Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Excursion to Egypt - Sinai & the Red Sea

This is the fourth installment of my series called Excursion to Egypt.  You can read about our experiences in Cario HERE, about Aswan and cruising the Nile HERE and about our visit to Luxor HERE.

"Impressive" is one word to describe that first portion of our trip. Another word is "tiring." We knew this was likely going to be the case, so with a little foresight we built in a "vacation from our vacation" on the back end of our two weeks. Yep. We went to the beach. And what a beach!

Here's what we did...

Sinai Peninsula Paradise
Flying from the middle of hot and dusty Egypt in Luxor, we took a short 1 hour flight over to Sharm el-Sheik. Oh, it's just about as hot as Luxor, but its situated nicely right on the Red Sea at the southern point of the Sinai Peninsula. "Sharm" as it is called, is a resort city dotted with hotels, resorts, restaurants, etc. It also has one of the largest and most spectacular coral reefs in the world right there in front of it.

Checking into the beautiful Hyatt Regency Resort just north of the main town, we knew we had found what we were looking for - a luxurious crash pad to rest from our busy sightseeing schedule. The property features white terraced buildings, lush gardens, excellent restaurants, pools, scuba/snorkel gear, sandy beaches with thatched umbrella shade "palapas," and that reef right out from the beach.

The place was so great that we knew we wouldn't be leaving much and would rather just laze away a few days right there. And that's exactly what we did. A typical day for us here would start with a beautiful mid-morning breakfast overlooking the turquoise ocean from a shady terrace restaurant, perhaps a quick swim or turn down the hidden water slide, then parking ourselves for the day down at the beach. Settled in there, only two things disturbed our rest, read and nap schedule: lunch and snorkeling.

The restaurant at the beach featured fresh seafood and sandwiches - of which we tried pretty much every one over the week we were there. The staff came to recognize us quickly - both because of our week long tenure, but also because were one of the only U.S. citizens at the entire resort. I'd guess that about 80% of the guests here were Russian. Yep, apparently Sharm is their "Mexico" or "Bahamas." Pretty close to their homeland, but oh so much warmer, sunnier and cheaper. Also to note, there were strictly two types of Russians we saw here - first, families just like you'd see anywhere in the world at the seaside and second, pairings of overweight Russian men - young and older - with skinny young Russian girls. Hmmm. More on that in another post.

As for snorkeling, what can I say? We've been in Hawaii and in Mexico, and sure, we've seen some coral and fish. Not bad. But this place! Wow! They call these reefs coral "gardens," and I can see why. Just under the water is a whole world of green, blue, yellow, purple and orange coral of all shapes and sizes. And, yes, there are loads of colorful exotic fish to see too. Quite simply, this was the best snorkeling we'd ever done.

Peeking Outside Paradise
We ventured off the Hyatt property two times while in Sharm. One of them was to go for a look at the old market in Sharm el-Sheik town itself and an Italian dinner nearby. The bazaar in the older part of Sharm is filled with small shops selling pretty much anything tourists might want, so it's not really the type of market that locals would be shopping at for everyday items. The buildings here are older, and unlike many such markets the streets are actually wide. We strolled around, stopped into a few places, bought some small items and generally had an OK time.

Also, in the back of my mind, I knew that this was the place where not too many years ago a terrorist bomb killed tourists. So, you know that this is extremely unlikely to happen again, but still you wonder. Obviously it didn't and we caught a taxi to the Italian restaurant we'd read good things about.

Arriving there, we saw that the restaurant sat perched on a bluff of land overlooking the Red Sea. We'd read that this place, El Fanar, was notable because the Italian chef had fresh ingredients flown in from Italy 3-4 times a week. Apparently, there are enough Italian tourists who come to Sharm that the town boasts some very good Italian places.

So, we were pretty stoked to eat here. As we walked in at about 7:30 p.m. we noticed a couple things right away: 1) a nice, well appointed and big space, and 2) absolutely nobody else was there. Nope. Not a sole except a waiter, a bartender and a chef. For all we'd read about this joint, this was pretty surprising. We even wondered if they were really open. We asked, and they waiter said certainly they were.

So, we took our table and thought, "what the Hell, we're here lets eat." I figured maybe that we were just unfashionably early as Italians (like many/most Europeans) tend to start dinner much later than we Americans. But no, nobody showed up the entire 90 minutes we were there.

The saving grace here was that the food was really good. Both Diane and I had pasta dishes, and I have to say that they were delightful - savory, pasta cooked just right. We also quickly consumed the best bruchetta we'd ever tasted. In the end, we exited just as we had arrived...the only customers in the whole building. Oh well. As one of the guys hailed a taxi for us, we asked him why the restaurant was empty that night and he offered that it was "change over day" and that all the Italian tourists had left earlier that day and more would be coming tomorrow. Who knows if that's true, but our strange - but enjoyable - dinner was memorable.

Camels, Moses and A Monastery
The other occasion we left the friendly confines of the Hyatt compound was for a hike up Mt. Sinai. But this wasn't just any old hike. No. This was a nighttime climb up a sacred mountain in the middle of the desert for a sunrise crescendo at the summit. Oh, and camels.

To lay it out for you, this hike entailed us being picked up at the Hyatt at 10:30 p.m. by our guides, a long drive through the middle of the Sinai desert arriving a the base of Mt. Sinai just before 2 a.m., a camel ride two-thirds the way up the mountain by starlight and a hike up the rest of the way to see the sun rise at the 7,500 foot high summit, and then a full hike all the way back down to the base where the ancient St. Catherine's Monastery awaited for a visit. And then the return drive back to our hotel.

All of this sounded exciting, fun and both Diane and I were looking forward to it. But before I get to all that, we did not do the hike without some trepidation. Ultimately we did not encounter any trouble and had a lovely time, but in the moment we did ponder some concerns.

For example, as the time drew closer for us to be picked up for the nighttime drive through the Sinai desert to the base of Mt. Sinai, I began to consider that we'd be driving through desolate areas with people we didn't know in an place that had in the not too distant past seen acts of violence against tourists...only to get out and climb up into even more desolate hills and mountains where who knows what type of operatives lived. We'd even been told that it was only in the western desert and the rugged hills of the Sinai where any organized extremists or militants actually existed in Egypt. This caused both Diane and me to pause and wonder just what we may be getting into. And to top it off, as we rested in our hotel room waiting for our guides to pick us up, we tuned into CNN and saw a story about an American couple who had just been kidnapped in Yemen. In any case, by the time our guides arrived I had dispensed with the "terrorist" worry as so extremely unlikely that it wasn't, in fact, worth worrying about. And of course I was right.

However, at this point it dawned on me that the all too real danger for this jaunt was, in fact, a car accident. Yes, as you may have read in my first post about our Egypt trip, car accidents are very common in Egypt and as our small tour bus ventured out into the roads of the nighttime Sinai peninsula, I realized that the most serious threat to our safety was getting in a accident on these open and vacant roads. All it would take is one sleepy or wild driver and - boom! - big trouble. Obviously, we didn't have any problems, and by the time we were actually on the road and on our way to Mt. Sinai, I just "let it go" and tried to get some sleep before we arrived.

We rolled into the little town near St. Catherine's Monastery about 1:45 a.m. and met up with a couple of our friends we'd met on the earlier part of our trip. After a hot cup of coffee at a little coffee shop we all headed out with out guides to get the monastery and the camels that we would ride up most of the mountain.

As we walked together closer to the base of the mountain, we strode through a valley and right by the ancient monastery. Lit by the moonlight, the mountains were magnificent as the moonbeams shone off their ridges to give us an otherworldly view. It is also at this point that I abolished any lingering doubts about being "out on a mountain all alone." For indeed, there were hundreds of other tourists making the ascent this morning too. Most were walking up the hiking trail rather than riding up on the camel trail, so luckily we did  not have to share the trail with most of them. But, it was clear to me that no funny business would happen with all those people around.

Our group met up with a number of Bedouin tribesmen who were the keepers of the camels we would ride up the mountain. According to our guide, it is the law that all tours up the peak need to be done with a local Bedouin as a way for them to have work in the tourism industry. So, under the starlight we loaded up on our camels - each of us riding our own.

From there, we began an ascent like no other we've done before - unlike our hike in China in 2008 and unlike our annual hikes in the Cascades back home.

Clopping their hooves on the trail, our camels negotiated the twists and turns up the mountain in the dead of night as we each sat back and marveled at the spectacular display of stars above us. The Milky Way, occasional shooting stars and, well, more brilliant points of light in the night sky than we'd ever seen before were conveniently laid out over our heads to enjoy. Because we were on camels, we had the luxury of focusing on the sights above and around us rather than carefully picking our way up the side of the mountain in the dark with hundreds of tourists.

Along the way up there were a few places where you could stop for a snack, soda or tea. We chose not to dismount and kept pushing onward.

One thing about riding camels - or at least if you're not used to riding one - is that it really stretches your legs at the point where they meet your torso. Your legs are draped over each side of the beast, but there are no stirrups to put your feet. This became pretty uncomfortable at times, but you just have to ignore that and appreciate where you are and what you're doing. This is what we did.

By about 4:30 a.m. we reached a rally point high up on the mountain and dismounted our camels to join the rest of the masses making the final climb to the top. Here is where we realized that most of the other hiker tourists were Russians. And wow, those Russians don't much care for, oh, little things like dressing for an aggressive 7,500 ft. hike. Seriously, for every one we saw who was semi-equipped for a hike we saw 2 or 3 dressed like they were out for a night at the dance club or perhaps the beach. Really. We're talking about girls in tight shorts, heels and flimsy tops...guys in flip flops and beach shorts...and just about everything in between. Amazing. Oh well.

After a short while we picked our way up the steep and narrow stone steps to the top of Mt. Sinai. The first hints of light were appearing. Before the sun burst over the horizon and rose above the peaks around us, Diane and I quickly ventured to the very top to see a couple sites that are mentioned in the Bible. Now, neither of us are religious types, but on the other hand - whether you believe in the Bible or you do not - it is surely true that this is the spot that is referenced in the text where Moses received the 10 Commandments from God. And for that, there is a small chapel up on the mountainside, along with a small hole where Moses is supposed to have "holed up" for many days before receiving the Commandments. We saw that. Then we went to go see the sunrise.

After sunrise and taking in the view, we started our hike down the mountain and back to the Monastery. On our way down, the full extent and beauty of the surrounding mountains impressed. Arriving at the bottom, we toured the St. Catherine's Monastery - a Greek Orthodox outpost dating back 1,000 years and built over the spot where the men who wrote the Bible said Moses saw "the burning bush." In fact, it is said that the bush still exists in the confines of the Monastery. Below is a picture I took of it:

Getting pretty dang tired at this point, we had breakfast at a local spot and then loaded up on our bus again for the ride back to the Hyatt in Sharm.

The ride through the desert - this time in daylight - revealed a very desolate, very rugged and in that way beautiful topography. After some rest I simply looked out the window and watched it all go by with a very rare camel, rest stop or guard post visible once and a while.

Eventually we arrived back at our Hyatt oasis around 1 p.m. We immediately cleaned up, got a bite to eat and hit the beach for a nap and relaxation knowing we'd just completed a unique and memorable adventure. Now completed, we concentrated on getting the most out of the hotel over the next day before we had to leave.

NOTE: All pictures featured in this article were taken by me, Marc Osborn. They are copy written in my name and are not authorized for any use by anyone without written permission directly from me.

No comments: