Upon arrival, the choreographed chaos here hits you like a ton of bricks. It doesn’t take long, however, to acclimatise to Cairo’s wall of noise, snarl of traffic, cry of hawkers and blanket of smog, and get drawn into the hypnotising charm of this pulsating metropolis.
Occupied by Israel from 1967 to 1982, and sharing more with Asia than Africa, Sinai is the most atypical part of Egypt. Settled by Bronze Age communities, attracted by Sinai’s copper and turquoise deposits, and later by Pharaonic mining parties, Sinai is most celebrated in history for the Exodus of Israelites towards the Promised Land.
A barren coastline of extraordinary beauty, the Sinai coast is the meeting spot of choice for the world’s political leaders, a booming package-tourism destination, and nirvana for the members of the international diving fraternity.
Alexandria & the Mediterranean Coast
Nile Valley: Luxor
Built around the 4000-year-old site of Thebes, the ancient capital of the New Kingdom, contemporary Luxor is an eccentric combination of provincial town and staggering ancient splendour. The concentration of monuments is extraordinary: they tower incongruously above the buzz of everyday life and make this a most compelling destination.
Siwa Oasis & the Western Desert
Forming the northeast flank of the Sahara, the Western Desert spreads from the banks of the Nile towards Libya, covering 2.8 million sq km. The Arabs refer to the area as ‘the land abandoned by God’ and much of it remains unexplored.
The city of Alexandria (Al-Iskendariyya) is the stuff that legends are made of: it was founded by none other than Alexander the Great; sassy queen Cleopatra made this the seat of her throne; the entrance to its harbour was marked by the towering Pharos lighthouse, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World; and its Great Library was renowned as the ultimate archive of anci.
Nile Valley: Esna to Abu Simbel
Red Sea Coast
Sadly, the once-idyllic Red Sea Coast is being spoiled by unattractive construction projects, particularly around the soulless city of Hurghada. The village of Al-Quseir has so far escaped mass development but not for long, we suspect. For world-class diving in the area, contact Shagara Eco-Lodge (in Cairo 02-337 1833; www.redsea-divingsafari.
On the northern end of the First Cataract and marking the country’s ancient southern frontier, Aswan has always been of great strategic importance.
Plucked from obscurity and thrust into the limelight during the early days of the Red Sea’s tourism drive, the tiny fishing village of Hurghada has long since morphed into today’s dense band of concrete which marches relentlessly along the coastline for over 20km. Rampant construction has left the town blighted by half-finished shells of pleasure palaces that were never to be.
Sharm el-Sheikh & Na’ama Bay
The southern coast of the Gulf of Aqaba, between Tiran Island and Ras Mohammed National Park, features some of the world’s most amazing underwater scenery. The crystal- clear waters, rare and lovely reefs and an incredible variety of exotic fish darting in and out of the colourful coral have made this a snorkelling and scuba-diving paradise.
Nile Valley: Beni Suef to Qena
Low-key, laid-back and low-rise, Dahab continues its ongoing evolution into the Middle East’s prime beach resort for independent travellers. The startling transformation from dusty Bedouin outpost to spruced-up tourist village is not without its detractors, who reminisce fondly of the days when you dossed in basic huts by the shore.
Way out in the desert just 50km from the Libyan border, hundreds of thousands of olive and palm trees shade a fertile basin that sits about 25 metres below sea level. Mudbrick hamlets are set among the groves, connected by dirt lanes still mostly travelled by donkey carts. Crystal-clear coldwater springs bubble into deep pools that are irresistibly refreshing on hot days.
The Suez Canal severs Africa from Asia and links the Mediterranean with the Red Sea. Watching super-tankers gliding through the desert as they ply the narrow channel is a bizarre spectacle. A hotly contested triumph of modern engineering, the canal opened in 1869 and remains one of the world’s busiest shipping lanes.