For many, the greatest draw to Egypt is the pyramids and the many other temples and ruins that stand as testament to one of the most fascinating civilizations of all time. For some, another world beckons — the one found under the surface of the Red Sea.
For scuba divers, the Red Sea is one of the world’s dive meccas, somewhere every aquaholic dreams of making a pilgrimage some day.
While the Red Sea has so many corners to explore, for this trip, my friend Kat and I decided to focus on the Sinai Peninsula and split our time between two bases: Dahab and Sharm El Sheikh. The truth is, Sharm El Sheikh didn’t really sound like my kind of place. It’s a fairly built-up, brash beach town where direct flights once brought package tourists from all over Europe to frolic in all-inclusives, leaving only to visit water parks rising out of the vast desert like mirages. Think the Cancun of the Middle East.
But while everyone we spoke to agreed that while Dahab had the best traveler vibes in Egypt and a series of incredible and unique dive experiences, the waters off Sharm El Sheikh boasted the areas healthiest and most vibrant reefs, as well as some world-famous wrecks. We simply couldn’t miss those, so we vowed to do Sharm El Sheikh our way.
Kat and I met up at the Cairo airport after I said goodbye to my Travel Talk crew, and hopped a quick, cheap and easy flight to Sharm El Sheikh airport. Since we weren’t too fussed with spending large amounts of time on land in Sharm, we’d booked a mini-liveaboard — but more on that later. We still had a night in Sharm El Sheikh on each end, and dang if we weren’t going to make the most of it.
Though we briefly discussed taking advantage of the incredible prices at the mega-resorts dotting the shores of Sharm, we stuck to our roots and landed at a charming little boutique guesthouse, Sinai Old Spices.
This place is the real deal — it’s tucked deep in an authentic Bedouin village, with herds of goats roaming the streets and locals smiling curiously at the foreigners arriving by taxi. Sinai Old Spices is run by a lovely Italian woman named Desi who has created a colorful oasis with a handful of uniquely decorated rooms, a lush pool, a restaurant serving beautiful fresh food, and hidden zones for relaxation around every corner.
This is really saying something for a girl who normally can’t be pulled off the beach, but I can’t imagine staying anywhere else in Sharm El Sheikh. For $40USD a night including an unbelievable breakfast spread, it was a steal.
I could have hung around Sinai Old Spices all day, but with really only one day to explore Sharm, we set off quickly. Unlike in Cairo, Uber doesn’t exist in Sinai, so we negotiated a flat rate with our hilariously crabby taxi driver from the airport instead (our flight had been delayed and our baggage had come out at the wrong terminal, and when we finally emerged victoriously from the airport his greeting was to chastise us for being late, ha.)
Though I’d heard so-so reviews of the local Old Market and the Sahaba Mosque, I wanted to give Kat a well-rounded first trip to Egypt, so we decided to give it a go.
Sadly, Sharm El Sheik and Sinai on the whole have struggled to recover from the ongoing conflict between Islamist militants and Egyptian security forces, which has included attacks on civilians and tourists. Bombings in the resort town of Taba in 2004, a series of bombings across Sharm in 2005, the bombing of a plane flying into Sharm el Sheikh Airport in 2015, and a mosque attack in 2017 that killed hundreds of locals (which spooked travelers despite being hours away from any tourist destinations) have turned a once vibrant beach town into a ghost town.
While the crowds I’d seen in mainland Egypt seemed to be an encouraging sign that tourism is returning to a slowly stabilizing Egypt, Sinai tourism has suffered greatly, particularly after the plane bombing in 2015 prompted many airlines to cancel all routes there entirely.
For those who are willing to venture back to Sinai, incredible riches await. Empty beaches and dive sites, rock-bottom prices, and the most incredible hospitality I’ve ever received — the Bedouins are renown for it — are abound.
Plus, these incredible tablecloth fashions, brought to you by your local mosque tour.
I admit, the Sahaba Mosque didn’t blow me away. The exterior had a strange sheen of tackiness, like it was built more for tourists than for worship, and the “tour” consisted of a lovely attendant offering to take our pictures for tips. But Kat had never seen a mosque before and so she enjoyed it, and I had fun sharing with her what I’d learned from more comprehensive and authentic mosque tours I’ve taken in places like Bahrain and Kuwait. And let’s face it — we got our money’s worth in laughs from those clashing abaya prints alone.
Naama Center Old Market was similarly underwhelming. It was sadly deserted and mostly full of tourist trinkets, unlike the incredible and authentic market I’d visited in Islamic Cairo. That said, there were some highlights — I bought some beautiful and unique art from Cose Belle Bazar, which is at stall 76 if you feel like tracking it down. The proprietor was lovely and patiently explained what every Egyptian word on the pieces I was buying said so I could write it down and take notes.
Though lunch at Sinai Old Spices was so good we’d considered having dinner there too, we simply couldn’t miss Farsha Café, the one must-do that had stood out from my research on where to eat and drink in Sharm.
Just look at this place! We stopped more or less every step down from the cliffside, marveling at each pause that this was the perfect view.
It’s more of a bar and shisha lounge than a restaurant, as the menu is limited more or less to pizza. But every drink we ordered came with an unsolicited parade of beautiful snacks, from fresh fruits to nuts to tasty chips. This, we’d come to learn, was the Bedouin way — order one small thing, brace yourself for a seven course meal served with an enthusiastic smile.
And in this case, quite the view.
Farsha bustled with tourists from all corners. The photo below is one of my favorites from the trip — what an incredible, diverse world we live in.
We lingered long enough in our sea-front perch to watch the sun set and the lights of the town twinkle on. Sharm El Sheikh might not have been our dream town, but so far we’d sure found some magical corners of it.
The next day, we packed up for our liveaboard we’d be checking into that evening, and set off for a day of absolute indulgent bliss. We’d thrown around so many adventurous options for this day but we both finally confessed we just really needed to recharge — and so we headed to the Chavana Spa, home to a beautiful hamam, massage rooms overlooking the ocean, and a well–priced scrub, rub, and steam spa package for the day.
Wherever I travel I love to look for local and unique spa treatments, and while Egypt didn’t really have any signature spa specials that I could find, I figured a Turkish hamam was at least fairly regional, no? While we weren’t allowed to use the pools or the beach since Chavana is inside an all-inclusive resort, for $54USD for the whole shebang including tax and tip, we really couldn’t complain.
And then we were off to sea! So, our time in Sharm was very brief. While I had a blast with Kat and loved our carefully chosen meals, activities, and accommodation, overall I wasn’t charmed, and there was little else that grabbed our attention and begged us to return.
That said, I fell head over heels in love with Sinai on the whole, and with Sharm being the main access point to the region, I have no doubt I’ll be back here. When I do, you know where you can find me — poolside at Sinai Old Spices and smoking shisha at Farsha Cafe, of course. Both were a reminder that even in the brashest boldest beach towns, you can still find a way to do things your way.
Next stop: setting sail on our Sharm El Sheikh liveaboard!