An Israeli's return to Egypt's Sinai

The Russian tourists are down to three flights a week from Moscow. Rumor is the hotels are complaining, and Israelis are full of nostalgia to get back.

 WADI AL-KHOROM (Echo Valley), southern Sinai. (photo credit: Jonathan Medved)
WADI AL-KHOROM (Echo Valley), southern Sinai.
(photo credit: Jonathan Medved)

For Israelis, the very word “Sinai” evokes a wild and reckless freedom. Silence. Space. Vast and untamed nature. A place full of secrets, where only the hardiest plants and the Bedouin know how to survive.

The Sinai Peninsula is an arid desert that stretches 400 kilometers from north to south. Its land mass is 60,000 square kilometers, 6% of Egypt’s total area. From 1967 it was controlled by Israel, then returned to Egypt in 1982 as part of the peace treaty between the two countries.

My first trip to Sinai was on an Egged bus to the southern outpost of Sharm e-Sheikh. I remember a few concrete structures, a closed post office and deep blue water I was too scared to jump into. Four years later, I hitchhiked to the hippie enclave of Nueiba and got the worst sunburn of my life. After I married, our favorite getaway became the Sonesta in Taba. When Israel gave even Taba back, we would cross the border on foot and hop a Bedouin cab down to Dahab.

Sinai was intoxicating. It practically begged you to cross over, leave the lights and noise of Eilat behind, and go find yourself.

So when Egypt started developing hotels in Na’ama Bay in the late 1990s, we went back to Sharm in a cumbersome process of flights to Cairo and special visas. It had become a package tour destination for Europeans. Excited to get in the water, we arranged a snorkel expedition. A car took us one hour down to the port, where a boat then traveled for two hours to drop anchor opposite our hotel. After snorkeling, we got out of the water to see the boat crew frying up some reef fish for our lunch. My heart sank. We never went back.

 BEACHY VISTAS, cooling waters. (credit: Jonathan Medved) BEACHY VISTAS, cooling waters. (credit: Jonathan Medved)

Now it is May of 2022, the second week of direct flights from Tel Aviv to Sharm e-Sheikh. There is a war in Ukraine. The Russian tourists are down to three flights a week from Moscow. Rumor is the hotels are complaining, and Israelis are full of nostalgia to get back. The airlines are still working out some kinks, but after hearing stories of 12-hour lines to cross the border by car, I am happy to sit back and let El Al sort it out.

I haven’t traveled for a year and am sufficiently intimidated to pay attention to the scary corona message from El Al Digital warning of delays, protocols, new rules and regulations. When it takes us only 30 minutes to get from the curb of Ben-Gurion Airport to the shelf of Clinique in Duty Free, I feel like an idiot.

With two hours of mind-numbing boredom ahead of me, I wander down to the gate to check out my fellow adventurers. The flight is full: seasoned Tel Aviv couples; Arab families, from grandparents to excited toddlers; teams of divers exchanging notes; a ponytailed traveler with clogs and a carry-on; and one pale blond dressed completely in white, her straw hat the size of a beach umbrella.

It’s a 55-minute flight. You go up. You are handed a bottle of water and packet of salty cookies. You go down. But the view out the window is not the usual coastline of the Mediterranean. We are flying south this time: Jerusalem, Ma’aleh Adumim, the Dead Sea, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, then a blue wedge of water next to endless desert. Sinai.

The Four Seasons Resort

The airport at Sharm e-Sheikh feels brand-new. It certainly isn’t crowded, and we whisk through the metal detector waving our vaccination certificates. A huge sign at the top of the escalator greets us with “Welcome Back” in Russian and English. Pyramids are drawn on one side, the Kremlin on the other.

Our luggage comes out in minutes, and the only snag is the line of cars trying to exit the airport’s security gate. I stare out the window at a broken sprinkler, heroically sputtering on a struggling lawn.

The South Egyptian government has been trying hard. Notices for the World Youth Forum from last January still proudly flank the road. The prestigious Global Conference on Climate Change (COP27) is scheduled to take place in Sharm this November, bringing delegates from two hundred countries to the area. The world is back on the move, and the Egyptian government is building roads, tightening security and getting ready to welcome it.

We are headed to the Four Seasons, the most luxurious of the 120 properties that now sprawl across the southern coast. In a few minutes we will pass through its security gate and eyeball the fluffy bomb-sniffing dog. We will watch our luggage get x-rayed, while sipping cups of chilled melon juice. We will be welcomed by Sam Ioannidis, a charismatic veteran of 30 years with the Four Seasons, and general manager there since 2019. This is not a hotel but what is known as a “Destination Resort.” And “Destination” is the relevant word here, since once on Four Seasons property, there isn’t much reason to leave.

The resort is located on a 1-kilometer stretch of private coastline, with two separate beaches and swimming pool areas. Its 12 restaurants and bars include Latin, Italian, Lebanese and Asian cuisine, as well as a biweekly fish market, where you pick out your dinner from that day’s catch.

There’s a full gym for the disciplined, and for the rest of us, a spa that promises to relax you with hot stones, herbal infusions, a Cleopatra-inspired milk bath or a chocolate cream massage (I did not try this). And then there’s the old standbys: kids club, tennis and squash courts, conference facilities, dive center and, soon, a golf course.

“There’s a larger tendency to travel with your extended family, and the length of stay has increased. People want more space.”

Sam Ioannidis

“COVID changed how people travel,” reflects Sam. “There’s a larger tendency to travel with your extended family, and the length of stay has increased. People want more space.” He elaborates. “They want elbow room. They want to spread out. They want to go somewhere, feel safe and stay longer.”

In that spirit, the resort opened its new expansion in March, doubling its size. It now has over 440 units, which range from already spacious guest rooms and suites to much larger villas and chalets. Balconies and private pools abound, gardens and sea views are guaranteed. And for those who decide they really like this lifestyle, there are luxury residences for sale. Twenty-two new villas with infinity pools, green lawns, 700-square-meter interiors and a price tag somewhere between $7 million and $10m.

And who wouldn’t want to stay? The Four Season’s website describes the resort as “nestled in an Arabian fairy tale,” and, lucky for me, it isn’t far-off. Backlit palm trees sway all the way to the lobby entrance. The granite silence of the desert surrounds the perimeter, broken only by the stark shape of Tiran Island rising out of the sea. The result is a tranquil oasis of water and wind, tiled fountains, cascading streams, rose-colored stucco, flowers on domed terraces, hanging lanterns, birdsong and calm.

Inside our room, the pampering continues. Ice dutifully appears in the bucket. L’Occitane lotions and soaps are refreshed daily. Pistachio and honey delicacies are delivered to our door.

With all that elbow room comes quite a bit of walking or, if you prefer, travel by electric golf carts. These can be summoned or, if you get tired mid-trek, flagged down, which is how we meet the other guests: the British couple who kvell about their recent trip to Jerusalem, the Russian mother on her own with two children, the visitor from Kuwait who can’t wait for direct flights to Tel Aviv.

On our first buggy ride through the property, I notice dozens of gardeners pruning and clipping, groundsmen carrying ladders, housekeeping staff, room service deliveries, and trucks with the name of their food venue ferrying supplies back and forth. Forget about the guests, how many staff members does it take to sustain this level of service and luxury? Well, the answer turns out to be over one thousand. So the next question is where do they put them all?

Most of the employees are from Egypt, and they are housed in a complex that functions like a second hotel. Meals are provided, and even the opportunity to bring their own families for a visit. During the month of Ramadan, the hotel team, including non-Muslims, daily broke the fast together with a communal iftar meal.

“The employee experience is as important to us as the guest experience,” Sam explains. “We want them to feel that this is their home. We focus on hiring the right people. We focus on attitude, and then we focus on training. We look for people who have a good heart,” he continues. “We want the staff to be unscripted and authentic. We want guests to come here and feel that they are in Egypt, to feel the personality of our team.”

Whatever they are doing, it seems to be working. We’ve only been here a day, but we are recognized everywhere and addressed by name. Our preferences (a slight addiction to bottled soda water, filter coffee with milk on the side) are known, and we are never asked for our room number. The rotating waitstaff pops up at different venues, delighted to see us again. And so Adel from the Reef Grill bounces up to our table at the pool bar with a huge smile. “Ah, you have finally arrived!”

Sinai Blues: snorkeling, coral reefs

The same openhearted hospitality exists where I need it most – in the Dive Center, aptly named Sinai Blues. Having tried diving once, I am firmly in the “no fuss, just jump in the water” snorkel camp. But I am a terrible swimmer. I panic and swallow water. My mask fogs up and leaks, and when I put it back on, there’s seawater in my eyes. While my husband and the others swim blithely ahead, I am the one grabbing onto the guide’s flippers for dear life.

The Four Seasons looks out onto Tiran Island, a small land mass owned by Saudi Arabia. The surrounding water (the Straits of Tiran) hides a bounty of delights: ship wrecks and underwater mountains, ringed by coral reefs. By some planetary fluke, the coral of the Red Sea have escaped bleaching caused by global warming, a phenomenon that has killed underwater life elsewhere. It is a now protected marine park, with no fishing or water sports allowed. Heat-resistant corals, regeneration projects and government intervention have managed to protect one of the last thriving reefs in the world.

There are more than 50 distinct sites in the Sharm e-Sheikh waters, including the Holy Grail of scuba diving – Ras Mohammad, where no snorkeling is allowed. Even to visit these local reefs, you need government permission – handed out sparingly.

Sinai Blues is one of the few venues with access and has three local trips a day. Divers and us lowly snorkelers are handed life jackets and wet suits, masks and fins. The team chooses a spot based on weather conditions, and we buckle ourselves into a speedboat and head out. There are only four of us, and Lotfy, whose excellent English was learned growing up in Cairo, is the snorkel guide. He shows me why my mask has been leaking (tense expression) and says “pucker your lips like a selfie,” a somewhat ridiculous look that fixes the problem at once.

The two divers in our group head downward to spot hammerhead sharks and sea turtles, but there’s enough beauty on the surface to keep me in the water for hours: delicate fans of coral, clown fish, schools of tuna, the deep purple lips of clams, the reef lit up with darting neon colors. The water is warm and shallow, filled with harmless pink jellyfish, which float past like gentle balloons. A puffer fish eyes me squarely from under his rock. There are dappled openings in the reef where I could peek if I had the guts, but I am happy to leave that particular sea life alone. I am drifting effortlessly. The sea does all the work. The boat is waiting ahead, Lotfy always in sight.

Sam, it turns out, jogs every day at 5:30 a.m., reporting eagle rays and pods of spinner dolphins. He visits Saint Catherine’s Monastery once a month.

“We’re part of the local community,” he explains. “If we talk about it, we should know about it.”

The desert experience

So as not to be outdone, we decide to head into the desert next, the wild, untamed Sinai we remember from years ago.

All of our inquiries are met with the same set of brochures showing camel rides and smiling Bedouin. We ask the concierge for a driver to “just take us into the desert. No need for a show.” And so, we are picked up by Ali, from El Sherif Safari, and head south on a spotless 10-lane highway that connects Taba with Cairo, complete with a bike lane. It is 5 p.m. and we are the only car visible.

We are at the entrance of Wadi al-Khorom. The only way in or out is a gate in a security wall stretching kilometers in each direction. In case there is any doubt to its purpose, “SAFARI” is posted in giant letters. Here the restless guests of all 120 hotels gather for an afternoon desert experience.

Ali quickly makes us roll up the windows, since this wadi has become one long stretch of powdered sand, pummeled daily. To our right is an empty racetrack for camels, but the main event is ATVs of every size and shape, each topped with a keffiyeh-shrouded tourist zigzagging through the dust. We look at the mountains in the distance and beg Ali to get us out of there. His answer is to deliver us to the Bedouin tea corner, where we are handed a small paper cup and told to wait.

Muhammad is our next guide, who whisks us off on a dune buggy. Soon we have gone past all the tire marks. Muhammad kills the motor and it’s actually quiet. He is a city boy from Giza and can’t really identify what we are seeing. Instead, he entertains us with creating Magritte-like photos on our phones, where rocks seem to float over our outstretched hands.

I see some green closer to the rocks and walk over to investigate. There, in the sand, I find improbable plants growing: a desert gourd that is poisonous to eat, but used by the Bedouin to treat rheumatism; next to it, a flowering thistle; and over there, another cluster of blossoms. I bend down to feel the dry sand. It hasn’t rained here since January. How can this be? I see animal tracks and fresh scat. I want to see more, go further away from the noise and the dust and the motors. There. A crack between the granite. And behind me, my husband and Muhammad shouting, “Come Back!”

It’s dark now, that sudden night that falls in Sinai. We get back into the van and find ourselves stuck behind an endless motorcade of ATVs. There must be almost 50 of them, a dust-covered, post-apocalyptic procession of masked tourists heading for the next event: the Bedouin fire show, belly dancer and dinner. In the distance, huge lights on the side of a hill spell out “BEDUIN VIP,” the exclusive alternative for guests of the luxury resorts. We hurry past, exiting onto an empty ramp, built for just that purpose.

On our last morning, I decide to walk to breakfast. I follow the curving road of new villas we’ve started calling Beverly Hills. My husband has gone ahead to “our table,” a shaded corner of the balcony, where small birds come to visit and a fountain burbles below.

Already, the sanitizer is pushed aside. The disposable face mask, never used. The three Tel Aviv couples who staked out the table next to us are gone. In their place is a woman in full hijab with her teenage children. I ignore my phone and refuse to think about the news, the plunging stock market. For the next few hours I just don’t want to know.

Then I hear the sound of Hebrew coming from the lobby. Just in time, the next batch of Israelis arrives.■