Discovering Sinai: A Welcome Retreat From Winter’s Cold

Just a stone’s throw from home, Egypt’s picturesque Sharm el-Sheikh provides a refreshing Red Sea respite for the whole family

Despite Egypt’s recent political upheaval, its Sinai Peninsula is a idylic haven for rest and relaxation: The nearby desert is perfect for a late-afternoon camel ride | Photo: August Ellison

When the wind blows and the rain feels cold
With a head full of snow…
Don’t the nights pass slow
Don’t the nights pass slow*


As fall turns to winter in Vienna, it is hard to resist looking back on the glories of the past half year. In the cafés and around office watercoolers, conversation and fond recollections of vacations and holiday destinations have long since quieted, fading into memory.

But we residents of Central Europe, we have the good fortune  of any number of exotic getaway destinations worthy of memories to come.  Certainly, the 30-plus countries of greater Europe, Iberia, the British Isles, Scandinavia, the Maghreb are tantalisingly near Asia, east from Istanbul, past the Red Sea and and the Persian Gulf – all are close enough for a long-weekend.

Braving the unsettled aftermath of the Arab Spring, not to mention economic uncertainties plaguing the tourism business generally, my family decided to visit Egypt. We headed for Sinai, seeking salt air, blue waters and the alien underwater world of the tropics.

On the southern tip of the Sinai Peninsula, with Suez to the west and the gulf of Aqaba to the east, is Sharm el-Sheikh. Geographically Asia but politically Egyptian, “Sharm” (as locals know it) is a bustling resort town facing the Red Sea, the world’s northernmost tropical waters, with mountainous desert as its backdrop.

The main tourist draw comprises the Naama Bay area, with sandy beaches, crystal-clear waters and exotic coral reefs. Very high surface temperatures coupled with high salinities makes this one of the hottest and saltiest bodies of seawater in the world. The average surface water temperature of the Red Sea during the summer is about 30°C. The good news is that it rarely drops down as low as 26°C even in the dead of winter. Need I say more?

We had only the vaguest knowledge of the region as a tourist destination. What we did have was an abiding interest in snorkeling – thanks to a recent look at the films of Vienna’s own Hans Hass and a childhood passion for the Sea Hunt adventures of Mike Nelson, not to mention the romantic life aboard the Calypso depicted in The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau. Thus the search began for a route to this “near abroad” marine habitat.

We discovered the website, which we thought was the Austrian outreach unit of the Egyptian Travel Industry in Vienna, complete with the convenience of local telephone contact details. In fact, it meant Express Travel International, but they had a sincere, customer-focused service approach and, importantly, were graciously flexibility when my daughter came down with tonsilitis, delaying our departure … but I digress.

Photo: August Ellison

Our trip began with a comfortable three-hour direct FlyNiki flight, for a week at The Sharm Plaza & Resort (formerly the Crowne Plaza) in Sharm el-Sheikh. It is a sprawling hotel designed in traditional Moorish style with an impressive interior, which reminds one of  the Los Angeles Union Station (Spanish “mission style” architecture, descended from historically Middle Eastern roots). It is spacious and very modern, with facilities for families, including five swimming pools, and several themed à la carte restaurants.

The Sharm Plaza offers all-inclusive resort amenities and serves an international clientele as a year-round destination. Its location, six kilometres away from Naama Bay, includes a private beach adjacent to the Far Garden coral reef for divers and snorkelers.

For more serious SCUBA enthusiasts, and those with a keen interest in marine biology, the Ras Muhammad National Park, a protected off-shore marine environment, is just down the road, though there are specific visa requirements and entrance fees governing its use.

Somewhat secluded from the nightlife and urban pleasures of town, the Sharm Plaza has its own schedule of entertainment and activities, permitting guests truly splendid isolation. Though our behavior may sound ostrich-like, we were looking for a no-hassle week with great snorkeling.

Of course, we hoped to remain well-fed and pampered, but after a busy 2011, our aim was, for this little while, to focus elsewhere, untroubled by the exigencies of daily life.  I am happy to say that, for the most part, our wishes were amply fulfilled at this destination hotel.

But the bottom line has much more to do with the time I spent wet, and in that regard, I have never seen anything quite as dramatic as the profusion of sea life as we experienced in the Red Sea. Spectacular, with the most amazing coral, diversity of sea life, fish, mollusks, crustaceans, even sea turtles, and colors, it was all very placid – despite the occasionally reported shark presence, which we were fortunate to avoid.

Photo: August Ellison

Looking for balance, we also had the opportunity one afternoon to head inland on a desert camel ride with a local tour operator. On an organised excursion, we learned a bit about astronomy and the night sky above the tropics. Indeed, sitting atop a camel, “balance” was the order of the day and a clear contrast with life at a hotel by the sea.

While tourism, and hotel bookings in particular, were off this season for the reasons enumerated above, the impact of this was a peaceful, unrushed and uncrowded holiday. Here is a place, floating in the warm sea, where man’s connection to our common saline past is underscored. Yes, it is wishful thinking, and surely an illusion, but one feels truly at home, able to “swim with the fishes” and live to tell the tale!

Now, at least in Vienna, the warm sunny days are gone. However, I wish to plant a notion: increasingly, like our Nordic neighbours, we residents of the Austrian lowlands have come to recognise that, if skiing is not in the cards, an escape to the sun in the year’s dark days can be just as invigorating.

So don’t mothball those shorts, goggles or sandals just yet. Spending Silvester at the edge of the Red Sea may be just the tonic, peppered with a little adventure, to serve as the light at the end of the chilly tunnel, or as a calming respite to gather one’s wits, preparing for a new start and a new year.


*Copyright Jagger/Richards

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