The UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office advises against travel to North Sinai and all but essential travel north of St Catherine's Monastery.
Rugged and starkly beautiful, the Sinai Peninsula has managed to capture imaginations throughout the centuries. The region has been coveted for its deep religious significance and its strategic position as a crossroads of empires: prophets and pilgrims, conquerors and exiles have all left their footprints on the sands here.
In recent years security fears have rippled through the region, creating a tourism downturn that is only now beginning to pick up again. For those venturing back, the lure of this region is easily explained. As a springboard to the Red Sea's underwater wonders, Sinai’s seaside resorts serve up sun-drenched holiday fun. Head away from the coastal buzz, however, and Sinai’s true soul can be found. Here the Bedouin continue to preserve their traditions amid the red-tinged, ragged peaks and endless never-never of sand. On a star-studded night, surrounded by the monstrous silhouettes of mountains, you'll realise why Sinai continues to cast a spell over all who visit.
These are our favorite local haunts, touristy spots, and hidden gems throughout Sinai.
This ancient monastery traces its founding to about AD 330, when Byzantine empress Helena had a small chapel and a fortified refuge for local hermits built beside what was believed to be the burning bush from which God spoke to Moses. Today St Catherine’s is considered one of the oldest continually functioning monastic communities in the world. If the monastery museum is locked, ask at the Church of the Transfiguration for the key.
Known locally as Gebel Musa, Mt Sinai is revered by Christians, Muslims and Jews, all of whom believe that God delivered his Ten Commandments to Moses at its summit. The mountain is easy and beautiful to climb, and offers a taste of the magnificence of southern Sinai’s high mountain region. For pilgrims, it also offers a moving glimpse into biblical times. All hikers must be accompanied by a local Bedouin guide (hired from the monastery car park).
Carved into a reef, 8km north of Dahab, is Egypt’s most infamous dive site. The Blue Hole is a gaping sinkhole that drops straight down – some say as deep as 130m. Exploring the deeper depths should be left to experienced technical divers, but there's plenty to discover close to the surface. The outer lip is full of marine life and a reasonable plunge into the hole is somewhat akin to skydiving. Depth: 7m to 27m. Rating: intermediate to advanced. Access: shore.
The alternative path to Mt Sinai's summit comprises the taxing 3750 Steps of Repentance, which begin outside the southeastern corner of St Catherine's Monastery compound. They were laid by one monk as a form of penance. The steps – 3000 up to Elijah’s Basin and then the final 750 to the summit – are made of roughly hewn rock, and are steep and uneven in many places, requiring strong knees and concentration in placing your feet.
One of the top five wreck dives in the world, the Thistlegorm is a 129m-long cargo ship built in Sunderland, England, which was sunk during World War II. The ship had been on its way to Alexandria carrying supplies to restock the British army there; its cargo of armaments and vehicles including Bren gun carriers, motorbikes, Bedford trucks and jeeps can all be seen on dives within the wreck. Depth: 17m to 30m. Rating: intermediate to advanced. Access: boat.
The waters surrounding this peninsula, 20km west of Sharm El Sheikh, are home to spectacular coral reefs, including the world-famous Shark and Jolanda Reefs dive sites. Snorkelling just off the shore here is truly rewarding with plenty of corals and an incredible array of fish life. Back on land, Ras Mohammed's landscape of isolated beaches, mangrove forest and mammoth surface cracks (caused by ancient earthquakes) are a harshly barren counterpoint to the bright lights of nearby Sharm.
This two-for-one special off the southern tip of Ras Mohammed is among the most famous dives in the Red Sea and rated one of the top five dives in the world. Strong currents take divers on a thrilling ride along sheer coral walls, through vast schools of fish and eventually to the remains of the Jolanda, a Cypriot freighter that sank in 1980. Depth: surface to more than 40m. Rating: advanced. Access: boat.
Above the Well of Moses in St Catherine's Monastery is the superb Monastery Museum, which has been magnificently restored. It has displays (labelled in Arabic and English) of many of the monastery’s artistic treasures, including some of the spectacular Byzantine-era icons from its world-famous collection, numerous precious chalices, and gold and silver crosses.
One of the best dive sites in the area, Ras Um Sid features a spectacular gorgonian forest along a dramatic drop-off that hosts a great variety of reef fish. It's opposite Hotel Royal Paradise. Depth: 15m to 40m. Rating: intermediate. Access: shore or boat.