Sharm el Sheik: A diving course in Egypt's Red Sea was unforgettable
It's always been a land of mystery, romance and intrigue in the collective Western imagination, but while fascinated from childhood with the Pharaohs, the Pyramids and all things Tutankhamun, Egypt had escaped my travel experience thus far.
That was put right when Thompson Holidays came forward with a dream break in Sharm El Sheik at the fabulous Coral Sea Sensatori Resort on the Red Sea.
The break also included a PADI diving course to qualify as an Open Water Scuba Diver rated to 60 feet.
This was another long-held ambition of mine as a water baby from way back - ever since childhood and Sunday evenings watching Jacques Cousteau and the crew of the Calypso exploring the undersea world.
Having spent my youth in Australia snorkelling, spear fishing and surfing, it was yet another oversight that I’d neglected my scuba diving experience, having done a few dives in the past but never perservering with it.
After the direct flight from Belfast my colleague and new dive buddy Louise and I arrived at the resort and were immediately impressed by the warmth of the welcome by the super-efficient staff.
With an average temperature at this time of year in the mid-30s, even in the evening the velvety heat was most welcome after the autumn back in Belfast and I immediately felt totally at home.
A short ride on a golf buggy saw us to our luxurious swim-up rooms which also fronted on to the beach and after a quick look around the stunning room it was off to the main restaurant which management had kept open in anticipation of our arrival.
It was this kind of attention to detail which epitomised our entire stay at Sensatori.
Most visitors take the all inclusive option which gives you a choice of four restaurants and numerous bars dotted around the complex.
There are another two eateries which you pay for as well as the option of going off site to sample some local food and colour
The main restaurant where you have breakfast and lunch as well as dinner if you choose, is buffet-style with counters manned by chefs who will also cook various dishes like omelettes and crepes to order. And what a spread. In a week we never had to eat the same thing twice and all of it was fresh, flavourful and cooked to perfection with a selection of both Western and Eastern dishes, salads, fruit and sweets that make my mouth water now just thinking about it.
The other restaurants which include an Italian provincial, Middle Eastern and an American-syle diner are all also excellent.
After our supper we adjourned to one of the outside bars for a nightcap before heading back to our rooms to wallow in the luxury of our huge beds with real Egyptian cotton sheets, natch.
The next morning we arose to head off to start our four-day intensive diving course with our instructor Ahmed Basha, who is the senior man at Ocean College which is based on the resort, as well as having its own dive boat nearby at Nama Bay.
Ahmed - or Basha as everyone called him - was a fantastic teacher with a wealth of stories ans anecdotes who genuinely loves meeting people and sharing his passion for diving.
We spent mornings in the classroom learning theory and afternoons in the pool practicing what we learned.
Both Louise and I were very focused and couldn’t wait to get into the sea and talked diving non-stop throughout the day and evenings.
It is a hazardous sport and you become very close to your dive buddy as your lives are in each other’s hands should something go wrong.
After two days instruction in closed water we were ready for our first beach dives aand were excited and a bit nervous to be humping our equipment down the jetty.
The sea life in the Red Sea is phenomenal and can be seen from just yards from the shore.
As we walked down with our tanks lion fish and other colourful marine life could be seen nibbling at the algae on the pier floats.
With a water temperature of 27 degrees, no wetsuits were needed and as soon as we made our first dive we were suurounded by fish of alll kinds.
We saw a milkfish which is often mistaken for a shark, more lion fish, a blue-spotted ray and far too many colourful reef fish to count.
We also spotted Nemo - or a clown fish - as Ahmed taught us the underwater signs for the various types we saw.
Resting on the bottom we then practiced safety drills such as deliberately flooding our masks and then clearing them, and simulating running out of air and breathing from our buddy’s spare regulator.
All too soon that first hour was up and elated we made our way back to the dive shack chatting about the whole experience.
The next day was more theory and another deeper beach dive as well as some tests underwater.
In the evenings we worked our way around the various restaurants and bars, checking out the food and entertainment.
We spoke to many people who were return guests and loved the place so much they never wanted to go anywhere else, and I could understand why.
The staff are so friendly and attentive without being cloying that you felt you were among friends.
All were interested in you and where you were from and kept our rooms both spotless and well stocked with food and drink yet were not intrusive.
Personal touches like a courtesy call from the manager are standard and make you feel so pampered.
On our last day diving we did our deepest dive from Ocean College’s Seagull dive boat which is the most luxurious working boat i’ve ever been on, with the crew cooking up a delicious fresh lunch.
We also did a drift dive which was fabulous as you work your way along the reef and then the boat comes to pick you up, so you cover much more territory.
All too soon we were finished and qualified PADI Open Water Divers.
To celebrate Basha took us into old Sharm where we sampled the markets and did some shopping before heading to a traditional Egyptian restaurant where the food was delicious and the atmosphere exotic as Basha regaled us with tales of underwater daring - and hilarious stupidity.
We had become firm friends and were very sad to part, but Louise and I are already planning our next dives together and already looking forward to going back to Sharm and doing our advanced course with Basha.
I’ve fallen in love with Egypt and can’t wait to get back - with another stay at the Sensatori top of my must do list.
The Red Sea boasts over a thousand species of invertebrates and around 200 recorded coral types to be found. Not surprisingly, the Red Sea is considered by many to offer the very best diving available in the marine world.
PADI approved courses can be pre-booked with Ocean College, a 5 star Instructor Development Centre operating in Sharm for over 10 years. Ask your Travel Advisor for details.
Pre-bookable courses on offer include:
Discover Scuba Diving (half day) 65/£55
PADI Scuba Diver Course (2 days) 186/£155
PADI Open Water Diver Course (4 days) 294/£245
PADI Referral (2 days) 186/£155
Jewellery, leather goods, pottery, brass and cotton items
Experience some of the best scuba diving in the world
around Sharm El Sheikh
Glass of beer: 2/£1.70; Bottle of wine: 15.60/£13;
3 course meal (inc. wine): 23/£19
From Sharm el Sheikh Airport to Sharm el Sheikh: 30 mins
5 hours, 30 minutes
Arabic, English and Egyptian
Egyptian Pound (LE)
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