With its shoreline backed by the Eastern Desert’s raw expanse, this world-class diving destination is a thrill-seeker's dream. Whether you just want to snaffle some action into a sun-and-sea family holiday or plan an entire trip around delving into the fantasia of reefs that lie below the sea’s surface, Egypt’s Red Sea Coast has options for all.
Boats adrift in Hurghada © ewg3D / Getty
Easy diving day trips
With Hurghada or El Gouna as your Red Sea base, the dive sites of the Giftun Islands and the Straits of Gubal are easy day trip options. Spot outcrops of brain coral, with their cerebral-like grooves, while discovering the horseshoe shaped reef of Sha’ab Al Erg. Keep your fingers crossed and you may be lucky enough to see a bottlenose dolphin – they’re regular visitors here. Gota Abu Ramada’s oval reef is one of the most popular Giftun Islands dive sites with parrotfish, triggerfish and butterflyfish all darting between candyfloss puffs of soft corals. For drift dives, you can’t beat Small Giftun Island where hawkfish flit through forests of spiny branched gorgonian fans on the reef.
Diving the wrecks
One name towers above all when it comes to Red Sea wreck diving. The Thistlegorm is renowned as one of the world’s top five wreck dives. German bombers targeted the ship in 1941, consigning it, and its booty of supplies meant for the Allies’ North Africa campaign, to the deep. Today, exploring the seabed scattered with Bren gun carriers, motorbikes, Bedford trucks and tanks which never made it to the front is like wandering through a WWII time capsule. The Thistlegorm is a liveaboard trip from Hurghada or El Gouna but for a day trip head out to the wrecks of Sha’ab Abu Nuhas. There are four recreational dive wrecks here. Two of the best are the Carnatic, a steamship which run aground on the reef in 1869, and the Giannis D, a freighter which struck the reef in 1983 and now lies in three pieces on the seabed.
Kitesurfer riding the waves in El Gouna © Bogdan Angheloiu / Getty
Above the surface
Say Red Sea and most people automatically think diving but there are plenty of activities upon rather than under the water as well. Kitesurfing is big year-round in both El Gouna and Safaga thanks to great wind conditions and a gently shelving shoreline. El Gouna’s mammoth Sliders Cable Park, one of the biggest in the world, makes this resort the Red Sea choice for wakeboarders while Safaga is fully set up to cater for windsurfers as well. While both destinations provide for all levels of kitesurfing experience from beginners through to advanced, El Gouna’s full resort caboodle of restaurants, entertainment and other activities make it a better bet if you simply want to add some water sports into your holiday rather than base your trip around it.
With all the sun-and-sea on the doorstep, it’s easy to forget that the Red Sea is home to plenty of history as well. If you can pull yourself off the beach the remote Coptic Monasteries of St Anthony and St Paul are a worthy contrast to the sand. Hidden behind formidable walls, amid craggy cliffs, they mark the birthplace of Christianity’s monastic traditions and are still major places of pilgrimage for Coptic Egyptians. Both complexes, dating back to the 4th Century AD, hold churches, palm-shaded gardens and mudbrick monk cells. For art lovers, the Monastery of St Anthony in particular is a must. The Church of St Anthony here is home to one of the most important collections of Coptic art in Egypt.
The windswept valley of Wadi Gimal Protectorate © NourElRefai / Getty
Half-day desert excursions by jeep, ATV, horse or bike to dip your toe into the rugged world above the surface can be easily arranged in El Gouna or Hurghada but to sample the brutal and lonely beauty of the Eastern Desert at its best, you want to make a beeline for the Wadi Gimal Protectorate, south of Marsa Alam. Amid its raw windswept wadis (valleys) and craggy peaks, the Romans mined for emeralds and left a handful of sites upon the desert ridges. The main Roman settlement of Sikait and the mines of Nugrus, where pottery fragments crunch underfoot as you walk on the sand, are fascinating reminders of the era when Egypt’s emeralds helped fund the might of the Roman Empire.
The Brothers Islands
Accessible only by liveaboard (the islands are an eight hour boat trip from Hurghada), the Brothers Islands present some of Egypt’s best far-from-the-crowds diving. Here divers can explore the Numidia, a cargo ship encrusted in soft corals, which hit the reef in 1901 and is now home to barracuda and trevally. Wall dives just off Little Brother Island showcase vibrant rainbows of soft and hard corals and the chance of encounters with silvertip reef sharks as well as occasional hammerheads.
Colourful coral and fish in the Red Sea © Vincent Pommeyrol / Getty
Deep south diving
For dive aficionados, Marsa Alam on the Red Sea Coast is Egypt’s in-the-know destination. Just a 20 minute trip from shore is the famous Elphinstone Reef where technicolour shoals of anthias zip past sheer walls engulfed in gorgonian fans and spinous trees of black corals. Heading out on a liveaboard from Marsa Alam (or from Hurghada) though allows you access to the remote dive sites of the deep south where the best of the Red Sea’s big pelagic action is on show. Dive Daedalus in April or May for your top chance of manta ray and whale shark sightings while the dive sites of the Fury Shoals and St John’s Reefs are eerie wonderlands of vast coral canyons, tunnels and caves where reef sharks patrol the deeper depths.
Make it happen
Hurghada Airport is the Red Sea’s main transport hub with regular daily services to Cairo with EgyptAir as well as direct flights to Europe with several budget airlines. El Gouna is about 30 minutes from the airport by taxi. Marsa Alam also has an airport which is served by four flights weekly with EgyptAir and a couple of European low-cost airlines.