Little pockets of paradise in Egypt

Hurghada, a resort town on the Red Sea, offers pleasures fit for a pharaoh and is home to some of the best beaches and diving spots in the world.
Little pockets of paradise in Egypt

At first sight Hurghada resembles old photographs of Las Vegas. Appearing in the sand, a few hours from Luxor, is a concrete jungle under construction, sporting a multitude of hotels of all shapes and sizes, all claiming to have the &lsquobest private beach&rsquo in the area. Beside them mushroom boxy residence complexes, ready to accommodate the thousands of workers expected to shift here to cater to the growing tourist industry. The heat is overwhelming and the air ripples above the asphalt as we drive towards our resort. Yes, at first sight, Hurghada doesn&rsquot look inviting at all.

But as soon as we catch the first glimpse of the blue tapestry of the sea and our feet sink into the fine white sand, we discover that far from the concrete and traffic, there are little pockets of paradise, &lsquoprivate&rsquo&mdashbut accessible and inviting to whoever is ready to pay.

Beach, sun, sand and some of the finest diving sites in the world are what attract tourists to this part of Egypt, which is a world apart from the pyramids and the Nile Valley. And leaving aside the vibrant nightlife, the few souqs and the desert safaris, almost everything here happens in and around the water.

Hurghada is not the place to go to on a low budget if you want to experience the best beaches and the best diving. Most of the beaches are private, so make sure you book a good resort. A lot of the resorts are &lsquoall inclusive&rsquo and many of them offer so many activities and facilities that one may never want to wander outside. The larger ones have spas, zoos, playgrounds, discos, bars, libraries, diving centres, a number of pools and even small theatres.

The Oberoi, Sahl Hasheesh is an oasis of calm set against the sparkling blue of the sea and oh-so-different from the modern monstrosities I had seen on the way. We checked into our private cottage suite, surrounded by palm trees and pink bougainvilleas, with the beach and the sea in our &lsquobackyard&rsquo. Dropping our bags we headed out to the beach. For nature lovers, this is where the journey begins. Crabs sidled by, while fish fed so close to the beach, that their vibrant colours were clearly visible. We even saw a turtle swimming against the waves towards the open sea. The waters here have the most amazing variety of colours. I counted not less than five hues&mdashfrom delicate transparent sea-green, through sparkling turquoise, to deep indigo blue. It is like a living and ever changing canvas.

Diving and snorkelling are the highlights of any trip to a resort on the Red Sea. Our diving instructor is one of those Westerners with a flowing blond ponytail, who came to Hurghada a few years earlier and never left. My husband enrols for a crash course in diving in the swimming pool, while I, too scared of deep waters, opt for the safer snorkelling, accompanied by one of the beach boys.

The warm waters here are ideal for many varieties of rare fish and coral reefs. The sea is populated by more than 1,000 species of marine life, of an indescribable variety of sizes, shapes and colours. Reef sharks, stingrays, dolphins, sponges, sea cucumbers, mollusks, grouper, wrasse, parrotfish, snapper, sea urchins, turkey fish, stonefish, to name a few, live in vast coral reefs. There are also several varieties of turtles, all of them protected. No wonder an international panel of scientists and conservationists designated the Red Sea as one of the Seven Underwater Wonders of the World. The most beautiful coral reefs, they say, are found around islands off Hurghada, of which Giftun (about 10km from Hurghada) is the largest. The islands have been incorporated in the Red Sea Protectorate and access to them is restricted.

My first snorkelling dip is spectacular. The water is crystal clear. The beauty of the coral reefs and of the fish unreal. In this giant parallel city growing under the surface of the sea, life goes on in complete silence and order. Some fish are loners, while others swim in big schools. I&rsquove always thought of corals as being white or beige, but after a while I stopped counting the variety of hues they come in. The fish seem unperturbed by human presence in their domain and swim so close by that one can almost touch them. We swim from the tip of the resort jetty back to the beach, which is quite a distance, but with the underwater saga unfolding in front of my eyes, I hardly feel tired. I feel safe with the experienced beach boy, who points out interesting fish and coral formations.

The sea has a lot to offer, even for those who, like me, dislike depths. Just waddle into the waist-deep waters and you can see fish playing and if lucky, even spot a turtle. It is amazing how this animal, symbol of slow speed on the ground, is perfectly agile in the water.

After our dive we stayed on the beach, enjoying the slow sunset. The sea gradually changed colours and the inland rocks glowed orange and red under the last rays of the sun. They say this is where the sea gets its name&mdashfrom the red hue of the desert in the evening sun.

After dark you can head to the city. Hurghada consists of three main centres and numerous self-contained tourist villages that have now grown into one body. To the north lies Ad-Dahar, an area closest to being called a town. It houses more than half the total local population, and has some of the more reasonable hotels and restaurants. It also has a very lively souq. A couple of kilometres to the south, beyond the Gebel al-Afish mountain, lies Sigala, the fastest growing part of Hurghada. Some of Hurghada&rsquos best restaurants can be found here.

During the day Hurghada is crowded and bustling. I see most of the city from the car&mdashthe crowded public beaches, the souks selling Egyptian souvenirs, clothes and trinkets, haggling merchants and sweating tourists... And don&rsquot regret spending most of my time within the walls of the resort. At night, however, I&rsquom told that Hurghada turns into a party town, and the clubs that line the main street come alive. While Hurghada might not be &lsquothe real Egypt&rsquo, it offers a good change from visiting the Pyramids and other attractions. So unless you are planning for a true beach holiday, it is good to visit Hurghada as part of a bigger tour of the country. The contrast between the old sites and the vibrancy of the Egyptian cities, and the peace and calm of the coast, is striking. And after spending many days surrounded by stone and dust, the beach feels like heaven and the blue waters provide much-needed rest to the eyes.

The information

Getting there Hurghada is connected to Cairo by bus. You can also do the journey by taxi. The drive is beautiful and passes by Bedouin villages. If you are travelling through the desert, however, you will have to join one of the police-escorted convoys (precaution against terrorist attacks).

Where to stay Hurghada has a range of hotels, from the simple but adequate to the posh and expensive. Most of the good places are on the Resort Strip, which starts just south of Sigala. The Sahl Hasheesh (www.oberoisahlhasheesh.com) boasts exclusive suites, the Banyan Tree spa, and a private beach with divine diving spots. The InterContinental ( www.ichotels.com) is luxurious and located on the beach. The Hurghada Marriott Beach Resort (www.marriott.com) has the usual 5-star amenities, while the Hilton Plaza (www.hilton.com) is located in the centre of the city.

Eating out Eating in Hurghada is by far best done in Ad-Dahar. Restaurants are mostly along the main road. In Sigala reasonable choices are within reach. Like Al-Sakia, where besides eating, for a small charge you can also use the beach. Other restaurant-cum-bars, like Shellghada Beach and The Chill, offer you access to the beach and relaxing hammocks. The Felfela Restaurant, with a splendid view of the sea and tasty Egyptian fare is highly recommended.

What to see & do

&mdashFishing is well organised, and equipment and boats to bring you out to the best fields.

&mdashDiving is even better organised, and you can pass a course for all international certificates. Equipment can be easily purchased or rented.

&mdashSnorkeling is a good choice if you get out to one of the islands off Hurghada.

&mdashYou can also take submarine trips with the yellow Sindbad submarine.

&mdashWindsurfing and jet skis are also available, but expensive.

&mdashSafaris in the desert can be organised, with a visit to a Bedouin village. You have a choice between camel, horse or jeep safaris.

&mdashDay trips by ferry to Sharm el-Sheikh and Duba, and road trips to ancient Roman sites are fun.

&mdashIf you&rsquore adventurous you can take a hot-air balloon flight to Cairo or Luxor.

For more information on operators see www.egypttourism.org

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