When it comes to Egypt, I’ve saved the best for last.
And it wasn’t some strategic blogging master plan, either. It just so happened that my favorite stop on my magical, eye-opening three-week trip around Egypt was the final stop on my itinerary. And so I became smitten with the bohemian, Bedouin beach town of Dahab, tucked away in a quiet corner of the Sinai peninsula.
Dahab isn’t exactly a hidden gem — it’s well known as one of the only destinations in Egypt with a true independent traveler scene. There are hostels, co-working cafes, and dive shops teaching courses in enough languages to hold a United Nations summit.
Yet this starkly stunning town reminiscent of a set piece from Arabian Nights and famed among freedivers and tech divers the world over maintains a quiet, undeveloped, under-the-radar feel.
Much of that, sadly, can be attributed to the pulse of terrorist threats that have beat around the Sinai peninsula for the last decade.
All of Egyptian tourism has suffered greatly from the fallout of terrorism, however Sinai has been cut off in a very unique way as a result of the ongoing conflict between Islamist militants and Egyptian security forces. Attacks on both civilians and tourists have included the 2004 bombings in the resort town of Taba, just two hours from Dahab, the 2005 series of bombings across Sharm El Sheik, an hour from Dahab and the main access point to the region, the 2015 bombing of a plane flying into Sharm el Sheikh Airport, and the 2017 mosque attack in remote Northern Sinai that killed hundreds of locals.
The plane bombing in 2015 crippled access to the region — many airlines suspended their routes there entirely, cutting off air travel to a region traditionally deemed risky for overland passage. We felt the ripples of this even half a world away in Thailand, when the tiny island of Koh Tao received an influx of out-of-work dive instructors who’d eventually been forced to leave their adopted homes in search of employment elsewhere.
But the dive instructors and the divers and the kite surfers and the beach bums are making their way back, slowly. And new crowds are coming, too. One of the new friends I made in Dahab — and Dahab is one of those places where you make fast friends — told me the town was becoming a popular weekend getaway for hip Cairo residents.
And we could see it. While we’d lounge at a beachside cafe nibbling on a mezze platter and marveling at our good fortune, we’d watch groups of young women in burkinis learning how to dive on the shoreline, and groups of good looking Cairenes guys taking turns ordering rounds of shisa and Stellas.
We spent a fair amount of time doing both those activities — scuba diving and lounging in cafes overlooking the the Red Sea — ourselves. I spent a full week in Dahab, lingering for two days after Kat headed back to England, and easily could have doubled that.
We’d found ourselves a dreamy place to post up — after scouring rock bottom deals like $15 a night for a local guesthouse or $60 a night at the Le Meridien on the outside of town, we ended up in a clean, bright and charming Airbnb just close enough to wander freely to and from the main strip, but just far enough to feel like we were getting a true local experience. “It is very, very important that you close the main gate to the garden every time you come or go. Not because of thieves. Because of goats,” went the main warning we’d received upon check in.
Goats did, to be fair, appear to roam the town like reckless bands of pirates, pillaging garbage and foliage at every opportunity.
We splurged and paid $30 each per night for our two-bedroom pad with a roof deck and a balcony and filtered drinking water and a large garden in which to store our rented beach cruiser bikes and a beautiful living space where I caught up on my internet life after being at sea for a few days out of Sharm El Sheikh. It was perfect.
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I was, unsurprisingly, tempted to ask about monthly rentals.
While we had a kitchen, and used it happily to make morning tea and yogurt bowls and sundowners and fruit plates, we had a hard time resisting the allure of Dahab’s colorful hippie cafes.
Overall, I’d been vaguely anxious about eating in Egypt. I’m less of a painfully picky eater all the time, but I am still particular about eating a pretty healthy diet — which I interpret as a lot of fresh veggies and fruits, beans and legumes, and lean meats — and get kinda anxious when I don’t have access to those things (the fruit and veggies, mostly) for a while.
Turns out, that’s pretty darn in line with the typical Egyptian diet — lots of grilled meats, non-leafy salads, and mashed lentils, fava beans, and chickpeas. Dahab was exciting because at first glance, it offered a bit of variety, too — an English pub, a Thai restaurant, even a pretty snazzy looking Mexican joint! The Thai restaurant was decent and the Mexican restaurant was “out of food” the nights we tried to go — which as two ex-Koh Tao residents we didn’t even blink at — and most of the restaurants in town featured more or less the same menu of bland European dishes and delicious but monotonous Egyptian food.
There are, of course, a few exceptions, but overall I didn’t walk away raving about the food, necessarily. But maybe we just picked the wrong places. Making a “Where to Eat in Dahab” guide seems as good a reason as any to return though, no? And while the meals could be very hit or miss, the restaurants were beautiful, the atmosphere was fire, and what I really marveled at and couldn’t stop talking about long after I left Egypt was the incredible hospitality of the Bedouin people.
It’s a bit chilly up here, we’d note, quietly to each other — and bam, someone would appear with shawls for us, making a windy upstairs balcony dinner all the more enjoyable. It’s a bit loud near the TV, we’d note to our waiter, we think we’ll just move to that table on the other side of the restaurant? Bam, the TV was off, and an entire restaurant full of local football fans were irate while we sheepishly and frantically gestured that such measures hadn’t been necessary.
We can’t quite read the menu, do you have a light for the table, we’d ask, and moments later we’d look over and see the staff working frantically to saw off the top of a two liter soda bottle, fill it with sand, and stick an old candle inside. We’ll just order one or two things, we’d say to each other, and then an endless feast of countless courses we didn’t order and wouldn’t be charged for would arrive.
Nothing we could possibly ask for was too much trouble. And everything was served with a side of pleasantries — where were we from, did we love Dahab, what did people where we were from think about Egypt. One could be cynical and say that the incredible service we received everywhere from restaurants to our guesthouse to bicycle rental shops to wherever was a grab for tips, but I could feel clearly that it was something different and more pure: a desire for us to have a safe, perfect, positive experience. In fact, we weren’t asked for tips at all. The lovely people we came in contact with had just one request, one that was an echo of what I’d heard around Egypt: tell your friends to come to Dahab.
So, friends: go to Dahab.
One thing that wasn’t quite what I was expecting it to be in Dahab? The nightlife. Hippie backpacker beach paradise with a big scuba scene and cheap drinks? Survey says, that place should be bumpin’. But we did not really find it to be so. Churchill’s was the go-to expat hang out, and Blue Beach seemed to be the official “after party” spot, and we did hear rumors of frequent live music at Everyday Cafe and lively parties at Yalla Bar and ocasional karaoke and trivia nights around town — but we didn’t experience them.
Some of the expats we met — who we essentially all knew by name after our first drink in Dahab — told us things got busier when there were big freediving competitions in town, and occasionally they made a group pilgrimage to Sharm El Sheik for a big club night, but generally, it was pretty quiet. Eager as I was for a classic night of Kat and Alex Antics, my body was rebelliously grateful — I was still recovering from my whirlwind tour around Egypt followed by a full-on liveaboard.
And yet still, on our one true attempt at a night out, we ended up finding some antics indeed. By now, we’d discovered one of Dahab’s budget secrets. Almost every restaurant in Dahab lacks a liquor license, and thus is thrilled for you to BYOB. Even the bars were hilariously unfussed — I watched a girl bring in a bottle of her own vodka to Blue Beach, which the bartender politely requested she put under the table instead of on top of it.
So, after meeting up with two of my Travel Talk Tours friends who were also in town for dinner, we’d had a few drinks and were off to make the rounds of Dahab’s alcohol-peddling highlights. We’d had a chat with our diver friends at Churchill’s and were off to Blue Beach when the song Dancing With Myself came on.
Kat has never been able to resist a good Billy Idol tune, and thus began, right on theme, dancing with herself. What she didn’t realize was there was a single step in front of her, which she managed to dance off in a spectacularly dramatic move that left her sprawled on the floor, ankle twisted.
Oops. I ran to the bar. “We need ice!” I cried, pointing to my helpless tipsy friend. Now, ice is one of those Western luxuries that I found to be a rare treat in the Middle East. And so I was bemused rather than befuddled with the bartender frantically ran back to the kitchen and returned triumphantly with an outstretched hand — holding one, single, precious cube of ice.
Luckily, having one bum ankle myself since I twisted it terribly during a run in Tampa a few years back, I travel everywhere with a stiff ankle brace. That, combined with a rigorous routine of painkillers, vodka, and pure determination on Kat’s part, kept the ankle from devastating the rest of our trip. The first few days, she used her bicycle as a kind of modified scooter, lowering the seat and scooting with the good foot while the bum one rode it out in the saddle. The Dahabians, I felt, respected us for this bit of ingenuity.
Our main objective in Dahab was to dive — the region is famous for its gorgeous shore diving, and I have many posts about that coming up soon. We also had originally planned to cram in as many other activities as possible — we were determined to hike to St. Catherine’s monastery, and tossed around the idea of horseback riding, kitesurfing, sandboarding, and more. If you can do an activity in the desert or on the sea, there’s likely someone in Dahab who would love to help you do it.
But we fell so in love with the quirky, colorful town center — and, of course, there was the issue of the mangled foot — we mostly spent our non-diving decompression time wandering (in Kat’s case, hobbling) its streets, lounging by the shore, and scheming how we could soon return.
The only thing that really broke my heart in Dahab was the same one that broke my heart all over Egypt — the absolutely shocking trash crisis. Plastic and other garbage was everywhere, carried by wind, attacked by goats, tossed aside by people who, I presume, didn’t know better.
But unlike elsewhere in Egypt, it was abundantly clear that in Dahab, at least someone knew better. There were plenty of educational signs around town encouraging recycling, forgoing single use plastics, and keeping the beach clean. Our Airbnb had a binder full of education on the subject. There were even a few sculptures strewn around town made entirely of the findings of organized clean-up missions.
As always, we did our absolutely darnedest not to contribute to the problem by avoiding single-use plastics on the road. When I inevitably return, I’d love to get more actively involved in helping keep Dahab gorgeous.
And gorgeous it is. With all our non-diving activities thrown to the side, we could get down to what Dahab was all about — lounging around, gazing at the water, admiring street art, friendly chats with locals, and marveling at how gosh, can that really be Saudi Arabia right there? It looks so close we could just touch it.
After not really vibing with Sharm El Sheikh (as expected), it was delightful to wrap our time in Egypt by falling in love with Dahab (as expected). Where Sharm is built-up, brash and tacky, Dahab is simple, charming, and bohemian. They are only an hour away, yet somehow a world apart.
As for the safety, which I’m inevitably always asked about? Never once did I feel ill-at-ease in Sinai. We arrived late at night in a private taxi from Dahab, and we’d been stopped at endless military checkpoints along the road. We asked our chatty driver for a dinner recommendation and he explained how to get there, just down the beach. “But we should probably walk on the road, right? For safety?” He’d looked at us curiously. No, he’d laughed. The beach is fine. And it was. We quickly caught on.
Dahab was the perfect combination of intoxicatingly exotic setting and a comfortingly familiar pace. Dahab is one of those special places that I didn’t just love visiting, I actually could entertain the idea of staying for a while. It’s the kind of place that invites you to enjoy life at a slower pace. Enjoy nature. Linger in conversation. Restore and recharge.
I have a feeling I’ll spend a lot more time here, being silly and slowing down and watching sunsets.
Next up, diving in Dahab…