The world beneath the Red Sea surface can top the simple pleasures of the shore, writes Stephanie Clifford-Smith.
The architecture along the road from Nuweiba to Sawa Camp doesn't augur well. There are blocks and blocks of condominiums, many unfinished, behind futuristic-looking gateways that might well be at home in the deserts around Las Vegas. Landscaping in this rainless environment amounts to the occasional straggling palm - otherwise these compound-like resorts are concrete and bitumen and allow only glimpses of the area's main attraction, the Red Sea.
Talk about false advertising - there's nothing red about it. The rock faces leading down to the sand are reddish, yes, but that sea is nothing if not turquoise. Anyway, there's a theory that the sea's name came from a mistranslation and it was originally the "Reed Sea" because in biblical times this body of water was thick with vegetation. It also would have been a lot easier for Moses to part reeds than water.
The further along the road you push, the simpler the architecture becomes, until it's all very low-impact and impermanent. These more humble resorts don't seem to attract anything like the numbers of tourists the monstrosities up the road do and therein lies the mystery. Sawa Camp is one of several clusters of huts set on the sand as close to the water as possible without getting wet at high tide; its appeal is enormous.
The set-up here is entirely uncomplicated and demands nothing of guests, other than, perhaps, relaxation, which I found unavoidable. When we arrived, we sat in cushioned bamboo chairs in a shady lounge area while our room keys were sorted. Then, stepping on to fine, soft sand, we went to find No. 6. Like the other dozen or so huts, ours had its own little verandah with a hammock, was pine-framed with bamboo walls and roof panels were secured with raffia twine.
Inside, the concrete slab floor was softened by multicoloured rag rugs and our foam mattress, made with just a fitted sheet, was tucked neatly inside a taut, pink mosquito net. Apart from a few hooks attached to a piece of wall-mounted pine, that was it. Light filtered in through cracks in the roof or flooded in with the breeze when the hinged bamboo window was thrown open. There was a shared ablutions block at the back of the camp, which was pristine and only partially roofed, so its white tiles dried quickly in the sun and sea air.
With bags dumped and sarong on, it was time for an important decision: whether to climb into the hammock and watch the tide come in or give in to hunger and order lunch. The hammock could wait. The food is good and straightforward at Sawa Camp. Lunch was a salad of ripe tomatoes, cucumbers, olives and a firm, white cheese like a creamy version of feta. Freshly squeezed guava juice was the perfect partner.
By early afternoon, the tide was high enough to go snorkelling; this is where Sawa Camp comes into its own. Instead getting a boat out to a reef, an all-too-common requirement for this activity, here you just wade out through warm, knee-deep water and leap off the ledge into a seemingly endless marine world.
I hadn't done much snorkelling so I found the diversity of life, colour and geography beneath the water's surface surprising. From the sand, the view was beautiful in that tropical-blue postcard way but, submerged with face mask and snorkel, it really was like being on another planet. The backdrop of cool hues, ranging from the palest aqua to deep ultramarine, was punctuated by corals of magenta and chartreuse, some patterned like cerebral cortex and others with tendrils as fine as fur. Slender grey barracudas hovered like hummingbirds while angel fish, looking radioactive in their striped-yellow brilliance, darted between the broad leaves of weed.
The exhilaration of this aquatic adventure had begun to subside after a hot shower but there was still time to wind down further before dinner. Sunken sofas in the lounge area were easily long enough to recline upon with cushions and a book.
When the cocktail hour rolled around, we braved the local rosé bought earlier that day in Nuweiba and drank from plastic cups we'd brought with us. Sawa Camp doesn't sell alcohol but allows it to be brought in and will let you use the resort's fridge and corkscrew, but not its glasses, for liquor consumption.
We had dinner at a table set up specially on the sand, with candlelight adding to the sparse electric illuminations. Thin-crusted pizzas and eggplant casserole did the trick and, when conversation turned to extreme sports, it was my cue to retire. In the few minutes it took to pass out, I registered the soft rumble of waves breaking metres from my door and the specks of moonlight shining through the cane roof.
The writer was a guest of Intrepid Travel.
Singapore Airlines flies from Sydney to Cairo priced from $2301. See singaporeair.com.
The East Delta Bus Co. runs three daily buses from Cairo to Nuweiba ($20) for the nine-hour journey. See bus.com.eg.
From Nuweiba, take a cab or another small bus to Sawa Camp, about 20 km from town.
WHERE TO STAY
Sawa Camp, Taba Nuweiba Road, Nuweiba, South Sinai. Book by emailing owner Salam Salim directly at firstname.lastname@example.org or calling his mobile: +20 102 722 838.
Accommodation costs £E20 ($4) a person, a night. Snorkel gear hire is also £E20 a day. Do use the reef shoes to protect against sea urchins.
A night's stay at Sawa Camp is included in Intrepid Travel's Cairo to Istanbul itinerary.