10 Things To Do In Dahab If You Can’t Swim (or even if you can)

I do believe that I’m the only non-swimmer in Dahab, and as it is essentially watersports mecca this does become a bit of an issue. Everyone around me is bustling with all the tasks they need to do pre- and post-dive (looks way too much like hard work to me), and they sit together in excited groups at sundown, drinking Sakara and sharing stories about what they’ve seen.

But what am I doing?

I love Dahab (you may have noticed) and it’s become my Happy Place in the last few years. These are my top ten Best Bits that I’d recommend to anyone coming here for the first time:

Stay at Sheikh Ali Hotel

This is a Bedouin-owned and run establishment in Mashraba that is beautifully run and gives a really good taste of that legendary Bedouin hospitality. The rooms are quite simply huge, and are the best I’ve stayed in in Dahab. Glossily tiled, with a brick cupola in the ceiling and a huge bed, they are luxurious but not too expensive. There are only 22 rooms so it’s quiet – I come here to get a good night’s sleep and to feel safe and among friends. It is a two-minute walk away from the sea via a shortcut. I use Acacia Hotel pool if I want to see the sea but I will always stay at Sheikh Ali.

The cupola in my room at Sheikh Ali

The cupola in my room at Sheikh Ali

Have breakfast at Everyday Café

There are a few Everyday Cafés quite close to each other in Dahab. The one I prefer is the oldest one, just south of the bridge, in Mashraba. It has windows made out of old doors and they make the perfect frame for staring out at the sea and watching local Bedouin boys trying to catch puffa fish. Plus they tend to give you free things such as slices of brownie, if you stay there long enough. They have full-to-bursting bookshelves, and a great Bedouin vibe.

A Bedouin boy fishes outside Everyday Cafe

A Bedouin boy fishes outside Everyday Cafe

Spend a day at the lagoon

You can easily get a cab (for about £2) from Sheikh Ali to the Swiss Inn – a large resort on Dahab’s glorious lagoon beach.  You pay £10 to use the beach and towels for the day, to get access to wifi and their beach bar, which is perfectly placed for enjoying a cocktail as the sun sets behind the Sinai Mountains. The lagoon has to be seen to be believed – you can walk out along the whole stretch of it, watching the windsurfers stud the bay (or if there’s no wind – the wakeboarders and paddle-boarders are out). In front of the Swiss Inn there is a swimming area that allows me to go into the water and keep my feet on the sand – little fish swim around your legs. It really is beautiful.

The glorious Lagoon Beach.

The glorious Lagoon Beach.

Do the submarine trip to Napoleon Reef

Just along from the Swiss Inn on the lagoon you can take a submarine boat out on to the Napoleon Reef. You are beneath the boat in a glass capsule and if, like me, you’ve never dived, you will see the fish you’re missing out on. I cried the first time I did it. There is a guide on board to explain what you’re seeing, but his commentary was mainly in Russian as I was the only British guest. I didn’t really need it, to be honest. You can book this through any of the hotel trip guides, or from the main town. I recommend my friend Hawash, who works at Swiss Inn arranging all sorts of tours.

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Have lunch at Time Café

This place is run by my friend Nadja. It is in the trendy Bedouin area of town – the Lighthouse – where all the divers hang out. Nadja serves great pizza and pasta and serves them to you on chunky wooden tables by the sea. You can also use the café sun loungers to hang out for the day (as long as you buy something).

Time Cafe sunloungers

Time Cafe sunloungers

Visit St Catherine’s Monastery

This is the world’s oldest, continuously inhabited monastery, and it is said to be the place where God appeared to Moses in the Burning Bush (said bush is still there). Over seventeen centuries old, it is a fascinating historical site, at the foot of Mount Sinai, and the galleries showcase its stories and collections really well – especially it’s ancient manuscripts and books. You can walk up the mountain to the side of the monastery to get a really good aerial view of the site. You can also couple this trip with a sunset/sunrise trip to Mount Sinai. I have also visited the White and Coloured Canyon trips – they’re great, but be prepared for a scary climb out of the White canyon at the end. Worth it, but best to know in advance!

St Catherine's - the oldest monastery in the world.

St Catherine’s – the oldest monastery in the world.

Go into the mountains at night

On this trip, I was driven into Wadi Qunai by hotel staff for Bedouin breadmaking and stargazing. We put rugs and cushions down and I was able to see the Milky Way, framed by the mountains of Sinai. I thought I could see some shooting stars, but they turned out to be satellites in orbit. Still, the experience was beautiful, and I’ve never ‘heard’ a silence so profound. There are more organised trips involving Bedouin feasts, but I preferred this simpler version. Fewer couples being romantic…

Wadi Qunai, an oasis in the Sinai mountains, south of Dahab

Wadi Qunai, an oasis in the Sinai mountains, south of Dahab

Have dinner at Sea House

This is a fairly new place on the seafront of Masbat in downtown Dahab, and it where my friend Vigo Pushkin works. He is a real star and will make you feel so welcome and cared for. This restaurant has tables that overhang the sea and you can look out at the twinkling lights of Dahab seafront. Vigo used to work at Friends, another favourite, which is great for rooftop views and shisha smoking.

Dahab's restaurants seen at night from Sea House restaurant. It has tables overhanging the sea and the water is lit so you can see fish in it.

Dahab’s restaurants seen at night from Sea House restaurant. It has tables overhanging the sea and the water is lit so you can see fish in it.

Shop at Why Not/Gypsy

This is a gorgeous shop on either side of the road just before the bridge in Mashraba. It’s run by Mohamed Ghareb, who is great to follow on Instagram for a little slice of Dahab life. At night, the shop’s lamps are a sight to behold and inside there’s a treasure trove of trinkets, jewellery, furniture and lighting. I know people who live here who love buying something from this shop for their homes because he always has ‘something a little bit different’.

Why Not lamps at night

Why Not lamps at night

Take a boat to Ras Abu Galum

This beautiful Bedouin national park is only accessible by camel or by boat. I went with a group last time I was here and we had a fish lunch by the sea. I hung out in the shallows while my friends dived. Tranquil and away from everything. Time to contemplate the beauty of the world.

The beach at Ras Abu Galum.

The beach at Ras Abu Galum.

I haven’t ever tried the Quad-Biking, Camel/horse-trekking or Jeep Safaris into the mountains but these are other non-swimming-related activities you can do in Dahab. You can also easily visit Luxor, Jerusalem or Jordan – Petra is on my list  of places to visit next time.

So much to do, so little Egyptian time…

Might just head to the beach.

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What Can You Do?

I am spending two weeks in Dahab, on the Sinai coast in Egypt, which is one of my favourite places in the world. I’ve decided to blog about it while I’m here, giving you a daily insight into the town and its inhabitants.

I arrived last night at the wonderful Sheikh Ali hotel. It’s run by a Bedouin family and it has their trademark hospitality. The rooms are huge, clean and their beds are the comfiest I’ve ever slept on. There is a brick cupola in the ceiling that can be lit as a lovely nightlight, if you need one.

Anyway, I spent my first evening catching up with a friend in Crazy Mummy restaurant (formerly Funny Mummy), on the look-out for Bufra, the infamous restaurant dog. She didn’t make an appearance, but her progeny are everywhere. My friend tells me that most of the Dogs of Dahab (as I call them) are related to her. She’s like the Barbara Windsor of Mashraba (the area south of the bridge).

Bufra - the Mother of Dahab

Bufra – the Mother of Dahab

Dahab is a Bedouin settlement on the coast of the Sinai Peninsula that started its tourist life as a hippy hangout for Israelis in the ‘70s, with nothing more than a few shacks on the beach. (The name Dahab is Arabic for ‘gold’.)

The town is 50 miles north of Sharm-el-Sheikh and is most famous as a windsurfing and diving destination. Its popularity grew as Sharm became bloated – Dahab offers a much more peaceful retreat. It is backed by the glorious Sinai mountains and fringed by golden sands. Watching the sun slip behind the mountains has to be one of life’s greatest pleasures.

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However, the tourism here has been hit by a downturn since the three bombs that went off here in 2006 and then again by the Revolution in 2011. It’s struggling to get back to its former glory. Tourist fears of terrorism are currently rife, exacerbated by recent attacks in other North African and Middle-Eastern countries.

Everyone I’ve met here who works in the town talks animatedly about the town’s former buzz. Teeming restaurants and cafes, plentiful work and tourist money – a town in the prime of its life. I’ve only known Dahab in the last three years and I can see the devastation that the terrorist threat has caused. Although Russian tourists in particular are still coming to the area, the town is fringed with half-built hotels and apartments, and half-closed restaurants and cafes are a regular feature.

Downtown Dahab

Downtown Dahab

It makes me so sad to see it because Dahab has a magical feel like no other place I’ve been to. Well, maybe certain coastal towns in west Wales or Ireland – it shares an other-worldliness with those places and a sense that anything can happen as long as you sit and wait for it. Time slips away while you are staring out over the Gulf of Aqaba.

View from Everyday Cafe in Mashraba

View from Everyday Cafe in Mashraba

My friend was working in one of the restaurants close to one of the bombs and he told me about the day it happened, and the devastation he witnessed outside.
He also told me about the brief few days of freedom following the Revolution and how that was quickly curtailed.

He, and all his friends, are still trying to make a living, but many have moved away, usually with foreign girlfriends or wives who can offer them opportunities outside the town. But they always say that they would never even think of moving if they could earn a decent living here.

Conversely, non-Egyptians are moving in, working in the dive centres and the restaurants, attracted by the laid-back lifestyle of Dahab and its hypnotic draw. I said ‘the grass is always greener’ to my Egyptian friend – a new British phrase for him to learn. There must be an Arabic version of that, involving sand or something.

We got to talking about the loneliness of living in a town, even though you’re surrounded by friends; of the importance of an ‘in case of emergency person’ – a ‘loved one’ who will always have your back. I was struck by the fact that we’d both been musing on the same thing in our respective countries, living away from family and friends who’ve moved away, and having friends who have other ‘loved ones’ who are more of a priority than we are. Who are my loved ones? We’ve both asked ourselves this same question.

And then there’s the safety-net thing. I’ve long been aware that I live a safety-net-free life. No one’s there to bail me out, there’s no mega trust fund or wealthy relative to step in just when I need it most, and I’m not a saver. I live for the day, because I might not be here tomorrow. My friend lives in the same way, but it’s enforced, because there really isn’t another way for him.

One thing that always strikes me every time I come to Dahab and meet more and more of its residents is how we are all basically the same. People living a life in a place. Some of us luck out in terms of opportunity or wealth, some of us make it happen. For some it refuses to happen despite their best efforts.

I always think of my friend’s response to this circumstantial stuff, accompanied by a trademark shrug:

“What can you do?”