The land is barren, the sea isn't red at all, and more than a few Egyptians and Israelis have died fighting over this strange triangle of desert, shore and mountains.
But the crudely lettered sign before me says, "Let us have some fun with Khaled," and I'm all for that.I step up to the ranks of battered bicycles, fish five Egyptian pounds out of my shorts and hand them over to the grinning Bedouin, Khaled. In this week of snorkeling, mountain climbing and camel riding, I am now, for an hour, a cyclist in Sinai.
Past the sandy shores I pedal, past the Bedouin carpet merchants, the miniature golf course, the low tea tables, the Fayrouz Disco and the strolling couples along the waterfront promenade. The sun is down, the sky is purple and the inland mountains are slipping into blackness.
At the north end of the beach, I park the bike, turn and face the big picture: Fewer than 30 years after it reached notoriety as a contested territory - and more than 3,200 years after Moses is said to have received the Ten Commandments on a mountaintop here - the South Sinai has become a booming vacation destination.
To my left stretches the Red Sea, actually an eerie shade of aquamarine, teeming with 1,000 species of fish. Divers say this stretch of the Red Sea coast includes some of the foremost scuba and snorkeling sites in the world. At its most accessible scenic spots, snorkels poke up from the shallows like multicolored stubble.
To my right rise the mountains of Sinai - stony, bare, jagged things that jut from an almost entirely empty plain. You see miles and miles of nothing, then a lone acacia tree, and then more miles of nothing, then a Bedouin camp with camels, sheep and a four-wheel-drive Toyota.
Dead ahead, on the Naama Bay shoreline, stands the most tangible evidence of Sinai's new popularity. Twenty years ago, locals remember, there was one hotel here. Now Sharm el Sheikh and this neighboring bay are home to more than two dozen mostly upscale lodgings, including two Hiltons, a stylish Sonesta, a sprawling Movenpick. Resorts by Conrad, Marriott and Inter-Continental will open this year. There are almost as many dive clubs as hotels. All these properties are fed by the Sharm el Sheikh airport, where arrivals include daily service from Cairo, but also nonstop charter flights from Rome, Milan and Frankfurt.
I am snorkeling, the wonders of the undersea world spread before me. I follow along the edge of a coral reef that descends at least 60 feet, sighting fish in rainbow tones. They are yellow, orange, purple, green and blue - each of them is all those colors - and they glide past coral of pink, yellow, purple and red.
This is Ras Mojammad, Sinai's most famous dive site and since 1989 a part of the area's only national park. If I chose to, I could swim around a corner of the reef and join a gaggle of three-dozen snorkelers. Most of the big Naama Bay hotels, about 25 miles north of here, arrange half-day trips for $25-$30 a head.
Since I'm a mere snorkeler, the greatest underwater amazements of the Red Sea are well beyond me: the deep "Blue Hole" near Dahab; the coral-encrusted 1941 wreck of the still-cargo-laden English freighter Thistlegorm at Sha'ab Ali; the soft coral of the 200-foot-deep reef walls in the Straits of Tiran. Fifty or 100 feet down, certified scuba divers commune with barracuda, moray eels, rays and the occasional shark, on the lookout for the poisonous spines of the lion fish, the scorpion fish and the stonefish.
Three subjects central to the life of an American traveler in Sinai:
- Semantics. The Egyptians say "Sinai," rather than "the Sinai."
- Demographics. In the last decade, as the hotels have blossomed, it's the Italians who have been filling them. The oft-told tale is that Italian military officers, assigned to service at the peacekeeping post here, went home with word of the world-class diving and the lunar desert landscape.
- Geopolitics. Sinai is the 23,442-square-mile triangle that connects Africa and Asia. It fell within Egypt's borders when the Egyptian Republic was declared in 1953. But in the conflicts that accompanied the growth of Israel, the Jewish state invaded Sinai in 1956 and again in 1967. Despite an Egyptian offensive in 1973, Israel controlled most of the area through the 1970s - and set in motion the early tourism development that led to the current bonanza.
Then in 1979, Egypt and Israel signed their historic peace treaty, and three years later, Israel turned most of the Sinai over to Egypt. The last bit of territory in dispute, the Hilton hotel at Taba near the border, passed to Egyptian hands in March 1989, when an international arbitration committee directed Israel to pull its border back a few hundred yards.
Aided by the multinational peacekeepers, Egyptian authorities nowadays maintain tight internal control of the territory, going so far as to require a show of passports from foreigners entering Ras Mojammad National Park. Their close attention to Sinai's few points of entrance and exit has paid off. In recent years, as Luxor and Aswan in southern Egypt have struggled with incidents of Islamic fundamentalist terrorism, Sinai has suffered no such problems.
Still, wandering the Sinai today, you see reminders of bloody history: old Egyptian gun emplacements near the Straits of Tiran, coils of barbed wire to prevent visitors from straying where leftover land mines may remain. But not all the mines are behind barbed wire.
Last June, two American newlyweds, both U.S. Army officers, chose to honeymoon in the Sinai, and one day hired an off-road vehicle and a driver for a tour about 30 miles north of Sharm el Sheikh. A leftover mine exploded beneath their vehicle's rear axle, killing them both.
Egyptian officials called the deaths an isolated incident, and despite the many foreigners exploring the landscape, there have been no similar reports recently. But in a request for U.N. funding last year, Egypt estimated that its lands included 23 million unexploded mines.
At 11 p.m., a bus rolls up before the Ghazala Hotel at Naama Bay, and 40 of us get on.
For three hours we ride through the desert, foothills and mountains. Finally the bus halts, and we are expelled and pointed uphill.
This is the base of Mount Sinai, and to reach its top by sunrise, we need to start now.
We have been instructed to bring flashlights, and everyone but me has remembered. And so, as we make our way up the twisting path, I become a parasite, silently trailing one hiker after another. Looking ahead, I see, perhaps, 200 beams, like weak stars, dancing up the black mountainside. Above hang the real stars, surrealistically bright in a black-indigo sky.
The crowd on the mountainside is yet another sign of the way of things in the new Sinai. The visitor boom resounds well beyond Sharm (as the locals call it) to the smaller towns of Dahab, about 60 miles to the north, and Nuweiba, about 40 miles beyond Dahab, and inland to the Valley of Jethro (who was Moses' father-in-law), which cradles the Monastery of St. Catherine beneath Mount Sinai.
In all of these areas, development gallops despite water shortages - a relief for those troubled by the Bedouins' low standard of living, a worry for those concerned about the fragile coral and rare species offshore.
Even at the foot of Mount Sinai, the monastery hostel now has competition from at least two other hotels along the road.
Some visitors have no intention of climbing the mountain; they just want to see a 1,300-year-old monastery. Behind St. Catherine's intricately carved 6th century Byzantine wooden doors, the Justinian basilica holds dozens of samples from one of the world's most remarkable collections of Christian icons, a hanging jumble of chandeliers, and a striking 6th century mosaic depicting the transfiguration of Christ.
Enclosed within the same aged walls, there's a living plant said to be descended from the burning bush of the Old Testament and a charnel house filled with the bleached skulls and bones of monks through the centuries.
The higher we climb, the steeper the mountain. Every few hundred yards now, there's a Bedouin snack bar: a kerosene light, samovar for tea, a few hundred candy bars, a few hundred crackers and a few hundred bottles of mineral water.
Finally, after an ever-steeper last hour, the three-hour hike is done, and about 200 of us stand crowded on top of Mount Sinai, low walls all around to keep us from falling, but bitter cold winter tearing at us.
Soon the stars will vanish and the temperature will rise - about 30 degrees in about 30 minutes. Shedding outer layers, we will straggle variously down the mountain, most of us following the 3,500 steep stone steps that will take us back to the monastery.
But first there's this: The sun rises as a small white disk. To the north, south, east and west, barren peaks stretch toward infinity, glowing orange and yellow and red. The sun creeps up, the colors evolve. Hikers and their guides burst into Christian, Jewish and Muslim prayers. The wind turns mild. The Sinai is at peace.