To the west rise the craggy peaks of Egypt’s Sinai Mountains, their jagged teeth slicing into the blue sky. To the east lies the glittering Red Sea, stretching out towards the barren mountains of Saudi Arabia in the distance.
Sandwiched in between, the Sinai Peninsula, with its arid landscape and enchanting underwater world, is one of Egypt's biggest tourism draw cards. Although chiefly known for the busy all-inclusive resorts and world class diving of Sharm el-Sheikh, several lower-key options further north offer similar prolific marine life and rainbow coral, all in a relaxed atmosphere.
If you are holidaying for the diving, October to November and February to March are your best bet. In October and November, prime Sinai holiday season, daytime temperatures still regularly top 25C. During the depths of winter, December and January, the Red Sea is at its choppiest, making some dive sites more difficult to access and reducing underwater visibility. The temperature also regularly dips below freezing once the sun sets.
independently-minded beach resort
Dahab, a Bedouin village approximately 80km northeast of Sharm el Sheik, has grown from a scruffy hippy hangout into a mellow tourism centre that is one of the Sinai’s most treasured diving destinations. For beginners, Dahab offers an enticing mix of superb shallow, shore-accessed dives and plenty of fellow novices to share a beer with afterwards. More advanced divers will be lured to the challenge of the Blue Hole dive site just north of town.
Be warned, this is not a traditional beach break; central Dahab's narrow, pebbly shoreline is speckled with Bedouin-inspired restaurants where travellers lounge sipping fruit juice and gazing out to sea. Distinctly chilled-out, non-flashy and ultra-friendly, Dahab pairs all the amenities of a holiday town with a more authentic Egyptian experience.
Budget-conscious travellers flock here for the guesthouses and hostels, but Dahab has evolved to offer plenty of family-friendly and mid-range accommodations as well, making it an excellent option if you prefer to forgo fancy hotels in favour of low-rise, independently-operated places. All the accommodations either have their own dive centre attached or can recommend one nearby.
Red Sea Relax is one of the most reputable hotels, with a wide-variety of comfortable rooms and an excellent dive centre. For mid-range comfort Christina Beach Palace offers lovely bungalows amid well-tended gardens while still an easy stroll from all the restaurants. If you are looking for affordability, Alaska Camp and Hotel is a long-standing favourite of the Dahab scene for its good value and spick-and-span rooms.
There are also many excellent affordable eateries in the area; Seabride (just off al-Mashraba St, Mashraba; 069-364-0891) dishes up a menu of fresh fish and crustaceans with a particularly delectable seafood soup. The Kitchen (Shorefront Promenade, Masbat; 2-019-595-9764) has a novella of a menu serving local takes on Indian, Japanese and Thai favourites.
Dahab dive sites
Lighthouse Reef: This ideal novice diver site has a sloping reef that teems with a wide variety of fish and can be accessed right off the shore in the centre of town. But this is also where most of Dahab's dive centres carry out their open water dive training, so do not expect to have the marine world to yourself.
Eel Garden: The name explains what slithery marine life you will encounter here, but the site is also home to some excellent coral boulders and, if you are a more experienced diver, is an excellent starting point for a drift dive to the Lighthouse Reef.
Islands: This is one of Dahab's most beautiful dive sites. The surreal coral gulleys and valleys below the sea's surface are a fantasyland of vibrant colours and shapes. Shore access means that novice divers can easily peak into this strange world while the more experienced will find exploring the topography a delight.
Canyon: This otherworldly underwater canyon, more like a tunnel in parts, is justifiably popular. Look out for puffer fish, moray eels and shoals of lionfish while spotting colourful coral formations along the reef walls which are doused in an ethereal blue light.
Blue Hole: This dive site is more famous for claiming dozens of diver's lives than for its actual beauty, which is a shame as this fascinating sinkhole, around 130m deep, is teeming with marine life on its edges and can be explored safely as long as divers do not go beyond their depth.
Nuweiba-Taba coastline: The
For an even simpler approach to beachside bliss, south Sinai's best beaches are spread along the coast between the port town of Nuweiba and the border town of Taba. These lonely, picturesque sweeps of sand, particularly the Mahash and Ras Burgaa areas, have, for the most part, been left alone by the resorts, making them perfect for travellers seeking a tranquil beach break. Here is where you will find authentic Egyptian beach camps strung out along the shoreline where travellers sleep in basic huts made of bamboo and palm leaf thatch.
With huts situated on a prime stretch of white sand, Sawa Camp is a little oasis of simple beach perfection. Diving can be organised through the camp and there is an excellent snorkelling reef just offshore. Further north, Basata Camp is an experiment in ecological living with an organic garden and a recycling program. There are mud-brick bungalows for families set back from the beach and smaller huts on the sand itself.
With no nightlife or amenities nearby (each camp has its own restaurants), time moves slowly, punctuated only by the course of the sun as it creeps across the sky, and the evening entertainment is watching the moon slink over Saudi Arabia's cliffs and rise into the star-studded sky.
Diving can be organised through the camps (excursions are usually shore dives and involve driving along the coast to the location) but this holiday is really about complete relaxation. If you fancy days spent swinging from a hammock outside your beach hut before heading out for a swim, these camps offer a slice of Sinai as of yet untouched by the tourism boom, with sublime sandy vistas in abundance.
Nuweiba and Taba dives
MFO Pipeline (Nuweiba): This unique dive site is centred around a set of pipeline that runs offshore from an old Israeli desalination site in Nuweiba. There is plenty of soft coral growth on the pipes to examine, but the highlight is the wealth of marine life found here.
The Sinker (Nuweiba): The Sinker is an old Israeli buoy which was mistakenly sunk and now sits 8m below sea level. Over the years the buoy's chains have attracted an immense amount of coral growth, and there are usually plenty of lionfish in residence.
Ras Shaitan (15km north of Nuweiba): Do not let the scary name – which translates to “Satan's Head” – put you off. This gorgeous dive with coral pinnacles and stunning table corals also offers excellent marine life spotting, with both rays and sharks frequenting the area.
Ras Amira (Taba): Turtles, eagle rays and shoals of tuna are often spotted on this easy, boat-accessed dive, and there is even a chance of a dolphin sighting.