Sharm el Sheikh is a tourist hot-spot that has grown in 30 years from a lazy coastal town to a glistening city. It consists of strings of 5 to 3 star hotels along the beaches and running over a large cliff top, with residential areas that include beautiful villas and apartments that are rented by the tourist visitors or the holiday homes for the well-off, and less grand places for those who staff the hundreds of hotels, resorts and tourist related businesses.
People come for the beaches and year-round sunshine, cheap drinks and nights of partying. Sharm is an inexpensive escape from Europe’s cold, with flights constantly streaming in to the international airport. All-inclusive deals at the resorts are a bargain if you are earning in Euros or dollars, or in the Egyptian upper classes, but beyond the reach of the average Egyptian. Italians and Russians seem to be the majority of the visitors these days and Sharm workers invariably speak some of the languages of one or both countries, and some English.
Close to the city the attractions of the Sinai desert include safari by jeep or camel, and quad bike riding, but most tourists come just to laze on the beaches. Many are drawn by the magnificent Red Sea reefs for snorkeling and scuba diving, and Dive centres provide training and excursions. When the beaches close for the day there are the bazaars, restaurants, and clubs offering everything a European club offers. There are parties in the clubs and at some beaches every night with the best DJs from around the world featured, as well as local DJs who are expert at getting the drinking crowds even happier. Bikinis rule, and nearly everyone dresses to show off tanned skin (that is, they don’t dress much at all), and the few Egyptian visitors who adhere to religious dress codes really stand out here.
I visit regularly, not as a tourist but because Sharm has the closest branch of my bank. It is a three hour bus trip through the Sinai mountains and via Dahab, which is halfway between Nuweiba and Sharm in both distance and coastal town style – more alternative lifestyle than glitzy Sharm, but not as quiet as Nuweiba. In Sharm I can also get a few things not available in Nuweiba, including dry cat food (essential so I can leave Habibi if I need to travel anywhere for some days).
My Sharm is NOT the Sharm of the tourists. There is a seven hour gap between the early morning bus from Nuweiba arriving there and the only bus returning to Nuweiba. Tasks take an hour or two, then I have time to wander, so it is a small holiday for me. Past trips have included visiting the Coptic cathedral and the largest of the many mosques. This year another large mosque is being built, very different in style, but I had seen it only from a distance and this time I made my way to the Old Market to see it clearly. It will be magnificent when completed, though I find it strange that this holy building sits at the heart of one of the biggest commercial / tourist areas of the city, surrounded by bazaars, restaurants, and amid the sounds of salesmen calling to everyone who passes and determined haggling over prices. Perhaps the idea of being in the centre of this commercial mecca is to remind people that life is not really about money and the desires of the flesh (Sharm is also known for its easy sex life).
After wandering, I walk up the cliff road to go swimming. Yes I know that sounds odd, climbing a cliff to swim…The hotels each have their own beach, either part of the hotel / resort, or a dedicated beach a few minutes away that guests can catch a shuttle bus to reach. If you are not staying at a hotel there are a few public beaches. Most charge a fee (about $5 Australian) but my beach is free. It sits at the bottom of the cliff and is accessed by a narrow path that leads off a prime sea-view residential road, then down winding stairs. It has the same views as many of the 5 star resorts, and the $5 I save on entry fee pays the cost of my return bus trip. At this time of year it is not crowded, at most 30 people and a few dogs. Most sun-bake, read, listen to music, or talk with family or friends, only a handful are in the water. The cliff base position of this beach makes it a dramatic change to the Nuweiba beaches, which roll down gently from the flat of the land or from gently sloping sand dunes.
Before or after a swim, a walk along the edge of the cliff top completes a day that cannot fail to lift the spirit. This is beauty! There is no protective rail along much of the cliff walk, so you can go right to the edge and take in the view unobstructed, and feel like it is there just for you. I sit and enjoy my bread, cheese and fruit from the market, and drink in the sound and smell of the sea and the sublime view.
The tourists can keep their all-inclusive buffets and entertainments by the Animation teams, their deck chair-against-deck chair, overcrowded strips of sand, and their alcohol fueled clubbing. This is MY Sharm.