The Traveller's Guide to the Red Sea

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Blue skies, golden sands and a rainbow of dazzling colours beneath the surface make this body of water the ideal winter warmer. Matthew Teller dives in


What's red about it?

Apart from some impressive sunsets – and Trichodesmium erythraeum, algae which occasionally turn the water a reddish-brown colour – not much. Roman geographers used the term Red Sea (Mare Erythraeum) to refer to the entire Indian Ocean; the body of water dividing Africa from Arabia was dubbed the Arabian Gulf (Sinus Arabicus). Why or when the name-change occurred is not clear, though 16th-century maps show that ancient usage was already waning.

This vast sea stretches from the Bab Al Mandab strait, separating Djibouti and Yemen in the south from Suez in the north. It is 2,250km long but, at its widest, only 355km across.

The Red Sea has been an avenue of trade for millennia, used by the Queen of Sheba, the Pharaohs, Greeks, Romans, Axumites and more. Thanks to the Suez Canal it remains a trade route, but is now equally renowned as a holiday destination. Yemen, Eritrea and Sudan have had other things on their minds, but for Egypt, Israel and Jordan, attracting those seeking sun, sea and sand is big business.

The consistently warm waters of the Gulf of Aqaba – the sea's north-eastern arm – also support one of the world's most northerly coral reefs. The volume and variety of marine life here, coupled with crystal-clear water and fringing reefs in the shallows, make for world-class diving and snorkelling.

Egypt's Ras Mohammed National Park, at the tip of the Sinai peninsula, includes the celebrated Thistlegorm wreck: expect to see striped angel fish, luminescent butterfly fish, rays and plenty more. Tuna, barracuda and turtles are regular visitors. The briny wildlife, coral gardens and wreck dives continue all along this coast.

Who are the big fish?

In terms of tourism Egypt leads the way, hosting 12 million visitors last year; one in 10 of those tourists were from Britain. The main focus is Sharm el Sheikh, a modern, tourist-happy city which makes a fine living from diving, watersports and beach holidays. This winter British Airways (0844 493 0787; ba.com) has launched flights from Gatwick, and mainstream operators offer countless good-value packages; Thomas Cook (0871 895 0055; thomascook.com), for example, has a week in February at the Coral Hills resort for £322 per person (with breakfast), including flights from Luton.

Further north, Taba is much quieter, offering stupendous mountain views, an 18-hole championship golf course and optional mini-cruises to Jordan. Red Sea specialist Longwood Holidays (020-8418 2516; longwoodholidays.co.uk) has a week half board in January at the five-star beachfront Hyatt Regency for £499 from Gatwick or £509 from Manchester.

For a touch more individuality, plump for a smaller operator. For £340 excluding flights, the eight-day Sinai Safari tour run by Egypt Uncovered (0845 130 4849; egypt-uncovered.com) concentrates on Dahab, an easygoing resort between Sharm and Taba.

More options lie near humdrum Hurghada, where developers have built new resorts around isolated sandy beaches, offering self-contained tranquillity supplemented by spas and golf courses. The best known is El Gouna, where Thomson (0871 231 4691; thomson.co.uk) offers a week's B&B at the three-star Arena Inn including flights for a rock-bottom £227 departing this Friday from Gatwick, or £228 next Friday from Manchester. Similar resorts include Soma Bay, near Safaga, and Port Ghalib, near Marsa Alam.

Anything more upmarket?

Six-star splendour resides 9km north of Sharm at the Four Seasons (00 800 6488 6488; fourseasons.com), where the tourist bustle is replaced by palm trees, pools, a coolly elegant spa and fine dining. Double rooms start at £242, including breakfast.

Otherwise, aim for the stunning Oberoi Sahl Hasheesh (00 800 1234 0101; oberoihotels.com), south of Hurghada on the opposite side of the Red Sea. Boasting a private beach almost a kilometre long and 102 suites – 18 with their own pool – this is a retreat to savour. Other than stroll beneath the palms, laze by the water, take a spa treatment and eat, there is nothing to do – and that's the point. Doubles cost from £252, including breakfast.

What about Israel?

With only 12km of Red Sea coastline, it's tempting to dismiss Israel – but that short stretch of beach hosts the popular resort of Eilat ( explore-eilat.com), one of the better Red Sea destinations for families, featuring an underwater observatory, swimming with dolphins, an IMAX-3D cinema, theme parks and bowling alleys. The borders are open with Taba (Egypt) and Aqaba (Jordan), making travel between all three countries straightforward.

Direct flights from the UK to Eilat restart next month: local hotel group Isrotel ( isrotel.co.uk) is operating charters from Luton between 13 December and 12 April, apart from a gap in January and early February. Seven nights' room-only at the Royal Garden, an apartment hotel with its own waterpark, start at £454 per person including flights. Book through a specialist agent such as Travelink (020-8931 8000; travelinkuk.com) or Superstar Holidays (020-7121 1500; superstar.co.uk).

And Jordan?

Quieter than Eilat or Sharm, Aqaba ( aqaba.jo) offers a more traditional atmosphere. The town has been settled for millennia: a Roman road led from here into Syria, and on the beach stands an impressive 14th-century Mamluke fort, once an important stop on the pilgrimage route towards Mecca.

Aqaba also presents greater opportunities for independent travellers. Budget hotels and hostels include Darna Village ( darnavillage.com), with beds from £18. And well-kept double rooms at Captain's (00 962 3206 0710; captains-jo.com), a sleek, family-owned four-star, cost £75, including breakfast.

Voyages Jules Verne (0845 166 7003; vjv.co.uk) offers seven nights' B&B including Gatwick flights at five-star hotels such as the Radisson Blu (from £495) or the phenomenally swish Kempinski (from £777). For a last-minute deal, departing this Tuesday, Libra Holidays (0800 458 5402; libraholidays.co.uk) has a week's B&B at the four-star Days Inn for £361, flights included.

How do I get afloat?

Hotels in all the major resorts organise day-voyages – the trip from Aqaba, Eilat or Taba to the Crusader fortress atop rocky Pharaoh's Island is a classic – while glass-bottomed boats at every tourist beach offer views of the coral from topside.

Arab Bridge Maritime ( abmaritime.com.jo) operates daily catamarans and ferries between Aqaba and Nuweiba, with fares from US$60 (£34). Ferries also link Sharm and Hurghada, as well as Saudi ports such as Duba and Jeddah from Suez, Safaga and Port Sudan.

Further south, you could haggle for deck space aboard vessels plying between Mokha (Yemen) and Massawa (Eritrea).

Louis Cruises (0800 018 3883; louiscruises.com) runs regular mini-cruises between Suez, Sharm and Aqaba. The Voyages of Discovery 13-day Egypt to India cruise (0845 018 1808; voyagesofdiscovery.co.uk), departing Sharm on 8 December, sails the full length of the Red Sea, with two stops in Oman before reaching Mumbai. From £999, including flights and all meals.

What about culture?

Sinai's Bedouin culture is often distorted and sanitised for tourists. Subvert the stereotypes by helping to build village schools or maintain dams on the Makhad Trust's (01242 544546; makhad.org) week-long working trips. Next departure is 11 March (£750 excluding flights).

Amid the high peaks behind Dahab looms Mount Sinai (2,285m), where Moses received the Ten Commandments. Climb the camel path (three hours) for the sunset, then either stay for sunrise – sleeping bag essential – or head down the 3,750 Steps of Penitence. These lead to St Catherine's (9am-noon, closed Friday and Sunday), a Greek Orthodox monastery sheltering a 6th-century church and what is said to be the Burning Bush, from which God spoke to Moses. The El Milga hostel (sheikmousa.com) has beds from £2.

You can easily sign up for an overnight tour to St Catherine's and Mount Sinai, or build it in to a longer itinerary. Plenty of adventure operators run tours that include the Sinai Peninsula, such as the 15-day Discover Egypt tour from Dragoman (01728 861133; dragoman.com), which starts and ends in Cairo and includes St Catherine's, Mount Sinai and beach camping as well as visits to Luxor and Aswan; from £505, excluding flights from the UK.

Further south, Jeddah is one of the Middle East's most cosmopolitan cities, its souks perpetually packed with Mecca-bound pilgrims from around the world. Jeddah's atmospheric old quarter has many traditional coral stone houses sporting lattice-work wooden balconies. A nine-day Saudi Arabia tour, run by The Traveller (020-7436 9343; the-traveller.co.uk), spends two nights there, for £3,125, including flights on Saudia from Heathrow to Riyadh, returning from Jeddah.

South again, Yemen's port of Mocha made its fortune on the medieval coffee trade, lending its name to a chocolatey-tasting variety of coffee bean. Few tours pass this way – though Undiscovered Destinations (0191 296 2674; undiscovered-destinations.com) offers a fortnight in Yemen (£2,595) that includes time in easygoing Hodeidah nearby, now the Red Sea's leading coffee port.

Eritrean odyssey: Italy in Africa

After the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869, the European powers scrambled for a foothold on the African shore of the Red Sea. Italy gained the upper hand in Eritrea, ruling it as a colony from 1890 until 1941 (whereafter it became federated with Ethiopia, finally gaining independence in 1993).

The country still shows marked Italian influence: the capital Asmara sports an art deco cinema, Cubist and Futurist buildings galore, a Catholic cathedral and dozens of colonial villas, while the Red Sea port of Massawa – Ottoman-ruled for more than three hundred years – is an eclectic mix of pointed arches and coral stone. Explore (0845 013 1537; explore.co.uk) is one of the few UK tour operators to visit: eight days costs £1,375.

Into the deep: Diving

Diving is where the Red Sea leads the world. If you've explored Ras Mohammed, dived the Blue Hole – a deep-water cavern off Dahab – and roamed Aqaba's wreck of the Cedar Pride, head for richly rewarding waters further afield.

A memorable sequence in the recent BBC series The Frankincense Trail was when Kate Humble dived an unmarked wreck off Saudi Arabia. Although that location remains secret, her specialist guide, Saudi-based Eric Mason, leads diving tours in similarly pristine waters off the Farasan Islands south of Jeddah. A week – either at the Al Ahlam resort in Al Lith, or on a liveaboard – start at £1,228. Book through Regaldive (01353 659999; regaldive.co.uk).

Then there's the final frontier of Red Sea diving: Sudan. Experienced divers can book with Regaldive or Scuba Travel (0800 072 8221; scubatravel.com) for two weeks aboard the Royal Evolution, sailing south out of Port Ghalib in Egypt to spectacular reefs off Port Sudan, with sightings of hammerhead shark thrown in. Prices start at £2,145.

Travel essentials: The Red Sea

Getting there

Scheduled flights to Red Sea airports include easyJet and FlyGlobespan to Sharm el Sheikh and Hurghada, British Airways and jet2 to Sharm, and Saudia, BMI or British Airways to Jeddah.

Intrepid souls could go independently. To go overland (explained at seat61.com), take trains from London to Paris, Munich, Budapest, Bucharest, Istanbul, Aleppo and Damascus, from where buses and shared taxis link to Amman and Aqaba. It takes about a week.

Alternatively take ship aboard a freighter. The Grande Europa, inset, sails from Southampton this Tuesday on a two-week voyage to Ashdod in Israel: €816 (£734) buys you a berth and all meals. Departures are weekly year-round ( grimaldi-freightercruises.com). A bus from Ashdod to Jerusalem and another to Eilat (£14; egged.com) transport you from Med to Red.

Red Tape

Visas for Israel are issued free on arrival. For Jordan, the usual visa fee of 10 dinars (£8.50) is waived if you enter at Aqaba (by land, sea or air). Egypt issues free Sinai-only visas at Sharm airport, Nuweiba sea port and the Taba land border, but these are valid only along this stretch of coast (including St Catherine's). To visit the rest of Egypt you must hold a full visa, which can be bought on arrival at any airport (US$15).

Yemen issues visas on arrival (£25), Sudan takes six weeks to process visa applications (£53; applying in Cairo is quicker), and Saudi Arabia issues tourist visas only as part of a pre-booked group package. These three refuse entry to people whose passports show evidence of a visit to Israel. Eritrean visas (£25) come with travel restrictions; check details with the London embassy (020-7713 0096).

When to go

Temperatures this week in Sharm, Hurghada, Aqaba and Eilat are 25-30C. Things stay comfortable into April, though summer (May-Sept) can be stifling.

Travel advice

All of the Red Sea's shoreline countries get a drubbing from the Foreign Office, which advises against non-essential travel to Yemen. Eritrea is deemed to have an "underlying" threat of terrorism, Jordan and Israel have a "general" threat, while Saudi Arabia, Sudan and Egypt – which suffered a bomb attack that killed 88 in 2005 – have a "high" threat.

More information

Contact the tourist boards of Egypt (020-7493 5283; egypt.travel), Eritrea (020-7713 0096), Israel (020-7299 1100; thinkisrael.com), Jordan (020-7371 6496; visitjordan.com), Saudi Arabia ( scta.gov.sa), Sudan ( sudan-tourism.gov.sd) and Yemen ( yementourism.com).

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