Relaxing at a Desert Resort
14.03.2012 - 17.03.2012 75 °F
It's been several years since I have read the Cliffs Notes for The Inferno, but I'm pretty sure Dante was describing quarry diving when he wrote about the fifth level of hell. When we got our scuba open water certifications last year, we had to do our certification dives at Mermet Springs quarry where the water was freezing and the visibility was at cataract levels. After that awful experience, The Wife was hesitant to pursue diving any further. After much needling and cajoling, I convinced her to give it one more try. However, we decided that the next time would be in the warm, clear waters of the Red Sea, home to many nice and easily accessible reefs.
Initially, I felt pretty stupid flying halfway around the world just to go to a beach surrounded by miles and miles of endless desert. I felt even more stupid lugging around an entire suitcase filled with our scuba gear for the past two weeks. However, once we arrived at the Four Seasons Hotel in Sharm el-Sheikh, I felt pretty damn smart. To say the least, the place was awesome. It was miles beyond the Four Seasons that we stayed at in St. Louis (and at a comparable price).
We had booked a basic room, but the hotel upgraded us up to this spacious deluxe room without us even asking.
The hotel is actually built on a steep hill, so there can be some walking to do. Alternatively, a funicular can be used to transport folks from the main facilities such as the lobby, main restaurants, fitness center, and spa to the pool and beach down at the bottom. As expected for a hotel of this caliber, the service was impeccable. Housekeeping cleaned our rooms and replaced the towels at least twice a day. The cabana boys were always available to setup new chaises for us no matter how many times we played musical chairs to escape the direct sunlight. I could definitely see how this resort is rated the top hotel in all of Egypt.
From our balcony, we got a great view of the Red Sea and Tiran Island.
At 10 AM on our first morning there, we met with the Sinai Blues Diving Center located on The Four Seasons Hotel's beach. We had decided to dive with them out of simple convenience. Their fast boats left straight from the hotel's docks. That way we could enjoy the diving and still maximize our time with the hotel's amenities. After filling out the necessary paperwork, we did a checkout dive in their house reef. The water was much colder than we had expected (it was still winter/spring in Sharm).
Because of the water temperature, we wore shorties over our 3 mm full wet suits.
Being extra buoyant from the two wetsuits and all the fat I have gained on the trip, I ended up having to wear a weight belt in addition to fully packing my integrated weight pockets.
We were a bit rusty starting off, especially when the initial shock of cold water hit us. However, we acclimated quickly, and relaxed enough to enjoy their very nice house reef. In addition to the usual reef suspects, we saw multiple lionfish, stingrays, two huge Napoleon fish (humpback wrasse), and a little black nudibranch with blue spots. I was an oxygen whore, so the dive lasted only 35 minutes. I was really glad that The Wife thoroughly enjoyed the experience.
Does a nudibranch taste like escargot?
(Above and below) A stingray relaxes beneath some rocks only a few feet away from the docks.
Since we had gorged ourselves earlier at the breakfast buffet, we skipped lunch and laid out by the pool for the next two hours. We returned to the pier for our second dive of the day. We took a rigid inflatable boat (i.e. zodiac) to Gordon's Reef within the Straits of Tiran. The journey took under 15 minutes because we were flying along on the crests of the waves. However, it was a cold and bumpy ride, not unlike being on a roller-coaster on a rainy, windy day. We were joined by a novice English diver named Kyle who had been out with a different Sinai Blues instructor for the past few days. He recanted an experience the previous year when he was diving in Greece with a horrible instructor who ignored him. Kyle ran out of air 20 meters underwater. This nearly fatal experience had made him wary of diving centers and instructors. Thankfully, he only had high praise for the Sinai Blues staff which helped calm our nerves for our first ocean dive off of a boat. Once again we had a great time. Our guide, Ligia, was very good at keeping a good pace, fast enough so that we could explore much of the reef, but slow enough so that we never felt that we were ever lagging behind too far. With her 8 years of experience diving in Sharm, she easily pointed out small critters that I would have never noticed.
In 1981, the Lovilla wrecked in the Straits of Tiran spilling barrels throughout Gordon's reef.
We encountered many large blue clams interspersed throughout the reef.
We swam through a group of innocuous purple jellyfish.
The coral was more pervasive on Gordon's reef, but we didn't see any large marine life.
By 2:30 PM, we were back at the hotel. Instead of having to break down and wash our equipment, the diving center staff took care of everything. We definitely preferred their full service pampering on our vacation. We decided to walk to the nearby Soho Square to see if there was anything interesting there. Nope. Just a bunch of restaurants and souvenir shops. There are also many pharmacies peddling erectile dysfunction medications. Apparently, no prescription is needed, but the prices are pretty much the same as you would find back in the States. We were stuck trailing behind a bald, middle-aged man with a hair sweater rocking a bright red speedo. The Wife couldn't stop laughing uncontrollably. I didn't know whether to be embarrassed for him or for her.
What about Levitra?
That evening we ate at the hotel's Waha restaurant, overlooking the swimming pool. They had a special where one of the chefs from the Four Season in Thailand was cooking her native dishes. The food was very tasty, but it was also the most we have ever spent on Thai food.
((Left) Thai chicken and crab cake with a cucumber chili sauce. (Middle) Spicy chicken soup with coconut milk. (Right) Spicy prawn soup with lemongrass and kaffir lime leaves.
(Left) Green curry chicken. (Middle) Fried sea bass with three flavors sauce. (Right) Thai taro custard.
(Above and below) Later that night, we sat on our balcony overlooking the Red Sea while enjoying tea on a moonless night.
The next morning, we met at 9 AM for a quick RIB ride to Ras Ghamila. This site is known for it's large fan corals. We saw a sea turtle in the distance swimming out to sea. There was also a huge sea cucumber that dumped a huge load of "poop" as we swam by it and a black nudibranch that looked like a stick.
Posing on our last dive together.
After the dive, we hired a cab for 45 Egyptian pounds to take us to Naama Bay. I finally understood why so many posts on Tripadvisor rip on Egyptian vendors. Unlike most of the shopkeepers we have encountered throughout the country, these guys are beyond obnoxious. They hassled us incessantly to come into their stores. When we politely refused, they demanded that we 'show them respect' as visitors to their country and peruse their wares. I must have overlooked that requirement to shop when I applied for my Egyptian visa. Sadly, most of these guys sold cheap, piece of crap souvenirs and knock-offs likely made in China. There were no shortage of hotels in this area. I would hate to stay at one of them and get hassled every 10 feet as soon as you leave the premises. We did find one nice store called Aladdin (yeah, not very creative) that actually sold higher quality crafts, glassware, and cotton scarves. The best part is the proprieter left us alone while we shopped. We rewarded him with several purchases.
The Wife was on a special mission to find a coptic cross for her charm bracelet. Unfortunately, every jewelry store we checked only carried ankhs. However, she was happy to finally find a Starbucks so that she could add Sharm el-Sheik and Egypt mugs to her collection.
Arabic for over-priced coffee and scones.
Afterwards, we made a beeline to McDonald's to see what exciting local variations they have on American fastfood. Unfortunately, the menu was almost identical to that back in the U.S.
(Left) The uniinspiring McArabia chicken is composed of grilled chicken patties stuffed into flatbread with a yogurt sauce. (Right) With McDonald's fatty, high calorie food, will this towel be big enough for the majority of their customers?
Back at our hotel, we hit the fitness center for an hour. I decided to do a night dive on the house reef at 7 PM. The Wife passed on this chance, which was her loss. By far, this was the best dive of the trip. The reef was teeming with life, albeit most of it quietly resting. The coral that was hidden during the daytime, unfurled in the darkness. However, they retracted when the beams of our flashlights fell on them. The reef was teeming with sea urchins which glowed a vibrant purple as our flashlights closed in on them. We encountered many parrotfish hiding in the crevasses and larger fish sleeping under the rocks. The small reef shrimp and crabs were more active, scurrying about in the darkness. At one point two of the stingrays glided around us as we carefully kept our distance. Likewise, we did have to be careful with the large population of lionfish. Ligia explained that they can be attracted to our flashlights and may start following us around. The most amazing thing we encountered was a large colony of "jellyfish" stacked together in a line that stretched at least 15 feet long. As this mass floated by, we could observe their bioluminesce up close.
Watch where you touch. There's no shortage of lionfish in the house reef.
After the dive, The Wife and I settled on dinner at the buffet restaurant Arabesque. Usually they serve typical Middle Eastern fare, but that night they cooked international food. The food was a huge disappointment, our only bad experience at the Four Seasons. At $50/person, we expected way better quality.
On our third day in Sharm el-Sheikh, we did absolutely nothing. No diving, no sightseeing, and no shopping. We spent the entire day by the pool admiring the bright red tans that all the Europeans vacationers were getting.
Unlike the other guests, we enjoyed the pool from the shade of the umbrellas.
We didn't pass up a chance at eating at Il Frantoio, the hotel's signature restaurant. The food was so good that we regretted that we had not gone here every night during our stay.
(Left) Bread. (Right) Amuse bouche of salmon carpaccio.
(Left) Oven baked fennel cake, cranberry braised endive, and sauteed prawns. (Right) Seafood saffron risotto.
(Left) Duck ravioli with a mixed mushroom ragu and sage sauce. (Right) Ricotta pesto stuffed gnocchi, caramelized prawns, and pistachios
(Left) Handmade pappardelle with lobster, scallops, and green pea veloute. (Right) Eggplant wrapped sea bass with sun dried tomatos, savoy cabbage, and cauliflower sauce.
For our last day in Egypt, we had planned on an excursion to Mount Sinai and St. Catherine's Monastery. In retrospect, the trip sounded a lot better on paper. Who wouldn't want to retrace the steps that Moses once took to receive the Ten Commandmants? Who wouldn't want to visit the offshoots of the Burning Bush? Who wouldn't want to hike up a mountain for two or three hours in the frigid darkness just to catch the morning sunrise? Who wouldn't want to leave the plush amenities of their hotel to spend hours on a bus staring at the endless desert? And who wouldn't pass up getting kidnapped by local bedouins who have been snatching tourists over the past several months to force the Egyptian government to release their imprisoned tribal members?
Once we arrived in Sharm el-Sheikh, it was a no-brainer that we needed to cancel this trip. Instead, we just spent the day lounging by the pool again. The Four Seasons was great at giving us a late checkout time of 5 PM. Later on, we learned that two Brazilian tourists were kidnapped around the St. Catherine's Monastery that same day. As per the norm, they were later released unharmed. I guess we chose wisely.
At 8PM, we boarded our flight for the long, multi-stage trip back to the United States. Looking back at our last 17 days, we were both pleasantly surprised how wonderful our trip to Egypt and Jordan turned out.