Sharm El Sheikh isn’t the first place I come up with when planning my holiday. Negotiating our destination with a UK-based friend over several months, we stumble upon it because we both want to experience some incredible dive sites – and we can’t afford the Maldives or Belize.
In the run-up to my stay I hear mixed reviews from previous visitors, or those who have ‘been Sharmed’, as we soon call it. All praise the underwater treasures, some criticise the food quality, many, mainly in the UK, warn us we will suffer from non-stop diarrhoea. Needless to say, I have my reservations.
These aren’t alleviated by the journey from Dubai. Unfortunately there are no direct routes – Air Arabia once offered one from Sharjah, but it seems to have been discontinued – instead, the best deal I find is with Royal Jordanian via Amman. However, if you combine your Egyptian adventure with a stop in the ancient Jordanian capital, this will make the flight more economical. Even if you are flying straight to Sharm, Royal Jordanian offers a very comfortable ride.
On touching Sharm sand, the first thing I notice is the bartering culture. While one man tells me I should give him a fat tip for offering a ‘bargain’ fare for the 15-minute taxi journey to my hotel, another pulls my suitcase to the car (a distance of approximately 20 metres) and tells me I really ought to tip him too. The driver then asks me if I want to be given a guided tour, which I later find out also comes at a fee. It’s like Karama – times 10.
After a long internet search (tip – book online: most hotels will tell you they are fully booked even if they still have spaces left on sites such as www.dealchecker.co.uk), my friend and I opt to stay at the Cleopatra Tsokkos, a three-star hotel located a five-minute taxi ride from the area’s central hub, Na’ama Bay. Its British and Russian guests share the same ‘you get what you pay for’ motto: by which they mean friendly staff, bingo nights and slightly questionable food. Rather, I’d recommend divers stay at Camel Hotel. It’s more upmarket, yet retains a ‘posh backpacker’ laid-back air, and is a five-minute walk from the jetty at Na’ama Bay. Alternatively, the Eden Rock Resort is set atop a hill with prize views of the bay as well as five-star amenities.
Na’ama Bay itself is an intense strip. The two main streets are lined with shops, restaurants, tourist agents and clubs that host foam and full-moon parties, outside which an army of persistent salesman confront you at every turn. While the area in general seems shambolic, it’s still under construction. Streams of eastern Europeans, Germans and Brits stroll down the boulevards, most here for winter sun, many here to dive, some here to use it as a starting point for exploring the Middle East – Jerusalem and Petra are day trips away, while a climb or camel ride up Mount Sinai is a once-in-a-lifetime overnight experience.
But let’s get to the diving. Na’ama Bay has dozens of dive companies operating out of each of the hotels, and the sea is always crowded with boats; it’s worth watching them all as they come home to berth in time with the setting sun. The saturation of operators means each is extremely competitive, if a little pushy, and the complicated fees mount up (a certain amount for the trip, more for the equipment and yet more for lunch onboard the boat) – but diving is never going to be an economical pastime. It will, however, always come with its risks, so everyone, no matter how experienced, is required to complete either a shallow shore or bay dive to be assessed by their instructor before hitting the grander sites.
Hopping aboard one of the identikit boats, we head out with Camel Divers, the company with the best rep’ on the diving circuit, and find them extremely organised and efficient. After running us through the most detailed dive briefing we’ve ever heard, it’s time to get geared up and jump in. Visibility of 10 metres awaits us down below, along with batfish, puffinfish, clownfish, blue-spotted stingrays and plenty more I can’t remember the hand signals for.
Yet this is all just a taster. Having passed Camel’s assessment, a couple of days later we head 12km out of Sharm to Ras Mohammed to check out the Ras Ghazlani and Shark Reef sites. Declared a National Park in 1983, the 480sq km area lies on the southernmost tip of the Sinai and is one of the best-kept parks in Egypt. This time we spot an awe-inspiring one-metre-long tuna, graceful turtles, dozens of stingrays and the remains of a shipwreck and its cargo, including a bunch of oddly beautiful never-used white toilets.
Back at the surface we squeeze in some snorkelling, and a few of our crew participate in a little free diving. Kicking right down to 15 metres, they circle the divers below free of equipment and suits. It becomes clear that the Red Sea isn’t out of bounds for those less keen on hoisting on heavy tanks and plastic fins.
Unfortunately my days run out before I can get to Thistlegorm, the British armed merchant navy shipwreck that sank in the ’40s and houses rusty trucks, motorcycles, rifles, planes and much more. I also don’t see the Blue Hole, a spot located towards neighbouring town Dahab, where a 130m sinkhole causes the water to sharply darken, like an iris. These, to divers, are akin to the underwater Himalayas. I know I’ll be heading back to witness them.
As for what I’ll be saying when potential visitors ask me about Sharm El Sheikh? Expect underwater riches, average food, and, thankfully, no diarrhoea. Sharm-ing, indeed.
The diving season Diving can be done year-round in Sharm El Sheikh, though February to November is peak season. Temperatures vary from 20°C (68°F) in February to 27°C (81°F) from July to October.
Need to know
Get there Royal Jordanian flies to Sharm El Sheikh via Amman from Dhs1,729 return, including taxes. www.rj.com.