Travel: Sun, sea, sand and snorkelling
The wonderful underwater world that lies just off Egypt's fabulous Sharm El Sheikh resort
'Open Sesame!" After a six-month hiatus from the Irish travel logs due to civil unrest in the region, the Egyptian resort of Sharm El Sheikh is back in beach holiday business.
The town may be one of the country's most popular getaways, but how does a trip here stack up against the historical lure of Luxor or the epic pull of the Pyramids?
I travelled to the shores of the Sinai Peninsula last summer in the hope of discovering dream deserts, bustling markets and underwater utopias – all in biblical proportions.
A five-hour flight from Dublin, Sharm instantly rewards visitors for making that extra haul east. The Sinai Peninsula is technically the terra of the Middle East rather than Africa, and waking up on the shores of the Red Sea immediately enraptures with an air of Arabia. Date palm trees flicker in the morning zephyr, camels rest along the shore and that mirage of land, shimmying in the horizon? That's the Saudi coast just a few miles across the water.
My friend Carolyn and I were staying in the Coral Sea Waterworld, a calming family resort on Nabq Bay (which would subsequently earn our top marks for its top-notch rooms, staff and baba ghanoush). A dawn dip seemed the most inviting way to shake off the jet lag, and so down along the hotel's jetty we ambled, transposed out over the shimmering shallow blue.
Red Sea resorts are close to one of the world's most impressive coral reefs, but I wasn't expecting the tropical trove to prove such an accessible argosy.
With my first head dunk under the water I was already met by a bobbing clownfish and his radiant posse of nonplussed blue tangs. I'd just submerged into a real-life underwater 'Finding Nemo' – for free. "Fetch me a snorkel!"
Out of the water and in the bustling bazaars, Sharm itself is a modern resort town where market stalls, hustling everything from sea sponges to Converse trainers, sit amid joints of halal Burger Kings and Hard Rock Cafes. The vibe here might lack the mystique of some of the country's old-school souks, but there are still some treasures to unearth.
With its rag-tag facade of spice sacks and bric-a-brac, we were lured into the curiosity shop that was Doctor House on Nabq's El Gharqana alley. Inside, owner Wael, an antique collector and herbalist from Cairo, soon had us draped in traditional garb (think Tommy Cooper fez and harem veils) and sipping on a welcome brew of mint tea as we browsed his wares. This was ultimate Egyptian hospitality away from the ubiquitous upselling (but that didn't stop Carolyn picking up some vintage teapots for a steal).
For many travellers, a resort is only as good as its add-ons, and when it comes to package holiday day-trips, Egypt's excursion menu certainly takes the Palme d'Or. From Sharm, visitors can book day-trips to the likes of Saint Catherine's Monastery in the foothills of Mount Sinai or the Pyramids in Giza to border-hopping visits to either Jerusalem or Jordan up the road. Given the regional unrest during our own stay (last summer), our gallivanting was somewhat curtailed, so we opted for Falcon's Sinai by Starlight (€49) soiree with a local Bedouin community.
After being coached out to the desert, the excursion kicked off, naturally, with an obligatory camel transfer. I'd always vowed to resist tick-the-box tourist excursions, but when it was a case of getting from A to B (B being a traditional Bedouin tent tucked in the valley), what could I do but hoist aboard?
And so, jolted 10 feet into the air, we caravanned off into the desert, flanked by a convoy of armed tourist police in a pick-up truck that only added to the sense of surreal.
Sinai is a traditional stronghold of the historically nomadic Bedouin people, and while now a marginalised minority against the influx of migrant workers from the Nile Delta, community tourism ventures like these are said to bolster the village coffers while also preserving local culture.
After a laid-back desert feast under the marquee's shade, we enjoyed a fireball sunset over the dusty crags of the Sinai before the desert dimmer switch gently illuminated the northern constellations across the skies.
It was then that guide Mohammed began pointing out the likes of the Big Dipper, Scorpius and the North Star as his ruby laser pen darted across the twinkling heavens. Blissfully buoyed by a few days of snorkelling back at the resort, later in the week we made our own Egyptian exodus for the neighbouring water wonderland and overall hippy-hotspot of Dahab.
While Falcon don't organise car hire (due to an unsurprising lack of demand), we sourced a Sixt.com desk at the local Hilton and were soon in possession of a zippy Daewoo and a ludicrously inexpensive tank of petrol.
Despite having heard horror stories of Egyptian drivers, here their honk was worse than their bite, and once beyond the klaxoned chaos of Sharm we were soon funnelling into a one-camel desert highway: turn right for Dahab and left for Cairo and pretty much everywhere else.
The drive north saw us weaving through the stark valleys of the Sinai Mountains; arid, hot and hostile. Although the region is the habitat of an impressive diversity of fauna where scorpions, ibex and even hyenas haunt the hillsides, our transit had more the sense of magnificent lunar abandon. In fact, by the time we reached Dahab two hours later, the sight of the police checkpoint guarding the town offered an almost comforting sign of life.
An indie traveller's oasis, Dahab's main strip was a chilled-out Mecca of quirky inns, lazy hookah cafes and scuba schools, all spilling out upon the shores of Asallah Bay. Following a tip-off from some local instructors, we headed for the town's snorkelling hotspot (outside the Lighthouse Dive Centre) before masking up and diving into our latest great unknown.
A spectacular reef brimming with tropical fish immediately careened off into a startling infinite drop-off. Gulp! We floated around in utter wonder, occasionally negotiating a bed of prickly sea urchins or a gaping moray eel peering out of a crevice.
Amid the Cousteau mise en scene, the shoal of scuba divers gradually ventured down into the depths beneath us, their flippers soon vanishing into the abyss. Egypt had plunged me into a dreamlike underworld of wonder. And Sinai has the reef that just keeps on giving.
Need to know
* Thomas went to Egypt with Falcon Holidays (1850 45 35 45; falconholidays.ie or Falcon Travel shops), which flies from Dublin to Sharm El Sheikh year-round. Seven-night all-inclusive packages with the operator start from €499pps (staying at the three-star St George). All-inclusive stays at Coral Sea Waterworld start from €669pps, while a family waterpark package (two adults plus two children) at the hotel starts from €2,601.
* To up the water adventure ante, Falcon arranges pre-bookable scuba-diving courses (ocean-college.com) from €65 per half-day. Alternatively, simply pick up a snorkel for less than a fiver.
Top tip: Best foot forward
Don't forget your walking shoes. You'll be required to trek for long distances should you be visiting the pyramids and flip-flops just won't cut it.