Experience the charm of Sharm El Sheikh

Here is a visit to the jewel of the Sinai Peninsula to experience life after the turmoil

With the flight promising a breathtaking aerial vista of crystal clear waters, you crash land to Earth when the bustling Sharm El Sheikh International airport leaps out at you when you disembark.
 
The mantra of the moment is ‘Leave all expectations behind’. The complex toilets have probably seen better days but one has high hopes with the Egyptian Tourism Board drive to improve facilities across the country, including major airports.
 
Nestled between imposing mountains and the marine rich coastline, Sharm El Sheikh comes as a welcome relief from the everyday concrete jungle we face in Dubai.
 
Forget skyscrapers, the mostly whitewashed complexes dotting the Southern tip of the Sinai Peninsula are actually five-star coastal resorts that exclusively stretch out into the sparkling azure waters of the Red Sea, linked via a common promenade.
 
You will find all the big hotel chains, including the Rotana, the Ritz-Carlton, the Four Seasons, the Hilton and the sprawling Hyatt Regency where we stayed for the duration.
 
The town is easily demarcated with the popular Shark’s Bay resort area, the overcrowded Ras Um Sid snorkelling haven and the not so appealing Central Sharm.
 
But in the heart of it all lies Naama Bay, where on any given day and time hundreds of tourists will be found lounging in its many restaurants, foraging through the odd trinkets and letting loose into the bustling nightlife the bay promises.
 
Yet amidst this entire hustle bustle, the area also promises riches that have given Sharm [as it’s fondly known] the much-needed boost in the popularity stakes — its abundant coral reefs.
 
Into the blue
 
On par with the stunning marine life once exclusive to Australia’s Great Barrier Reef, diving and snorkelling is not just a sport in Sharm El Sheikh but a passion. For residents who spend their life on the water, the treasures of this underwater paradise are unparalleled.
 
As we boarded a yacht to set sail around the waters of the Sinai, we were regaled with stories of Sharm’s colourful past. The area has witnessed a lot of conflict, being captured by the Israelis twice in the recent past — once in 1956 for a year and a second time in 1967 during the six-day war with Egypt.
 
It was only in 1982 that Sharm El Sheikh was returned following a peace agreement and Egypt soon took action in transforming this small fishing village into an international hub.
 
As we sail across the Strait of Tiran, we notice the many coral reefs that have placed Sharm on the international map.
 
“Ras Nirani, The Gardens [Middle, Near and Far], and the Ras Mohammed National Park are some of the best dive sites in the world,” comes the reply.
 
Indeed, if the ship packed tourists — in and out of the water — are anything to go by, then the reefs certainly are a big draw.
 
But aside from the reefs itself, some great wrecks like that of the Thistlegorm (voted as one of the best dive wrecks in the world), the Dunraven, and the Louilla in Gordon Reef make way for a great wall dive.
 
Keeping this in mind, most of the big hotels and resorts offer PADI (Professional Association of Diving Instructors) certified professionals to teach you the basics in their own pool-yard.
 
But if diving isn’t your thing, then simply slap on a pair of fins and goggles and enjoy the colourful marine life by snorkelling through the many reefs.
 
On any given day, the waters promise a glimpse of clown fish, blue-spotted sting rays, lionfish, and if you are really lucky then sharks, dolphins, turtles and barracuda can come out for a game of hide and seek.
 
Naama nightlife
 
After a long day at sea, you would think that we would have admitted defeat and curled up in our comforters, but there is something to be said about Naama Bay at night.
 
The place literally comes alive with a buzz of energy that is contagious, to say the least. Amid the thousands who were seen strolling down the walkway, we slowly made our way pass the glittering restaurants, allowing the thumping beats of the music to wash over us, and just maybe provide the right boost of adrenaline to join in the merry making.
 
Naama Bay is a party lover’s paradise, with great restaurants and bars to start off your evening with a sheesha by your side and a cocktail in one hand. By the time midnight comes around, you will witness crowds headed in towards the ever popular Hard Rock Café, Little Buddha (the younger sibling of Buddha Bar) and other bars alike.
 
As the night progresses, you can literally set your watches by noting the movements of the crowds, who swarm out of the bars at the stroke of 2am and make way to the clubs like Pacha [yes, the same franchise of the one’s in London and Ibiza], the MDM Nightclub and many more.
 
But for those who don’t enjoy clubbing the night away can tuck in a bit of shopping on the go, as most of the retail outlets in Naama Bay area are open until the purses of their shoppers are.
 
Cultural paradise
 
Sharm is one of the few destinations in the world that hasn’t fallen prey to the tourist-culture yet, with ample care being taken by the Tourist Authority to maintain its rich heritage.
 
While many Bedouins seem to have made the trek down the mountains in search of money and resources, their practices and customs are still very much kept alive — along with their delicious cuisine, which we were lucky enough to sample on several occasions.
 
For those who holiday in Sharm need to schedule in a day trip to Saint Catherine’s Monastery, located by the foothills of Mount Moses, which is approximately an hour’s ride away.
 
As we bumped along the road — that does become a dirt track in some places — we couldn’t help but notice the heightened security along the way. But once you get used to presence of armed guards, they fade into the background, allowing you to sit back and enjoy the majestic view of the mountains, with faint glimpses of Bedouin settlements along the way.
 
Slated as the oldest preserved working monastery in the world, St. Catherine’s was built by the order of the Emperor Justinian between 527 and 565 CE and stands till date, promising a story that will have you enthralled from the minute you set foot in the fortress’ four walls.
 
For those who are trigger-happy will have plenty of photo opportunities, with a chance to stand under Moses’ Burning Bush and visit the Skull House, home to the skeletal remains of the deceased monks from eras gone by.
 
But what really grabs your attention are the priceless works of art that adorn the church walls. The influences of Russians, the Arabs and the Greeks are all visible in the mosaics, the paintings, the marbles and other significant pieces of history.
 
There is even a mosque located within the walls of the church, built in 10th or 11th century for the Muslim guards [or so says the guide] who protected the monument from invaders over time.
 
The mosque is closed to the public today, but within the Basilica itself, you do get the opportunity to visit the marble reliquary that houses St. Catherine’s bones found atop the mountain, now bearing her name, by the monks many centuries ago.
 
For the adventurous lot, you can taste a bit of dare devilry by opting in for a 2am trek up Mount Moses before heading to the Monastery to catch a spectacular sunrise.
 
You do have a choice between camels and heading on foot, but in both instances it is advisable to take the Bedouin guides to show you the way, as the climb is very tricky in the dark.
 
With Sharm’s central location, it is possible to extend your holiday to include great day trips to the resort towns of Dahab, Nuweiba, Taba and the likes. But if you prefer to laze in the sun all day, then never fear, as Sharm promises the ideal weekend getaway for those who are looking to escape the daily grind in Dubai to simply bum on the beach.
 
A word of warning though: the charm of Sharm is very addictive, often leaving you in the tricky situation of making up excuses to the boss, as you extend your holiday for those extra few hours of sunning yourself silly — minus the Dubai humidity and the traffic jams of course.

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