Egyptian Beach Vacations Part III:
Egypt's Mainland Gulf of Suez and Red Sea Coast
by Jimmy Dunn
The Resort Village of El Gouna, an upscale community on Egypt's Mainland Red Sea Coast
The mainland Egyptian coastline along the Gulf of Suez and the Red Sea is one continuous stretch of mostly beaches, but very different in many ways. Obviously, there are differences in the water within a confined gulf as opposed to the open Red Sea, but there are considerable differences in the facilities and some difference in the types of activities available. We can actually define three of the most popular regions as Ain Sukhna at the northern end of the Gulf of Suez, the Region around Hurghada and El-Gouna just about where the Gulf of Suez opens up into the Red Sea, and Marsa Alam, which is becoming very popular considerably south of
Hurghada, but still some distance from the southern Egyptian border. However, all sorts of resorts, camps and other facilities, some of which are very important, can be found all along the coast, including such places as Safaga and Quseir.
What is making the upper Red Sea coast so popular is its proximity to Greater Cairo, one of the largest, if not the largest, cities in the world. The region of coastline referred to as Ain Sukhna is, simply put, the closest beach area to this city, and a new highway will soon make it even more convenient. Like the new resorts along the north coast, many of the facilities along the coast at Ain Sukhna are residential compounds that mostly cater to Egyptian beach goers. Some of them do have hotels, though even many of these are more suitable to Egyptians. Nevertheless, this region has some specific advantages for foreigners as well, and so we can expect to see a growing trend of nice hotels that also cater to tourists.
A small section of the large beach at Stella di Mare along the Ain Sukhna area
Specifically, while Ain Sukhna is convenient for the people of Cairo, so too is it convenient for tourists. Cairo is, for almost all visitors to Egypt taking a classical tour, the first and last stop on their itinerary. Traditionally, if they wished to include a stop on the Red Sea, that segment would be made from Luxor, usually traveling either by bus to Hurghada, or by air to Sharm el-Sheikh.
While the airplane ride to Sharm el-Sheikh is not a long one, the bus trip to Hurghada takes much longer than one to Ain Sukhna. Furthermore, there is not much to really see in the way of antiquities around Hurghada, though like elsewhere in Egypt, there seems to always be a few sites that can be visited. And while classical tourists who visit Sharm el-Sheikh frequently take in St. Catherine's Monastery, stopping along the way at the Seven Girls Monastery (Convent) at Wadi Firan, from Ain Sukhna, one can just about as easily visit the newly renovated and very famous Eastern Desert monasteries of St. Anthony and St. Paul. And, of course, there is the Suez Canal, which is only just north of Ain Sukhna and so close, in fact, that one can frequently see the large ships that have just come through the canal from many of the Ain Sukhna resorts.
While most of the resorts at Ain Sukhna attract Egyptian tourists, there are at least several that are finding more and more favor among foreign tourists. One of our favorite is Stella di Mare, a large resort compound with both family vacation units and two nice hotels, including the five star Swiss Inn and the four star PlanHotel, both of which are surprisingly reasonable in price.
They offer a host of activities and services, including one of the finest spas in North Africa. This resort has traditionally attracted a large contingency of upper class Italian tourists and will doubtless see many other foreign tourists as it becomes better known.
The resorts that begin at Ain Sukhna today stretch along the beach all the way to Zafarana, which is a small village most notable as a staging point for visiting the monasteries of the Eastern Desert. After Zafarana, there is not much until one reaches the region around Hurghada.
The region around Hurghada (known in Egypt as Ghardaga), including the more upscale village of El-Gouna just to the north, and the fine resorts in the resort compound of Soma Bay to the south, is by far the most popular tourist beach area along Egypt's mainland coast, particularly among foreign tourists.
Unlike many of the compound resorts along all of Egypt's coasts, Hurghada is a true, though small city with all the trappings and entertainment facilities one might expect of a beach resort anywhere in the world. More than 35,000 people now live in Hurghada, and there are over 100 resorts and hotels, making it Egypt's most popular resort town. Specifically,
one need not be limited to only the entertainment provided by a specific resort. Within Hurghada, there are any number of bars and restaurants, shops, including small malls and other tourist facilities. It also clearly has a small boat manufacturing industry.
There are really several types of tourist accommodations at Hurghada, each of which appeal to different types of tourists. In the town itself are hotels, some with and some without beachfronts, which have a tendency to attract more young people and those on limited budgets. During specific times of the year, there are many Eastern Europeans that fill up these hotels, along with some of the other resorts at Hurghada. These downtown hotels are frequently less expensive than the outlying resort, are of course convenient to the entertainment district, but offer somewhat less exclusive beaches.
Like elsewhere, there are also resort compounds at Hurghada that are more exclusive and which offer complete facilities including bars, restaurants, entertainment and all sorts of activities. Many of these provide all inclusive beach vacations, where meals, bars and the various activities are included in the price of the hotel room. And while Hurghada has traditionally been considered the more affordable beach area (as opposed to Sharm el-Sheikh), today, one can find a range of resort compounds from very affordable to very exclusive. One problem is that many of these types of resorts are somewhat isolated from the city itself. A taxi or other transportation is required for a trip into town.
Like Sharm el-Sheikh, Hurghada is a main destination of European charters, though traditionally it has tended to attract a somewhat younger, as well as less affluent beach goer. Hence, one should realize that many of the compounds will predominately be filled with those of a specific nationality.
Of course, as one of the primary beach destinations for foreign vacationers, there are hardly any activities found elsewhere in the world's beach resorts that cannot be found at Hurghada, with the possible exception of surfing. Along with jet skiing, skiing, parasailing, windsurfing, snorkeling, sailing and swimming, it is also one of the main scuba diving hubs for the Red Sea.
To the north of Hurghada, El-Gouna is very different. It must be one of the most orderly and planned beach towns in Egypt, and while it offers a range of hotel accommodations, it is mostly considered to be very upscale. As a planned resort village, most of the hotels are convenient to the downtown region, where there are independent bars and restaurants. And like Hurghada, there is also every imaginable beach activity, but there is also a fine golf course.
In reality, El-Gouna is not unlike a beach resort compound, only with many more hotels and a wide range of facilities. It is a very secure area which is also popular among upper class Egyptians. In fact, it is considered a playground for Egypt's rich and famous, and often hosts concerts and sporting events. Like other resort compounds, there are also privately owned villas. Unlike many other resort compounds, there is a complete infrastructure, including an airport, a marina, a good hospital and even a fine school. They even have their own TV and radio station. All said, El-Gouna is one of Egypt's classiest beach destinations.
South of Hurghada is a resort strip with hotels and resorts crammed along a stretch of beach for at least 20 kilometers. About halfway between Hurghada and Safaga is a small, low key beach resort used mainly by divers,
though those with their own tent can also camp. This is Sharm al-Naga, and just a bit further south is Soma Bay which, in recent years, has probably become known for its golf course more than its fine beaches. It is a common getaway for Cairo's dedicated golfers, but at the same time, the Sheraton here has to be one of that chain's most beautiful hotels in Egypt. Soma Bay is really one of Egypt's early beach resort compounds, which includes private villas along with a new Hyatt hotel. Other hotels include the Robinson and as of now, a La Residence, though other hotels are expected to be built here. Like at Stella di Mare further up the coast, there is also a Thalasso Spa here as well. Soma Bay offers all the normal activities, including scuba diving, and also has its own small marina.
Significantly, both El-Gouna and Soma Bay are close enough to Hurghada to allow for a quick trip into town for some shopping and additional entertainment opportunities in the evening. In many ways, these areas make up a specific zone along the mainland coast of Egypt's Red Sea, as one the countries premier beach fronts.
From this area south along the coast there are a number of "camps", usually with only rudimentary accommodations, which sometimes offer quaint beach vacations or are at times dedicated to scuba divers, mixed in with some very specific larger resorts areas, the most notable of which is Marsa Alam.
The first vacation destination of any size south of Soma Bay is Safaga, which is more of a port than anything else, though it attracts a substantial number of scuba divers. Safaga does have some nice accommodations, though not particularly world class, including one of the few Holiday Inns in Egypt. While many of the visitors to Safaga are mostly interested in scuba diving, it is an excellent region for windsurfing and was, in fact, the venue for the 1993 World Windsurfing Championships.
South of Safaga, the next notable city is Al-Quseir, which has become more and more of a beach resort village, mostly specializing in scuba diving, but at the same time, has considerable historic significance. Located about 140 kilometers south of Hurghada, during ancient times it was known as "White Harbor", and it was from here that Queen Hatshepsut's expeditions to Punt set out for the Red Sea segment of their journey. The old port town of Myos Hormos, a Ptolemaic and Roman port engaged in trade with India is also here, about eight miles north adjacent to the Movenpick Hotel.
Al-Quseir, perhaps because of it's history and the fact that it is not a modern invention of tourism, has a certain charm that is not present in many of Egypt's other Red Sea towns. It is dominated by an Ottoman fortress and old coral-block buildings with wooden balconies that surround the waterfront in the center of town. Here, the beaches are a bit less crowded than they are further north.
Again, while one may find some small tourist camps south of Al-Quseir, mostly completely dedicated to scuba diving, the next major tourist destination on the mainland Red Sea, and by far the most thriving one south of Hurghada, is Marsa Alam. Many of Egypt's Red Sea Coast vacations areas were only small fishing villages only a few years ago, and though
Marsa Alam does have an ancient history. During the Greco-Roman Period, Ptolemy II built a road leading from Edfu to this village, which followed a more ancient route. Inland gold and emerald mines were exploited during Egypt's distant past.
Today, the airport is receiving chartered flights directly from Europe, and there are also an increasing number of divers who come here to avoid the crowds further north. This has all resulted in a number of tourist resorts being built both to the north and south of the village.
Isolated though it may be on Egypt's southern coastline, its warm climate, particularly during the winter months, will likely see this area flourish in future years.
Still further south is Shams Alam, which in recent years has been the southernmost tourist outpost along the Red Sea. This is really a very small village, with rudimentary but very acceptable accommodations and a nice beach. It is almost exclusively the domain of scuba divers looking to visit some of Egypt's less-frequented southern reefs.
While Egypt's mainland Red Sea coast extends further south, not only are there no real accommodations, a special permit is needed to visit these areas mostly because of military installations.
So to a large extent, the eastern mainland coast of Egypt can be broken down into three parts. These include the upper region within the the Gulf of Suez, mostly around Ain Sukhna, which is currently dominated by domestic tourists, but a growing number of foreign tourists, the main beach region around Hurghada, and the southern region which also caters to foreign tourists, but where the resorts are largely dominated by scuba diving enthusiasts.
Last Updated: June 9th, 2011
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