There is a solid argument that the Red Sea is a sea like no other – an incomparable body of water that packs more into its narrow, sun-kissed channel than any other on the planet. Even the quickest of glances at the atlas is enough to remind the casual observer of its geographic importance. For here is a line in the sand that, while only 221 miles across at its widest point, separates two continents in the style of an ocean. While we are at it, here too is a touchstone of legend and faith whose backstory underpins two religions; whose most famous tale starts with (to quote the biblical Book of Exodus) God telling Moses to “hold out your hand over the sea, and the water will come back over the Egyptians and their chariots and their drivers”, and finishes with Charlton Heston pulling off the same feat on celluloid in 1956 (or Christian Bale in 2014, if you prefer. Though you shouldn’t).
Here, too, is a global crossroads where merchant vessels have sailed for centuries – and on whose fringes ancient civilisations have risen and fallen. Even now, eight different countries stand stationed on its main torso and two upper arms: Egypt, Sudan, Eritrea and Djibouti on its African flank; Israel, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Yemen on the Asian. But let’s not get sidetracked. While last week’s removal of every remaining African and Asian nation from the UK’s much-disliked red list is spectacularly good news, our first journeys back to both continents are likely to be tentative footsteps to familiar places. And in the case of the Red Sea, that means three countries: Egypt, Israel and Jordan. These are the three destinations that have most successfully repurposed some of their Red Sea coastline to its most obvious travel-related purpose: beach holidays. Naturally, this is easier in some cases than it is in others. Egypt can boast more than 1,050 miles of beaches, including sections of both the Gulf of Suez and the Gulf of Aqaba. Jordan, by contrast, has just 16 miles of Red Sea coast, while Israel’s share is smaller still – at just seven miles.
But the effect is much the same. Hotels with consistent degrees of high comfort – loungers and swimming pools facing the water, with the odd golf course tucked in – are an enticing image, particularly at this time of year when Europe is tipping towards winter. Visit Sharm El Sheikh, Eilat or Aqaba in the next few months and you can expect temperatures in the low to mid-20s. Good enough – and all the better when you consider that all three countries are open to British travellers (with certain caveats).
Of course, a holiday by the Red Sea does not have to be an exercise in pure indolence – and a beachside resort can just as easily be a base for, or part of, a broader itinerary that takes in key cities, historic sites and areas of geographic majesty. Indeed, green shoots of demand for such getaways are already showing.
“We have had a substantial increase in enquiries about Egypt since the red list ruling was lifted,” says George Morgan-Grenville, CEO of luxury tour operator Red Savannah. “Pent-up demand means that we are already seeing limited availability in the best hotels and on the best Nile cruise boats.”
This is echoed by Jenny Cox of adventure specialist Exodus Travels. “The news that the red list was being dramatically reduced has boosted consumer confidence,” she says. “We have already had a number of enquiries about Egypt, but as visitor numbers will take time to return to what they had been prior to the pandemic, the next few months will be a good time to travel.”
Here, we round up the best ways to explore the region, from sun-bathing in Eilat to scuba-diving in Marsa Alam.
It may be Egypt’s most celebrated beach destination, but Sharm El Sheikh has been inaccessible to British tourists for much of the last decade. It was off-limits between the Octobers of 2015 and 2019 due to Foreign Office concerns about the security of its airport, and barely had the warning against travel been lifted than the pandemic pulled the shutters down once more. For all this, though, this sandy hotspot is an alluring option for a week of winter sun, dipping its toes into the Red Sea at the southern tip of the Sinai Peninsula. Its latest return is a welcome boost for holidaymakers and tour operators alike.
A seven-night all-inclusive break to the five-star Sensatori by Tui Blue resort, flying from Gatwick on Dec 5, costs from £644 per person with Tui (020 3451 2688; tui.co.uk)
Sharm El Sheikh’s location, around 300 miles from Cairo (a hop and a skip in Egyptian terms), means it can easily be the relaxing full stop to a tour that explores the country’s epic past.
Red Savannah (0124 278 7800; redsavannah.com) offers an Essential Egypt trip that begins in Cairo, heads south to Aswan (for the Abu Simbel temple) and Luxor (the Valley of the Kings) – and can be tailored into an 11-night affair which ends at the Four Seasons Sharm El Sheikh. From £4,185 per person, including flights and four nights at the beach
It can probably be said that Hurghada is the most sure-footed of Egypt’s Red Sea options. Where Sharm El Sheikh has fallen in and out of feasibility in the past six years – and where rival beach zones Taba and Dahab have been on the Foreign Office’s disapproval list since 2014 – this resort city has been steadily open for business. Its reliability is partly due to location – 290 miles south of Cairo, on the main body of the Red Sea, well away from areas that the FCDO considers a risk. But it is also about air connections. Depending on the season, you can fly in directly from Gatwick, Luton, Manchester, East Midlands, Birmingham, Bristol, Doncaster-Sheffield and Newcastle (with Tui or easyJet).
A seven-night all-inclusive getaway to the five-star Jasmine Palace, flying from Birmingham (with Tui Airways) on Dec 3, costs from £544 per person, including transfers and checked baggage – with On The Beach (0871 474 3000; onthebeach.co.uk)
As with Sharm El Sheikh, Hurghada can easily serve as the the end-game to a longer Egyptian odyssey…
Abercrombie & Kent (01242 547 760; abercrombiekent.co.uk) offers an eight-night escape which splices four nights of luxurious Nile cruising to another three at the Oberoi Hurghada – a five-star spa hotel right at the water’s edge. From £3,999 per person including flights
It can sometimes feel as if there are two types of holiday to Egypt, and that they are incompatible. That the deep heritage of the land of the pharaohs is for adults and serious-minded travellers with tombs and treasures in mind; that beach-only packages should be your choice if you want to go away with children. But compromise is possible.
Exodus Travels (020 3993 7391; exodus.co.uk) offers an Egyptian Family Adventure which offers a best of both worlds. This regular nine-day escorted tour (groups of between eight and 20) merges the Sphinx, the Pyramids and the Egyptian Museum with the Karnak Temple and all the landmarks of Luxor. It ends with two nights at a resort in Hurghada – with a submarine ride in the Red Sea as part of the fun. Six departures are planned for 2022; the next, starting on Dec 24, would have you on the sand on New Year’s Eve – from £2,149 per adult, and from £1,542 per child, including flights
Unlike much of Egypt, Hurghada has very little history. It is effectively a 20th-century creation – the fruit of heavy investment during the 1980s, which helped to transform a fishing village into a tourism playground. Thus it has all the amenities you would expect of a purpose-built holiday zone, including first-rate golf facilities. Locations include the course at the Cascades Golf Resort (thecascadeshotel.com), 35 miles south of the city at Soma Bay – an 18-hole challenge designed by the South African nine-time major winner Gary Player (rounds from £67). Then there is the El Gouna Golf Club, 20 miles north of the city in the resort area of the same name (18-hole rounds from £36; elgouna.com/golf).
A week at the Cascades Golf Resort, flying from Gatwick on Dec 11, starts at £963 per person with Red Sea Holidays (020 7332 2670; redseaholidays.co.uk), including accommodation on an all-inclusive rate. Rounds of golf can be added to the holiday cost
Into the blue
Travel a further 180 miles south along Egypt’s Red Sea coast and you encounter another outpost that has become a holiday haven. Though much smaller than Hurghada, Marsa Alam draws in tourists with its clear waters, superb conditions for scuba diving – and an array of marine wildlife that runs to dugongs, dolphins and turtles, as well as tropical fish.
Scuba specialist Regal Dive (01353 659 999; regal-diving.co.uk) offers getaways to Marsa Alam’s Concorde Moreen Beach Resort – a five-star with its own dive centre. Seven-night all-inclusive stays cost from £915 per person, including flights. The house reef provides opportunities for local exploration, while excursions to sites further afield – such as the wreck of the Hamada, which sank in 1993 – can be organised for an extra fee
Marsa Alam’s sub-aqua clarity of vision is also a magnet for those who take their diving so seriously they consider a seafront hotel an unnecessary indulgence.
Scuba Travel (01483 411 590; scubatravel.com) offers “liveaboard” holidays aboard the Hurricane – a 118ft vessel whose comforts and equipment allow divers to maximise their time on (and in) the water. It sails a range of itineraries – among them the unabashed Simply the Best. This seven-night package visits key sites – including the Daedalus Reef (a standalone expanse of coral so long that it has its own lighthouse to warn shipping) and the Elphinstone Reef. Five departures are scheduled before the end of the year, from £1,405 per person, with flights
Fly and flop
Three years ago, Jordan’s only Red Sea city was an unlikely option for a fly-and-flop break – at least for British tourists, as you couldn’t fly to Aqaba direct from the UK. That all changed in 2018 when easyJet launched a non-stop service from Gatwick. Happily, this connection – operational from November to March – has survived the pandemic, and will be joined on Dec 6 by a link from Manchester (also running until March).
A week-long holiday at the five-star InterContinental Aqaba, flying from Manchester on Dec 10, costs from £645 per person, via easyJet Holidays (0330 551 5151; easyjet.com/holidays)
Hit the fairway
Aqaba is relatively new to the holiday game – much of its tourist infrastructure has only been developed since the turn of the millennium. But with levels of investment increasing, it is beginning to catch up with some of its Egyptian competitors. A case in point is Ayla Golf Club (ayla.com.jo) – an 18-hole wonder, designed by Greg Norman, which sits slotted into the very south-west corner of the city. Take care with your drives on the back nine – a wayward shot might literally fly over the border fence and into Israel.
A seven-night break to the Hyatt Regency Aqaba Ayla, flying from Heathrow on Dec 4, starts at £913 per person, through Expedia (020 3788 0445; expedia.co.uk)
As is the case with Hurghada and Luxor, Aqaba’s proximity to places of historic significance means it can be built into itineraries which peer far beyond the shoreline. Jordan is also considerably smaller than Egypt – and both the ancient Nabataean city of Petra (80 miles to the north-east) and the quasi-Martian desert landscape of Wadi Rum (45 miles to the east) are within straightforward driving distance of its only Red Sea port.
Corinthian Travel (020 3583 6089; corinthiantravel.co.uk) has a 10-day Signature Luxury Jordan Tour that visits Petra and Wadi Rum (staying at Bespoke Hideaways Camp) plus the capital Amman and Roman site Jerash, then cools off at both Aqaba and the Dead Sea, from £4,275 per person, flights extra
Dust or bust
Jordan might not have the peaks of southern France, but if high-energy holidays are your thing, it can be a context for cycling tours. Consider those relaxing days on the beach well earned.
Explore (01252 240 710; explore.co.uk) serves up a Cycle Jordan escorted break. This nine-day odyssey calls on the likes of Amman, Petra, the Dead Sea and Wadi Rum, while avoiding the worst of the desert heat (departures are scheduled for autumn, winter and spring – the next beginning on Nov 13, from £1,759 per person, including flights). The itinerary spends its penultimate evening at a beach hotel in Aqaba
The most obvious way to enjoy the Red Sea might be to step aboard a boat and admire its waters from the deck over several days. Better still, a cruise can call on several countries.
Seafarer (020 8324 3117; seafarercruises.com) offers an eight-day Egypt, Israel, Jordan & Red Sea Cruise. The first joy of this voyage is that it involves the Harmony V – a “mega-yacht” with a total capacity of just 50 passengers, and a distinct air of luxury. The second is that, as well as Hurghada, Luxor and Aqaba, the route involves the sailing of that conduit between great waters – the Suez Canal. Six editions are currently slated for February and March, from £1,409 per person. Flights are not included, but can be arranged
The genius of the Suez Canal – the 120-mile engineering feat whose completion in 1869 changed the Red Sea from dead end to major maritime highway – can also be glimpsed from a bigger vessel.
Cunard (0344 338 8641; cunard.com) has a Southampton to Dubai voyage scheduled for Feb 20-March 12 – a 20-night extravaganza that will see the Queen Elizabeth drop anchor in Cadiz, Athens and Aqaba – and glide through the Suez Canal en route to the latter. Double cabins from £2,289 per person – including flights home from the UAE
Wait and sea
At the time of writing, Israel’s Red Sea beaches are trickier to reach. While the country has reopened to British tourists, there are still restrictions on entry and movement – with access limited to escorted tours with prearranged itineraries. However, there are reports that the country will admit fully vaccinated independent visitors from Nov 1, which would bring Eilat into play. It will obviously be sensible to wait for the latest rules to be confirmed before booking – but once it is possible, this sliver of a resort-city, pinned between Jordan and Egypt, should reconfirm its status as a lively place in the sun.
Last Minute (0871 277 1070; lastminute.com) asks for £770 per person for three nights at the four-star Caesar Premier Eilat, with flights, but isn’t yet taking bookings for 2021-22
Even in “normal” times, Israel’s considerable Biblical and political history lends itself to a wider tour. Although it is far younger than Jerusalem (it was little more than a small cluster of buildings until as recently as the Second World War), Eilat can be a relaxing part of that.
Contiki (0808 301 8151; contiki.com) – which specialises in group tours for “younger” travellers (aged 18-35) – is currently selling an 11-day “Israel and Jordan Uncovered” journey which stops at Amman, Wadi Rum and Petra on one side of the border, and Eilat, Jerusalem and Tel Aviv on the other. Two editions are planned for this winter (Dec 26-Jan 5 and Jan 30-Feb 9), from £1,913 per person, not including flights
How to return to the Red Sea
While travel restrictions are slowly lifting around the world – and while each is open to British tourists – Egypt, Jordan and Israel all still have pandemic requirements in place.
Entry is now possible via full vaccination or a negative PCR test taken within 72 hours of departure. Children under six are exempt. All visitors must complete a health declaration form on arrival and provide proof of a valid health insurance policy. More at egypt.travel.
All travellers arriving in Jordan must provide a negative PCR test result stamped no more than 72 hours before departure. Fully vaccinated passengers can enter the country without added testing; the non-vaccinated must take a second PCR test on arrival. All visitors must register their details in advance at gateway2jordan.gov.jo. More at visitjordan.com.
As of Oct 4, Britain is no longer on Israel’s “red list” of countries, which means that holidays are again possible. However, the rules of entry are strict, and include PCR tests (up to) 72 hours prior to departure, and upon arrival. At the time of writing (October 16), visits are limited to double-jabbed travellers on prearranged group tours. There are as-yet-unconfirmed reports that the country will reopen to independent travellers from Nov 1, but the requirement that tourists be fully vaccinated (perhaps even with a third, booster injection received six months after the second) will almost certainly remain. See info.goisrael.com.Internet Explorer Channel Network