The complete guide to the Red Sea

Exotic souks, clear waters, pristine coral reefs, and lots of winter sunshine. Harriet O'Brien finds the best resorts and tours for those in need of an Arabian adventure


THE RED SEA - THAT'S EGYPT, ISN'T IT?

And a great deal more. This extraordinary body of saltwater is a spectacular haven for coral life and is steeped in legend and ancient history. Handily, it is also an increasingly accessible holiday destination that offers far more than the average resort strip. The lands of the pharaohs roll back on one side, while the sea resonates biblical significance, particularly the story from Exodus in which the waters parted to save the Israelites from the Egyptian army: "And Moses stretched out his hand over the sea..."

In terms of today's geopolitical divisions, the Red Sea is bordered by Egypt, Sudan and Eritrea to the west, with Israel, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Yemen to the east. It is, in effect, a watery divide between Africa and the Middle East. It comprises an offshoot, or basin, of the Indian Ocean, which flows into it through a narrow opening of only 17 miles or so at the Bab al Mandab strait in the south.

To the north, a thin slit into the Mediterranean has existed since 1869, when the Suez Canal was completed. Because it is cut off from major ocean currents and has no large rivers feeding it, the Red Sea remains amazingly still, clear and warm, hence the abundant coral and rich animal life it supports, from vibrant shoals of parrotfish and other piscatorial species to sea turtles, dolphins and pelicans.

IT'S NOT RED, SO WHY THE NAME?

The Greeks called these waters Arabicus Sinus, referring to the obvious narrowness of this ribbon of sea. The name Red Sea was coined later and is altogether more perplexing. It is thought by some to be a mistranslation of the Semitic name meaning "Sea of Reeds". Another explanation is that the Red Sea is so called because it periodically turns a faint red - from seasonal blooms of a type of cyanobacteria, tiny algae with a reddish pigment that live near the surface of the water. Yet another theory takes a more poetic tack and suggests that reflections of the area's fiery sunrises and sunsets, coupled with its red ranges of mountains, were the inspiration. But while no one is quite sure of the derivation of the name, there's an increasing consensus that the Red Sea is a prime place for winter sun.

SO WHERE ARE THE MAIN RESORTS?

Much of the beach action is in the north around the Red Sea's Gulf of Aqaba. Here, Israel and Jordan both have significant resort toe-holds, respectively at Eilat and Aqaba. The former is a booming seaside city with a population of around 36,000; the latter, visible across the water, is smaller and, as yet, less commercial. Both offer good beaches and watersports, and while Eilat provides a wide choice of accommodation, Aqaba is less frenetic and makes an amenable jumping-off point for trips to Jordan's phenomenal sites of Wadi Rum and Petra.

Egypt, meanwhile, offers four resorts on the east coast of the Sinai Peninsula, facing the Gulf of Aqaba. Taba at the top is a short hop from the Israeli border and remains fairly quiet, although the new development of Taba Heights is increasingly popular. An hour or so south, the port town of Nuweiba offers magnificent beaches and several very serviceable hotels. Dahab, further south again, is laid-back hippy-chic, while at the southern tip Sharm-el-Sheikh presents five-star luxury along with a generous choice of watersports and sandy beaches merging into desert landscape. This was the location for the terrorist attack in July in which more than 70 people died. Since then, security has been stepped up all the way along the coast.

Further south again, across the Red Sea on the coast of the eastern Sahara, Hurghada is more lively and down to earth than Sharm, and generally cheaper, too. It is conveniently situated about a four-hour drive from the antiquities of Luxor. Around 30km along the coast from this thriving centre is the new resort of El Gouna, a purpose-built development, elegantly devised with a network of canals crossed by stone bridges - rendering it the self-styled "little Venice of the Red Sea".

WHO CAN GIVE ME A GOOD DEAL?

The big package companies concentrate on Egypt and have some excellent offers. All prices are per person, based on two sharing; for the lowest rates, book online. At the time of writing, Thomson (0870 165 0079; www.thomsonbeach.co.uk), for example, offered a week in early February at Taba, from £234 including flights from Gatwick and seven nights' half board at the large and luxurious Sonesta Beach Resort. Cosmos (0870 443 5285; www.cosmosholidays.co.uk), meantime, had a week of half-board in early February at the four-star Coral Beach Rotana in Hurghada from £451 per person including flights from Manchester. For around the same period, Thomas Cook (0870 750 5711; www.thomascook.com) was offering a week at the three-star Arena Inn, in nearby El Gouna, from £289 per person including flights from Gatwick and breakfast.

For slightly greater outlay, you could spend a week at Sharm-el-Sheikh through First Choice (0870 850 3999; www.firstchoice.co.uk), which at the time of going to press could arrange six nights' B&B at the four-star Radisson SAS resort from £594 per person including flights from Gatwick for departures on 26 January.

Smaller companies are providing good deals to Sharm: the Egypt specialist Planet Holidays (0870 066 0909; www.planet-holidays.co.uk) is offering a week in February at the splendid Ritz-Carlton - complete with water park, Arabian massage tent and 18-hole golf course - from £579 per person, including flights from Gatwick and breakfast.

Few of the bigger tour operators organise trips to Israel and Jordan. MyTravel (0870 241 5333; www.mytravel.com) bucks the trend, with holidays to Eilat. At the time of writing, the company was offering one week at the Dalia Hotel at Eilat's North Beach resort from £454 per person, including flights from Heathrow and breakfast. Meanwhile, Red Sea specialist Longwood Holidays (020-8418 2500; www.longwoodholidays.co.uk) includes Aqaba among its destinations: a week at the three-star Alcazar hotel costs from £325 per person, including flights from Gatwick and half-board accommodation, for departures on Monday.

HOW ABOUT ESCAPING INTO THE UNDERWATER WORLD?

Ah, this is where the Red Sea excels. Manta rays; big-eyed squirrel fish; spectacular sponges; tranquil coral gardens - the volume and variety of iridescent marine life coupled with outstandingly clear, warm waters make this area a superlative destination for divers and snorkellers. Some of the most dramatic and accessible dive sites lie between Sharm-el-Sheikh and Hurghada: the amazing wall of Giftun Seghir, rich in black corals and reef fish; Bluff Point, a steep reef wall off Gubal Seghira island, which abounds in soft corals with attendant fish and where turtles and * * bottlenose dolphins are often seen; the Thistlegorm wreck, a British merchant ship that was requisitioned in the Second World War, sunk in 1941 and now turned rich and strange 10m and more down on the sea bed.

Day trips (with all the requisite equipment) are available at the major resorts in the north of the Red Sea, including Eilat and Aqaba. But you may prefer to arrange a package before you leave. On the Go Tours (020-7371 1113; www.onthegotours.com), for example, has a 10-day Dive Dahab trip from £349 per person. The price includes accommodation in a three- to five-star hotel at Dahab, 10 dives, hire of dive equipment and all transfers to dive sites. Flights need to be arranged separately, for example through the dedicated website www.redseaflights.com. This is run by Explorers Tours (0845 644 7090; www.explorers.co.uk), which has a wide range of last-minute trips, many of them based at Sharm-el-Sheikh.

Some dive sites in the northern Red Sea can become too busy for comfortable marine life viewing and although great efforts are made to protect the underwater environment, the descending crowds inevitably have some effect. Among the extensive range of dive holidays that Regaldive (0870 2201 777; www.regaldive.co.uk) offers in Egypt are those on the uncrowded southern coast, where there is an impressive choice of pristine reefs.

The gateway to this area is the airport at Marsa al Alam, which opened in 2001 and is now served direct from Gatwick. About 65km to the north is the up-and-coming resort of Port Ghalib, which makes a good base for trips to the near-legendary reefs of Elphinstone and Dolphin House. In late February, a week here costs from £379 per person through Regaldive. The price includes flights and seven nights' half-board accommodation at the Coral Beach Diving Hotel, which has an award-winning dive centre on site. Five-day diving packages, including transport and equipment hire, cost an additional £136 per person.

For the ultimate in remote diving trips, take a "liveaboard" holiday. You sleep and eat onboard a comfortable boat and sail to selected dive sites. Tony Backhurst Scuba Travel (0800 072 8221; www.scuba.co.uk) has a nine-day live-aboard package in the little-visited Red Sea country of Sudan. The holiday costs from £1,195 including flights from Heathrow to Cairo and onward air connections to Port Sudan; two nights' hotel accommodation with breakfast in Cairo; and seven nights' full-board accommodation on the boat in Sudan.

AND FOR ADVENTURE ON DRY LAND?

Day trips into the stark beauty of the desert landscape are available at most Red Sea resorts, but for extended adventure join an organised tour. Naturetrek (01962 733051; www.naturetrek.co.uk) offers an intriguing mix of desert, wildlife, ancient splendour and relaxation by the sea, with its 15-day ornithological holiday in Jordan. On this trip you visit the capital, Amman, the Dana Wildlands Reserve, Petra and Aqaba, which somewhat bizarrely offers excellent birdwatching in the local sewage works. Departures are on 9 April and the cost per person is £1,795 including flights to Amman, all transport and all food and accommodation (with two nights' camping).

Explore (0870 333 4001; www.explore.co.uk) combines Jordan and Egypt on its 12-day Petra and Pyramids tour, during which you travel overland - and water - from Amman to Alexandria.

The route takes in Jordan's Greco-Roman city of Jerash, Petra and Wadi Rum, crosses the Red Sea at Aqaba and proceeds through Egypt to Sinai's isolated monastery of St Catherine, on to the pyramids of Giza and north to Alexandria. The holiday costs from £875 per person; this price covers flights from Heathrow to Amman and return flights from Alexandria, transport and B&B accommodation.

In pioneering spirit the company is also offering a new holiday much further south in Eritrea, which gained independence in 1993 and is slowly starting to open up to tourism. Explore's Eritrean Highlights trip begins in Asmara, the capital, which boasts extraordinary art deco and Italian colonial architecture, proceeds to the highland town of Keren, and then goes down to the Red Sea coast, where you can catch a boat to the offshore islands of the little-visited Dahlak Archipelago. The nine-day trip costs from £1,055 per person including flights from the UK, minibus transport, guidance, accommodation and some meals.

The rival British adventure company Exodus (0870 240 5550; www.exodus.co.uk) has also started operating in Eritrea and offers a similar trip from £1,125 per person.

HOW ABOUT A CRUISE?

Excellent value is offered on Thomson's Red Sea Magic cruises, which operate around Egypt and Jordan. Some of the most competitive fares are available through Ideal Cruising (0800 050 1093; www.idealcruising.co.uk): during February a seven-night tour on Thompson Spirit costs from £469 per person including flights to Hurghada and full-board ship accommodation, with a route taking in Sharm-el-Sheikh, Aqaba and Suez.

For travel through the Suez Canal join the Voyages of Discovery (01444 462150; www.voyagesof discovery.com) Holy Lands and Pharaohs cruise which departs on 31 October. The eight-night tour starts in the Mediterranean at Limassol in Cyprus and proceeds via Haifa and Ashdod in Israel to Port Said in Egypt, sailing through the Suez Canal to the Red Sea and finishing the trip in Jordan, at Aqaba. The full cost of the holiday is £1,249 per person but if you book before 31 January the fare drops to £649. The price includes flights to Limassol and return from Aqaba, full-board ship accommodation and all lecture programmes.

CAN I HOP AROUND BY FERRY?

To some extent. In Egypt, local ferries connect Hurghada and Sharm-el-Sheikh - you should allow around an hour and a half for the trip. International ferries cross from Nuweiba on Egypt's Sinai Peninsula to Aqaba in Jordan. The journey takes about an hour by high-speed catamaran and up to five hours by older ferry, but you should also leave plenty of time for red tape officialdom over border control. For information on schedules and prices see www.touregypt.net/ferries.htm.

WHERE CAN I FIND OUT MORE?

Contact the Egyptian State Tourist Office (020-7493 5283; www.touregypt.net); the Israel Government Tourist Office (020-7299 1111; www.go-israel.org); or Jordan Tourism Board (020-7371 6496; www.visitjordan.com/uk).

HOW SAFE IS IT?

The Red Sea region, and in Egypt in particular, has suffered a number of attacks aimed specifically at tourists.

Visitor numbers were badly affected by atrocities in the 1990s (notably 1997's Luxor massacre). However, despite the attack in Sharm-el-Sheikh last July, tourist numbers are up 5 per cent in the last 12 months. Security has been stepped up around the luxury resorts.

The Foreign Office ( www.fco.gov.uk) identifies "a high threat from terrorism in Egypt", but does not caution travellers to stay away. Similar advice is given for travel to Jordan, where tourists are urged to be vigilant, while in Israel the advice is to avoid notable areas of unrest, such as the Gaza Strip.

Further afield, Sudan and Eritrea are fairly unstable, although a few travel companies operate in the relatively safe areas. Saudi Arabia remains largely off the recreational tourism map.

Tourists to Yemen risk kidnap, as was evident in December when a former German politician and an Italian group were taken hostage. British tour operators have largely avoided the area since the 1999 abduction of 16 tourists, four of whom were killed.

WHERE CAN I LEARN TO DIVE?

Most centres offer PADI courses, the most well-known qualification for scuba diving. The Open Water certification for novices is usually undertaken in four or five days, covering both theory and practice.

During February, Goldenjoy Dive (0871 226 8701; www.goldenjoydive.co.uk) has a seven-night break in Sharm-el-Sheikh for £269 each including flights and B&B.It is also offering two learn-to-dive courses for the price of one, at £179.

Regaldive (0870 2201 777; www.regaldive.co.uk) has a similar deal for PADI courses in both Hurghada and Marsa Alam starting on 17 February and costing £170.

Explorers Tours (0845 644 7090; www.explorers.co.uk) has a range of offers starting at £289 for a week including flights from Manchester or Gatwick, a three-day PADI course and accommodation with breakfast.

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