Escape Britain’s cold snap and take the plunge in the Red Sea on a diving holiday. It’s guaranteed to have you hooked, as Heidi Fuller-love discovers.
As the closest tropical waters to Europe, the Red Sea is a mecca for those seeking a diving holiday. Fed by the Indian Ocean and hemmed in by the Sahara desert, Ras Mohammed National Park accessible from Sharm el-Sheikh boasts some of the world’s best dive sites.
Consider the stats and you can see why. Created in 1983, this vast marine reserve teems with more than 1,200 species of fish, as well as turtles, manta rays and sharks. This is partially due to the fact the Red Sea is fringed by 2,000km (1,240 miles) of coral reefs.
With water temperatures rarely sliding below 20°C (68°F) and plenty of value-for-money hotel packages available, Sharm el-Sheikh offers a fantastic, affordable, year-round dive destination.
Choose a learn-to-dive course
Recently commended by judges in Virgin Holidays’ prestigious Responsible Tourism Awards, I headed for the Camel Dive Club in the buzzing Sharm el-Sheikh resort of Na’ama Bay, one of the Red Sea’s best established diving centres.
Checking into the club’s 48-room hotel, I discovered a lobby cluttered with gas bottles and diving masks. The following morning when I flung open the double doors of my room, I was greeted by the sight of learner divers flopping around in the club’s specially designed pool.
Your first plunge
If you want to learn to dive, but still want time to explore the sights around Sharm el-Sheikh too, opt for a two-day learner course costing around €199 (£176).
Joining a group of five other students, our first lesson involved learning underwater sign language gestures and basic diving know-how before we headed for the pool.
Kitted out in skin-tight wetsuits, masks, fins and an unwieldy weight belt, we practised breathing through our regulators, then plunged into the water one by one and sank to the bottom.
It took a while to adapt to the bizarre sensation of seeing the world through several metres of water, but we soon felt confident enough to master the tricky art of emptying water from our masks, which can happen during a leakage, without returning to the surface.
Next we practised controlling our diving buoyancy. Lying on the bottom of pool face downwards, we slowly added air to our BCDs (Buoyancy Control Devices) until we began to float.
Gathering up our gear, we set out for Na’ama Bay, a 2km (1.2-mile) stretch of beach strewn with suntanned bodies, where a special area penned off for novice divers proved ideal for practising the skills we had learnt in the swimming pool.
On the final day, a boat puttered us out to a dive site called Near Garden for our first real experience of the deep blue. The spectacular explosion of colour beneath the waves as we dived down to a maximum depth of 12m (39ft) was dazzling.
Surrounded by shoals of striped anemone fish, we watched bulging-eyed puffer fish fossicking amongst vividly coloured corals, whilst blue-spotted stingrays stirred up sand on the seabed far below.
At first it was difficult not to panic at the sight of shadowy, shark-like forms shifting in the deeper gloom ahead of us, but we soon got used to being the smaller fish in this very big pond. It was eye-boggling. By the time I returned to the surface, I was hooked.
In and around Sharm el-Sheikh
Sharm el-Sheikh might be a diver’s mecca, but there’s plenty to do and see above water too.
Thrill-seekers can enjoy a 4-wheel drive tour though Lawrence of Arabia scenery to visit St Catherine’s, a stunning 6th-century cliff-top monastery, where it is believed God dictated his Ten Commandments to Moses.
Closer to home, the streets behind Na’ama Bay are a labyrinth of bazaars selling perfumed spices, chic clothes and cheap tat, which morph at sunset into open-air cafés where you can sit on cosy cushions puffing a shisha pipe, or drinking reasonably priced beer, wine or cocktails.
Stroll to the waterfront and you’ll find dozens of smart restaurants serving everything from Russian to Thai cuisine. For a cheaper dining option, head inland to Abou El Sid, an inexpensive eatery above the Hard Rock Café where you can sample creamy spinach and chicken molokheya soup, lentils, rice and chickpeas koushari and other sumptuous Egyptian specialties.
If you’re still looking for some action, make a beeline for King of Bahrain Street. Along this busy artery lined with trendy pubs and clubs, Pacha, where David Guetta, Sarah Main and other international celebrity DJs regularly come to spin their cutting-edge sounds, is definitely the pick-of-the-crop for late-night revellers.
For me, however, the best attractions lay under the sea. With natural wonders like the coral wall at Shark Reef and a graveyard of stricken wrecks like the Thistlegorm still waiting to be discovered, I know I’ll be back for another diving holiday in the Red Sea next year.
Insider tip: There’s plenty to freak out novice divers in the marine-rich waters off Sharm-El-Sheikh, but as as long as you don’t touch anything, the danger is minimal.
Camel Dive Club, Sharm el-Sheikh
A half-day try-out diving session costs around €35 (£31).
A four-day Padi Open Water dive course costs €320 (£282).
A week’s stay in a double/twin room at the Camel Hotel, plus three days guided diving, starts from €264 (£233) per person.
Price of a day-long tour to St Catherine’s monastery and Dahab from £28.