Back from the Reef

I have been back a week from a wonderful two weeks of diving in Sharm el Sheikh.  I would have posted something sooner, but I started a job the day I got back and have been trying to catch up with myself.  I took some lovely photos and will be sharing a few with you.

Before I do that I want to tell you that I spoke with my dad before I left and when I told him where I was going he became a bit anxious.  When I asked why, he said that ‘they’ are saying in the USA that Egypt isn’t safe.  I couldn’t believe it.  So, for all of you that want to go to Sharm, go!  Go to Cairo if you can get a flight too!  Egypt needs the tourism.  If in Cairo, just don’t go to the squares where there might be protestors.  The UK has been the only country consistently flying into Sharm since the revolution.  Sharm is safe.  To be quite frank, I really couldn’t give a fig if a certain type of tourist doesn’t go to Sharm as the diving is nicer with fewer people around.  Enough from me on that subject.

Back to the holiday…I went with my dive buddy.  This was our first holiday together since we met this time last year.  It was the best holiday I have ever had with another person.  If you can spend two weeks, 24/7, with another person without wanting to scream or lock yourself away somewhere, then something must be working right.  If I had any complaint, it was that his kit was too heavy!  We needed to re-pack our suitcases 3x before we could check in!  I blame the tech jacket and drysuit!

Having had experience diving at this time of year in Sharm, I was glad that I packed some warm clothes.  The weather was unseasonably cool.  Still nice to wander around in a pair of trousers and a fleece and you could probably get a nice suntan sitting out of the wind by the pool, but it was freezing on the boat.  There is nothing fun about getting in and out of a wet, cold wetsuit with the wind howling and the boat bobbing up and down on a choppy sea.  I was getting brain freeze getting back onto the boat in the first week.  I am surprised I got a tan considering I spent most of my first week on the boat inside and wrapped up in a pair of sweatpants and fleece in-between dives.  The evenings were quite chilly too!  Still, a good time was had by all and it progressively got warmer in the second week. 🙂  It was also lovely to catch up with friends and meet new people.

We dived local at the Gardens on the first day.  Because my buddy was trying out his new drysuit for the first time and I was just cold, neither of us took our cameras.  We saw a manta and a feathertail ray.  It figures!  That was the biggest that things got for us while diving for 10 days.

Because diving isn’t just about the big things, I tried to focus more on the actual reef.  The reefs in Sharm are quite beautiful.  There is a huge variety of hard and soft corals and many varieties of small fish and crustaceans.  There was a lot of plankton bloom and a fair amount of jelly fish floating around.  If you bothered to look closely at the stuff floating around in front of you, you could actually make out what some of the little creatures looked like.  Some of them were quite electric!

Warty Sea Wasp - These things have a nasty sting, apparently!

I also love Anthias.  They are everywhere.  They let you know what the current is doing and are easy to spot because they are orange.  There are several types and are incredibly hard to photograph as they never stay still long enough.

These are Anthias, even the things that look like bubbles!
Little spots of gold!

Here are some of my best photos of the fish.

And here is some of the reef.

I have a lot of inspiration here for some paintings I want to make.  Painting the reef and some fish will make a nice change from painting flowers and fruit.

As with all holidays, it didn’t seem long enough.   Nevermind!  I have the next one to look forward to!

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The Hilton Waterfalls, Sharm el Sheikh, Egypt

I stayed at The Hilton Waterfalls during my recent visit to Sharm el Sheikh.  The Waterfalls is classed as a five-star hotel.  Five star in Egypt is not the same as five-star in Europe.  It doesn’t even come close, so one needs to be fairly objective and sensible when writing a review.

I was looking for a bit more luxury and comfort on this trip than what I had been used to previously.  I booked my holiday with Sportif.  I got a very nice deal for 2 weeks that included airport transfers with Marhaba Tours, all-inclusive accommodation, and an 11 day dive pack with Ocean College.

One reason for upgrading is that the hotel I have used in the past is currently closed.  Also, Ocean College are no longer based there.  However, they have their main centre at the Hilton Fayrouz in Na’ama Bay, and a centre at The Waterfalls nr. Hadaba.  The Waterfalls is closer to the area that I wanted to be in.

How it went:

I was collected at the airport and fast tracked for my visa.  I didn’t have to wait in line for anything.  I had the same person collecting me as the last few times, and as before I was the only passenger.  The representative at Marhaba Tours helped me check in at the hotel.  I got door to door service.

At check-in, the staff were friendly and efficient.  I was given information about the hotel with a map and they explained how things worked if I needed anything.  There was a box waiting for me in reception for my diving gear.  I had arranged this prior to arrival with Ocean College.

A cart was ordered for me and I was taken to my room.  It would have been a long walk otherwise.  Although the room was very nice, there were two twin beds in there.  I called to see if I could have a different room with a double bed, but one wouldn’t be available until the next day.  Fine!

Dinner was still being served, so I went to see what was on offer.  There was a variety of hot and cold food and desserts.  Afterwards, I went to the bar to order a drink.  I had a nice cold Sakara on tap.  Being all-inclusive, I was entitled to soft drinks, beer by the glass, local wines and spirits, water and coffee and tea.  There was a coffee machine for lattes, etc.  I was also given two large bottles of water a day in my room.

Being tired and diving the next day, I had an early night.  Before I went back to my room, I ordered a packed lunch to take on the boat as it was part of my all-inclusive.  When I got to my room I left the air conditioning on low as I had a lovely duvet on the bed.  The bed was very comfortable for a single.  There was a large bathroom with a shower/bath and bidet.  There was a hairdryer in the bathroom and Crabtree and Evelyn bath and shower products were available.  You didn’t have to bring any soap, shampoo, etc. if you didn’t want to as it was all provided.  There was also an iron and ironing board and plenty of closet space and drawers for clothes.

I slept well as I was very comfortable because of the duvet, not too hot or cold.  The bedding was very nice and the pillows were good too.  I usually have an issue with pillows or mattresses being too hard, but didn’t have that problem here.

Breakfast was varied and interesting.  There was a lovely selection of breads, muffins and Danishes, all fresh.  There were cold meats and cheeses and salad items, typical in many European hotels.  There were eggs, omelets, pancakes, donuts and waffles with different sauces and syrups to go on them.  There was porridge, sausages, falafels, potatoes and other hot items.  There was whole fresh fruit and fruit salad with yogurt in individual pots.  In all, there was something for everyone.  Freshly made juices were available as were coffee and teas.  Hot drinks were served at your table, the rest you had to get for yourself.

After breakfast I called for a cart to help me take my kit to the dive centre. 🙂  I dished out some goodies, sorted my paperwork and got ready for my first day of diving.

My packed lunch consisted of 4 sandwiches, 2 cheese and 2 meat, a small bottle of water and 2 apples.  Not very exciting.

On my return after a lovely day of diving, I was moved into another room, with a double bed.  No problem. 🙂  It was just like the twin room, except with a double bed.

The hotel’s grounds are lovely and well maintained.  There are quite a few pools and a few different restaurants that you can try at least once as part of your all-inclusive.

As I was diving, my routine consisted of having breakfast, waiting to be collected to go diving, spending the day on the boat, having a beer on my return, sitting by the pool to watch the sunset, getting ready for dinner, eating, having a coffee or drink while reading, and going to bed.

Although I was all-inclusive, I barely made use of it as I was out of the hotel most of the day and I can’t drink much alcohol after diving.  I can’t eat a big breakfast early in the morning.  However, after requesting lunches without bread and not getting much of a variety, I gathered supplies from breakfast instead.  Frankly, it was too hot to eat much.  I paid for drinks supplied on the boat so I didn’t have to lug around large bottles of water.  I drank loads because of the heat.

Overall impressions:

The Hilton Waterfalls is a very nice hotel.  It has been around for a little while and is starting to show a bit of wear and tear.  However, it is generally very clean.  I say generally as although the hygiene standards are a hundred times better than where I have stayed before, there still seems to be a problem of using bleach to clean the shower area.  I see no reason why I should be looking at a bit of black mold in some areas of the grouting in the bathroom.  Both rooms I stayed in were like this.  However, to give them credit, the public toilets in the hotels were very tidy.  If I have issues about this, it is because I worked in that industry.

There are many activities available if you want to take advantage of them.  I sat under a hut in the shade overlooking the sea on my last two days off of diving and wasn’t feeling energetic.  It is extremely hot in August.  The swimming pools were warm.

The Bars:

There is a bar in reception that serves cold Sakara on tap, in glasses.  I didn’t have a problem getting served and after a few days, the bar staff knew what I wanted and would bring it to me where I was sitting.  The pool bars were a different story.  It seemed that the bar person was also the glass collector, so there were times when nobody was available to serve drinks.  That was very annoying as there should have been more staff.  Also, you couldn’t guarantee that your beer would be cold.  The bars outside served bottled beer, usually Stella (not the European brand), into a plastic tumbler.  Sometimes you might get one that had been opened for a while and it might be warm.  There were other times that the bar staff would just disappear.  What was just as annoying as having only one bar person when it was busy, was the fact that a lot of the customers were quite rude.  Most people would just walk up to the bar and shout out what they wanted.  No please or thank you.  And that was the adults, the children were not much better.  Having worked behind a bar in a previous life, I don’t generally have a problem with bar staff and getting drinks.  I also smile, and say please and thank you.  As it was tricky getting served at the pool bar after a hard day’s diving, I would usually grab one from the lobby bar and take it with me outside.  At least I didn’t have to wait and the drink was cold.

The Food:

As stated earlier, there was a wide variety of food for breakfast and dinner.  There were themed food evenings, such as Italian and Chinese.  The salads were mainly in a local style as well as there being a traditional salad bar.  There was always soup and a variety of breads.  Sometimes there was a grill as well as the usual fare in the main hot food section.  There were plenty of vegetables, meat, potatoes, rice, etc.  I think the hotel really tried to cater to different requirements and yet make it interesting.  On the whole, I found the food to be very good and of a good quality.

The Downside to the Food:

Dinner was served at 7pm.  All of the food, hot and cold, was set up and ready to be served at 6pm.  That meant that the hot food was sitting in the heaters for an hour.  This meant that crispy food sometimes got a bit soggy or dried out on the bottom.  I really can’t imagine what the health and safety implications of leaving hot food out for so long are, especially rice.  Not to mention the flying creatures that could get into the building quite easily.  I thought at first that this had something to do with Ramadan, but it continued every night even afterwards.

The Staff:

On the whole, the staff were very helpful and polite.  I was waited on at breakfast and dinner by the same young men.  After a few days, I didn’t even have to tell them what I wanted to drink as it would appear on my table.  The young lady who served me at the reception bar each evening was particularly helpful.  I would usually go there for a coffee after dinner and read a bit of my book.  I didn’t encounter any sleaziness from any of the staff as I had experienced from other places in the past.  If I had a question at Reception, there was always someone to help.

Would I go back?

Yes and no.  I go to Sharm mainly for the diving.  When I go alone, I try to get as many days diving in as possible.  That means that I spend most of my time on a boat, away from the hotel.  My main priority is that my room is clean, the air conditioning works, I can get a cold beer and have a nice breakfast.  Oh, and that the place is quiet.  The Waterfalls is not a diver’s hotel.  Although there are people staying there that dive, there weren’t that many so there wasn’t that social aspect of a diver’s hotel as there was in the hotel I used to stay at.  Even though I will not ever be staying in that other hotel again, there are other hotels in the area that are just as clean and tidy as the Waterfalls, but also a lot less expensive.  Divers like to economise as they don’t spend much time in their hotels.

I kind of missed the camaraderie of the after diving beer and chat about the day’s diving.  If I was with someone, it would have been a different story.  The view of the sea in the evening is stunning and the setting is very romantic.  I did meet people and talked to them, but the holiday makers tended to be either families or couples.  If it was my first trip diving and I didn’t know anyone, I don’t think I would have enjoyed it much.  There were a couple of nights I went out and met up with some friends, but for the most part, I holed up in my hotel as it was too convenient not to.

The Hotel tries hard, but doesn’t quite make it enough for me to say that I would definitely go there again.  It depends on what kind of deal I can get.

Sharm Again, Naturally!

Yes, its been that time of year again!  Holidays!  We haven’t had much of a summer here in the UK and I was in desperate need of consistent sunshine, and some heat.  A spot of diving wouldn’t go amiss either. (I can’t believe that I have been home a couple of weeks now!  Been very busy!)

After some issues in March at the hotel I usually use, and the fact that they are currently closed, and having vowed never to go back there again, I upgraded myself into a 5* hotel that was all-inclusive.  I wanted some luxury and a bit of pampering  (more to come on that in another post).

People are always asking my why I go to Sharm to go diving in The Red Sea.  There are many reasons to go diving in Egypt.  Here are a few:

  1. It is a 5 hour flight from the UK.  This means it is relatively quick to get there and you can start diving the next day.
  2. It is always sunny and relatively warm.
  3. It has some of the best reefs and marine life on the planet.
  4. It is reasonably priced compared to booking a holiday in the Caribbean or Far East.

Over the last couple of years I have met some very nice people on dive holidays and have been fortunate to be out in Sharm at the same time as some of them on various trips.  This certainly makes the holiday more enjoyable.  It is great to dive with people you like and are familiar with.  As I have been diving consistently with the same dive centre, Ocean College, I have gotten to know some of the staff to a level where we can socialize with each other and have a good laugh.  I went solo on this trip, but was lucky to have a few familiar faces to buddy up with.

My sweetheart kindly lent me one of his underwater cameras, a Fuji FinePix F80 EXR.  The camera is easy to use.  We programmed it before I went to Sharm.  I personally can’t be worrying about sorting out the white balance at this stage.  I just wanted to point and shoot.  I am not used to taking pictures underwater.  However, now that I am down with my buoyancy, I feel it is a good time to start taking pictures underwater.  I still have a lot to learn, so I wanted it to be as easy as possible, which it was.

If there is a downside to taking underwater photos, it can be that you might end up missing something while taking a picture of something else.  There is so much to see.  I am more used to fish spotting than fish photography, so this was going to be an interesting part of my trip.  I was very interested in taking pictures of the corals to learn how to identify them and to use as inspiration for paintings.  It helps that they don’t move.  They are underwater architecture.  It is amazing what you can see if you stare at a piece of coral long enough.

As is SOD’s Law when using an underwater camera, if you don’t take it on a dive, you usually end up missing out on a great picture.  Hence the picture of the octopus I spotted and didn’t have my camera with me!  It wouldn’t have made much difference anyway, as I managed to lose the first week’s photos while transferring them from one computer to another.  How that happened, I have no idea.  They are gone for good, and some of them actually really were good.  Them’s the breaks as we sometimes say.  (I am pretty gutted as I had some really nice pictures.)  Nevermind.

I did manage to hang onto a few which I will post here.    I still need to practice a bit and use some more flash, but I did get some nice ones.

Off of Gordon Reef and Shark and Yolanda

Things I saw in Tiran:  Turtles, Hammerheads on the back of Jackson :), octopus, morays, Napoleon Wrasse, Moses sole, a free-swimming stonefish, as well as the usual suspects.

Things I saw in Ras Mohammed National Park:  Huge schools of jacks, tuna and spadefish off of Shark and Yolanda, free-swimming morays, grey reef shark, a large crown of thorns, as well as the usual.

I also dived The Dunraven for the first time, although I didn’t go in it.  Penetration isn’t my thing.  Instead, I took some lovely photos of the outside of it which we will never see as they were some of the ones that got ‘lost in transit’.  It was a really lovely dive, with no current.  I saw the largest moray eel that I have ever seen before.  It was a monster.  It was bloody huge.  Did I say I saw a really large moray eel?

Off of Na'ama Bay and The Barge

These are photos that I took off the barge in Na’ama bay.  It was a beach dive.  It was 83 minutes and I still had 70bar left.  We couldn’t really go any deeper than 12 meters. 🙂  The barge is sitting in about 12.5 meters of water and has a lot of coral growth on it.  If you look really closely, you can see lots of little things hiding inside the coral.  I saw reef squid, pipefish, a little crab, a baby lionfish, a crown of thorns, and a host of other baby fish.  On this dive we also saw crocodile fish and a spotted eagle ray at the end of the dive.  This was the last dive of my holiday and it couldn’t have been better thanks to my dive buddy Kat.

Things have picked up a bit since my last visit in March.  There are more snorkelers and tourists and people are still feeding fish and standing on reefs!  I can’t feel sorry for those who do things they shouldn’t if they get hurt in any way.  Anyway, although tourism is up a bit, it is still good for divers as it wasn’t too crowded on this trip.  Not as great as in March, but still good.  I don’t know how good the going will be next year once the elections have taken place.  There seems to be a bit of tension between some indigenous and foreign workers at the moment.  However, I didn’t feel unsafe, but some people were really trying hard to milk the tourists, especially the taxi drivers.   We will just have to see how things turn out.

So, that’s another wonderful diving holiday, until the next one! 🙂