For many years, the Sinai Peninsula was the kind of place that nobody went unless they had to. The Pharaohs sent expeditions to mine lapis here, and there were a few adventurous types (such as a young Ralph Bagnolds, later famous for his exploration of the Western Desert) who set out to see if it could be crossed. But mostly the area was for soldiers and the few resident Bedouin who mapped the mountains, valleys, and spectacular coastline of this massive empty land of rock and sand.
All this changed in the late 1970s and early 1980s with the withdrawal of the occupying Israeli forces that had captured the peninsula in the Six Day War of 1967. In their wake, a few adventurous Egyptians set out on their own to see what was on the eastern coast, and what they found were vast, pristine beaches and seemingly endless, untouched reefs of rich coral. Clustering around an abandoned Israeli settlement named Ophira (which was renamed Sharm el Sheikh) and a lovely palm-tree-lined beach at Dahab, they built grass-hut camps and simple restaurants.
Some of this early ethos can still be found, particularly around Dahab, a laid-back and funky resort town about two-thirds of the way down the coast between Taba in the north and Sharm el Sheikh in the south. For the most part, however, development has been quite high end, with walled compounds protecting the lush gardens and swimming pools of luxury resorts. If this is your thing, the eastern coastline of the Sinai beckons, and the lights of Sharm el Sheikh will burn brightly for you.
There is more to the Sinai, however, than the fun-and-sun developments along the coast. The very inaccessibility of the peninsula's interior mountains and plateaus make it perfect for trekking and adventure tourism, and there is a superb Bedouin-run ecolodge, Al Karm, in the center of the peninsula that's perfect as a base for trekking or a real getaway. There is also a beautifully preserved church and monastic compound at St. Catherine's Monastery. Even if you're not going to climb nearby Jebel Moussa (Mount Sinai), the area is worth a daylong visit.
The west coast of the peninsula, from Ras Mohamed up to the canal crossing near Port Suez, is less inviting. For a while it looked as though the beach resort industry around Ras Sudr might take off, and a lot of money was put into developments here, but today they stand mostly empty, victims both of the downturn that followed the incidents of 2004 and 2006 and a local climate that offers more wind than sun.
Warning: Terrorism on the Peninsula
To most observers, the coordinated bombings that killed more than 30 tourists around Taba in the northeast corner of the Sinai in 2004 came as a bit of a surprise. After the attacks in Cairo and Upper Egypt in the 1990s, Egyptian security forces cracked down heavily and indiscriminately on Islamic organizations in the country, and seemed to have succeeded in killing or imprisoning its potential leaders. However, whoever was behind those bombings, or the subsequent attacks on Dahab and Sharm in 2005 and 2006, remains a bit of a mystery. Indications are that at least some of the attacks were carried out by indigenous groups whose support is bolstered by the glaring inequalities of opportunity and wealth exposed by the Red Sea tourist industry. Despite (or perhaps because of) getting free reign, security forces have struggled to deal with armed groups from north Sinai who may have been involved in the attacks. The risk to your personal safety while in Sinai remains extremely low, but as long as the basic issues remain unresolved, more attacks at some point seem inevitable.
A note on Taba to Nuweiba: The eastern coastline of the Sinai is at once bleak and beautiful, with high granite mountains that catch the light of the sun in morning and again just before dusk. If you're coming by road from Cairo, it's worth taking the time to watch the landscape pass. The coast here is filling up slowly with low-end tourist camps and resorts, most of which are aimed at either the local Egyptian market or the cross-border market with Israel. To an even greater extent than the rest of the coast, the market here is susceptible to the periodic threat of terrorism. The aftermath of bombings here in 2004, 2005, and 2006 are still evident in the number of building projects that you'll see along the coast highway that stand empty and half-finished, abandoned for lack of customers.