Discover the beach resort town of Hurghada
Located in Egypt, it is an irresistible combination of desert exotica and velvety golden beaches
I fell in love with Hurghada the moment the surf-laden expanse of the Red Sea, bluer than Paul Newman's eyes, unfurled below my aircraft. Pressing my nose against the window, I soaked it all in. Childlike glee is appropriate no matter your age.
Indeed, the Red Sea is the pivot around which Hurghada seems to flow. The southern Egyptian city, located about 400 km from Cairo, is the capital of the Red Sea governorate. It ribbons its way 40 miles along a coastline, peppered with hotel resorts, sunny beaches and luxury villas, as well as some of the most breathtaking diving sites.
Although the Red Sea coast hosts many other famous Egyptian resorts - Sharm el Sheikh, El Gouna, Dahab and Safaga to name a few - Hurghada enjoys a rock star cachet. An irresistible combination of desert exotica and velvety golden beaches, it looks like summer never ends here. The ocean is warm and welcoming, the currents keep the temperature suitable for year-round travel and the shallow, windy lagoons are perfect for all manner of water sports. What's not to like?
As my hotel is just a heartbeat away from the ocean, the beach became my favoured haunt. I lolled on it for hours, experiencing a strange catharsis as the sand slipped between my toes, the oceanic roar filled my senses and the breeze ruffled my hair.
The Hurghada Marina is a must-visit too. An atmospheric place with people strolling along the boulevard, its shops, upscale cafés and restaurants remain open until the wee hours. Multi-million dollar yachts float on the majestic Red Sea. Not far is the Hurghada Grand Aquarium, home to flashy fishes, colourful crustaceans and riveting reptiles. An underwater tunnel lets you experience marine mammals from up close. Meanwhile, an in-house zoo enthrals kids and adults alike.
If you'd rather opt for high-octane activities, no problem. There's water skiing, snorkelling, scuba diving, wind surfing, parasailing, kite surfing and fishing. Exploring Hurghada's fascinating underwater world can be a whole day's entertainment. The Red Sea teems with the weird and the wonderful - clams, shellfish, slugs, octopuses, rainbow-hued corals, turtles, reef sharks and whales. In short, almost the entire cast of Finding Nemo. For those who venture deeper into the ocean, the rewards are rich in the form of the gentle giants of the tropical seas - manta rays.
Going Down Under
Eschewing the high-adrenaline activities, I opted instead for a two-hour glass-bottom boat trip to view rich marine wonders without getting wet. For this, I ensconced myself inside the cavernous hull of a comfortable, semi-submarine boat that cruises on an ocean of deep jewel tones.
Fitted with 20 panoramic windows, it offers excellent underwater views. As we reached a depth of around 16 feet, vivid coral gardens, rays and turtles come into view. Shoals of brightly coloured fish, sea horses and other marine exotica flirt with us through the sheer partition, eliciting squeals of delight from some co-passengers.
Yet, Hurghada isn't all about the sea. Travel a little south and you're immersed in the epic, wild expanse of the Eastern Desert. Criss-crossed by trade routes dating back centuries, it hosts ancient rock art and desolate ruins, an explorer's dream.
Fabulous mosques, ruins of ancient cities and magnificent old monuments offer an unparalleled immersive travel experience. South of Hurghada, there are dive safaris, camel/jeep safaris, trekking in the mountains as well as a chaotic - albeit colourful - camel market in Shalateen.
Hurghada's souk is a maelstrom of sights, sounds and smells. Noisy and unpretentious, it offers an entire universe of diversity. Located in the Old Town of El Dahar, it showcases authentic Egyptian life unblemished by modernity. Old-world cafés proffer everything from continental cuisine to seafood dishes to Egyptian Koshary, a delicious jumble of rice, lentils, and macaroni.
The bazaar - basically a dusty sprawl of labyrinthine lanes - is a cave of goodies. It is crammed with shops selling silver and copper products, leather, painted papyrus, spices, cotton, shisha pipes, postcards, alabaster statues, fruits, vegetables, nuts, spices, herbs...Or perhaps you'd like to buy a donkey?
Being a coastal city, Hurghada's craftsmen make prolific use of materials harvested from the sea, especially coral, which is repurposed into jewellery, accessories and collectibles. Shops selling authentic papyrus are ubiquitous. This is an ancient Egyptian-style plant-based paper with hieroglyphics.
"Ancient Egyptians used fragile stalks of the papyrus plant to create paper to write or paint on," my guide Bahaa Hassan informs me, as I inspect the coarse paper at a shop. "Papyrus was used in the ancient Mediterranean world and was crafted from the pith of the papyrus plant that grew abundantly along the Nile's banks. The tall aquatic sedge from which papyrus is obtained is native to central Africa and the Nile valley."
Because of its endless fascinating offerings, navigating El Dahar souk can be mindboggling. Unmindful of the whirligig, I just went with the flow, discovering astonishing produce and products along the way, chatting with friendly vendors who were only too happy to offer me samples of sweet and savoury treats. All this while giving me a sneak peek into enchanting Egyptian life as it existed thousands of years ago.