Sharm el Sheikh: Paradise in the South Sinai Peninsula

Reception hall at the Jaz Mirabel Beach resort.

Reception hall at the Jaz Mirabel Beach resort.

Last week, I spent seven days lounging around a beach resort, some 75 km from St. Catherine’s Monastery and the traditional birthplace of the Mosaic law, while staring across the Gulf of Aqaba at the Saudi Arabian coast. Needless to say, it was paradisiacal bliss, remnant of Dilmun, and I could not more strongly recommend the experience. While this is not a travel blog, and my adventure has little to do with geology or creationism, I felt compelled to share it here and offer tips to anyone planning a similar trip in the future.

On the other hand, it has been said, “The best geologist is the one who has seen the most rocks”, and I did manage to see a live coral reef in a rift zone, adjacent to highly tectonized Precambrian basement that was crosscut by numerous Cenozoic dikes and eroded by ice-aged river beds. Considering also that these geological features might have shaped the worldview of certain biblical authors, one could argue that it’s entirely relevant. 😉

View west: mountains of the southern Sinai desert, cross cut with basaltic dikes.

View west: mountains of the southern Sinai desert, cross cut with basaltic dikes.

What brought our family to Egypt was blessing and opportunity. This summer, my wife and I will celebrate 5 years of marriage, which have been anything but traditional. Of our (soon to be) five anniversaries, only two will have been spent in the same continent/hemisphere, due to the complexities and shortcomings of the U.S. immigration system. Also, this was our second trip to Egypt from Russia (in Spring 2013, we stayed in Hurghada), but the first with a baby—now 10 months old. Thus we felt justified in sharing our extra-special anniversary gift a bit early, while all of us were together.

Waiting for our plane in Kurumoch Airport (KUF), Samara, Russia.

Waiting for our plane in Kurumoch Airport (KUF), Samara, Russia.

If you find yourself in Europe/Russia for an extended period of time (it could happen!), tourism to the Mediterranean and Near East is an incredible opportunity. These all-inclusive trips are surprisingly popular and affordable, meaning that 7-10 days in a Red Sea resort (including roundtrip airfare, food, and drinks) could run you about the same as ~4-5 nights on the Las Vegas Strip (not including airfare or food). Greece and Turkey are similarly priced destinations that are popular among Europeans and essentially represent slightly more affordable counterparts to Mexican and Caribbean resorts for North Americans.

Challenge #1: Wrestling with tourist agencies in Russia

When I was a young boy, I took part in a radio advertisement for a local travel agency. I got this ‘job’ because my father worked across the street at the funeral home, which collaborated frequently with the agency. Why? Because in those pre-Internet days, agents still controlled the travel market, which could scarcely be navigated by average families, but especially those making last-minute funeral arrangements. Although Russia has long been part of the internet age, tourist agencies still dominate the market in a way reminiscent of my childhood and have offices on nearly every street block.

The Nile Delta, whose characteristic shape gave name to the landform, meets the Mediterranean Sea.

The Nile Delta, whose characteristic shape gave name to the landform, meets the Mediterranean Sea.

If you prefer to arrange your own travel (like me), it is technically possible to do so online, via the hotels and airlines. My recommendation, however, is to find hotels that also sell airline tickets on their own charter flights, because roundtrip airfare alone to resort cities in Egypt (purchased separately) costs more than an all-inclusive trips via tour agencies.

What’s wrong with just visiting a tourist agency? In principle, nothing; it just happens to be an incredibly slow and inefficient process, to which my Americanized mind is maladapted. Instead of typing directly into an online search query, you tell the poker-faced agent where you want to go, and they read you the results. Thus you’ll need to block out a few hours of your trip just to meet with agents.

View south from the plane overlooking Samara, Russia and the Volga River.

View south from the plane overlooking Samara, Russia and the Volga River.

Once you’ve decided on a trip, the agency will need to relay your passport information to the hotel/airline. For us, this alone was a ~30-minute process, because the agent typed one  l e t t e r   a t   a   t i m e. But wait! Your preferred room may not be available, so the agent must send an e-mail to the main office, who makes a phone call to the hotel to confirm the rate and availability (which is posted online, but not necessarily in real time) and then replies to the e-mail, after which you’ll receive a call sometime the next day from your agent, inviting you back to their office to sign some papers. Furthermore, if you’re not a Russian citizen, the hotel might want to charge you a premium price (up to ~$100, in our experience), so be prepared. Luckily, ours did not, so off we went!

Overlooking the Gulf of Suez, which separates the Sinai desert (foreground) from the Egyptian mainland (background).

View west, overlooking the Gulf of Suez, which separates the Sinai desert (foreground) from the Egyptian mainland (background).

Sharm el Sheikh, Nabq Coast, Egypt

The Sharm el Sheikh strand en route to land at SSH airpot.

The Sharm el Sheikh strand en route to land at SSH airpot.

Sharm el Sheikh is not so much a town as an airport next to a long strand of beach resorts, which run along the southern tip of the Sinai Peninsula. Each resort has a large territory and beach, typically comprised of several hotels that can easily entertain you for the week. Within a given resort, individual hotels range in price, based on walking distance to the beach, and suitability to families versus singles or young couples. Several gift shops and local tour agencies line the main streets, but unless you’re eager for a desert stroll, I recommend staying within your resort. Most have their own marketplaces and sell all the same souvenirs and tours (e.g. to St. Catherine’s, Cairo, Jerusalem, or simply to go scuba diving near a reef).

The beaches of Sharm el Sheikh are not made of the typical quartz-sand found on either American coast, but are carved from active coral reefs adjacent to a mildly metamorphosed igneous complex. In other words, you can expect to walk on large sand grains (>1 mm) mixed with angular fragments coral and limestone, especially near the water. These beaches may not be beach-volleyball friendly, but they are sufficiently comfortable to walk barefoot with your kids, so long as you are mindful of your steps.

Beach Beach2

The advantage of staying on a coral beach, however, is that the water is shallow, warm, and still. In other words, you’ll never have to worry about your toddlers being carried out by the undertow or venturing into deep waters. At our resort (Jaz Mirabel Beach), for example, you have to wade 650–900 meters from the beach before the water exceeds 1 meter depth (i.e. at the reef margin), which is perfect for laying horizontally and soaking up the sun and saltwater. Thus you can take your kids on a long (and completely safe!) walk, peering through the crystal-clear water at fish, crabs, starfish, urchins, and even eels.

Baby on the beach of the Gulf of Aqaba, Sharm el Sheikh, Egypt

As a California baby, naturally my first steps at sea were in the Pacific Ocean. My daughter, contrarian of the family, took hers in the Gulf of Aqaba.

Also due to its shallowness and lack of current, the water stays near body temperature (90–100°F, 35–40°C) in the afternoon and evening, allowing for long comfortable days at the beach, even during the peak of summer. If you prefer deeper and cooler water, however, there are long piers leading to the edge of the reef, where you can join all sorts of tropical fish in cool, clear water exceeding 5 meters depth:

Sharm el sheikh pier leading to the reef at Jaz Mirabel Beach Resort

Served by a staff who speaks in tongues

Growing up in a culture that abhors multilingualism, I was both pleased and impressed by those Egyptians running the resorts, all of whom speak fluent English, Russian, and (usually) German. Granted, they have great economic incentive to converse with their customers ‘in tongues’, but still it is a refreshing contrast to the American expectation that every visitor just learn English and speak it without an accent. In fact, the experience has inspired me already to learn the basics of Arabic and further soften our linguistic barriers.

JazRestaurantPatio

Patio dining at the restaurant.

As an American who follows the news, I was admittedly shy to broadcast my nationality, but it was generally easy to pretend that I were either Russian, German, or British (the most common tourists along the Red Sea). All my conversations nonetheless went something like this:

Egyptian Store Clerk: Hello, my friend! Здравствуйте! What are you looking for? Что Вы ищете? Where are you from? Вы откуда?

Me: Hello, I am from Russia. I am looking for t-shirts.

[Now, if I spoke in English, eventually the conversation evolved thusly]

ESC: You speak English very well! Are you sure you’re from Russia? Where else are you from?

Me. Oh, yes.. thank you. Well, I live there currently, but originally I am from the, um… United States.

ESC: Ah, excellent! I love working with Americans. Wonderful people. I want to give you a special price and a gift!

[And if I spoke in Russian, the conversation went similarly]

ESC: You are from Russia? Something seems different about you. You are very friendly and smile too much. Where else are you from?

Me: Busted..!

In short, there is no reason to hide your identity, despite that it makes for some interesting exchanges. Particularly along the Red Sea coast, people are friendly and genuinely excited to meet tourists from around the world, even if that excitement is slightly exaggerated to make a sale. Besides, if you form your expectations of how others will treat your nationality based on the media, they are bound to be misguided. Even in places where America (the political power) has a generally negative image, the same could not be said for American individuals, especially when you show due respect as a stranger to your generous host. Consider also that our negative image is itself exaggerated by ‘newsworthy’ reports of hostility, aimed not toward individuals but our legitimately controversial foreign policies.

The Great Cultural Interchange

While Egypt is a world-famous tourist destination, the Red Sea coastline is most frequented by Russian, German, and British travelers, who are understandably eager to replace familiar European rainclouds and snow storms with a dose of endless sunshine. I personally enjoy these multinational mixers, where you’re exposed to so many unique stories. Everyone is open to conversation, which is almost always possible if you speak English and/or Russian. Additionally, we ran into some Polish, French, Slovenian, and even Egyptian tourists. In my opinion, the diversity of culture creates a welcoming and humbling atmosphere, which greatly enriches the vacation experience.

Eat, drink, and be merry!

All you can eat buffet, Sharm el Sheikh Egypt

Soups, breads, salads, antipasti, desserts, and a to-order grill await you all day, every day.

Nothing can de-stress a vacation like the words “all-inclusive”. Never having to worry about the restaurant or bar tab is a huge plus, common to nearly every resort in the region. What I noticed and appreciated, however, is that while food and drink (even beer and cocktails) were unlimited, not once did we see guests that were noticeably drunk and/or disorderly. Yes, even the stereotypically alcohol-savvy Germans and Russians drank and ate in moderation.

If you are traveling with children, I would encourage you not to fret. Most resorts are family friendly, sporting kid’s pools, playgrounds, activities, and a fairly strict after-hours quiet time. Apart from these amenities, however, we noticed an unusually positive attitude toward children, especially babies. In particular, the hotel staff (mainly 20- to 35-year-old Egyptian men) and European tourists always treated our daughter like one of their own, making faces, snickers, and playing games with her out of sincere adoration for our growing family, on which they frequently offered their congratulations. Many shared their own family stories. This response was markedly different from our experience in the U.S., where young men (and even women) often exhibit an aversion to the babies and children of strangers.

Our family-friendly hotel room, complete with two single beds (behind the curtain) and one king, as well as a TV, refrigerator, free snacks/drinks, personal safe, closet, and large bathroom.

Our family-friendly hotel room, complete with two single beds (behind the curtain) and one king, as well as a TV, refrigerator, free snacks/drinks, personal safe, closet, and large bathroom.

Patio

View out the patio of the nearest pool (one of five).

Another interesting point of cultural convergence involved beach etiquette, since tourists came from a wide range of standards of modesty. Surprisingly, everyone blended with no noticeable conflict; everyone wore what they deemed appropriate and quietly kept to themselves. These standards ranged from local Egyptian attire—bathing suits that covered the entirety of arms and legs—all the way to ‘European sunbathing’—bikini bottoms only for both men and women. The latter was restricted to the beach, where one could expect 1 out of every 15-20 women to be topless at any given time. Yet this did not seem to bother anyone, whether fellow tourists or local families (I can imagine the American response to this practice would be far more aggressive, either as mockery or gawking). On the other hand, I do remember a Muslim woman in a burqa walking the beach with her children, selling souvenirs to sunbathing tourists; I do sincerely wonder what her perception was of us immodest westerners.

Braving the Egyptian marketplace: how not to negotiate!

Bazaar at the Jaz Mirabel resort: a beautiful lair where western currency goes to die.

Bazaar at the Jaz Mirabel resort: a beautiful lair where western currency goes to die.

Nobody wants to return home empty-handed, and Egypt is rife with beautiful souvenirs. Even the most useless figurine, coffee coaster, or fridge magnet is a tempting buy. Therefore, I must offer the same advice brilliantly summarized by Maz Jabroni: “If you’re ever in a deal situation with a Middle Easterner, and he says ‘My friend! My friend!’, you’re about to get screwed.”

This may sound harsh, but I do mean it as a roundabout compliment to the unbeatable negotiation skills of every shopkeeper in Egypt. No matter how good a deal you think you got, you could have done better. So here are a few tips on how to come out slightly better than your fellow tourist:

  • Never expect items to carry a price tag, but even if they do, all prices are up for negotiation.
  • More importantly, avoid the temptation to ask, “How much is this?” We are so accustomed to asking for the set price that it seems impolite not to. However, it allows the shopkeeper to set whatever price he likes (typically very high), and few people realize they are expected to bargain for a better one. Additionally, if you ask for a price, all subsequent negotiation is relative to that opening price. For example, you might recognize that $20 is too much for a basic T-shirt, but it forces your counter-offer to be within the ballpark. You are better off starting the conversation, “I like this shirt. Will you take $5 for it?” Now the roles are reversed, without offending the seller.
  • Don’t reveal how much money you have on you, and try to separate your cash into multiple pockets. Give yourself an opportunity to say, “I don’t want to spend more than $20, and that’s all I have.” A good shopkeeper will sell you more and more until all your cash on hand is spent.
  • Shopkeepers are not shy about how much your business means to them and their family, so don’t be shy about your own. In the end, you probably won’t feel bad about a bad deal, because you’ve made a friend and supported a man working to feed his family. While this is true, keep in mind that anyone working the beach resorts makes at least double the average salary of skilled workers in Cairo. Of course, your business is appreciated, but you need not overspend to support their business/family. Besides, you have your own to support, and they respect that.
  • Be honest about what you like and what you want to buy. Don’t feel obligated to buy more than you came for, but know that you will. Similarly, don’t be afraid to walk away and look for a better price, even if you were offered a free gift (like tea/cookies) for coming into the shop.
  • Watch out for signs of a bad deal, such as undeserved trust. The first time I went into the store, I had no cash on hand and stated it up front. I thought it would prevent me from spending money at all. Nonetheless, after telling the shopkeeper what I hoped to buy, he gave me the items without hesitation, urging me to bring back the money (~$30) “whenever convenient”. Granted, he had good reason to trust me, but it also signified that he could afford to lose that merchandise, which therefore couldn’t be worth anywhere near $30 (for all he knew, I could be flying out that day!).
  • Pick a single currency and stick to it; U.S. dollars and Euros work best (GBPs are also accepted), mainly because we instinctively know what, say, $20 worth of merchandise should look like. Keep in mind that almost everywhere, shopkeepers and cashiers will try to skim off a commission in the currency conversion, so it’s helpful to make the conversion yourself if required.

A few tips on tipping

Some services are for tips only, such as riding camels. Be sure to agree on a price up front, and keep in mind that the price to ride the camels do not necessarily include the price to get off the camel. ;)

Some services are for tips only, such as riding camels. Be sure to agree on a payment up front, and keep in mind that the price to ride the camels does not necessarily include the price to get off the camel. 😉

Tipping is everywhere appreciated on a level that is difficult to comprehend. Only in Egypt has anyone stopped to thank me by shaking both my hands in a semi-bow on account of $2 (my tip to the bus driver for our 15-minute ride from the airport). Tips of $1–2 go a long way, which is understandable if you consider that the minimum wage is $5/day and the statewide median salary is $20–25/day. However, small bills are a prized commodity within Egypt and hard to obtain. I would recommend setting aside a healthy stash of dollar bills solely for tipping.

Within the beach resorts, tips are never expected, for example to bartenders, servers, or housekeeping staff. After a week of living like royalty, however, you’ll feel awkward not to give one large tip on the way out to all your favorite hosts. Beyond money, I would even recommend bringing small souvenirs or memorabilia from your own home. Most would love to visit Europe or America; at least you can bring a piece to them.

Jaz Mirabel Club and Beach Resort: amenities abounding

A comfy room and a pristine coral beach—what more could you desire? We had access to the following:

  • Large swimming pools, ranging from 1–5 ft deep
  • Water slides
  • Restaurants, outdoor grills, and several bars (inside and on the beach)
  • Exercise room and tennis courts
  • Spa with a Turkish-bath style jacuzzi, dry and wet saunas, and (for additional charge) professional massages
  • Amphitheater with various shows (comedy, dance, concert)
  • Nightly discotheque and dancing (one for kids, one for adults)
  • Archery range
  • Marketplace, including pharmacies, gift shops, clothing and jewelry stores
  • Laundry service

The only thing not on the list is free wifi. Internet access is both unreliable and expensive, so expect not to have it!

Jaz1

Sunset over the hotel grounds.

It sounds amazing, but is it safe?

We took a slight detour around the regional 'no-fly' zones on the way in.

We took a slight detour around the regional ‘no-fly’ zones on the way in.

You’re all aware, I’m sure, of the tragic events in Tunisia and the northern Sinai, which transpired while we were abroad. To be sure, the news was heartbreaking and unsettlingly close—young men at guard posts paying an undue price for their government’s opposition to militant Islam, and those resting like us beneath the tropical sun with no expectation of a lone coward’s rampage. Nonetheless, I would not see these events as a deterrent to travel, particularly for Americans who are statistically less safe in their own cities. The Red Sea coastline is heavily guarded by Egyptian militia and effectively disconnected from much of the country by a loose infrastructure. They work hard to protect you, along with their own citizens, and it shows. Every road and resort entrance is constantly watched by armed guards in bullet-proof vests, who demand ID even from regular bus and taxi drivers. All foreigners require escorts to travel between sites and cities, making it impossible for lone gunmen with malintent even to approach your holiday destination.

South Sinai Peninsula: Paradise or Wilderness?

It did cross my mind that we were vacationing in the ultimate metaphor for a barren wilderness utilized by the Hebrew Bible. In fact, I read a few chapters of James Kugel’s How to Read the Bible: A Guide to Scripture, Then and Now while laying out on the Red Sea coast. I must say, the story of the Exodus does come alive when you realize how quickly you would taste death if those resorts were to disappear. The Sinai desert is unforgiving and thus serves well as a background to the motif of ‘living souls from the dust’. If you’re interested in what might be called literary tourism, Sharm el Sheik is not a bad choice!

All in all, we were extremely satisfied with our tour of the peninsula and are already hoping to return one day. Please do not hesitate to inquire, therefore, if this post has peaked your curiosity. At the very least, I hope it has captured your interest and imagination!

One last glimpse of Moses' wilderness.

One last glimpse of Moses’ wilderness.

The head of the Nile River delta, multimillennial life source of the ancient Near East.

The head of the Nile River delta, multimillennial life source of the ancient Near East.

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One response to “Sharm el Sheikh: Paradise in the South Sinai Peninsula

  1. Many believe the Red Sea Crossing of the Israelites occurred at the Nuweiba Peninsula across the Gulf of Aquaba…..also, Mt Sinai is more likely in Northwest Saudi Arabia, than in the Sinai. I stayed in a resort at Nuweiba several years ago.

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