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Le Méridien Dahab Resort, south Sinai. Starwood Hotels & Resorts
Le Méridien Dahab Resort, south Sinai. Starwood Hotels & Resorts

Resort report: a place for every holidaymaker on the Red Sea

From Sharm el Sheikh to Sahl Hasheesh, Andrew Eames assesses Egypt's best beach destinations.

The Red Sea is conveniently colour-coded for tourism. Bright turquoise for the wide, long shallows, suitable for swimming and kitesurfing; a steely blue for where the boating begins, and a lurking, swirly green marking the coral reefs, which are perfect for snorkelling and diving. The sun keeps the water nicely warmed all year round and, in the summer when temperatures soar, it produces a dry heat tempered by an onshore breeze.

Making the most of these ideal holiday-making conditions is a bumper crop of Red Sea resorts that multiply and diversify as year succeeds to year. Before the recent turmoil, they had created a boom in Egyptian tourism, up 50 per cent in the last half-decade despite the occasional terrorist bomb and shark attack. But it is not easy to keep track of which resort is better for whom. Should you choose Dahab or Soma Bay? El Gouna or Sahl Hasheesh? Many are very new names, still comparatively unknown.

Most travellers are familiar with the two key gateways, Sharm el Sheikh and Hurghada. Flight times are the same to each and there's a similar cross-section of airlines for both. But there are fundamental differences.

Sharm el Sheikh is on the Sinai Peninsula. It is more isolated from the rest of Egypt, there's more security and development has been more carefully planned. The hotel scene is dominated by big international brands and various important intergovernmental meetings have taken place here.

Hurghada, a mere 102km away, is on the Egyptian mainland. It is more accessible by road to the rest of Egypt, and it is also less restricted in terms of construction and development. The result is something of a gold rush city, littered with half-completed projects and some very carefully planned new resorts both north and south of town. And with an emphasis on villas and apartments, the Hurghada Riviera is setting its stall out to be the new Spain.

Sharm el Sheikh

Best for divers; clubbers; designer shoppers; families with teenagers; top-end luxury seekers.

Sharm is the success story of the Red Sea. It's a mature, carefully planned resort with an international ambience and the destination of choice for tourists who want to be at the hub of everything. There's little that's particularly Egyptian about it. Many of the hotels are multinational chains with extensive grounds, pools and gardens, shopping malls, discos, nightclubs and bars. The snorkelling is excellent, often directly from the shore, but the beaches are generally not, apart from at Na'ama Bay, which is a family beach destination by day and a throbbing destination after dark.

Sharm's old centre is at Sharm el-Maya, where there's a token traditional Egyptian market dating to the time when this was just a military outpost, and from whose port the fleets of snorkel and dive boats set off. Many of the serious divers don't linger in Sharm at all but set off on boats for the best, more distant dive sites, which feature wrecks as well as reefs.

Onshore, most of the newer and better hotels are ranged along a small cliff at the unfortunately named Sharks Bay out towards the airport, with access to their own coral reefs directly from the shore. One of the best addresses here is the five-star Savoy (www.savoy-sharm.com; double rooms from US$399 [Dh1,464] with breakfast). It now has a new mall attached called Soho Square, which has its own ice rink. However, if you want to stay right in the heart of the entertainment district, the Maritim Jolie Ville Resort & Casino (www.jolieville-hotels.com) in Na'ama Bay has double rooms from $100 (Dh367) per night, including breakfast and taxes.

Dahab

Best for divers; backpackers; independent travellers; families with small children; windsurfers.

About 90 minutes' drive up the coast from Sharm airport, Dahab is still partly a Bedouin settlement and has a post-hippy reputation as the "Goa of the Red Sea". Its main focus is a sweep of a bay lined with al fresco coffee shops and seafood restaurants, most of them funky, informal rattan-roofed shelters with cushions on the floor where customers recline with a herbal tea and shisha.

Inland on the bay-side promenade are internet cafes, dive shops (there are more than 55 in town) and "camps", informal Bedouin-run hostels that were staple backpacker accommodation back in the 1980s and 1990s. Most are now family-sized two- to three-star hotels, while the newcomer four- to five-star establishments, such as the elegant Méridien (www.starwoodhotels.com; double rooms from $134 [Dh492] per night, with breakfast and taxes), are out of the centre, particularly along a stretch of immaculate sand that surrounds the lagoon, which boasts some of the world's best windsurfing conditions. The beach here is ideal for small families but, overall, this is a destination for divers, backpackers, windsurfers and holidaymakers who like their resorts to reflect something of their host destination.

Excursions from Sharm and Dahab

The most popular excursion on the Sinai peninsula is the trip to St Catherine's monastery, with the more adventurous combining the visit with a climb up Mt Sinai to witness the dawn. Otherwise, one of the most famous underwater sites is the Blue Hole, 20 minutes north of Dahab, a deep, coral-walled hole right next to the shore and something of a mecca for free divers and bus tours. Relative proximity to the Jordanian border means that you can also do a trip to Petra from Sharm. If you want to make side trips into the rest of Egypt, you're better off basing your holiday around Hurghada.

Hurghada

Best for divers; shoppers; clubbers; holidaymakers on a budget.

A fishing village until the 1970s, Hurghada was the first foothold of the international diving community that originally pioneered tourism in this part of the world. Serious development started in the 1990s and continues, with the result that today's sprawling town of 290,000 inhabitants (four times Sharm's size) is rapidly spreading along at least 30km of seafront, most of it with a sandy beach, although that beach is often "private" to the nearest hotel or residential complex.

At its heart is pleasingly ramshackle downtown area, El Dahar, with proper bazaars, shisha cafes, market squares and a cross-section of local life. There's a more westernised central district called Sekalla where brands like Costa Coffee and McDonald's rub shoulders with carpet shops, souvenir shops and restaurants. Downtown hotels such as the Bellavista (www.bellavista-hurghada.com; half board from $47 [Dh171] per person, per day) are dominated by Russian and eastern European package tourism, and the overall result is cheerful, colourful, cosmopolitan and a bit brash.

Most of downtown dates from the 1990s, but the town does have a new, more exclusive area in its two-year-old marina, which could be mistaken for a slice of the south of France. Row upon row of the latest in super yachts sit by the pontoons, chrome gleaming, many with uniformed crew. The quays are lined with restaurants and cafes where you can get everything from seared Asian tuna to barbecued Australian beef.

Apart from these centres, Hurghada is something of an eyesore, albeit a vibrant one. It is plainly a huge destination for property speculators, and many developments stand unfinished. Ultimately, its more upmarket addresses are moving to the edge of town, where you'll find the Steigenberger Al Dau (www.steigenbergeraldaubeach.com; double rooms from $75 [Dh276] with breakfast and taxes), a fabulous hotel that opened four years ago with its own nine-hole golf course and thalassotherapy spa.

El Gouna

Best for families; self-catering holidays; kitesurfers; second-homers.

The most mature example of the new resorts on the Hurghada Riviera is 22km north of Hurghada. This ambitious, self-styled "Venice of Egypt" is built around a network of man-made lagoons, and all of its 40 square kilometres are administered by Orascom, where everything is being built according to a masterplan, learning from Hurghada's mistakes.

Orascom opened the first hotel here 17 years ago and since then has engineered a society with a judicious mix of apartments, luxury villas, upmarket hotels and marinas, along with a cinema, international schools, two golf courses, a couple of university satellites (including a faculty from the University of Berlin) and even its own premiership football team. A second marina opened last year and its latest hotel, the seven-star Maison Bleue, will open soon.

The design of the place is all carefully harmonised with elements of Arab, Byzantine and neo-Nubian styles, and it comes as no surprise to learn that some of it was planned by Michael Graves, the American architect associated with Disneyland. Here, visitors are being encouraged not only to have their holidays but to invest in second homes. It is a kind of fairy-tale urbanisation, with a population supposedly reaching 40,000. Once safely tucked inside this gated enclave, the El Gouna customer rarely ventures out.

The Red Sea along El Gouna's shore is particularly people-friendly, with wide, long shallows. Accordingly, kitesurfing is big, particularly out at Mangroovy Beach, where the skies are filled with dancing eyebrows and the beach cafes busy with their hangers-on.

El Gouna's Mövenpick Resort & Spa (www.moevenpick-elgouna.com; double rooms from $127 [Dh466] with breakfast and taxes) is a multifaceted resort on its own island and within walking distance of downtown.

Sahl Hasheesh

Best for families and groups; self-catering; second homers on the lookout for a new opportunity.

This hugely ambitious project, 18km south of Hurghada airport, is still in its infancy, but will more than match El Gouna. Like the latter, it is intended for upscale residents and visitors and covers a similar 40-odd sq km; it's around two-thirds the size of Manhattan island. The developers are tentatively describing it as "the world's largest fully integrated resort", and this year they've just opened a lavish downtown piazza on a 12km curving, generous-beached bay, along with half a dozen apartment blocks and four hotels, including two boutique hotels. A further 20 hotels are in construction as part of Phase I, scheduled for completion by 2013.

Until recently a protected military zone - which is why it is so pristine - Sahl Hasheesh's big selling point is its topography: its sloping landforms give most places a view of the water and its beach, the best on the coast, is backed by a 7km-long boardwalk and has been kept available to all, rather than parcelled up to individual properties. Besides the usual golf courses (the first is nearing completion), it will also have an ambitious network of canals and watercourses.

The developers are openly making a play for longer-term visitors. After all, as they point out, the Red Sea has sunshine all year round, whereas Spain doesn't. Apartment rental is already available through Sunny Lifestyle (www.sunnylifestyle.info), with prices from $930 (Dh3,414) for a week in a sea-facing apartment (each sleeps four to six people).

The Oberoi Sahl Hasheesh (www.oberoihotels.com; $368 [Dh1,353] for a double room) is the best address along this part of the coast in an exclusive location outside the main development zone.

Makadi Bay

Best for good value, all-inclusive holidays in medium-standard hotels.

Sahl Hasheesh's southern perimeter rubs up against another gated enclave, mainly four-star hotels (most of them contracted to the tour operator Tui), along a curved and shallow beachfront that can get busy. Makadi Bay has been here for 12 years and it, too, has golf, but its footprint is more limited than the aforementioned resorts and, therefore, it can feel a bit claustrophobic, although it is tailor-made for anyone who simply wants a good-value week in the sun in fairly anonymous style. The main visiting population is German-speaking and Scandinavian, with couples during school term and families during school holidays. Few of them venture out of the resort except on excursions organised by tour operators.

Of the better properties, the Jaz Makadi Star (www.jaz.travel; double rooms from $84 [Dh309], half board with taxes) has a peaceful, exclusive atmosphere, a little set back from the beach.

Soma Bay

Best for wealthier, more independent holidaymakers who want exclusivity and access to the Nile Valley.

The final up-and-coming resort on the Hurghada riviera, 45km south of Hurghada airport, has stand-alone, big-brand hotel names, such as Sheraton and Kempinski, on their own swathes of shallow-watered white-sand bay. There's a golf course and thalassotherapy spa at Cascades and a diving and surfing centre, Breakers, which opened in 2009. Soma Bay's location, less than three hours overland from Luxor, means that it attracts visitors who want to mix a bit of cultural tourism with chilling by the sea, but there's no downtown, bazaar or any shopping here.

The Kempinski, which opened last year, is a sprawling Alhambra-style resort with the only squash court on the Hurghada riviera. It has a choice of six restaurants to keep guests from getting bored (www.kempinski.com/somabay; double rooms from $404 [Dh1,484] with breakfast and taxes). This is a place for affluent visitors who don't want to feel they're among the herd. And that means not going anywhere near Hurghada.

Excursions from the Hurghada riviera

There are two key activities to do locally: setting out to sea on a day-long (lunch included) snorkelling trip, usually out to Giftun island, which has the advantage of a broad sandy beach. Sometimes this is repackaged as Paradise island or Dahmya island, but the destination is still Giftun, even though the price is higher.

Inland, the main activities are half-day quad bike (or 4x4) "safaris" to Bedouin villages, where visitors are given camel rides and something to eat. The landscapes are awe-inspiringly barren and quite mountainous, but the so-called Bedouin villages are perfunctory affairs with large visitor turnover. Otherwise, it is three hours to Luxor and four-and-a-half to Cairo. Many visitors take advantage of one-day or two-day trips to the pyramids or to the temples of the Nile Valley.

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