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For experts and beginners alike, Egypt offers some of the best diving in the world. Not only is there unparalleled sea life in the Red Sea, including some of the most spectacular corals anywhere and sea life that ranges from massive schools of fish to sharks, but the North Coast offers the opportunity to dive Greco-Roman archaeological remains, as well as 18th-century naval wrecks and the remains of vessels sunk in World War II. Expect to pay between LE330 and LE468 ($60-$85/£31-£43) per day for boat dives, including lunch and tanks.

Tips: Taking a Dive

If this is your first experience diving, remember that not all dive centers are created equal. This is particularly true in a country such as Egypt, where national regulations are loosely enforced and easy to circumvent. It is essential, therefore, that wherever you choose to dive is registered and certified by the American-based Professional Association of Diving Instructors (PADI) -- all the companies listed in this guide are PADI certified. A good way to find more centers near your destination is to visit the PADI website (www.padi.com).

You can also do a few simple checks on your own at the dive center if you have doubts. Ask to have a look around. A dive center with nothing to hide will have no problem giving you a tour of its equipment and compressor room. Everything should look neat and well organized. Equipment should be clean and well cared for. The compressor used to fill the bottles is vital and should not be close to any source of potential contamination. If you have any doubts, hold a clean white T-shirt over the air outlet while the compressor is running; if there's any residue left on the shirt, think twice about breathing from tanks that have been filled there.

North Coast

Master Divers International, Amreya, Alexandria (tel. 03/4485882, 03/4485883, or 03/4485884; fax 03/4482963; www.alexandria-wreckdivers.com), is the most professional company currently operating on the North Coast. They can run trips on any of the sites on the coast; they even have experience diving in the Siwa oasis.

Marsa Alam

Oasis Diving Center (tel. 010/5052855; www.oasis-marsaalam.com) is right on top of a prime reef-side dive spot and an easy ride to world-class sites Elphinstone, Abu Dabab, Dolphin House, and more than two dozen others. Stay on-site at the Oasis Dive Resort, or take advantage of the high-end resorts between there and the airport, only 20km (12 miles) away.

The Orca Dive Club, Abu Dabab (tel. 012/2337950 or 012/6650240; fax 065/3555851; www.orca-diveclub-abudabab.com) is one of a string of Orca centers up and down the coast. This one is located right on the beach at Abu Dabab, across the road from the Abu Dabab Dive Lodge. They have another center farther south at Hamata, which is also worth considering (check the Abu Dabab website for a link).

Pioneer Divers has four centers in the Marsa Alam area, all within an hour of 15 to 20 dive sites and each close to accommodations. The center on the grounds of the Kahramana Resort, for example, is within 15 to 30 minutes by speedboat of both Elphinstone and Abu Dabab. The center close to Shagra Ecolodge Village, meanwhile, has reasonably priced all-inclusive accommodations. Visit the website (www.redsea-divingsafari.com), or call its Cairo office, 53 el Hussein St., Dokki (tel. 02/33379942 or 02/33371833; 02/37494219), to decide which works best for you.

Quseir

Excellent shore diving on nearby reefs makes Quseir a great place for a relaxed dive vacation. The wreck of the Salem Express is also close enough to dive, and a car ride puts the southern highlights Elphinstone and Dolphin House within range, too.

Subex, Sirena Beach (tel. 065/3332100; fax 065/3332124; www.subex.org), is one of the nicest facilities on the coast. Tucked into one end of a small bay with the Mövenpick Resort el Quseir, it has a lovely veranda bar and lunch spot, and the reef is an easy beach dive. Though it's not the budget option when it comes to diving the Red Sea, it's good quality and value for money.

Safaga

Better known than the more recently opened southern extremities of the Red Sea coast, Safaga remains one of the premier dive destinations in the world. The wreck of the Salem Express is within easy day-diving radius of the town, as well as some of the coast's most spectacular coral and undersea life at sites such as Panorama Reef and Abu Kefan. It's also possible to book longer dive safaris that will take you overnight to sites such as Thistlegorm and Ras Mohamed National Park. Accommodations in the area range from the very basic and fairly cheap to a couple of the nicest resorts on the coast.

The Dune Diving Center (tel. 065/3253075; www.duneredsea.com) is a well-established dive center in the older part of town that's popular with French divers. Unlike most centers on the coast, Dune is a free-standing business away from any hotel, but they can recommend local accommodations, and daily prices include hotel transfer. Dune is an easy walk to the Yasmin and the Nemo Hotel (which runs its own, competing, dive outfit), and a short drive from the Menaville. The Soma Bay resorts are a little farther, but no more than a 15-minute drive.

The Nemo Diving Center (tel. 010/3648708 or 010/1137707; www.nemodive.com) is run by a Belgian-Dutch partnership and has been in operation for the last 4 years. They also run the Nemo Hotel, which makes the arrangements for accommodations quick and easy.

Hurghada

Hurghada may be a failure as a town, but it's the best-established center for diving on the Red Sea. It abounds with good-quality, professional dive centers, both in the hotels and operating independently.

Ilios, Steingenber Al Dau (tel. 065/3465442; fax 065/3465410; ilios@steigenbergeraldau.com), is a real five-star operation, with the plush comforts of the Steigenberger at its disposal. If you have to be right in Hurghada, you may as well splurge.

The Hurghada branch of Subex, Dahar (tel. 06/53547593; fax 065/3547651; www.subex.org), is well known on the coast. It's not the cheapest, but you're in good hands.

Dive Buddy, Sakkala (tel. 012/3214820; fax 065/3442233; divebuddyredsea@yahoo.com), is a lot smaller than the big hotel-based centers and has a cozier, more casual atmosphere.

Gouna

With better facilities, better food, and an all-around friendlier atmosphere than Hurghada, all within range of the same dive sites, I don't know why anyone goes anywhere else. Go to Gouna, or spend your holiday in Hurghada wishing you had. If Orca's all booked up, try the Dive Center at the Sheraton Miramar.

Orca Dive Club El Gouna, Abu Tig Marina (tel. 012/2480460; fax 065/3580171; www.orca-diveclub-elgouna.com), is located in the Turtles hotel near Abu Tig Marina. Stay at the hotel, and you'll be a 5-minute walk from the boats and surrounded on every side by good eats and good bars.

If your accommodations tastes are a little more upmarket than the Abu Tig Marina, TGI Diving (tel. 065/3545606 ext 19; www.tgidiving.com) is located on its own little island right in front of the Sheraton Miramar.

Sharm el Sheikh

Sharm el Sheikh started as a divers' destination, and there's no shortage here of highly competent centers. The short list here provides a starting point, but it's definitely not exclusive.

The Camel Dive Club, Naama Bay (tel. 069/3600700; fax 069/3600601; www.cameldive.com), is a one-stop shop for diving in Sharm. It's the best value for money in a midrange hotel; it has a great bar and some of the best food in the city.

Emperor Divers, Rosetta Hotel, Naama Bay (tel. 069/3601734; fax 065/3450537; www.emperordivers.com), is a big, well-established company with several centers in Sharm, as well as on the Red Sea coast. The comprehensive website allows you to pick up last-minute deals.

Diving World Red Sea, Travco Marina, Sharm al Maya (tel. 069/3660065; www.divingworldredsea.com), is one of the bigger Egyptian dive businesses. It started in Hurghada and now has centers up and down the coast. It's not the most intimate of outfits, but prices are good and service should be reasonable.

Dahab

Good diving and a great laid-back attitude characterize this funky alternative to the glitz and gloss of Sharm and the sprawling mess of Hurghada. Despite its mellow style, however, Dahab is serious about its diving and its professional standards. There are lots of PADI-certified, high-quality dive businesses to choose from.

Desert Divers, Masbat (tel. 069/3640500; www.desert-divers.com), is a great, locally owned and run business in Dahab that's becoming a center for free diving and yoga. It pioneered the idea of "camel dive safaris," where you trek up the coast with camels to do the shore dive.

Big Blue's (tel. 069/3640045 or 010/1945466; www.bigbluedahab.com) logo says it all: It's time to chill out and dive. Big Blue is a brand-new dive center right next to the water, which means a great combination of uptight standards and chilled-out diving.

The dive center at the Nessima Resort, Mashraba (tel. 069/3640320; fax 069/3640321; www.nesima-resort.com), not only has a first-class reputation, but is conveniently located in one of the nicest places to stay and eat in the middle of Dahab. It's not the budget option, but it's certainly comfy.

Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.