The Sinai stretch

Fancy a relaxing yoga break without the sky-high price tag? Esther Shaw heads to Egypt for a week of sun, sand and Salutations
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The Independent Travel

After no-frills flying and low-cost cruises, it had to happen: Yoga on a Shoestring. That's more than just a concept, it's an organisation set up four years ago by a dynamic woman named Sue Pendlebury. And in March, it lured me to a place that, by April, would be shorthand for yet another terrorist outrage: Dahab, on Egypt's Sinai peninsula.

It's not as though I've never done yoga; I did try it out for a few weeks when I was travelling in India. But that was six years ago, before I'd succumbed to all-too-many of the vices attached to being a journalist. So, when my best friend suggested that it might "do me good" to join her on a healthy week of retreat and relaxation, I agreed.

The temptation of the sunshine and the Red Sea did, I confess, play more than a small part in my decision - as did the idea of increasing my flexibility at the same time as my tan. But apart from this, I liked the idea of embarking upon a spot of "self-improvement", with the hope of discovering some much-needed inner calm along the way.

Sue Pendlebury set up Yoga on a Shoestring (YOAS) to "make yoga breaks affordable for more people". She now organises trips in the UK and France, as well as to India, Bali and, of course, Egypt. We flew to Sharm el-Sheikh, the location of last July's bomb attacks in which nearly 100 people died. Although Sharm is the Sinai's best-known (and most-developed) holiday destination, we were heading an hour north-east of there - a scenic drive through miles of desert and Bedouin settlements - to Dahab. We were staying at the Amanda Hotel, a simple but more-than-adequate place and were welcomed by our two yoga teachers - and a spread of grilled fresh fish, vegetables and salad.

We made the early mistake of asking for a beer to go with our dinner - the hotel didn't stock it, and the teachers didn't drink. But the hotel staff soon rounded up a few bottles from a neighbouring bar, and our teachers were happy to let us consume them - as long as we were sure to be up at 8.30 the next morning for our first yoga lesson.

Next morning, I made my way to the light and airy yoga studio that looks straight out over the waves to Saudi Arabia. The sun was already high in the sky, drenching the dramatic shoreline of the Red Sea in a deep golden light. Within minutes, I was lying flat on my back on a yoga mat, inhaling the delicate scent of a joss stick and listening to gentle chanting, while trying to clear my head of all its thoughts and concentrate on my breathing.

In the hour-and-a-half that followed, I found myself twisting, pulling, bending and stretching myself as I tried to get to grips with the Fish, the Cat, the Downward Dog, the Warrior, the Tree and a multitude of other positions, including the rather rigorous Sun Salutation. Keeping up with the postures, while remembering to breathe, is no mean feat, but as a small group of around six students, we were privileged to have two teachers on hand to guide us through our moves.

With a lesson every morning and evening, I soon realised that yoga is not only an excellent way of toning up the body, but really does help to get rid of anxiety and stress. And as the days went by, I could actually feel my joints starting to loosen, my spine getting longer, my breathing getting easier, and my head beginning to empty.

Our teachers kept reminding us that the practice is not about being able to drop into the splits at the drop of a hat, but about working with what you are capable of doing. That said, by the end of the week, I was proud of being able to touch my toes, hold a handstand against a beam, and "stand" on my shoulders for up to 10 minutes. (I was even more pleased with the fact that, by day seven, I was able to form the word "ommm" at the end of the session without breaking into a smile.)

I must admit that, on the first night, I had felt a little overwhelmed by the teacher's talk of "energy" and "journeys". But as the week progressed, I grew to appreciate the fact that, while their outlook and attitudes seem remote from mine - no alcohol, caffeine, meat or, strangely, tomatoes - they did not suggest that their way of life was in any way "superior". I'm not sure exactly how much of an emotional, physical and spiritual journey I made in seven days, but I was certainly more flexible, more relaxed, calmer - and better nourished. Each morning after yoga,for example, we sat down together to enjoy a breakfast of pancakes, fruit salad and fresh orange juice.

The time between then and the evening class, at 5.30pm, was our own, and we could choose to be as social - or not - as we desired. Dahab has plenty to offer those who want to be active during their stay, and plenty for those who just want to relax. We opted for a combination of the two. On our more active days - when we wanted a break from sleeping, shopping and body massages - we hired masks and fins and snorkelled around Eel Garden and the Blue Hole. Dahab is spectacular for its coral, much of which can be accessed from the shore, and many diving centres offer introductory dives and PADI certification. Due to the strong wind, Dahab is also excellent for windsurfing, while landlubbers can enjoy horse-riding and Jeep or quad-biking safaris.

A highlight was our overnight excursion to the desert, organised by YOAS with a local Bedouin family. We were driven around the desert in the back of an open-top 4x4 to explore the dunes and canyons of this stark but beautiful place. We took part in a little canyoning, Bedouin-style, which involved clambering between rocks, gullies and overhangs, and climbing up crevices on a rope. At the desert camp in the evening, we were treated to a Bedouin feast and singing around the campfire, before dragging our mattresses out into the sands and falling asleep under a ceiling of stars.

After a breakfast the next morning, we tied scarves around our heads, clambered on to camels, and spent an hour trekking to the beautiful Southern Oasis. A night-time excursion to Mount Sinai and St Catherine's Monastery, site of the Burning Bush, is also highly recommended, to enjoy a spectacular sunrise.

On our lazier days, we were happy to opt out. We would flop down on the cushioned chill-out areas outside one of the multitude of beachfront restaurants with a good book and an orange juice, soaking up the café life along with the sunshine in this former Bedouin fishing village.

Dahab (which means "gold") is a quirky coastal town. Assalah is the most developed part of the resort, and the beachfront is a sprawling conglomeration of bars and restaurants, most strewn with rugs, cushions, hammocks and apple-shisha pipes. The place has been changed significantly by tourism - a promenade now links the camps, motels, restaurants and bazaars, for example - but what appealed to me was that Dahab hadn't lost the laid-back hippie-chic for which it was renowned. Last month, though, it lost its innocence when it became the latest target in the long-standing terrorist campaign to slaughter tourists. Three bombs killed 24 people and injured more than 80, including two Britons.

Since the attack, bookings have fallen, but there seems to be a concerted defiance of terrorism by both visitors and locals. "No one left the Amanda Hotel to fly home," said Sammy Salama, the owner when we talked again this week. "Without tourism, Dahab is nothing. We all have families to feed, and our livelihoods depend on our visitors, but we are positive that the tourists are going to stand with us. Everything has been cleared now, and the buildings that were damaged have been covered up."

Dahab now has to demonstrate to the travel industry and prospective visitors that it is doing all that it can to minimise the risk to tourists from terrorism, which means, sadly, that there will be an increasingly visible security presence at the resort. YOAS's Sue Pendlebury says: "I just pray that these explosions of hate bring us all closer to one another, so that we begin to recognise that peace is what lies at the bottom of all hearts, regardless of race or religion."

TRAVELLER'S GUIDE

GETTING THERE

The writer travelled to Dahab with Yoga on a Shoestring (020-8690 0890; www.yoga onashoestring.com), which organises similar trips from £190 per person per week. The price includes accommodation at the Amanda Hotel, brunch and two yoga classes per day; international flights and transfers are not included. The nearest airport is Sharm el-Sheikh, served by GB Airways (0870 850 9850; www.gbairways.com); Egyptair (020-7734 2395; www. egyptair.com.eg); Astraeus (01293 568666; www.flyastraeus.com); and charter airlines. YOAS can arrange transfers from Sharm el-Sheikh to Dahab for an additional cost.

To reduce the impact on the environment, you can buy an "offset" from Climate Care (01865 207 000; www.climatecare.org). The environmental cost of a return flight to Egypt is about £6. The money is used to fund sustainable energy and reforestation projects.

VISITING THERE

The trip to the desert offered by YOAS costs around £30. A night-time excursion to Mount Sinai and St Catherine's Monastery is also recommended to enjoy the sunrise.

MORE INFORMATION

The Foreign & Commonwealth Office (0845 850 2829; www.fco.gov.uk) advises: "There is a high threat from terrorism in Egypt. Security has been tightened, especially in resort areas, although the risk of indiscriminate attacks against civilian targets, including places frequented by foreigners, remains. Egyptian security forces continue to carry out counter-terrorist operations in some areas of Sinai. Security authorities may insist on escorting travellers in some areas."

Egyptian State Tourist Office: 020-7493 5283; www.gotoegypt.org

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