SHARM el Sheikh offers Kate Wickers and her family the opportunity to explore the psychedelic marine life of the Red Sea’s coral reef
On the Sinai Peninsula in Egypt, between the desert and the deep blue sea sits Sharm el Sheikh, Egypt’s premier beach and diving resort. Situated in a land of great contrasts, where the desert and granite mountains meet the Red Sea and are transformed into a 40-mile belt of coral reef, it lounges on the edge of an underwater National Park that teems with curious, psychedelic marine creatures.
My hotel, the Four Seasons, was located thankfully away from the main drag of Naama Bay, which over the last 25 years has morphed from Bedouin settlement to charming bijoux resort to tacky tourist Mecca.
The Four Seasons is a beautiful resort with landscaped gardens brimming with bougainvillea, jacaranda, hibiscus, palms and yucca that lead down to a private beach, where stylish sun loungers and beach cabanas line the water’s edge. A favourite winter bolthole for celebs, it was a challenge to remain cool when Damian Lewis, of Homeland fame, and his family settled down on the sunbeds next to us one day.
Luckily there were lots of distractions and my sons, aged 14, 12 and nine, and I studied our guide to tropical fish, then headed excitedly down the jetty armed with snorkels and flippers to explore the Four Seasons “house” reef. We’d only been in the water a matter of seconds when rainbow-coloured parrotfish that noisily scrape their sharp beak-like mouth on the brain coral caught our attention.
Everywhere we looked there was a new discovery. Chocolate dippers, small fish that looked as if their tails had been dipped in chocolate, darted in and out of the blue and pink finger corals. Masked Puffer fish inflated themselves like beach balls as we came near. Unlike the fish that swam around, we were hooked.
It’s an effortless holiday for families in a safe environment. My sons made friends quickly and soon had the run of the place, enjoying calling golf buggies to transport them from their daily game of football, to tennis, to the pool. The resort has its own diving and watersports centre, Sanai Blues, which organises snorkelling excursions, and provides all levels of dive experiences from introductory pool to night dives in open water. There is the opportunity to study for a Professional Association of Diving Instructors’ qualification.
My adventurous son, Josh, 14, and husband, Neil, went on an introductory reef dive where they saw spotted eagle rays and a hump-headed blue Napoleon wrasse, some two feet long. For me it was offshore in the spa at sunset that became a daily indulgence. I was tempted by a Cleopatra treatment (a bath of milk, honey and roses followed by a massage) but a solitary swim in the child-free outside pool, a soak in the Jacuzzi, a sauna and then a blissful curl-up on a daybed in the relaxation room to sip fresh ginger tea, was treat enough.
I’m all for eating local cuisine when I travel, which doesn’t always thrill my kids, so it was a relief to find a varied kids menu in all of the Four Seasons restaurants. The atmospheric Arabesque, lit by lanterns and serving up Arabic dishes such as roasted aubergine baba ganoush and kharouf, lamb chops with nuts, raisins and yoghurt, soon became my favourite.
One night we found it set out like a traditional souk, another evening musicians beat out rhythmic tunes on goat skin drums.
Sharm el Sheikh is mainly about sun, sea and snorkelling but if you’re itching for a bit of culture then nearby Mount Sinai, where Moses is said to have received the Ten Commandments, will tick the box. On the site of Moses’ burning bush stands St Catherine’s, one of the oldest monasteries in the world. I’d imagined Mount Sinai as one solitary pinnacle but in fact it’s located in a collection of peaks known to locals simply as the Holy Mountains. St Catherine’s Monastery is situated just below, built by Roman Emperor Justinian between 527 and 565. For centuries the only means of entry was through one small door, located 30ft up a wall to which people and provisions had to be lifted by a series of pulleys. The monastery’s collection of priceless Arab mosaics, Greek and Russian icons, oil paintings, marbles, illuminated manuscripts and enamels are all very interesting but it’s the eerie Chapel of St Triphone, known as the Skull House, which houses the skulls of deceased monks, that everyone, especially my three boys, wants to see.
There are 4,500 steps, chiselled from the rock by the monks, leading up to the top of Mount Sinai via the Chapel of the Holy Trinity. Lesser mortals, however, can make the climb on an easier path just east of the monastery. Whatever way you ascend, the views over the surrounding peaks and desert are wonderful and not a bad location for a miracle or two.
It’s a short 15-minute taxi ride to lively Naama Bay where there’s no shortage of “happy hours” in the bars and over-zealous restaurateurs try to lure you in to a plethora of dining options from greasy spoon to fine dining. It might not be everyone’s cup of mint tea, but it’s fun for a couple of hours. One oasis, amid the melee, is On Deck at the Lido Hotel, a stylish eatery set on a platform above the sea, which is lit up at night so you can see the resident lionfish with their feathery striped fins, spiky poisonous spines and bulbous faces swimming under your feet.
A stargazing camel trek, which takes you out into the south Sinai desert where Bedouins still live a very traditional nomadic life, sounded just too romantic to miss (even with three kids in tow). It’s a lovely way to spend a couple of hours and we trekked just 30-minutes on camels (they’re not built for comfort so that was enough) before settling down on rugs to eat a typical Bedouin meal (chicken, tahini and flat bread) under a star-splattered sky. The highlight was searching for and finding Gemini (my birth sign), which was hiding just above Orion’s belt in our beautiful Milky Way.
Walking distance from the Four Seasons is the glitzy Soho Square, an entertainment cornucopia of restaurants, shops, bowling alley, ice rink and an ice bar, which maintains a constant -5 degree temperature to keep the décor frozen. It was a fun place to go for an early evening stroll.
We spent the remainder of the week cocooned at the Four Seasons, not venturing further than the Reef Grill for barbecue lunches. We alternated between sunbathing and snorkelling, armed with a newly acquired underwater camera, hoping to get a photo of my favourite Picasso fish, named after the Spanish artist Pablo Picasso because of its colourful and abstract markings. On our last day it posed obligingly for the camera.
• Thomson (www.thomson.co.uk) flies direct to Sharm el Sheikh from Glasgow. Fares start at around £338 including taxes.
A double room at the Four Seasons (www.fourseasons.com/sharmelsheikh/) including breakfast starts at £198 per room based on two people sharing.