it a popular destination for those who have little or no experience. It’s an inexpensive place to learn open-water diving and gain a PADI, BSAC or CMAS certificate, entitling you to dive anywhere in the world.
Prices and packages
Prices for diving courses tend to be lower (often significantly so) in Dahab and Nuweiba than Sharm el-Sheikh; the best deals for all destinations are generally to be had online. Boat trips to dive sites usually include equipment, though lunch is often extra (about £E50–60).
Dive packages can be a good deal, costing around €200–260 for ten dives. Liveaboards can work out cheaper than staying in a hotel and buying a dive package separately, averaging around €100 per person per day, including full board. Where equipment rental isn’t covered, count on an extra €25–30 per day. During quiet periods, bookings can be arranged at short notice, but to be sure of what you’re getting it’s best to book in advance.
Dives and courses
The type of diving and the degree of experience required at each dive site are mainly determined by underwater topography and currents. Around Sharm el-Sheikh the chief activity is boat diving. Up the coast towards Dahab and Nuweiba this gives way to shore diving, where you wade or swim out to the reefs. Liveaboards (also called safari boats) allow you to spend days or weeks at sea, cruising the dive sites and shipwrecks of the north Red Sea around Ras Mohammed and the Tiran Strait (or the more southerly reefs beyond Hurghada). They also give access to less-visited sites out of “peak hours”, and the chance to make up to five dives a day.
Choosing a dive centre
When choosing a dive centre, stick to operators that have been around longest and have proper links with organizations like PADI. The Chamber of Diving and Watersports (w cdws.travel) has a list of all legal dive centres in the Sinai, as well as those that have been blacklisted. When visiting a centre, ask to see a card proving the instructor is qualified to teach the relevant course (PADI, BSAC, or whatever), and isn’t merely a dive-master. Many dive centres offer courses not only in English but also in various other European languages. Finally, a number of Sinai dive centres charge an optional €1 per day levy on all divers to pay for the upkeep of the local hyperbaric chamber (see Diving in sharm and Na’ama bay).
Snorkelling is also great fun and much cheaper than diving. Equipment can be rented at most of Sinai’s dive centres (€5–10/day), but if you’re planning to snorkel a lot, it’s cheaper to bring your own gear from home. Note that coral reefs and spiny urchins can rip unprotected feet to shreds; in all events you should only walk in designated “corridors” to protect the corals – if the water is too shallow to allow you to float above them. However cool the water may feel, the sun’s rays can still burn exposed flesh, so always wear a T-shirt and use waterproof sunscreen.
Sinai dive sites
Amphoras Between Ras Um Sidd and Na’ama Bay. This site – also known as “Mercury” – is named after a Turkish galleon laden with amphoras of mercury that lies on the reef.
Blue Hole 8km north of Dahab. The challenge of this 107m-deep hole in the reef is to swim through a passage 60m down and come up the other side: this is highly risky even for expert divers and a number of people – including dive-masters and instructors with prior experience of the Blue Hole – have died here. You can safely snorkel around the rim of the hole.
Canyon Near the Blue Hole. This narrow reef crack, 50m deep, is another famous site, and one that should only be attempted by experienced divers.
Dunraven The Dunraven steamship was en route from Bombay to Newcastle when it steered onto a reef in fine weather in 1873, capsized and sank 25m. Though its 25 crew escaped, the captain was found negligent (he fatuously remarked, “Twenty-five is my lucky number!”).
El-Gharkana Nabeq This luxuriant reef – part of the Nabeq protected area – lies offshore from mangroves and lagoons which are home to rare waterfowl and flora.
Fjord 10km south of Taba. A picturesque cleft with underwater reefs, up to 16m deep. The nearby “Fjord Banana” site is an alternative for less experienced divers.
Gordon Reef Off the coast of Ras Nasrani. The Gordon Reef lies in the shipwreck-littered Tiran Strait, which has sharks and strong currents. Not for beginners.
Jackson Reef Near Tiran Island. A large reef between Tiran Island and the mainland, with a 70m drop-off, sharks and pelagic fish, as well as the shipwreck Lara. Strong currents make it dangerous for beginners.
Maagana Beach 5–10km north of Nuweiba. The reef falls sheer around the “Devil’s Head” to the north, getting shallower and less impressive further south.
Near, Middle and Far Gardens 1–5km north of Na’ama Bay. A series of lovely coral reefs, good for easy diving and snorkelling. The Near Gardens are within walking distance of Na’ama. In 2010 there was a series of shark attacks in the Middle Garden area.
Pharaoh’s Island Near Taba. There’s superb underwater scenery, easy access by boat and a spectacular wall dive at this site, but also strong currents; a diving guide is recommended.
Ras Abu Galum 50km south of Nuweiba. A 400-square-kilometre protected area with a deep virgin reef wall and a range of sea life.
Ras Atantur Between Dahab and Nabeq. Colourful, abundant reef, with a shipwreck – the Maria Schroeder – 10km further south. Access by 4WD.
Ras el-Mamleh 20km south of Nuweiba. A slab of virgin reef wall on the northern edge of the Ras Abu Galum protected area. Access by 4WD or boat.
Ras Mohammed National Park 25km southwest of Sharm el-Sheikh. Wonderful corals, mangrove lagoons, anemone gardens and crevice pools, with shark reefs offshore. It’s also the site of the Yolanda shipwreck.
Ras Nasrani Near Tiran Island. Sheer reef wall riddled with shark caves; the “Light” and the “Point” are notable spots. Large turtles are a common sight on the reef slope. Beware of sharks and strong currents. Not for inexperienced divers.
Ras Um Sidd Sharm el-Sheikh. Within walking distance of Sharm el-Sheikh at the north point of the harbour, this site features exquisite fan corals and fish.
Shark Bay 10km north of Na’ama Bay. Colourful reef just off the beach of a small resort. Good for novices and experienced divers alike, and snorkellers.
Southern Oasis 7km south of Dahab. A gently sloping reef, the Southern Oasis offers easy diving and snorkelling.
Sun Pool 10–15km south of Taba. A gorgeous diving beach along a shallow reef extending as far north as the Fjord.
Thistlegorm Near El-Tor in the Gulf of Suez. This British ship, sunk by German bombers in 1941, was laden with rifles, uniforms, trucks and jeeps – and also packed full of ammunition, which exploded, ripping the ship apart and killing most of the crew. Tubeworms grow out of the bathtub in the captain’s cabin and you can still see many of the armoured vehicles the ship was carrying. Discovered by Jacques Cousteau, it’s a popular dive from Sharm el-Sheikh.
Tiran Island Protected area East of Na’ama Bay. An archipelago with over twenty dive sites, all amazing, although sharks and strong currents means the sites are only for experienced divers unless explicitly stated otherwise.
The Tower South of Na’ama Bay. A sheer reef pillar dropping 60m, with easy access from the beach and mild currents. Good for novice divers.
Turtle Bay Between Ras Um Sidd and Amphoras. This shallow bay has turtles and is good for beginners.
Yolanda Off Ras Mohammed. This Cypriot freighter struck a reef during a storm in 1981; its cargo includes a BMW and scores of porcelain lavatories.
Nuweiba and Tarabeen
Beautiful but desolate, NUWEIBA is another resort on the Gulf of Aqaba, consisting of a port with nearby tourist complexes, followed 4km up the coast by Nuweiba “City”, an administrative and commercial centre grafted on to a former Israeli moshav (cooperative village). During the late 1970s, thousands of Israeli and Western backpackers flocked here to party and sleep on the beach, but today tourism is at a virtual standstill. The beach is beautiful, but – with the exception of a few patches of privately owned sand – covered with rubbish. For most travellers, Nuweiba now serves primarily as a stepping stone for onward travel by bus to Eilat in Israel or by boat to Aqaba in Jordan.
Around 500m north of Nuweiba City is the neighbouring Bedouin settlement of TARABEEN, named after a local Bedouin tribe and attracting younger travellers.
Diving, snorkelling and safaris in Nuweiba
Diving in Nuweiba is mostly from the shore thanks to a lack of jetties and safe anchorages. There are several shallow reefs offshore, the best of which is the Stone House, beyond the southern promontory. Though fine for snorkelling, they’re not so great for diving unless you’re a novice, so the divers that come here usually travel to Ras Abu Galum or sites north of Nuweiba. These trips can be arranged by any of Nuweiba’s dive centres, including Emperor Divers at Hilton Nuweiba Coral Resort (t 069 352 0320, w emperordivers.com) and Scuba Divers at La Sirene (t 069 350 0705, w scuba-divers.de).
There are also a wide range of camel and jeep safaris. The nearest destinations are the oasis of Ain el-Furtaga and the colourful sandstone canyon of Wadi Huweiyit. Slightly further north lies Moyat el-Wishwashi, a large rainwater catchment cistern hidden in a canyon between imposing boulders.
One of the most popular jeep excursions is to the Coloured Canyon; the name comes from the vivid striations on the steep walls of the canyon, which is sheltered from the wind and eerily silent. Other destinations include Wadi Ghazala, with its dunes and acacia groves where gazelles may be spotted; Ain Um Ahmed, whose deep torrent, fed by snow on the highest peaks of the Sinai, shrinks to a stream as the seasons advance; the oasis of Ain Khudra, supposedly the Biblical Hazeroth, where Miriam was stricken with leprosy for criticizing Moses; and the beautiful – and relatively untouristed – Rainbow Canyon.
Recommended guides include Morad el Said at Amon-Yahro Tourist Camp, an English- and German-speaking Egyptologist. If you fancy learning to ride a camel, the Habiba camp, next to the Amon-Yahro Tourist Camp has its own school (w sinai4you.com/crs).
Sharm el-Sheikh and Na’ama Bay
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.
Diving in sharm and Na’ama bay
The fabulous array of dive spots around Sharm and Na’ama is the chief attraction of both resorts, offering endless scope for boat and shore diving. Divers are not allowed to explore the reefs near Na’ama and Sharm el-Sheikh independently; all diving must be done with a guide, which in practical terms means sticking with trips run by dive operators.
A plethora of dive centres offer an extensive range of courses, trips and equipment rental. All the centres listed here are open daily (mostly 8.30am–6pm). Dive boats leave around 9am from the Sharm el-Maya marina, and most centres will collect you from your hotel and drop you off again. Trips to the Gordon and Jackson reefs in the Tiran Strait or Ras Mohammed cost €55–65; a one-day Thistlegorm trip €90–120. Space permitting, snorkellers can join any boat for about €25. Some of the centres offer liveaboards too. Before signing up for any courses, ask where you’ll be doing your training: the water in Sharm el-Maya is less pleasant than in Na’ama Bay thanks to the former’s proximity to the marina. All Sharm and Na’ama dive centres are members of the South Sinai Association for Diving and Marine Activities (t 069 366 0418, w southsinai.org), which regulates and promotes the diving industry in the region and organizes regular clean-ups of the sea.
In case of diving emergencies, contact Dr Adel Taher at the Hyperbaric Medical Centre near the marina (t 069 366 0922 or t 0122 212 4292). There is also a 24-hour emergency hotline (t 012 333 1325) and a second decompression facility at the International Hospital in Hay el-Nur (t 069 366 8094). Dive schools charge an optional €6/£E48 per diver for three weeks’ cover allowing emergency use of the chambers. For more information, visit w deco-international.com.
Security and safety in Sharm and Na’ama Bay
Sharm and Na’ama Bay tragically hit the headlines on July 24, 2005, when a series of coordinated bomb attacks struck the resort, killing around eighty people and injuring more than two hundred. Security measures have been heightened since, but travellers should always be vigilant. In December 2010 there was a series of shark attacks close to the shoreline in Sharm: a German tourist was killed in the Middle Garden reef and four other people badly injured. Shark attacks of any kind are very unusual in the Red Sea, but it is advisable to check local updates.
Snorkelling and watersports in Sharm and Na’ama bay
Unless you join a dive boat, visiting the local reefs involves some walking. The best reefs – known as coral gardens – run for several miles north of Na’ama Bay. They don’t get many divers but are ideal for snorkelling, although they are regularly visited by glass-bottom boats, so take care while you’re in the water. Several agencies – including Sun ‘n Fun, on the Corniche near the Hilton Fayrouz Resort in Na’ama Bay (t 069 360 1623) – run snorkelling trips to the mangrove forests of Nabeq or boat trips to reefs at Ras Mohammed, Ras Nasrani and Shark Bay.
There’s also a wide variety of watersports on offer, including sailing, windsurfing, waterskiing, parasailing, jetskiing, banana boats, tube rides and pedalos. Glass-bottom boat trips are run by Sun ‘n Fun, with trips (every 2hr; $10/£E60) leaving throughout the day from the beachfront near their office. Submarine trips are advertised too, but there have been serious accidents with similar vessels in Hurghada.
Tours and activities around Sharm
All the hotels, most dive centres and travel agencies such as Sun ‘n Fun can arrange tours by jeep, camel, motorcycle or quad bike. Some of the most popular day excursions include snorkelling visits to Nabeq; jeep trips to the Coloured Canyon followed by snorkelling at Nuweiba/Dahab; overnight trips to St Catherine’s Monastery and Mount Sinai; and sunset visits to Wadi Mandar. Several companies also offer excursions to Serabit el-Khadim and Hammam Faraoun, and longer desert trips (though these are generally cheaper from Dahab or Nuweiba). Most day-trips cost around $40–70; beware of very cheap deals, as these are likely to involve travelling by bus.
Horseriding in the desert can be arranged at the Sofitel hotel’s equestrian centre (t 069 360 0081) or through Sun ‘n Fun; the latter also offer quad bike tours and operate the Sinai Moto Cross quad bike circuit (€25 for 30min) in Na’ama, while there’s go-karting at the state-of-the-art Ghibli Raceway (t 069 360 3939, w ghibliraceway.com; € 16 for 10min), just off the Airport Road, near the entrance to the Hyatt Regency.
Between Suez and Sharm el-Sheikh
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
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.
The Tiran Strait
The headland of Ras Nasrani beyond Shark Bay marks the beginning of the Tiran Strait, where the waters of the Gulf of Suez flow into the deeper Gulf of Aqaba, swirling around the small islands and reefs of the Tiran archipelago. This was declared a protected area in 1992 and is now a popular spot for divers although there are no facilities (or admission charges); the only access is by boat from Sharm el-Maya or Shark Bay. The straits are not a destination for novice divers, however, as the sea can be extremely rough and chilling (bring high-calorie drinks and snacks to boost your energy). Sharks, manta rays, barracuda and Napoleon fish are typical of the deepwater sites around the islands of Tiran and Sanafir, though there are also shallow reefs like the Small Lagoon and Hushasha. The multitude of shipwrecks in the Gulf is due to treacherous reefs and currents, insurance fraud and Egypt’s blockade of the strait in the 1960s. The Jackson Reef has a spectacular seventy-metre drop-off and the wreck of the Lara to investigate, while the Gordon Reef boasts the hulk of the Lucila. Two notable sites at Ras Nasrani are the Light, with a forty-metre drop-off and pelagic fish; and the Point, with a dazzling array of reef fish.
A catamaran departs daily from Nuweiba’s port (t 069 352 0427) at 6am to Aqaba in Jordan (around 1hr 30min; $85 one-way, $125 return); in the opposite direction, it leaves Aqaba at 7pm/7.30pm. Tickets are available from Meenagate (t 0112 059 5506, w meenagate.com); book by phone or email at least 24 hours in advance and arrive at the port an hour before departure. Late departures are not uncommon and bad weather can cause extensive delays. One-month Jordanian visas are currently free for most nationalities arriving via Aqaba. Day-trips (around $250) to Petra can be arranged through Nature Travel; a more comprehensive two-night visit costs about $450 (£E2700).