Travel: Sun-seekers return to Hurghada despite the violence of Egypt's recent past
As a winter sun destination, Egypt is vying with the Canaries for top slot. Hannah Stephenson visits Hurghada to find out what it has to offer
I COUNT eight excursion boats huddled together in the crystal clear waters off Giftun Island, passengers offloading from small-engined transfer boats onto the picture-postcard white sandy beach like an army of ants marching into new territory.
The island, divided into three sections – Paradise, Giftun and Mahmya – is a well-trodden stop-off for craft on the Red Sea tourist trail of Hurghada, Egypt, and initially I'm sceptical of its claims of great snorkelling on the coral reef within swimming distance, simply because of the weight of visible human traffic.
Yet, just a short walk from the drop-off point, I am away from the crowds and immersed in an unexpected underwater delight of marine life, looking down on a profusion of colourful fish you'd be pleased to see on a less commercial dive.
Chunky pink and blue parrotfish, so close you can hear their teeth gnawing the rock below as they forage, share space with black and white striped damselfish, acid-yellow butterfly fish and cleverly camouflaged lizardfish lurking on the hard marine landscape.
Donning goggles and snorkels, my whole family – even my daughter, Grace (18), who hates putting her face underwater – delight in the spectacle below.
While much of the coral close to the shore has been damaged by tourists and bleaching (although scientists have found that the coral in the Red Sea is among the most temperature-resistant in the world), there is still enough to attract schools of colourful fish.
The plethora of excursion boats is just one sign that tourists from this part of the world are returning to Egypt after a seven-year hiatus which began with the 2011 revolution and subsequent political unrest, followed by the bombing of a Russian charter plane in 2015, in which more than 200 tourists were killed.
Late last summer Hurghada was again unhappily thrown into the spotlight following the deaths of British holidaymakers John and Susan Cooper at a local hotel, while western tourists were targeted in terrorist stabbing attacks in Hurghada in 2016 and again in 2017, the latter claiming the lives of three European women.
Despite this, Thomas Cook says the numbers of bookings to Egypt are up. It is still among the tour operator's top five winter destinations, vying with the Canaries for top slot.
For winter sun, Hurghada is on a par price with Tenerife and is a cheaper alternative to Cape Verde, Dubai and long-haul destinations such as the Caribbean. The introduction of e-visas to Egypt have also quickened what used to be quite a laborious process at the airport.
Its winter weather is sub-tropical and it has much less rain than the Canaries – only 2.36 inches of rainfall a year – and offers amazing diving, fishing and marine pursuits, as well as different desert activities.
Hurghada started life as a fishing village but since 1980 has expanded massively into a major tourist centre, complete with an endless stretch of all-inclusive beach resorts and ornate hotels, offering an array of pampering within their ochre and terracotta-painted walls and mock minaret and mosque architecture.
We're staying in Thomas Cook's own-brand SENTIDO Mamlouk Palace Resort on that Red Sea Riviera stretch, a marble-encrusted, air-conditioned all-inclusive beachfront hotspot.
From its colossal pools and private beach, to its eclectic mix of a la carte restaurants, an entertainment programme including beach volleyball, football and use of an aqua park at its adjoining sister hotel, it's complete with everything you need for a family fly-and-flop break.
Here, you can dine on Arabic and Egyptian specialities of baba ganoush, falafel, mashed fava beans, lamb kofta and kebabs, mouthwatering tagines filled with okra and tomatoes and other authentic delights, although there's also plenty for the more finicky, perhaps younger, diner too.
During the day, beach devotees take leisurely rides on exotic-looking camels, whose saddles and bridles are adorned with multi-coloured tassels, while in the evening tourists are invited into dimly lit awnings to sit barefoot and smoke shisha, offered in a variety of flavours.
Realistically, it's too far to go to Luxor or Cairo from Hurghada for the day – it's a four-hour drive to Luxor and seven hours to Cairo – but the resort is ideal for people who want to experience a little Egyptian ambience, without venturing too far from the lap of luxury.
The other main draw is its people. The Egyptians have had years of turmoil and they genuinely want holidaymakers to enjoy their stay and see the best of their country. It's a sentiment echoed by many of the guests I speak to at the hotel.
But to get any notion of real life here, we venture into downtown Hurghada, an area known as El Dahar, where we find a hubbub of activity, with vendors selling local crafts, including papyrus, shisha pipes and gold.
The busiest area is Sakkala, which is awash with shops and bazaars selling a mishmash of goods, from fake Chanel handbags to Arabic sweets and mobile phones. It's here you can haggle, bagging a bargain for half of the original asking price, if you're canny.
In less frenetic outlets, shopkeepers will invite you to smell the fragrance of their calming, health-giving dried teas, the most famous of which is hibiscus, or gently encourage you to buy a small bag of aromatic spice.
We take a stroll along the promenade of the modern marina lined with restaurants and bars, their walls painted in soft palettes of terracotta and mustard, pastel yellow, green and blue cushions covering luxurious outdoor sofas. Yet even in this upmarket location, you can get a beer for around £1.50, while a whole seafood platter will only set you back about £12.
From there, we admire the great yachts and smaller excursion boats vying for mooring space on the water, all in the shadow of the Mosque El Mina Masjid, the largest mosque in Hurghada.
Like many visitors, I'm also here for the diving. Tourists come to this Red Sea resort for the scuba experience, although real aficionados will go a bit further down the coast to Marsa Alam, to swim with the pods of spinner dolphins and admire the hammerhead sharks, lumbering dugongs and giant sea turtles which occupy these waters.
My 19-year-old son Will and I – the only members of my family who dive – reconnect underwater off Makadi Bay, just outside Hurghada, where age is no barrier to the sheer joy we both feel at the sight of parrotfish, snapper and other brightly coloured marine life amid the impressive coral network.
Our divemaster, Mohamed, encouraging, experienced and confident, gently pushes us towards improving our diving techniques at our first dive site, Ras Disha, while at the second, we marvel at a school of transparent glassfish which appear through a hollow in a rock, reflected like jewels in a chandelier.
The state of the coral too, in shades of blue, purple, raspberry pink and burnt orange, is impressive despite some damage.
While so much of the world's coral has been bleached, research suggests that coral in the Red Sea is very resilient to high temperature changes and is likely to be the last to survive in a world faced by global warming. My advice? Go there before it too succumbs – and grab yourself some winter sun at the same time.
Thomas Cook offers seven nights at the four-star SENTIDO Mamlouk Palace Resort from £481pp, staying in a twin room on an all-inclusive basis. Prices are based two adults sharing, departing from London Gatwick on February 3, with 15kg luggage, resort transfers, 24-hour Connected Service and ATOL protection. Flights from a number of regional airports available; for all offers see thomascook.com or call 0844 412 5970.