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Sharm El Sheikh City Guide

04/08/2014 17:04 | Updated 22 May 2015

It's got a reputation as the Costa del Sol of the Middle East - and while Sharm el Sheikh does boast its own Hard Rock Cafe, it's also got average annual temperatures of 35C and 13 hours of sunshine per day. Even better, if you get away from the main tourist traps, there's plenty to enjoy – world-class diving and snorkelling in the Red Sea, centuries of Biblical history, jaw-dropping canyons, plus haggling in the bazaar, and camels, of course.

And while the temperatures drop in the UK, it's only a five hour flight to some gorgeous sunshine in Egypt's Sinai peninsula. Who needs pyramids?

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Starter for 10: Sharm el Sheikh

Based around several bays of the Red Sea, the heart of Sharm el Sheikh is at Na'ama Bay. But when you're booking your hotel, it pays to be slightly outside the centre. The Renaissance Sharm El Sheikh Golden View Beach Resort in Ras Um Sid, is a short taxi ride away from Na'ama Bay and the town of Old Sharm – don't forget to haggle – with 350m of beach all to itself, as well as some of the best snorkelling in the area which you'll probably only have to share with a few other guests.

Throw in three pools, a spa, a string of restaurants and a cocktail bar, and you could happily go days without leaving the resort if you chose. Rather than a high-rise hotel, you stay in blocks of villa-style rooms – if you don't mind a short walk, the sea view rooms are quieter and look out to the water. Rates start from around £50 per night. Or book with Longwood holidays, which has seven nights for £547, including flights from London Gatwick, during December.

Starter for 10: Sharm el Sheikh

Coming to the Red Sea without going in the water is like a trip to New York without the shopping. Whether you're a qualified scuba diver or you're just dipping your metaphorical toes in the water with your first snorkel, the shoals of iridescent fish and stunning coral reefs will make your jaw drop. Not literally while you're underwater if possible... You can walk straight in from the beach of Na'ama Bay, although these reefs tend to be busiest and expect a few chuckles from sunbathers as you walk past in your wetsuit.

Look a bit further afield though and you can find much more unspoiled reefs. Ras Nasrani, slightly further up the coast is quieter, or head right out to Ras Mohammed National Park, where the corals are easily worth the extra effort – if you're not a confident swimmer, the currents can be strong for snorkelling. You must have the full Egyptian visa, obtainable at the airport, to visit Ras Mohammed, rather than the free 14-day stamp for the Sinai Peninsula. The Red Sea Diving College in Na'ama Bay has British instructors if you want to try a beginner dive or take the full five-day course to qualify for your scuba licence.

Starter for 10: Sharm el Sheikh

Trapped between the desert and the sea, it's easy to imagine there's nothing much to see or do in the Sinai Peninsula. But if you don't venture out beyond Sharm el Sheikh, you'd miss the astonishing Coloured Canyon. Around 90 minutes to the north of the resort, the minerals have turned the rocks shades of red, yellow, black and even blue, while the winds have scoured them out into wave-like shapes, leaving passages which are sometimes only just wide enough for an adult to slither through.

You need a 4WD for the last 5km or so, so it's best to book with a tour, unless you've got experience heading off-road in the desert and you've hired something sufficiently hard-core. The walk itself takes around an hour to 90 minutes, so pack plenty of water against the heat. Most tour operators can arrange trips or try local companies Sinai Safari Adventures, Charm of Sharm, Sharm Club and Sharm Excursions.

Starter for 10: Sharm el Sheikh

At the foot of Mount Sinai, St Katherine's monastery is the oldest continuously inhabited monastery in the world, and there's no doubt the emptiness of the desert and harshness of life is the perfect place to concentrate your mind on the big spiritual questions. Built on the site of a 4th century chapel, the monastery dates back to the 6th century, and is famously home of the burning bush from which God spoke to Moses according to the Bible.

Most groups make a beeline for this, so you'll have to be patient to get more than a glimpse of a twig, but the monastery also houses the largest religious collection after the Vatican. So step away from the crowds to marvel at the 6th century mosaic above the altar, the library, icon room and treasury, packed with precious crosses and ancient manuscripts, which have survived thanks to their remote location.

More grisly, but equally unforgettable is the charnel house, packed from floor to ceiling with a collection of bones and skulls of the monks who lived there over the years – partly a practical solution to the problem of digging graves in the rocky desert, as well as a way to concentrate the mind on the world to come. Admission is free, and the monastery is open Monday to Thursday, and Saturday, from 10-11.30am. You must wear appropriate dress to be allowed in.

Starter for 10: Sharm el Sheikh

Watching the first rays of the sun light up the desert around Mount Sinai makes every step off the two-hour climb up the mountain worthwhile, as the barren rocks turn gently crimson. The peak is believed to be where God gave the 10 commandments to Moses, but whether you believe the Biblical stories or not, the sight is ruggedly majestic.

You'll need to start climbing in the early hours of the morning in order to be there for sunrise, but it also means the temperatures are cool enough to cope with the steep slopes and the final punishing 750 steps, named the steps of repentance, and created by one of the monks of St Katherine's monastery as penance for his sins. Bedouin guides with camels plod up and down the path, if you need a break part-way, then there's chance to catch your breath before making the two-hour trek back down. Most trips will combine transportation to the foot of the mountain with a tour to the monastery afterwards as well.

Starter for 10: Sharm el Sheikh

There's every cuisine under the sun available in the restaurants around Sharm el Sheikh, as well as some more traditional Middle Eastern offerings. One of the most unusual is On The Deck at the Iberotel Lido hotel, a floating restaurant offering seafood and international food, and designed to look like the deck of a yacht. Alternatively, you can head along the coast in Ras Um Sid to Al Fanar restaurant, on the waterfront by a lighthouse, serving Italian food under the stars. It's walkable along the cliff-top path from the Renaissance Golden View Beach Resort.

But for a taste of something more local, head to Old Sharm, down the coast from Sharm el Sheikh itself. The restaurants aren't fancy and you can't always get alcohol, but the fish is fresh and the prices are a complete bargain – in fact, some places supposedly base the bill on how much you look like you can afford, so it's one opportunity to dress down! Try Fares in the Old Market for great seafood as well.

Starter for 10: Sharm el Sheikh

Most of the hotels boast at least one bar but if you're looking for somewhere to kick back with a cold drink to watch the world go by, the rooftop bar at the Camel hotel is hard to beat. Ignore the seats inside, by the huge TVs showing football, and head straight for the comfy chairs looking out over Na'ama Bay.

Or for a side order of glitz with your cocktails, head to Soho Square, a little way out of the centre at White Knights Bay which is home to the Middle East's first Ice Bar, within the Oxygen Bar – where, once you've chilled out in the -5C temperatures, you can try a quick pick-me-up in the shape of a dose of pure oxygen. Or work your way through the cocktail list at the Mandarin bar, especially the popular High Voltage.

Starter for 10: Sharm el Sheikh

When in Sharm, haggle! From taxis to trinkets, bargaining over the price is a way of life here. So forget any British politeness and get stuck in in the bazaar at Old Sharm, and you could collect an impressive haul of everything from souvenirs to spices. Remember, it's supposed to be fun, never offer a price you're not happy to pay, and don't get too hung up about forcing the price down when it only works out at around 50p.

There's jewellery, leather bags and clothing to pick up – think cotton shirts, rather than kitschy belly-dancing gear - as well as beautiful inlaid mother of pearl boxes, glass perfume bottles and wooden carvings galore. If you're looking to spend a bit more, there's hand-woven rugs but shop around before you commit to buying one of these, or stock up on herbs and spices for your kitchen back home.

If you're looking to splash out, you'll also find top-end jewellery shops selling semi-precious stones in Na'ama Bay – both loose and made up into necklaces. Do be wary if you don't know your stuff, as you could end up with coloured glass and a worthless guarantee from the less reputable places, so shop around before you hand over any cash.

Starter for 10: Sharm el Sheikh

If Sharm el Sheikh is neon lights and buzzing energy, Dahab, around 50 miles up the coast, is ultra-laid back. Best known as a destination for backpackers, yoga enthusiasts and windsurfers, as the conditions are perfect for watersports, it's also great for a chilled-out day out.

Wander along the promenade and through the streets of the town, stopping at some of the little shops you'll pass. There's less of a hard sell here, so if you're a nervous haggler, it's a good place to start. Various cooperatives also help keep the traditional Bedouin handicrafts alive – try Starter for 10: Sharm el Sheikhwhich works with the local communities.

For divers, Dahab is famous as the home of the Blue Hole, with its famous arch into the reef face at 58m. While novice divers can explore closer to the surface, you shouldn't even consider attempting to descend to the arch unless you're very experienced, as it's been the site of many fatalities. A trip to Dahab is often combined with tours to the Coloured Canyon or with snorkelling in the Blue Hole. You can also take a bus for the one-hour journey from Sharm el Sheikh to Dahab, for around £2.

British nationals travelling to Sharm el Sheikh and Dahab for up to 14 days do not need a visa, and can get a free entry permission stamp on arrival. If you're planning to stay for longer, or to visit areas outside the Sinai peninsula resorts, including Ras Mohammed national park, you need to get a tourist visa. These are available at the airport, currently costing £15 or £25.

Easyjet flies to Sharm el Sheikh from three UK airports. Return flights cost from £122.81 from London Luton, from £132.81 from London Gatwick and from £129.81 from Manchester during December 2010 and January 2011, including taxes.

BA also flies from London Gatwick to Sharm el Sheikh, priced from £347.90 return including taxes. Monarch flies from London Gatwick and Manchester to Sharm el Sheikh, priced from £186.50 return including taxes in December 2010.

Tropical Sky is offering seven nights at the Oriental Rivoli, Sharm El Sheikh from £1,299 per person, departing 28 November, including flights from London Gatwick, accommodation and a five-day diving package consisting of 10 dives.

Longwood holidays offers a string of packages to Sharm el Sheikh, including seven nights at the Hilton Sharm Dreams Resort for £633, including flights from London Gatwick departing January 9, 2011, or seven nights at the Maritim Jolie Ville Golf & Resort for £552, including flights from Manchester, departing January 13, 2011.

The Adventure Company Sinai Discovered eight day tour costs from £469 per person, excluding flights, or from £839 per person including flights. The tour includes accommodation in Dahab as well as trips to Mount Sinai, snorkelling, diving and two days exploring the desert by camel and 4WD.

Starter for 10: Sharm el Sheikh

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