For many visitors, getting around the sites is all the activity they want. But Egypt has so much more to offer, from sailing the Nile and taking a fishing safari on Lake Nasser, to windsurfing and diving in the Red Sea.
Cruising the Nile
The world’s longest river and its extraordinary monuments, the stunningly fertile valley and the barren beauty of the surrounding desert, the light and heat, and the joy of slow travel in a superfast world all add up to one of the highlights of a trip to Egypt, or anywhere in the world.
- Best for Adventure
A felucca is the most likely way to find adventure. An open-top sailing boat without cabins or facilities, it is best taken from south to north – if the wind fails, you can always float downriver.
- Made for Romantics
Dahabiyyas – the name translates as ‘the golden one’ – will waft you back into the 19th century, when these large and luxurious sailing boats were the only viable form of transport for visitors.
- Most Popular Route
The stretch between Luxor and Aswan is the most popular route and as a result busiest part of the river – you might find yourself in a long line of boats.
- Far from the Crowds
Lake Nasser is the place to go if you would rather see empty landscapes and the odd wild animal than crowds of tourists.
When to travel Summer (June to August) can be extremely hot and is therefore the cheapest season to cruise. Christmas and Easter are usually the busiest and most expensive. Spring and autumn are ideal, with the light being particularly good in October and November.
Where to start Most cruises starting from Luxor are a day longer than those starting from Aswan, partly because they are going against the Nile’s strong current. If you want to spend longer in Luxor or are concerned about cost, start from Aswan and head north.
Cabin choice On cruisers, try to avoid the lowest deck. Many boats have decent views from all cabins, but the banks of the Nile are high (and get higher as the river level drops) and you want to see as much as possible. Ask for a deck plan when booking.
Sailing time Many passengers on Nile cruisers are surprised by how little time is spent cruising – the boats’ large engines cover distances relatively quickly, cruise times are often only four hours per day, and on some itineraries you only spend one night en route.
Itineraries & Sites
Large cruisers stick to rigid itineraries on the busy Luxor–Aswan stretch of the Nile. On these trips, generally lasting from three to six nights, days are spent visiting monuments and relaxing by the pool or on deck. By night there is a variety of entertainment: cocktails, dancing and fancy-dress parties – usually called a galabeya (man’s robe) party, as passengers are encouraged to ‘dress like an Egyptian’ – are all part of the fun. Actual sailing time is minimal on most of these trips – often as little as four hours each day, depending on the itinerary.
Feluccas and dahabiyyas determine their own schedules and do not need special mooring spots, so can stop at small islands or antiquities sites often skipped by the big cruisers. But even these boats usually have preferred mooring places. Because they use sail power instead of large engines, a far greater proportion of time is spent in motion. Night-time entertainment is more likely to be stargazing, listening to the sounds of the river, and occasionally riverbank fireside music from the crew or villagers.
The stretch of the Nile between Luxor and Aswan has the greatest concentration of well-preserved monuments in the country, which is why it also has the greatest number of boats and tourists (sailing in both directions).
Feluccas and dahabiyyas rarely sail between Luxor and Esna because police permits are difficult to get and because of the issue of passing the Esna lock. Dahabiyya operators will bus passengers to Esna from Luxor. Felucca trips generally start in Aswan and end south of Esna; captains can arrange onward transport to Luxor, but this often costs extra.
Cairo to Luxor
This stretch of the river was removed from cruise itineraries after attacks on boats in the 1990s. The archaeological sites at Dendara and Abydos have been on some tour schedules for the past few years, however, and it is also possible to take a day cruise to Dendara from Luxor. Few boats cruise between Cairo and Luxor, and those that do can only travel at high water in the hottest summer months.
The capital of Egypt’s glorious New Kingdom pharaohs, home to Tutankhamun, Ramses II and many other famous names, Luxor is blessed with some of the world's most famous ancient monuments. Most cruises only cover the bare minimum, so if you are interested in seeing the sights, it pays to spend an extra day or two here away from the boat.
Highlights include the temples of Karnak, Luxor Temple, Luxor Museum, Valley of the Kings, Tombs of the Nobles, Deir Al Bahri and Medinat Habu.
Luxor to Aswan
This most famous stretch of the river is studded with stunning architecture and varied scenes of great natural beauty. All cruisers stop to visit the Ptolemaic temples of Esna, Edfu and Kom Ombo. On the shorter cruises, all three sites are visited in a single day. While none of the sites is so large that this is unrealistic, exploring three great temples is a lot to jam into one day and the rushed visit means that you will be moored longer at Luxor or Aswan.
Dahabiyyas and feluccas take longer to cover the distance between the three temples, usually seeing only one a day. Most dahabiyyas (and some feluccas) also stop at the rarely visited and highly recommended sites of Al Kab and Gebel Silsila. Cruisers do not have moorings here, so visitors may be limited to your fellow passengers, giving a taste of how it might have been for 19th-century travellers.
The Nile is squeezed between rocks and a series of islands at Aswan, which makes it particularly picturesque, especially with the desert crowding in on both sides of the river. If you alight here you will probably spend only one night in town, but some cruisers stay moored for two nights. Most itineraries include a visit to Philae, site of the Temple of Isis; the High Dam; and the Northern Quarries, site of the Unfinished Obelisk. Occasionally cruisers offer a felucca ride around Elephantine Island as an excursion; if not, it is worth organising your own. Some also offer an optional half-day tour (usually by plane) to Abu Simbel.
The lake was created in the 1960s when the High Dam was built near Aswan, and now covers much of Egyptian Nubia, once home to hundreds of tombs, temples and churches. Some monuments were moved from their original sites before the building of the dam and are grouped together at four locations: Kalabsha, Wadi As Subua (accessible only by boat), Amada (accessible only by boat) and, of course, the Temples of Abu Simbel.
Because so few cruisers operate on Lake Nasser, moorings are never crowded and monuments – with the exception of the Temple of Ramses II at Abu Simbel – are not overrun. Itineraries are generally three nights/four days from Aswan to Abu Simbel, or four nights/five days from Abu Simbel to Aswan.
For many travellers, the only way to travel on the Nile is slowly, on board a traditional felucca (Egyptian sailing boat). Except for swimming, this is as close as you can get to the river. Read on to make sure that this is for you and that you avoid the pitfalls.
A Slow Journey
Most felucca trips begin at Aswan; the strong northward current means that boats are not marooned if the wind dies. Trips go to Kom Ombo (two days/one night), Edfu (three days/two nights – the most popular option) or Esna (four days/three nights).
Feluccas are not allowed to sail after 8pm, so most stop at sunset and set up camp on the boat or on shore. Night-time entertainment ranges from stargazing and the crew singing to partying, depending on you and your fellow passengers.
Planning Your Felucca Trip
With so many feluccas (hundreds, thousands?), arranging a felucca trip can be daunting. Small hotels can be aggressive in trying to rope you in. To be sure of what you’re getting, it’s best to arrange things yourself.
Many of the better felucca captains can be found having a drink in Nileside restaurants such as the Aswan Moon; Emy, near the Panorama restaurant in Aswan; or on Elephantine Island. Meet a few captains – and inspect their boat – before choosing one you get on well with. Women alone or in a group should try to team up with a few men if possible, as some women travellers have reported sailing with felucca captains who had groping hands and there have been some rare reports of more serious assault.
Officially, feluccas can carry a minimum of six passengers and a maximum of eight. Fares are open to negotiation and dictated by demand. Expect to pay at least LE150 per person per day, including food, for sharing a boat between six to eight people. On top of this you need to add LE5 to LE10 per person for the captain to arrange the police registration – this needs to be arranged the day before sailing. You might find boats for less, but take care; if it’s much cheaper, you’ll either have a resentful captain and crew, or you’ll be eating little more than bread and fuul (fava bean paste) for three days. Do not hand out the whole agreed amount until you get to your destination because there have been several reports of trips being stopped prematurely for a so-called breakdown.
If you do have problems, the tourist police or the tourist office should be the first port of call.
- There are no onboard toilet facilities, so you will need to go to the toilet overboard or find somewhere private when you stop on shore. Some captains now travel with basic toilet tents – really no more than a screen and a hole in the sand.
- Check that the captain has what appears to be a decent, riverworthy boat, and the essential gear: blankets (it gets cold at night), cooking implements and a sunshade. If a different boat or captain is foisted on you at the last minute, be firm and refuse.
- Establish whether the price includes food; to be sure you’re getting what you paid for, go with whoever does the shopping.
- Agree on the number of passengers beforehand and ask to meet fellow passengers – you're going to be sharing a small space, after all.
- Decide on the drop-off point before you set sail; many felucca captains stop 30km south of Edfu in Hammam, Faris or Ar Ramady.
- Don’t hand over your passport. Captains can use a photocopy to arrange the permit.
- Bring comfort essentials. It can get bitterly cold at night, so bring a sleeping bag. Insect repellent is a good idea. A hat, sunscreen and plenty of bottled water are essential.
- Wherever you stop, be sure to clean up after yourself.
Dahabiyyas, the Golden Boats
The 19th-century novelist Amelia Edwards likened travelling by sailing boat or steamer to the difference between horse-carriage and railway. She thought the former was slow and delightful, if expensive, while the latter was quick, cheap and without charm. When she travelled in the 1870s, package tours by steamer were already crowding dahabiyyas off the Nile. But they have made a comeback in the past few years and dozens of them are now afloat. Nour el Nil, La Flâneuse du Nil, Lazuli and Nile Dahabiya are all companies with boats that are beautifully appointed, with an antique feel, tasteful decor and double lateen sails. As they carry small numbers of passengers, this is the most luxurious way to see the monuments without crowds.
As most dahabiyyas have flexible itineraries and personalised service, it is also the best way to feel truly independent while still travelling in comfort, although often at considerably more expense than on feluccas or cruisers. Prices include all meals and usually also transfers to and from airports/train stations. Some include entrance to monuments and guide fees, but you should check when booking your trip. Trips are best arranged before you depart for Egypt.
A replica of a 19th-century dahabiyya indistinguishable from the original, the beautifully finished Meroe is the best-run and coolest dahabiyya on the Nile. It is also rare for being owner-operated. It has room for 20 passengers in 10 comfortable, stylish white cabins with private bathroom, and large windows overlooking the Nile.
Because it is newly built, spaces have been thought through – there is ample storage for clothes and suitcases, for example – and plumbing and water filtration are good. During the day, when not visiting an ancient site or walking in the countryside, there is plenty of space on deck to read in your own corner, to watch the scenery or to dive off and swim in the strong current of the Nile. Food comes from farmers and markets on the way and the chef produces delicious and copious meals with plenty of fresh vegetables, farm-bred chicken, duck and fish.
This tailor-made trip, with moorings at small islands and outside villages, is a unique way to see the Nile, reminiscent of another age. If there is no wind, the dahabiyya is towed by a motor boat. The same owners have three other boats, the eight-cabin Malouka, El Nil and Assouan, which are less expensive. All boats only run from Esna to Aswan (five nights).
La Flâneuse du Nil
La Flâneuse is well fitted and well run. Like original dahabiyyas, it relies on sails (or tugs) to move, but it does have air-con in the seven cabins. Tours are shorter than some, taking four nights from Esna to Aswan and three nights from Aswan back to Esna.
There are now three Lazuli dahabiyyas on the Nile, one with five cabins and two with six. The long, elegant boats have spacious decks with deck chairs, cushions and a long table at which most meals are served. The cabins are comfortable with compact but modern private bathrooms and solar-power energy.
There were as many as 300 cruisers plying the waters between Aswan and Luxor until the tourism slump led to many being tied up. Like hotels, the ones still running range from slightly shabby to sumptuous, but almost all have some sort of pool, a large rooftop area for sunbathing and watching the scenery, a restaurant, a bar, air-con, TV, minibars and en-suite bathrooms.
A cruise remains the easiest way to see the Nile in comfort on a midrange budget and can be ideal for families with older children who want to splash in a pool between archaeological visits, or for people who want to combine sightseeing with relaxation. The downside is that monuments are almost always seen with large groups and the itineraries are generally inflexible. Boats are almost always moored together, and the sheer volume of traffic means that generators and air-con units overwhelm the peace of the river. The consensus from our research is that scrimping on cruises means substandard hygiene, no pool, cubby-hole cabins and lots of hidden extras, which makes a felucca trip a far better option.
The only way around this is to book an all-inclusive package to Egypt. Not only are the prices usually lower but, in the case of cut-price cruises, the agency guarantees the reliability of the boat. The best deals are from Europe. Avoid booking through small hotels in Egypt: the hotels are not licensed as travel agencies so you will have no recourse if there are problems.
With the uncertain state of tourism at the time of writing, prices, which include all meals, entrance to monuments and guides, varied considerably; you should check prices with the company before you book.
Between Luxor & Aswan
M/S Sudan The Sudan was built as part of Thomas Cook’s steamer fleet in 1885 and was once owned by King Fouad. It was also used as a set in the film Death on the Nile. It has been refurbished and offers 23 cabins, all with private bathroom, air-con and access to the deck. It’s unusual in that it has no pool, but it’s also unique because it has so much history and character, something sorely missing on most cruisers. Its configuration means it cannot moor to other cruisers, so night-time views are good. There is a choice of three- and four-night cruises. Note that the management does not accept children under seven.
M/S Philae The award-winning Philae is the best of the modern cruisers currently operating on the Nile and has had a thorough refit. It is also one of the most expensive. It has 18 cabins and four suites, all with large picture windows that open. It runs four- and six-night cruises between Luxor and Aswan. It has an excellent kitchen, a gym, library and all the sophisticated touches you would expect, including a spa and treatment rooms.
M/S Sun Boat III Sanctuary's most intimate cruiser, the beautiful Sun Boat III has 14 cabins and four suites decorated in contemporary Egyptian style, and all pretty as a picture. The seven-night itinerary includes visits to Dendara and Abydos. Dinner on board is à la carte or a set menu with two European choices and one Egyptian. There’s also the option of in-room dining. The boat is impeccably run and operates a no-mobile-phone policy in public areas. Facilities include a pool and exercise machines. Sanctuary boats, formerly owned by Abercrombie & Kent, also include the larger M/S Sun Boat IV, which runs between Cairo and Aswan when water levels permit. All Sanctuary boats have excellent Egyptologists as guides and private mooring docks in Luxor, Aswan and Kom Ombo.
M/S Viking Ra Viking stripped the Ra back to its shell and rebuilt it in 2017. Most of the 24 suites open onto small verandahs and the ship has all the facilities of a good hotel, including a spa. It is currently only available as part of a 12-day Egypt itinerary.
M/S Darakum Spacious and top-end, though not super-luxurious, the Darakum has 44 cabins and eight suites, plus a swimming pool. The decor is more 1970s than New Kingdom and you have to be quick to get a sunbed, but food and service is good, as you would expect from Mövenpick, who operate the boat.
Of the handful of boats currently cruising on Lake Nasser, a few stand out above the rest.
Ta Seti Something different: Tim Baily worked in safaris south of the Sahara before setting up African Angler, the first company to run Lake Nasser safaris. He has a staff of skilled guides, expert in the flora, fauna and fish life of the lake, and owns several styles of small boat. Two-cabin houseboats have toilet and shower, the two-bunk safari boats are more basic, while the mothership carries the kitchen and supplies. Cruises can be from one to seven nights and can start from Aswan or Abu Simbel.
Nubiana The Nubiana is a small motorboat with three small cabins, a suite and a shared shower. Above is a lounge and sun deck. A speedboat can also be arranged for fishing trips or waterskiing. The same company also organises five-day boat trekking trips from Aswan to Abu Simbel.
Prince Abbas A five-star deluxe ship operated by the Swiss chain Mövenpick, it has a library, a gym, a sun deck with a plunge pool and a jacuzzi. The spacious cabins have TV, music system, minibar, picture windows and private bathroom.
Why Cruise the Nile
Rain seldom falls on this part of the Nile Valley, so without the river, the country would simply not exist. Ancient Egyptians recognised this fact when they likened their land to a lotus – the delta was the flower, the oasis of Al Fayoum the bud, and the river and its valley the stem that supported them all.
But rather than the practical use of the waterway, the Nile’s beauty strikes travellers most: the soft light of its mornings, the lushness of the plants and trees that grow along its banks, the thrill of flights of birds that shuttle up- or downriver on their migrations, the patience of fishermen, rowing out in the morning to cast their nets, the greatness of it all.
The Best of the Nile
Close to the Nile in luxury Enjoying a private cruise on a grand dahabiyya such as the Meroe.
Economy cruise Taking a felucca trip from Aswan to Edfu.
Nubian adventure Safari to Abu Simbel on African Angler’s Ta Seti.
Nostalgia trip Reliving Agatha Christie’s Egypt, on the Nile’s last steamer, the Sudan.
Five-star plutocracy Style and luxury on Oberoi’s award-winning Philae.
As the world’s longest river, the Nile cuts through 11 countries and an incredible 6680km of Africa as it winds its way north towards the Mediterranean Sea. It has two main sources: Lake Victoria in Uganda, out of which flows the White Nile; and Lake Tana in the Ethiopian highlands, from which the Blue Nile emerges. The two rivers meet at Khartoum in Sudan. Some 320km further north, they are joined by a single tributary, the Atbara. From here, the river flows northwards to its end without any other tributary and almost no rain adding to its waters.
River travel was so central to the ancient Egyptian psyche that it seemed perfectly obvious that the sun god Ra travelled through the sky in a boat and that the dead would sail to the afterlife. The earliest boats are likely to have been simple skiffs made of papyrus bundles, best for hunting and travelling short distances. Ancient Egyptians then developed elaborate wooden boats powered by multiple sets of oars, a long narrow sail and a steering oar that later evolved into a rudder. The most elaborate surviving example of an ancient boat was among Pharaoh Khufu’s funerary goods and can be seen at the Cheops Boat Museum at the Pyramids of Giza. Numerous models of simpler boats have been found in tombs.
In Aswan and Luxor, the mooring scene can become very crowded, often with eight or 10 boats tied up together. For most people this means that the view from your cabin might be straight into the next boat. With the wide choice of hotels, particularly in Luxor, it makes sense to keep ‘parked up’ time to a minimum.
Travel Accounts on the Nile
A Thousand Miles Up the Nile (Amelia B Edwards) Edwards was so absorbed by the remains of ancient Egyptian civilisation she came across on her journey that she founded the London-based Egypt Exploration Fund, which still finances archaeological missions today.
The Histories by Herodotus Egyptian customs, curious manners, tall tales and a few facts from a curious Greek historian in the 5th century BC.
A Winter on the Nile (Anthony Sattin) How a 19th-century Nile journey helped form Florence Nightingale and Gustave Flaubert.
Old Serpent Nile: A Journey to the Source (Stanley Stewart) A view from the ground as Stewart travels from the Nile Delta to its source in the Mountains of the Moon, in Uganda, during the late 1980s.
Diving the Red Sea
The sights below Egypt's waters are just as magnificent as those above. Under the sea's surface lies a fantasia of coral mountains and shallow reefs swarming with brightly coloured fish. Submerge into this kaleidoscope world and you'll understand why the Red Sea boasts a legendary reputation among diving enthusiasts.
Sidebar: Best Diving Experiences
- Best Diving Intro Experience
Gently submerging into Dahab’s sloping Lighthouse Reef, and discovering a colourful world of darting, curious fish only a few steps from the shore.
- Best Famous Dive-Site Experience
Plunging into the Blue Hole.
- Best Wreck-Diving Experience
Exploring the underwater museum of the Thistlegorm, the WWII supply ship first discovered by Jacques Cousteau.
- Best Marine Life Experiences
Coming face to face with hammerheads and mantas, passing by large shoals of tuna and spotting emperor angelfish and turtles at world-renowned Elphinstone Reef.
Diving with the resident pod of dolphins at Sha'ab Samadai.
- Best Off-the-Beaten-Track Experience
Venturing to the far south near Marsa Alam, where the pristine reefs of the Fury Shoals can be accessed as day trips.
When to Dive
The Red Sea can be dived year-round, though diving conditions are at their peak during the summer months of July to September, when calm sea conditions, sea temperatures averaging 26°C, and excellent visibility make for astonishingly good diving conditions. Despite this, if you’re not great at dealing with heat you should try to avoid booking a dive holiday in August, when land temperatures regularly sky-rocket to more than 40°C.
During the winter months of December and January, rough seas and strong winds can make access to some dive sites difficult and even impossible, though if you’re happy to stick to shore dives you shouldn’t have a problem. Visibility does take a hit during this period and sea temperatures also drop substantially. The plus side is that, unlike in summer, you’ll be diving without the crowds.
If you are planning to dive in the Red Sea’s southernmost sections (Marsa Alam and beyond), take into account that a plankton bloom reduces visibility for a few weeks during April and May and is best avoided.
Where to Dive
Diving tends to be concentrated at the northern end of the Egyptian Red Sea, although increasing numbers of advanced divers are pushing further south. The most popular sites are around the southern tip of the Sinai Peninsula where you'll find the jewels in the Red Sea's crown. The underwater spectacles of Ras Mohammed National Park and the Straits of Gubal led a panel of scientists and conservationists to choose the northern section of the Red Sea as one of the Seven Underwater Wonders of the World in 1989.
The thin strip of land jutting out into the sea forming Ras Mohammed National Park is home to the ‘Holy Trinity’ of Shark Reef, Eel Garden and the Jolanda wreck. Further off shore, on the western side of the Sinai Peninsula are the Straits of Gubal, a series of coral pinnacles just beneath the surface of the sea, famous for snagging ships trying to navigate north to the Suez Canal. This is where the majority of Egypt’s shipwrecks lie, including the WWII wreck of the Thistlegorm, famously discovered in the 1950s by Jacques Cousteau.
Another major diving area is in the Straits of Tiran, which form the narrow entrance to the Gulf of Aqaba. The currents sweeping through the deep channel allow coral to grow prolifically, attracting abundant marine life.
Heading south, the best reefs are found around the many offshore islands. Although the reefs nearest to Hurghada have been damaged by tourist development, there is a plethora of pristine dive sites further south.
Where you base yourself for your Red Sea diving trip depends much on your own travelling style. Some travellers find themselves spending more time than they planned in the backpacker-friendly village of Dahab, while others enjoy the creature comforts of the resort towns of Sharm El Sheikh and El Gouna. For those who want to seriously maximise their underwater time, there’s no better option than a week on a live-aboard.
Taba & Nuweiba
Taba and Nuweiba attract significantly fewer divers than their more famous cousins in Sinai. However, there are a handful of excellent dive sites in the area (although the diving here is not as rich and as varied as other spots in Sinai and the Red Sea), and they are a suitable base for independent-minded divers looking for low-key ambience and minimal crowds. For an even more relaxed experience, some divers also base themselves at one of the beach camps on the Nuweiba–Taba coastal highway. Tourism has taken a significant hit in this area since the 2011 revolution and would-be divers should keep up-to-date with their government's travel advisories before planning a trip here.
- Good For Escaping the crowds
The laid-back village of Dahab is surrounded by spectacular dive sites, and abounds with cheap guesthouses and chilled-out restaurants lining the shorefront. It's is a fantastic place for first-time divers because it has some great shore dives directly on its doorstep. Experienced divers are catered for with plenty of world-class dive sites easily accessed from town. This is also a cheaper base than Sharm El Sheikh to serve as an easy jumping-off point for diving Ras Mohammed National Park. The tourism drop-off since the 2011 revolution means that Dahab's popular dive sites are much less crowded than they used to be.
- Good For Backpackers; First-time divers; Good-value PADI courses; Independent-minded families wanting to mix some diving into their holiday
Sharm El Sheikh & Na’ama Bay
Near the southern tip of Sinai and bordering Ras Mohammed National Park, Sharm El Sheikh and adjacent Na’ama Bay together comprise one of the busiest dive destinations in the world. Sharm primarily caters to European package travellers looking for Western-style resorts brimming with four- and five-star amenities. There are also some excellent diver-centric resorts where Sharm El Sheikh’s underwater world is the main, and only, attraction. The town’s Western-style amenities make this a very easy option for families who want to include some diving in their holiday.
- Good For Easy resort living; First-time divers; Families; Ease of access to Ras Mohammed; Wreck diving
Hurghada & El Gouna
Egypt’s original resort strip, ageing Hurghada, has been plagued by over-development and poor environmental management, while glossy El Gouna just to the north is a five-star tourist enclave that seems aeons apart from the rest of Egypt. Although the reefs close to both towns have been heavily damaged by unfettered tourist development, both towns are well-placed bases for easy access to the popular dive sites of the Giftun Islands, as well as the diving in the Straits of Gubal. Because of mass tourism, dive trips (and hence dive sites) tend to be crowded. On a positive note, conservation measures are finally being implemented, spearheaded by local NGOs, and the situation has begun to improve.
- Good for Resort-style living; Cheap package deals; Combined Red Sea diving and Nile Valley holidays; Straits of Gubal wreck diving
For the most part, Safaga defies the tourist hordes, which is a good thing as there are some pristine reefs offshore from this rather unattractive port town. Unlike nearby Hurghada and El Gouna, resorts here are extremely low-key, and cater almost exclusively to dedicated divers.
- Good For Dive-centric holidays; Technical diving training
A historic trade and export hub with a history stretching back centuries, the sleepy town of Al Quseir holds a charm absent from most other Red Sea destinations. The comparative lack of tourist development means that the offshore dive sites here are generally empty, though you will have to contend with strong winds and rough seas.
- Good For Escaping the crowds
The closest base to the south-coast dive sites, Marsa Alam still manages to hold on to its remote-outpost ambience despite the resort construction drive of recent years. It’s great if you want to experience some of Egypt’s most far-flung dives without the cost of a live-aboard. The reefs along this southernmost stretch of the coast lack the crowds further north, though be aware that high winds and strong currents make many of the dives more suitable for experienced divers. Veterans of these parts will tell you, once you’ve dived here, nothing else will compare.
- Good For Dive-centric holidays; Intermediate and advanced divers; Escaping the crowds
The vast majority of larger dive operators in Egypt organise dive safaris to sites ranging from one night to two weeks’ duration. The cost of these live-aboard dive safaris (also known as marine safaris) varies according to the boat and the destination, with the more remote sites in the far south generally the most expensive. While you won’t see much of terrestrial Egypt, they allow you to access a greater range of dive sites, including many more distant areas that are too far to explore as day trips.
As a general rule, you should always ask to see the boat before agreeing to sail on it. Also, if a trip is very cheap, check whether the costs of diving and food are included. Furthermore, check that your live-aboard complies with the following two rules:
- There should be a diver-guide ratio of one guide to every 12 divers (or every eight divers in marine park areas).
- Divers on live-aboards entering marine park areas must be experienced, with a minimum of 30 logged dives, as well as insurance coverage.
While it’s quite possible to book yourself a basic package on a live-aboard after arriving in Egypt, there are numerous agencies that specialise in Red Sea diving holidays. Here is a small sampling:
Emperor Divers (www.emperordivers.com) Emperor Divers offer live-aboard itineraries starting from Sharm El Sheikh, Hurghada and Marsa Alam.
Blue O Two (www.blueotwo.com) This UK-based dive-holiday operator specialises in luxury live-aboards with its own fleet of ships based in Hurghada and Marsa Alam.
Crusader Travel (www.crusadertravel.com) Live-aboard diving packages in the Red Sea, including diving for people with disabilities.
Oonasdivers (www.oonasdivers.com) Well-priced live-aboard trips from this dive centre based at Na’ama Bay in Sharm El Sheikh.
What You’ll See
The Red Sea is teeming with more than a thousand species of marine life, and is an amazing spectacle of colour and form. Fish, sharks, turtles, stingrays, dolphins, corals, sponges, sea cucumbers and molluscs all thrive in these waters. Around 20% of the fish species to be found in the Red Sea are endemic to the region.
- Coral This is what makes a reef a reef – though thought for centuries to be some form of flowering plant, it is in fact an animal. Both hard and soft corals exist, their common denominator being that they are made up of polyps, which are tiny cylinders ringed by waving tentacles that sting their prey and draw it into their stomach. During the day corals retract into their tubes, only displaying their real colours at night.
- Fish Most of the bewildering variety of fish species in the Red Sea – including many that are found nowhere else – are closely associated with the coral reef, and live and breed in the reefs or nearby seagrass beds. These include such commonly sighted species as the grouper, wrasse, parrotfish and snapper. Others, such as tuna and barracuda, live in open waters and usually only venture into the reefs to feed or breed.
- Manta rays Spotting the graceful, frolicking form of a manta during a Red Sea dive is a major highlight for any diver lucky enough to have this experience. Mantas are easily recognisable for their pectoral ‘wings’ and huge bulk. They can grow to nearly 7m and can weigh up to 1400kg. They are usually sighted near the surface, where they feed on the plankton present there.
- Sharks When diving, the sharks you’re most likely to encounter include white- or black-tipped reef sharks. Tiger sharks, as well as the enormous, plankton-eating whale sharks, are generally found only in deeper waters. If you’re skittish about these top predators, you can take comfort in the fact that shark attacks in the Red Sea are rare (though not unheard of).
- Turtles The most common type of turtle found in these waters is the green turtle, although the leatherback and hawksbill are occasionally sighted. Turtles are protected in Egypt, and although they’re not deliberately hunted, they are sometimes caught in nets and end up on menus in restaurants in Cairo and along the coasts.
- Marine life you’re better off avoiding As intriguing as they may seem, there are some creatures that should be given a wide berth, especially moray eels, sea urchins, fire coral, blowfish, triggerfish, feathery lionfish, turkeyfish and stonefish. To help protect yourself, it’s a good idea to familiarise yourself with pictures of all these creatures before snorkelling or diving – single-page colour guides to the Red Sea’s common marine hazards can be bought in hotel bookshops around diving areas.
The Red Sea’s natural wonders are just as magnificent as the splendours of Egypt’s Pharaonic heritage, and appear all the more stunning when contrasted with their barren desert backdrop. However, care is needed if the delicate world of coral reefs and fish is not to be permanently damaged. Almost the entire Egyptian coastline in the Gulf of Aqaba is now a protectorate, as is the Red Sea coast from Hurghada south to Sudan. Divers and snorkellers should heed the requests of instructors not to touch or tread on coral – if you kill the coral, you’ll eventually kill or chase away the fish, too.
Overall, the paramount guideline for preserving the ecology and beauty of reefs is to take nothing with you, leave nothing behind. Other considerations:
- Never use anchors on the reef, and take care not to ground boats on coral.
- Avoid touching or standing on living marine organisms or dragging equipment across the reef. Polyps can be damaged by even the gentlest contact. If you must hold on to the reef, only touch exposed rock or dead coral.
- Be conscious of your fins. Even without contact, the surge from fin strokes near the reef can damage delicate organisms. Take care not to kick up clouds of sand, which can smother organisms.
- Practise and maintain proper buoyancy control. Major damage can be done by divers descending too fast and colliding with the reef.
- Take great care in underwater caves. Spend as little time within them as possible as your air bubbles may be caught within the roof and cause damage. Take turns to inspect the interior of a small cave.
- Resist the temptation to collect or buy corals or shells or to loot marine archaeological sites (mainly shipwrecks).
- Ensure that you take home all your rubbish and any litter you may find as well. Plastics in particular are a serious threat to marine life.
- Do not feed fish, and minimise your disturbance of marine animals.
- Report any violations of responsible diving practices by dive centres and diving groups to HEPCA.
Learning to Dive
Most dive clubs in Egypt offer PADI certification, though you’ll occasionally find NAUI, SSI, CMAS and BSAC as well.
PADI Scuba Diver (two days) and PADI Open Water (four intensive days) dive courses are offered by most dive centres in Egypt. PADI Scuba Diver courses usually cost from €200 and PADI Open Water courses cost from €270. When comparing prices, check to see whether the certification fee and books are included.
Beginner courses are designed to drum into you things that have to become second nature when you’re underwater. They usually consist of classroom work, where you learn the principles and basic knowledge needed to dive, followed by training in a confined body of water, such as a pool, before heading out to the open sea. If you want to give it a try before you commit yourself, all dive clubs offer introductory Discover Scuba dives for between €45 and €95, including equipment.
In addition to basic certification, most of the well-established clubs on the coast offer a variety of more advanced courses as well as professional-level courses or training in technical diving.
Choosing a Dive Operator
Whether you choose to plunge into the Red Sea with a small local centre, an established resort or a live-aboard, you will have no problem finding a dive operator. Almost all of the large resorts and hotels along the Red Sea have attached dive centres, and there are a vast number of smaller, independent dive centres in the main coastal towns. Some centres and live-aboards are laid-back and informal, while others are slick and structured.
Obviously, with diving a huge cash-cow in this area, there are invariably a few fly-by-night outfits. Avoid them by doing your research first. Look for a dive operator that has a high PADI rating or equivalent, and ask other divers for recommendations. When deciding which dive centre to use, consider the operator’s attention to safety and its sensitivity to environmental issues.
The Chamber of Diving & Watersports (CDWS; www.cdws.travel) is Egypt’s only legal dive centre licensing agency. Since the 2011 revolution the CDWS has been in disarray but it's still worthwhile to check the validity date of your dive centre’s CDWS licence before choosing to dive with them.
Because of Egypt's tourism slowdown since the revolution, it is more important than ever to make sure your dive-centre's equipment is in good condition. Because of a lack of business, some dive centres are not replacing old, worn-out equipment.
Accidents still occasionally happen and are usually the result of neglect and negligence. Before making any choices, consider the following factors:
- Take your time when choosing clubs and dive sites, and don’t let yourself be pressured into accepting something, or someone, you’re not comfortable with.
- Don’t choose a club based solely on cost. Safety should be the paramount concern; if a dive outfit cuts corners to keep prices low, you could be in danger.
- If you haven’t dived for more than three months, take a check-out dive. This is for your own safety and all reputable operators will make this a requirement. The cost is usually applied towards later dives.
- If you’re taking lessons, ensure that the instructor speaks your language well. If you can’t understand them, you should request another.
- Check that all equipment is clean and stored away from the sun, and check all hoses, mouthpieces and valves for cuts and leakage.
- Confirm that wetsuits are in good condition. Some divers have reported getting hypothermia because of dry, cracked suits.
- Check that there is oxygen on the dive boat in case of accidents.
- If you’re in Sinai, ask if the club donates US$1 per diver each day to the hyperbaric chamber; this is often a reflection of the club’s safety consciousness. If you're diving in Hurghada, El Gouna or Marsa Alam, check that the club is a HEPCA (www.hepca.org) supporter. HEPCA lists all its supporting dive centres on its website.
Red Sea Stats
- 4m to 40m
- 15m to 40m
- Averages 21°C to 30°C, with January the coldest month and August the warmest.
- Shore, boat and live-aboard
Thistlegorm: The Red Sea’s Best Wreck Dive
Built by the North East Marine Engineering Company, the 129m-long cargo ship christened the Thistlegorm was completed and launched in 1940 in Sunderland, England. Before setting out from Glasgow in 1941, it had previously made several successful trips to North America, the East Indies and Argentina. However, with a cargo full of vital supplies destined for North Africa, where British forces were preparing for Operation Crusader (the relief of Tobruk against the German 8th Army), the Thistlegorm met its end at 2am on 6 October 1941.
While the ship was waiting in the Straits of Gubal for a call sign to proceed up the Gulf of Suez, four German Heinkel He 111s that were flying out of Crete mounted an attack. The planes were returning from an armed reconnaissance mission up the Sinai coast, and targeted the ship to offload their unused bombs. One bomber scored a direct hit on the No 4 hold, which tore the ship in two and sent the two railway locomotives that the vessel was carrying hurtling through the air. Incredibly, they landed upright on the seabed, one on either side of the wreck. In less than 20 minutes, the ship sank to the ocean floor, taking with it nine sailors out of a crew of 49.
The Thistlegorm lay undisturbed until 1956 when legendary French diver Jacques Cousteau located the wreck, lying at a depth of 17m to 35m, to the northwest of Ras Mohammed. Cousteau found a cache of WWII cargo packed in the hold, including a full consignment of armaments and supplies, such as Bedford trucks, Morris cars, BSA 350 motorbikes and Bren gun carriers. Although Cousteau took the ship’s bell, the captain’s safe and a motorbike, he left the wreck as he found it and kept its location secret. However, it was rediscovered in 1993 when some divers stumbled upon its location, and it has since become one of the world’s premier wreck-dive sites.
The Thistlegorm is best dived on an overnight trip because it takes 3½ hours each way from Sharm El Sheikh by boat; dive operators throughout Sinai can easily help you arrange this. On your first dive, you will do a perimeter sweep of the boat, which is highlighted by a swim along the soldier walkways on the side of the vessel. On your second dive, you will penetrate the ship’s interior, swimming through a living museum of WWII memorabilia.
Accessing the Offshore Marine Park Islands
For experienced divers the remote dive sites of Egypt's Marine Park Islands (Big Brother, Little Brother, Daedalus Reef, Zabargad, and Rocky Island) are home to some of the Red Sea's most pristine coral and abundant sealife. Accessing these dive sites is strictly regulated. Divers must have completed a minimum of 30 dives before entering; night diving or landing on the islands is prohibited; and fishing, spear fishing and the use of gloves are banned.
Because of these restrictions, permission must be given for each trip, and a park ranger will often accompany boats to ensure that the rules are being enforced. To carry divers, boats must have special safety equipment, which national park and Red Sea governorate officials inspect before each trip.
If you’ve been offered a trip to this area, check thoroughly that the boat is licensed. If you are caught on an unlicensed boat, you could have your own equipment or belongings confiscated and find yourself in custody.
Surrounded by desert on three sides, the Red Sea was formed some 40 million years ago when the Arabian Peninsula split from Africa, allowing the waters of the Indian Ocean to rush in. Bordered at its southern end by the 25km Bab Al Mandab Strait, the Red Sea is the only tropical sea that is almost entirely closed. No river flows into it and the influx of water from the Indian Ocean is slight. These unique geographical features, combined with the arid desert climate and high temperatures, make the sea extremely salty. It is also windy – on average the sea is flat for only 50 days a year.
In regard to the etymology of its name (the Red Sea is in fact deep blue), there are two competing schools of thought. Some believe that the sea was named after the surrounding red-rock mountain ranges. Others insist it was named for the periodic algae blooms that tinge the water a reddish-brown. Whatever the spark, it inspired ancient mariners to dub these waters Mare Rostrum – the Red Sea.
The Red Sea’s Dugong
Little is known about the distribution and numbers of these enigmatic marine mammals in the Red Sea. Weighing up to 500kg, the dugong are easily recognisable for their fusiform (spindle-like) shape and dolphin-like tail. These gentle herbivores are found in shallow coastal waters where they feed on seagrass and other plant forms. This makes them especially vulnerable to coastal degradation and pollution. Most dugong sightings in Egypt have occurred at sites along the coast south of Hurghada, with the Marsa Abu Dabab dive site (to the north of Marsa Alam) known for dugong-spotting. To help preserve the area and protect the resident dugong of the bay, zoning laws and access restrictions have now been put in place around this dive site.
- The Chamber of Diving & Watersports (www.cdws.travel) Egyptian licensing body for dive operators. Its website provides a list of reputable dive centres in Egypt, although it is unfortunately not kept up to date.
- HEPCA (www.hepca.org) The Hurghada Environmental Protection & Conservation Association is a local NGO extremely active in promoting conservation issues throughout the Red Sea region. Its website is packed full of information on the Red Sea and a great resource for travellers.
- Dive Site Directory (www.divesitedirectory.co.uk) Reviews of dive sites throughout the Red Sea.
- Egypt Tourism Authority (www.egypt.travel) The official website of Egypt's Tourist Board has some good basic information to get you started planning a Red Sea diving trip.
- Red Sea Diver’s Guide from Sharm El Sheikh to Hurghada (Shlomo and Roni Cohen) Has excellent maps and descriptions of sites around Ras Mohammed, the Straits of Gubal and Hurghada. The book is unfortunately out of print but it's quite easy to find secondhand copies.
- Sinai Dive Guide (Peter Harrison) Has detailed maps and explanations of the main Red Sea sites.
- Sinai Diving Guide (Alberto Siliotti) Has maps and ratings of numerous sites around Sharm El Sheikh and Ras Mohammed National Park. Although the book can be hard to source outside of Egypt, shops in Sharm El Sheikh usually have it in stock.
- Red Sea Diving Guide (Andrea Ghisotti and Alessandro Carletti) Covers Egyptian sites, as well as others in Sudan, Israel and Eritrea.
- The Red Sea: Underwater Paradise (Angelo Mojetta) One of the better glossy coffee-table books, with beautiful photos of the flora and fauna of Egypt’s reefs.
- The Official HEPCA Dive Guide Details 46 sites with artists’ drawings and a small fish index. Proceeds from the sale of this guide go towards maintaining mooring buoys on the Red Sea.
Climbing & Diving: A Word of Caution
Altitude can kill, particularly if your body is full of residual nitrogen. If you’ve been diving recently, be advised that Mt Sinai is high enough to induce decompression sickness. As a general rule, avoid climbing the mountain for 12 hours after one dive, or 18 hours if you’ve been on multiple dives. Although this may complicate your travel plans, trust us – you’ll be delayed a lot longer if you end up confined in a hyperbaric chamber. And, of course, decompression sickness is anything but fun.