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Halfway down the eastern edge of the Sinai Peninsula, the rattle-trap Peugot sputtered up the desert mountains, sounding near death.

It was April. It was 103 degrees.Somewhere to our left was the slim finger of the Gulf of Aqaba, though we'd lost sight of that blessedly blue water some time ago. The Peugot was a station wagon-taxi, hauling seven Westerners to premier diving spots.

I do not recall the names of my six fellow passengers, although I do remember there were two Brits, two Colombians, an Italian and an Israeli. We met only briefly at a crowded taxi stand at the Israeli border, ascertained that we were all heading in the same direction, and split the $90 fare for what should have been a 2 1/2-hour ride down the desert coast.

Our taxi had no air-conditioning and little left of a transmission. The trip took four hours.

By the time I staggered up the hill to my hotel overlooking Na'ama Bay in Sharm El Sheikh, a tiny resort village near the southern tip of the Sinai, it was early evening. A crescent moon sailed out over the desert mountains, the breeze died down and the water in the bay lay still. I walked along its edge for awhile in the darkness and let the water cool my feet.

Sharm El Sheikh wasn't even on most tourist maps 30 years ago. But after Israel took the Sinai in 1967, a trickle of Western tourists began coming for the spectacular dives along the coral reefs. Good diving starts at the very top of the Gulf of Aqaba, in Israel's Eilat, and continues off and on all the way down the coast. The very best diving is at the southern edge of the Sinai, in Ras Mohammed National Park.

When Israel returned the Sinai to Egypt in 1982, the Egyptians built on the tourist trade. Na'ama Bay is now lined with resort hotels, from the very simple to the very expensive. There were only a few direct flights to the tiny airport a few years ago; now there are several daily, coming primarily from Cairo, and one a week from Tel Aviv. More than 20 year-round diving operations are based there. The Movenpick Hotel, a full-service resort, boasts that its villas have a year-round occupancy rate of 90 percent.

"Ten years ago, we came over and slept on the beach, with nobody around and no worries," says Husam Nasef, who runs the Red Sea Diving Club with his wife, Hanna. "The diving was unbelievable. You could leave your stuff on the beach all day while you were diving, come back and it'd still be there."

Those days are long gone, buried under hotels, restaurants, jewelry and T-shirt shops. Wouter Van Gent, water sports manager of the Movenpick, will sometimes stop his ski-boat to point out what looks like a thin fog line on the horizon. "Diesel smoke from all the dive boats," he says, shaking his head.

But what Sharm has lost in its splendid isolation, it has gained in comfort and diversions, at least for visitors. My room at the Hotel Halomy had a view overlooking the bay and was just $85 a night, including a breakfast and dinner buffet each day, which weren't bad. The room had a comfortable double bed, air-conditioning, hot water and a shower.

There is easily a week's worth of sports and sight-seeing, and double that if you're an avid scuba diver. You can move across or under the water in almost every fashion imaginable - on water skis, jet skis, with snorkels, full scuba gear or on a goofy-looking float called a "banana" that's pulled by ski boats. The kids I saw loved it.

You can head into the desert via camel, dune buggy, four-wheeled motorbike or air-conditioned Jeep. All the hotels offer some range of the above, and you don't have to stay at the hotel to rent its gear.

There's also plenty of beach (hot enough to burn the soles of your feet), big umbrellas to lounge under, a wet bar never more than a few feet away and the bay or elaborate hotel pools to swim in. Any number of restaurants and a few nightclubs are open late into the night.

You can easily get by with English, though you won't see many Americans. Egyptians, Israelis and southern Europeans are the main crowd, with an emphasis on Italians. (The Italian travel agents must have discovered it and passed the word along.)

Me, I only had three days to spend there. The first I was a beach bum, snoozing, reading, swimming in the bay. On Day 2, I rode in the ski boat with Van Gent when I wasn't skiing myself (pricey at $15 for 10-minute segments). On Day 3, I took an introductory scuba course ($45) in the morning, ate lunch in the shade, and skied all afternoon. Business was slow, and Van Gent was happy to spend the time out in the bay without keeping watch on the clock.

Nights, I sat by the hotel pool after dinner, watching the mountains fade into blackness. If I'm making this sound like paradise, it's because I thought it was. I didn't mind the dry heat at all.

All too soon, I was slinging my worn luggage into another worn-out Peugot for the desert trek back to the Israeli border and then to Jerusalem, where my trip had begun. The car wheezed, rattled and caught. It was early, still not 8 a.m. The driver and I each took long swigs from our water bottles. Then we headed out on the narrow roadway, past the ancient Bedouin paths and toward the mountains already shimmering in the day's heat.

If you're going . . .

GETTING THERE: Direct flights are available from Cairo and Tel Aviv. Be sure to check which days flights are offered.

GETTING RESERVATIONS: You'll want to reserve a hotel and a spot on a diving course. Any travel agent should know of Sharm. I used Tour Eilat in Tel Aviv (972-7-378-048, Fax 972-7-371-057). Ruth Schilling at Tour Eilat can quickly set up a tour package, even arranging for a taxi to meet you at the border.