Judy in Egypt, Day 8: Snorkeling at Sinai

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Crossroads senior web editor Judy Koutsky arrived in Cairo Jan. 29 to begin a two-week adventure in Egypt, sponsored by Wild Women Adventures. Armed with a laptop and digital camera, she is sending on-site reports and photographs back to Crossroads' New Jersey headquarters on a daily basis (or whenever she can get an Internet connection). Agents who have questions or advice for Judy during her trip can send email to [email protected]

SHARM AL-SHEIKH, Egypt -- Today, we flew to the Sinai Peninsula, about an hour's flight from Luxor. Sinai is a triangle of desert, plateaus and mountains wedged between Africa and Asia. It is a great sell for clients who are looking for a resort experience (beautiful coastline) as well as for those interested in a religious pilgrimage to Mount Sinai. Today's report will focus on the resort aspects, as we went snorkeling, and tomorrow will focus on the religious end, as we will be visiting St. Catherine's Monastery.

After checking into our hotel, the Ghazala in Na'ama, which is the town right next to Sharm Al-Sheikh, we headed straight for the beach. Having spent most of our journey exploring the interior of Egypt, I was excited to get a chance to see the coast. Clients who enjoy diving and snorkeling will not be disappointed here. The Red Sea is known as one of the top dive destinations in the world.

The best place to experience it is in Ras Mohammed National Park. Located at the tip of the peninsula, this is the first area in Egypt to be declared a national park. Ras MohammedVisitors are not allowed to drive there but can arrange at their hotel to have a sport-utility vehicle take them there. (Make sure your clients know that visitors must bring passports to get into the park.)

We drove through Ras Mohammed, which provides a commanding view of Asia to the east and Africa to the west, to get to the very tip of the peninsula. The Hummer ride through the desert was bumpy but nonetheless enjoyable. This area provides a great escape from city life; it's very tranquil, and the water is pristine and inviting.

Although the weather was a bit cold (it's winter in Egypt now, and the temperatures fluctuate daily; today it was in the upper 60s), I simply couldn't pass on snorkeling in the Red Sea. I had read and was told by our guide that the area features some of the world's most brilliant underwater scenery. The crystal-clear water, the rare and delicate coral reefs and the amazing variety of exotic fish darting in and out of the coral make this a marine paradise, well worth the slight chill we endured. Clients who enjoy exploring the treasures of the deep surely would be enchanted by this spot; having only snorkeled, I can only imagine how great the diving must be.

What's interesting about Sinai is that how the topography varies drastically for such a modest-size land mass. The north is covered with sand dunes and palm trees; the middle section is a plateau with oases here and there, and the south is mountainous and rugged. Tours offered include desert safaris (riding camels into the desert, sleeping under the stars and spending time at an oasis), hiking trips (riding in SUVs and hiking around the mountains), diving tours (exploring the coral reefs and underwater habitat) and pilgrimages to sites of religious significance (the tour I'll be taking tomorrow).

Sharm Al-Sheikh and Na'ama are interesting because, during the past five years, the area has been built up significantly as a resort community. Development abounds, and more hotels are being built in the city; much of the coastline already is occupied. The hotels here are little villas, not high-rises, so they blend with the surrounding environment instead of being intrusive (unlike my first glimpse of Luxor at night, when I spotted what I thought was the Luxor temple but what turned out to be a Sheraton).

At the Ghazala Hotel, each room is a bungalow, not unlike some Caribbean resorts. The bungalows are situated around a large pool, steps away from the beach. Ghazala HotelThe Ghazala has its own diving center, which is said to be the best on the Red Sea. Built in 1987, it was one of the first hotels in this area. The rooms are adequately large, and the view from the private beach is amazing. There is a beach activity center for all water sports, numerous souvenir shops, four bars, an ice cream parlor and four restaurants. The staff is very courteous and is more than happy to set up day excursions for guests.

Ghazala Hotel: 174 rooms (80 double rooms with balconies in the main building; 80 twin bungalows; 12 family bungalows; 2 suites with sitting room). Phone: (011) 20-62 600-150. Fax: (011) 20-62 600-155. Email: [email protected] Web: www.ghazala.com. Commission: 10%. Rate: About $70 to $100, single, $105 to $150, double.

Wild Women Adventures: 107 N. Main Street, Sebastopol, CA 95472. Phone: (800) 992-1322. Web: www.wildwomenadv.com. Email: [email protected]

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