Ruth Emmett discovers a neon-coloured underwater world as she learns to dive in Egypt
Floating facedown on the surface of the Red Sea, I watched a mimic octopus burrow one tentacle deep into the sand. He caught – and quickly ate – his prey. And not for the first time on this break, I got the weirdest feeling that I was spying on an alien world.
Bored of conventional fly-and-flop beach holidays, I’d come to Egypt looking for a challenge – and I don’t just mean not melting in the 40°C dry heat.
I was staying in Taba Heights, a luxurious resort nestled in the red sand landscape of the Sinai Peninsula. As the Arab Spring rumbled away in far-off Cairo, it felt like an insulated bubble where the beaches were practically deserted and there were plenty of good deals up for grabs.
Case in point: Red Sea Waterworld, Egypt’s only five-star diving centre. I’d booked to the full PADI open-water diver course, but other good-value activities on offer ranged from hardcore sports like wakeboarding to the purely fun (banana boat, anyone?).
I ended every day of the week-long course feeling like I’d really achieved something. Over the week, my group of six – all of us slightly nervous newbie divers – did three open-water dives and five confined sessions. We mastered progressively harder tasks, from blowing out through your nose to clear a leaky mask, to borrowing another diver’s emergency air. It was terrifying at first, but our instructor Andy was a reassuring presence; he took care never to push us beyond our current limits.
It all left me the good type of tired… and the guilt-free type of ravenous. So, naturally, I took full advantage of the resort’s ‘Dine Around’ scheme, where guests at any of Taba Heights’ five luxury hotels get discounted meals at the other hotels’ restaurants. We tried everything from sushi at the Sofitel to Lebanese grills at the Hyatt Regency. The culinary highlight, though, was when we left the hotel complex to sample beef shanks at Castle Zaman. At this cliff-top restaurant overlooking the Gulf of Aqaba, you order 13 hours in advance, so the chefs can slow-cook your meal.
Less food-obsessed, more cultured people than me might take advantage of Taba Heights’ regular expeditions to Jerusalem, the Great Pyramid and Petra. You could also try a camel riding tour, a quad bike trip, or - if it’s your kind of thing – a few rounds on the 18-hole championship golf course.
I preferred getting pampered in the Hyatt’s luxury spa, or cooling down with a quick dip in its saltwater lagoon, a big open stretch of clear blue water fringed by palm trees. I also loved just hanging out on my private balcony (every room at the Hyatt has one). Here, I had panoramic views over the borders of three other countries: the bright lights of Israel and Jordan glittering in stark contrast with Saudi Arabia.
Turns out, I was wise to conserve energy. On our last day, we were whisked away to the Sha’ab Ghamila Reef. This final dive was the first time we got to do the classic ‘giant stride’ entry, stepping off the side of the deck and plunging into the deep. But this was easily the most amazing dive of them all. Deflated-looking puffer fish mooched around, while shoals of shimmering butterfly fish and spiky lionfish swam near coral structures shaped like underwater fireworks.Breaking the surface for the last time, I couldn’t help cheering with the rest of the freshly-qualified divers. Exhausted, exhilarated, I stretched out on the sundeck as the boat speed us back towards the cinnamon-coloured mountains. Finally, I decided, I’d earned the right to flop.
For travel information: Longwood Holidays at longwoodholidays.co.uk
Find out about more active breaks in our travel channel
Like us on facebook
Follow us on twitter
Other Hearst Magazines UK sites