For the most convenient duo of beachfront holiday and Sinai excursion, head directly to Dahab. A small beach town approximately a hundred kilometers up the coast of the Gulf of Aqaba, Dahab offers a more tranquil (and less pricey) option than Sharm El-Sheikh, and it is more accessible to the Bedouin activities.
Indeed, only recently has tourism pried the town away from the hands of the Bedouin. The tensions of the drastic change ultimately culminated in the yet unclaimed fatal 2006 bombings in the town, but there is little indication of trouble in the future.
If you are willing to pay for comfort, a flight into Sharm offers an easy and shockingly quick trip to the Sinai. Regular buses and taxis are available for the hour ride to Dahab. Otherwise, several buses depart Cairo each day for a long (up to nine hours) but budget friendly journey.
Arriving at the Dahab boardwalk in the afternoon sun is an experience in itself. Welcome to Paradise. Remember Cairo? The contrast is difficult to overcome, and not simply because of the Stella awnings that line the beach front. The sea breeze clears the sky, opening it up to the hills of Saudi Arabia 15 kilometers away, stark reminders of the geopolitical significance that separates this getaway from your trip to Club Med.
Dahab is a tourist town, but it caters towards the backpacking traveler escaping the costs of Sharm. Though more expensive resorts have sprung up in the past several years as construction continues haphazardly throughout the area, budget friendly rates are readily available.
The medium priced rooms at Red Sea Relax include terrific breakfast buffet and -prime real-estate – space along the beach. A variety of cheaper accommodations also line the energetic Masbat neighborhood, and others can be found further down the beach.
Once you’ve settled in (truly settling in requires several hours of relaxing on the beach), the question of dinner will not be difficult. The restaurants that line the boardwalk all offer similar quality at similar prices. Most proudly display their iceboxes of fish, and if you are indeed arriving from Cairo, fresh Read Sea fish should be at the top of your list.
Ali Baba, at the center of the Masbat boardwalk, offers well prepared dishes and goes recommended by locals (In Dahab, locals are those in the tourist industry. Native Bedouins are the minority these days). As always, be wary of seafood – this Daily News Egypt reporter fell victim to the devastating (stomach) attacks of the vicious Dahab not-quite-grilled fish.
Guidebooks will tell you that nightlife is limited in Dahab. Indeed, the beaches are not overflowing with nightclubs. But shisha and a fresh juice on the beach in the quiet that comes along with being in the middle of the Sinai can serve as an excellent extension into the night.
Yalla Bar provides an upbeat atmosphere and offers a variety of liquor for tourists – who are overwhelmingly from Europe and Russia. On the other hand, others may feel that the Saudi’s came out ahead in the trade-off for the chance to watch the sunset over the sea.
The next morning requires a little bit of personal determination. You are now heavily accustomed to beach life, and Cairo is as distant a concept as Thebes. But today you are validating what you have been telling your friends back home – you’re visiting the culture and history of the Sinai. “Beaches? I had no idea! you told them when you said you were headed this way.
With a little bit of organizing in advance, the various safari jeep tours provide half day tours of the Dahab area. Load up around 9 am, and head over to Wadi Qunai Oasis, driving through the desert cliffs until you arrive at a valley of green. Several Bedouin tents reflect the culture’s ancient lifestyle, as well as the region’s growing dependency on tourism.
A short hike into the surrounding desert prepares you for the next stop: snorkeling along the undeveloped stretches of the Dahab shoreline. If you arrive at the right time, you may find yourselves alone with the driver, the Rasta (in this case, of Bedouin descent) and his café. Enjoy a supposed Bedouin lunch on this beautifully desolate beach.
Of course, there are innumerable other destinations worth visiting inland, as well as the possible camel ride for the adventurous photograph-seeking visitor. But with your limited time and upcoming plans, you will want to take a break for now. That means back to the beach.
If you enjoyed snorkeling, the coral reef stretches across just about the entire Sinai shoreline, so you can be sure to find your own snorkeling spot not far from the beach chair you are lying in. That same reef is famous for its diving, and there is no better place than Dahab to get your certification. But alas, authorities advise that divers wait 12 hours before making the trek up Mt. Sinai, and we just don’t have that kind of time.
Instead, as the sun begins to cool off, hop on a bike (LE 10 per hour, available at several stores along the boardwalk) and discover Dahab for yourself. Follow the boardwalk southward through Mashraba where the more expensive lodgings line the water, white fortresses against the desert sand.
In the off-season, most of these resorts are short of guests: only three of the 78 guest rooms at the Lagoon were occupied on one June weekend. Take advantage!
Brave the high cost of tea – and you’ll need another bottle of water – to be the only customer at one of the hotels’ cafes. The vast expanse of deserted resorts is rivaled only by the tranquility of the sea. Facing away from the water, the ghost town image of a Western is complete with swings swaying in an empty playground and the desert cliffs in the background.
Continuing your ride into Dahab City further south is unnecessary – gated resorts dominate the area.
The beach-front restaurants are always an option, but if you are looking for a meal that will be sure to fit your budget, head inland to “The New Al-Hussein Restaurant. On the way, practice that cold shoulder you’ve been working on with the countless store-fronts selling overpriced Egyptian souvenirs that have little relevance to the region, let alone the Dahab resort town. At the restaurant, sit down among several stray cats or dogs for an Egyptian meal and reminisce about those distant, difficult days back in Cairo.
The 11th commandment states: when in the Sinai, you must pay a visit to Mt. Sinai and St. Catherine’s Monastery. The sunrise trip is not the only method, but as Moses said, if you are going to do it, do it right. You can organize the trip through your hotel or through the jeep tours, generally for under LE 100.
At 11 o’clock, meet up with your group for the hour-and-a-half drive to the mountain. Here it is believed Moses was presented with the Ten Commandments, though various interpretations of the true location abound.
What is certain, however, is the old Bedouin presence at this sacred tourist attraction. Attempting to climb without a Bedouin guide is prohibited.
Make sure to pick up a mattress and a blanket on your way up, as you prepare to camp only slightly below the 2,285 meter summit. In the cooler night air, you begin to question the sanity of the day trekkers. The only thing more satisfying than finally finishing the 750 steps at the top of the mountain is the appearance of the sun through the desert later that morning. The descent leads you to St. Catherine’s Monastery, the oldest continually functioning monastery in the world. Here you will remember why you left the beach.
The drive back home (the monastery closes at noon) is, in fact, on the way to the airport if you are headed that way. But you have to pick up your bags. And you have plenty of time. So settle back into a beach chair, fill up on banana pancakes, and order that one last Mango juice.
If you must, here is your chance to shop along the one main street. Before you head back that afternoon, take one great photograph to convince your friends. Remember to label it correctly, or you’ll never relate that shot of you sipping on juice in the water with overpowering walls of
the oldest monastery in the world.