Egypt's lucky Sharm

by Joanna.Booth

When you're looking for somewhere to soak up the sun, without splashing too much cash, the Red Sea resort of Sharm el Sheikh in Egypt is perfect

As the recession bites, cash is short and life is stressful, you may decide to bin that off-the-beaten-track, up-at-7am-with-a-rucksack sort of trip and replace it instead with one where you can lie in the sun and forget your cares. And for this kind of holiday, you can do far worse than the Red Sea Riviera.

Sun and sea

For starters, there aren’t many places with more reliable weather than Sharm El Sheikh. This corner of Egypt, where the Sinai Desert meets the Red Sea, can see a year pass with no rain. Whilst summer temperatures suit those who like the burn (in July and August it often hits 40°C), winters in Sharm are perfect for Brits, with daytime highs in the 30°s during October, November, March and April, and in the 20°s from December through to February.
After sunshine, Sharm’s big sell is the Red Sea. The warm, clear waters are rightly famed for diving and snorkelling. There are the famous steep drop-offs for experienced divers, and opportunities to see large ocean fish like grouper, barracuda, ray and even sharks. There are also fabulous coral reefs close to the surface, so even a non-diver like me can enjoy snorkelling. Zipping across the waves of Sharks Bay in a pristine white dive boat was an experience in itself, but the snorkelling was a revelation. The intricate reef was so close to the surface that the vividly coloured fish almost swam into my mask. Time passed in a flash as I spotted striped angel fish, iridescent blue triggerfish, long, pencil-thin cornet fish and even a small ray.
Most hotels and tour operators can organize diving and snorkelling trips – you can pre-book before leaving or sort it out once you’re out there. Many choose to learn to dive and it’s easy to gain your PADI qualification in Sharm El Sheikh. (Consider completing the theoretical part of the course beforehand in the UK, so you don’t waste precious sun hours in a classroom!)

Back on land

If you’re not a water baby, but still want to spend some time out of your sun lounger, there are land-based activities on offer too. I took a quad bike out into the desert, where you can zip off at quite a speed across the dunes and bash out into the middle of nowhere with only a headscarf and a pair of sunglasses between you and gusts of airborn sand. For a more authentic desert experience, try a camel ride – just don’t expect it to be any more comfortable than a bone-shaking quad bike; camels are built for neither speed nor comfort!
Sharm started life as a tiny fishing village, but it’s now basically a huge area entirely dedicated to tourism. Don’t expect too much in the way of sightseeing, and it’s not the place to go for Egyptian culture and history. Hotel follows hotel follows hotel, but with nothing but desert to get in the way, most are spacious and set right on the beach. Na’ama Bay is the busy, bustling hub of the destination, with the lion’s share of the nightlife, though much of that’s on the tacky side. Nabq and Sharks Bay are quieter, and more well-suited to families and those looking for relaxing rather than banging nights out.

Choosing your base

Everyone is well aware that you no longer get many euros for your pound, but fewer realize that sterling has also dropped against the Egyptian pound. Having said that, Sharm is still a great place for a bargain. There are self-catering apartments and two- and three-star hotels for the budget-conscious, with all-inclusive options allowing concrete budgets to be set pre-holiday. Even the four- and five-star properties are worth a look, as they may be cheaper than you think. You can fly with a low-cost airline like easyJet or come out on a charter with the likes of Monarch or Thomsonfly. There are loads of packages to choose from, with operators combining your accommodation and flights with the excursions and activities like diving that you choose.
I stayed in the Savoy Hotel Sharm El Sheikh, a quiet and luxurious five-star resort on the beach in Sharks Bay. It’s very spacious, with large, light rooms and multiple swimming pools with so many sun loungers it’s hard to imagine there being a lack of space however busy it gets. The real selling point is the new Soho Square development, which has just been opened outside the Savoy and its cheaper and more cheerful four-star sister, the neighbouring Sierra. Soho Square is a development of restaurants, bars, a nightclub, shops, a bowling alley and even an ice rink, creating entertainment on the doorstep. If you don’t fancy a loud night out a taxi-ride away in Na’ama Bay, you can get out of the hotel by wandering down the road. The ultra all-inclusive package is good value, allowing you to eat at any of the restaurants inside the hotel or on the Soho Square strip without extra costs.
Whilst Sharm isn’t the place to come for the ‘real’ Egypt, you can still get a bit of culture on a day trip. Just down the coast, Dahab is a bustling fishing town with pretty restaurants lining the bay. A few hours' drive across the desert is the ancient St Katherine’s Monastery, sheltering in the shadow of Mount Sinai. Further afield, it’s possible to take day or overnight excursions to Cairo, Luxor, Petra and Jerusalem.