The Red Sea offers two primary playground areas. The first, Hurghada, runs along the edge of the Eastern Desert — the vast stretch of desert between the Nile and the Red Sea. The alternative is Sharm El-Sheikh at the southern tip of the Sinai peninsula. Both areas are famed for spectacular diving and snorkeling. Both areas are massively built out for tourism.I was in Hurghada on my last trip to Egypt 34 years ago, so I was more interested in going to Sharm El-Sheikh this time. And besides, Hurghada sounded quite overbuilt and a bit run down, while Sharm El-Sheikh is reputed to be a bit more stylish and with more appealing places to stay. Nonetheless, the way the transportation worked out, it was pretty convenient for us to visit both, so we ended up booking five nights at each place. From Luxor, it’s a three-hour drive across the desert to Hurghada, and from there it’s a 30-minute airplane hop over the Red Sea to Sharm.
Indeed, the contrast turned out to be stark (though we’ll save stylish Sharm El-Sheik for our next installment). After five nights in Hurghada we are hard pressed to say very much nice about the place — except that the snorkeling was really impressive. From our hotel you could swim right out to a reef teeming with colorful fish and coral and the works. Regrettably, we have no underwater camera, so you only get pictures of the lesser beloved aspects of our stay.
When I first considered (skeptically) staying in Hurghada, I was less than thrilled wth the choices of accommodation. The place is jam-packed with junky looking all-inclusive resorts catering to Europeans who jet into “Egypt” on cheap package holidays. And a lot of resorts here appear to be abandoned, victims of a tourism slump since the revolution of 2011. But then I discovered that the upscale Indian hotel company Oberoi has a property in an area called Sahl Hasheesh at the far Southern end of the sprawl. Since our Nile cruise was also run by Oberoi, they’d include a nice comfy transfer across the desert for us.But aside from that impressive reef, even the Oberoi was a disappointment. The landscape was too stark. The hotel was strangely designed so that the well-appointed rooms mysteriously faced away from the sea. The food was hit or miss (more miss). And when we took a long drive into Hurghada for lunch outside the resort, the best restaurant we found was dreadful.
And I won’t blame the Oberoi, but we managed to have five days of weather dominated by wind. It was so windy we never wanted to go in the water, which was rough. The exception was the third morning, when the wind was gone and the water was miraculously still, like glass. An English guest told me this was his last day of a two-week stay, and it was the first day without that hideous wind. He also told me how great the snorkeling was, so Jim and I headed to the dive shop to get snorkel equipment for the first time.
When we came out of the dive shop 15 minutes later the wind had come back out of nowhere. We couldn’t believe it! The gorgeous morning had given way to that damned wind, just like that! We did snorkel anyway, and it really was impressive, until the wind and waves caused me to stress out and crash onto the reef. So I left Hurghada with my hands and legs covered in scratches, cuts, and bruises.
And on top of that, Jim came down with a nasty case of food poisoning. So this stop was not a huge success. Let’s hope we like Sharm El-Sheikh better.