Side Trips to Sinai
Sinai is a wild, awe-inspiring triangle of land that's mysterious and unforgettable. Its mountains are fringed with beaches and the crystal-clear waters of the Red Sea.
Mount Sinai and the ancient Byzantine monastery of Santa Katarina on its slope have been a destination for pilgrims for 16 centuries, almost miragelike in their sanctity. Over the past 30 years, the coast of the Gulf of Aqaba has become a second major Sinai attraction. It's a diver's and snorkeler's paradise, lined with some of the most beautiful and unusual coral-reef systems in the world. You can camp in simple huts along the beaches or pamper yourself in deluxe hotel complexes at prices that are incredible bargains.
Travel Safety -- Although peaceful and untouched by Middle Eastern wars and terror attacks for more than 30 years, Sinai was hit by a number of hotel bombings in 2004 and 2005, designed to destroy local tourism. At press time, Sinai remains the most mellow place in the Middle East, and Egypt has beefed up security, but check U.S. and U.K. government travel advisories before making plans to travel in Sinai.
Visa Requirements & Travel Permits
Coming from Israel, there are two kinds of visas available, depending on what your travel plans may be. The first is a Sinai Only Visa (valid for 14 days; renewable inside Sinai), obtainable at the border crossing, which permits you to travel along the Gulf of Aqaba Coast to Nuweiba, Dahab, Na'ama Bay, and Sharm el Sheik, as well as to Mount Sinai and the Monastery of Santa Katarina. If you want to hike in the mountains near Santa Katarina; visit the extraordinary reefs at Ras Mohamed National Park, just south of Sharm el Sheik; or travel on to Cairo, you'll need a standard All Egypt Visa, which is more of a procedure and expense. You must obtain the standard visa ahead of time from the Egyptian Embassy in Tel Aviv, from the Egyptian Embassy in your own country, or from the Egyptian Consulate in Eilat.
Note that no tourists are allowed to hike or travel alone off the main roads and tourist centers in Sinai without a guide and special permit. Bedouin guides at the main tourist centers are always available, and can arrange the necessary permits for the itineraries you plan. Make sure your guide has the required permits. Escorted tours can be arranged from Eilat through most travel agencies there.
Fast Facts -- Egypt (in Arabic: Misr)
County Telephone Code: 20
Sinai Area Code: 69
Currency: Egyptian Pound (LE, divided into 100 piasters.
$1=5.5LE; 1LE=18¢. £1=11LE; ILE=9p.
Water -- Drink bottled water only, except where hotels provide filtering systems.
Crossing the Border -- Taba Border Crossing (Israeli side) tel. 08/637-2104. Open daily 24 hours at press time; check for hours during Jewish and Islamic holidays. The regulations, crossing schedules, and fees on both the Israeli and Egyptian sides of the border are constantly being revised. The Eilat Tourist Information Center, at Bridge House in North Beach (on the North Beach promenade), will give you current information and practical advice about what to expect in terms of regulations, fees, and ongoing bus connections. Do not plan to cross the border without checking there first. At press time, you can cross into Taba to visit the Taba Hilton Resort and Casino (located a short walk beyond the border) by going through border procedures but without getting a visa or paying fees. You will not be allowed to go farther into Sinai unless you have a visa in hand. Note: A visa stamp in your passport issued in Tel Aviv, Eilat, or at the Taba Border will preclude your entering Syria, Lebanon, and other countries at war with Israel. Check to see if visas can be issued on a separate piece of paper.
Currency Exchange at Taba Border -- Do your money-changing at the ATM at the Egyptian Border Pavilion -- make an estimate of what amount of Egyptian currency you'll need. Banks and exchange offices in Sinai are few and far between except at Sharm el Sheik, and hours are iffy. There's also a Bank Misr office at the border, where you can change cash and traveler's checks; should it be closed, you can try at the Taba Hilton.
Tours & Packages -- The Eilat Tourist Information Center is especially in touch with the tourist market in Sinai, and can advise you about tours of the Sinai leaving from Eilat. Check with Red Sea Sports (tel. 08/633-3666; www.redseasports.co.il); Desert Eco Tours (tel. 052/276-5753; www.desertecotours.com); and the Eilat Attractions Office, all of which can book hotels (at times with considerable discounts) as well as hikes, jeep safaris, excursions to Santa Katarina, and diving packages on the Aqaba Coast. It's best to visit all three offices in person. Except on Jewish holidays, Sinai is not generally crowded and it's usually easy to find bargains and book at the last minute through these offices.
Tour packagers that offer a diving option include Sinai Divers (www.sinaidivers.com), Dogsbreath Divers (www.dogsbreathdivers.com), and Desert Eco Tours (www.desertecotours.com).
Bus Transportation -- Egyptian buses leave from the Egyptian side of the Israeli-Egyptian border at Taba, near Eilat, a number of times a day on routes southward to Nuweiba, Dahab, and Sharm el Sheik. There are also buses from Taba and Nuweiba to Santa Katarina and to Cairo. Schedules are generally unpredictable. Reserve a seat if possible, and arrive at the bus station more than an hour ahead of time. The Eilat Tourist Information Center can give you advice about current schedules and prices. The trip from Taba to Sharm el Sheik should be no more than $10 to $12 (£5-£6) on a scheduled bus.
By Taxi -- Private Bedouin taxis are often broken-down looking, but you won't have to wait endlessly for a bus. They'll take you all the way to Nuweiba, Dahab, and Sharm el Sheik. You have to bargain over the price: $60 (£30) from Taba to Sharm el Sheik is rock bottom. Look for others at the border to share your taxi. Tip: On the road, if things get too harrowing, offer to pay your driver a bonus if he drives slowly (and carefully). "Shwayeh, shwayeh," is Arabic for "Slowly, slowly." Most drivers will understand what you mean. If you do drive or take a taxi, don't even think of being on unlit roads after dark.
Mount Sinai & Santa Katarina
Located in the rugged interior of the peninsula, the place where Moses received the Ten Commandments is not the isolated pilgrimage site it once was; nevertheless it is a charismatic and powerful place. Nestled on the lower slopes of Mount Sinai (Gabal Mussa, or the Mountain of Moses in Arabic) is one of the world's greatest but least known treasures: the fortresslike Monastery of Santa Katarina, with origins reaching back to the times of the cave-dwelling monks of the 2nd century A.D. Much of the monastery is more than 1,500 years old; including its large wooden doors and carved ceiling beams. The library includes what is probably one of the most important collections of rare and ancient manuscripts outside of the Vatican.
The monastery's Church of the Burning Bush was built by command of the great Byzantine Emperor Justinian between A.D. 548 and A.D. 565. Mosaicists were probably sent from Constantinople to create the extraordinary mosaics surrounding the apse. The vast collections of ancient icons include some of the most beautiful examples of this art ever created. According to tradition, at the time of the church's construction, the actual Burning Bush (in its unfiery form) still stood just outside the apse, but was virtually destroyed over the centuries as pilgrims took away pieces as relics. What remained of the bush, a form of wild raspberry, was transplanted to a more protected spot in the monastery where it thrives to this day.
Ascending Mount Sinai -- The climb up steep pathways and staircases to the top of Mount Sinai is arduous. In summer, most people do it in the cool (or cold) of night and enjoy the incredible sunrise. In winter, daylight hours are not as bitterly cold for climbing as the freezing predawn, but you miss the sunrise. The hike can take from 2 to 4 hours, depending on your strength. It's by no means an easy ascent -- it's worthwhile to consider taking a Bedouin guide and renting a camel that will take you at least partway up the mountain at a cost of LE 70 ($12/£6) for the climb. Much bargaining may be involved; the Bedouin take all currencies (they're not going to lose a customer who will be gone tomorrow because he was short of Egyptian pounds; bring small bills -- a man with a camel at 3am on Mount Sinai does not make change). The view from the summit (if you can get away from tour groups) is transcendent. If you can't make it all the way to the top, there are flat, camel-accessible way stations along the pathway, and the vistas from these places, containing chapels dedicated to Moses, Elijah, John the Baptist, and others, are very spiritual and dramatic. Remember, to ascend does not mean merely to climb.
Tip: Six kilometers (3 3/4 miles) to the south is Gabal Katarina (Mount Catherine), the highest in Egypt. The path to the summit of this mountain is more beautiful and less trafficked by hordes of tourists than Mount Sinai; from the village of Milga the climb can take 6 hours. Although the tradition of identifying Mount Sinai as the place where the Ten Commandments were given to Moses is very strong, there are other traditions and theories attached to other mountains, and Gabal Katarina could possibly be the genuine place. There are a chapel and a source of water at the very top of the mountain. A guide is advisable.
Where to Stay -- The most atmospheric and economical choices is the hostel inside the ancient (4th-c.-A.D.) Santa Katarina Monastery (tel. 069/347-0353) on the left side of the monastery complex. Dorm rooms are hot and airless in summer, and rather cramped with up to eight beds to a chamber, but they are clean and the private rooms are pleasant. The place seems like a locale for an Indiana Jones adventure, and you'll always find interesting fellow travelers. Dorm beds are LE75 ($14/£7) a night; beds in rooms with three to four beds and a private bathroom are LE100 ($18/£9). If the hostel is not crowded, it is at times possible to rent a room as a private double for LE130 ($24/£12) per person; LE175 ($32/£16) single, breakfast and dinner included. Check-in is from 8am to 1pm and from 4 to 9pm. Very beautiful morning services are at 4am. You cannot enter the monastery after 9:30pm. Credit cards are not accepted.
Along the Coast Between Taba & Dahab
This is some of the loveliest shoreline in the Gulf of Aqaba, dotted with isolated encampments and small hotels. They are inexpensive but tranquil places by day, and often crazy at night; most offer simple snorkeling and beaching, and can arrange hikes and jeep trips in the region as well as tours to Mount Sinai.
Nuweiba is a small port and industrial center with beautiful beaches at its outskirts, and along the coast to the north of town. On busy days, the line of trucks waiting for the ferries to Jordan can stretch for 1km (1/2 mile). Separate from the port is Nuweiba's other incarnation as a beach resort -- a mixture of sprawling camps and beach-hut hotels, especially to the north at Tarabin, where you can easily find a place in the $10-to-$20 (£5-£10) per person a night range. Tarabin is filled with little restaurants, cafes, and outdoor discos and pubs. From Nuweiba, there's a main road to Santa Katarina and Mount Sinai.
The Nuweiba coast's best hotel, located south of the port, is the Nuweiba Hilton Coral Resort (tel. 069/352-0320; fax 069/352-0327; www.hilton.com). This sprawling, low-rise 200-unit complex is simple but relaxing and pleasant. It offers beautiful, isolated swimming and snorkeling beaches, pools, restaurants, and a PADI diving center. Doubles run $90 to $110 (£45-£55), but look for discounts. The more expensive, atmospheric bungalow rooms are worth the extra $30 (£15). Half board is available.
Once the flower child of the Aqaba Coast during the years of Israeli occupation, Dahab has grown into a laid-back resort town with the best diving in the area.
The Nesima Hotel and Dive Center (tel. 069/364-0320; www.nesima_resort.com) offers friendly atmosphere, a full variety of courses and tours starting at 50€ ($79/£40), as well as multiday dive packages and snorkeling activities. Doubles start from 65€ ($102/£51), breakfast included. Scout out bargains and half-board deals. Prices are quoted in euros.
The most comfortable choice in town is the Hilton Dahab Resort (tel. 069/364-0310; fax 069/364-0324; www.hilton.com), a mildly exotic low-rise village of whitewashed, desert design, with a fine beach, top-flight diving and windsurfing center, two outdoor pools, three restaurants, an excellent buffet, and three bars. Rates run $100 to $135 (£50-£68) for a double with meal plan, but there are packages and special deals that can get you in here for far less. Suites are $40 (£20) more.
As at Nuweiba, you'll also find lots of hutlike accommodations. They have no phone numbers -- just ask about rooms at places that strike your fancy. There are tons of beachfront Bedouin restaurants, cafes, and discos.
Sharm el Sheik
At the southernmost point of the Sinai Peninsula, Sharm el Sheik is a sprawling center for commercial and industrial action as well as a mecca for divers.
Na'ama Bay, a low-rise resort offering beaches, snorkeling, and diving, is a 5-minute drive from commercial Sharm el Sheik. It's filled with inexpensive hotels, eateries and bars, and more than three dozen moderate and expensive hotel complexes catering largely to European visitors on package vacations. The better hotels are located directly on Na'ama Bay, and most have a slice of beach reserved for their guests. A pedestrian promenade runs along the beach, connecting all the hotel properties before terminating at the Na'ama Bay Shopping Mall.
Diving is good at Na'ama Bay, and the hotels and dive centers offer a large variety of snorkeling and diving options. The best diving and snorkeling, perhaps in the world, is just south of Sharm el Sheik, at the National Park at Ras Mohamed. You must have the All Egypt Visa rather than Sinai Only Visa in order to enter this most elysian of the earth's coral reefs. Admission to the National Park is LE29 ($5.30/£2.60). The park is open daily from 8am to 5pm.
Where to Stay -- The Na'ama Bay area, 7km (4 1/2 miles) north of Sharm el Sheik, is filled with moderate and upper-level hotels, centered around an often crowded bathing beach.
Expensive & Moderate -- Located at the very center of the bay, with the choicest stretch of palm-shaded beach, the Hilton Fayrouz Resort (tel. 069/360-0136/7; www.hilton.com) is the most experienced of the international complexes at Na'ama Bay. The informal low-rise complex is set amid gardens that have had time to develop. Small swimming pools are hidden amid the gardens and terraces; facilities include a health club, several restaurants, and a nightclub. The staff are the most savvy in the region, and the diving, watersports, and other services are top class. All 150 units offer the standard amenities; doubles run $100 to $170 (£50-£85), not including tax and service charges. Rates include half board.
The most exclusive of all hotels in the area, the Four Seasons, Sharm el Sheikh (tel. 069/360-3555; www.fourseasons.com), is located on a relatively pristine section of the sea, about 15 minutes by car from Na'ama Bay. The complex is filled with traditional Egyptian village and desert motifs that give the hotel an intimate, exotic charm, but also the luxury of a sprawling, whitewashed palace. Accommodations are the most luxurious in Sinai, and the personal attention is very pampering. A standard double costs $550 (£275), including breakfast, but look for bargain rates.
The modern, low-rise Movenpick Sharm el Sheikh Beach Resort, Na'ama Bay (tel. 069/360-3200; www.moevenpick-hotels.com), is an outpost of a Swiss hotel chain that is a complete vacation enclave in its own right. The property has its own beach, diving center, and an 18-hole golf course. Special facilities include fresh- and saltwater swimming pools, tennis courts, a casino, and the best hotel shopping arcade in town. The chain is famous for its lavish buffet and in-house dining options. Doubles run from $160 (£80), including breakfast.
Located at the up-and-coming, sheltered Shark Bay, 15km (10 miles) north of Na'ama Bay, the Sheraton Sharm Hotel Resort (tel. 069/360-2070; www.starwoodhotels.com) offers 835 relatively new rooms and suites, a location with clearer water than at Na'ama Bay, and numerous dining opportunities. There's an excellent (heated) pool complex and a fabulous spa center. Rooms run from $140 (£70) double, including breakfast. The downside: You must deal with taxis to get into town.
The Hyatt Regency Sharm el Sheik, The Gardens Bay (tel. 069/360-1234; www.hyatt.com), is an Egyptian desert fantasy, surrounded by artificial pools and set beside a genuine and especially good reef for snorkeling. The complex can get overloaded when fully booked, so a room at the Regency Club level -- you get special services, a running snack buffet, and a separate swimming facility -- could be worth the investment. Rates run $285 (£143) double, including breakfast.
Architecturally, the Sonesta Beach Resort, Na'ama Bay (tel. 800/766-3782 in the U.S., or 069/360-0725; www.sonesta.com), is the most interesting and beautiful complex on Na'ama Bay, located at the center of the swimming beach area. From a distance it looks like a whitewashed desert village filled with dome-roofed houses and arabesque arches. The Sonesta also offers full range of watersports and evening activities. Rates run $160 to $230 (£80-£115) double, including breakfast (but not the 20% tax and service charge); you can at times find package deals and Internet discounts that can lower the price to about $100 (£50) double.
Budget -- The Pidgeon House Hotel (tel. 069/360-0996; fax 069/360-0995) is the best low-budget choice at Na'ama Bay, right across the road from the big, expensive hotels that line the beach. Standard doubles with shared bathrooms and fans, but no air-conditioning, are $20 (£10); and pleasant, new superior rooms with private bathrooms, air-conditioning, and a refrigerator are $36 (£18). Breakfast is included in the rates.
Where to Dine -- Evening dinner options range from the lavish buffets that most deluxe hotels offer (usually around $22/£11 or less) to the under-$10 (£5) Italian, Middle Eastern, or Chinese dinners at restaurants in the shopping mall.
Two non-hotel restaurants in Sharm el Sheik that serve main courses in the LE50-to-LE100 ($9.10-$18/£4.50-£9.10) range deserve special mention. The Sinai Star, in Sharm el Sheikh, serves the best fresh grilled fish in the area, along with wonderful bread, salads, and chips. Al Fanar, overlooking the waterfront beside the lighthouse, has a Bedouin ambience but offers an Italian menu and serves alcohol. The pizza and the view are great. It's worth the taxi fare from Na'ama Bay into Sharm; every driver knows these places.