For 1250 kilometres, from Suez to the Sudanese border, turquoise waves lap rocky headlands and windswept beaches along a coastline separated from the Nile Valley by the arid hills and mountains of the Eastern Desert
. Like Sinai, the region's infertility and sparse population belie its mineral wealth and strategic location, and there are further points in common in the wildlife, Bedouin nomads and long monastic tradition. Tourism, too, is developing along similar lines, with holiday villages proliferating along the coast, and dive boats ranging down the Red Sea as far south as Eritrea.
An entrepôt since ancient times, the Red Sea Coast was once a microcosm of half the world, as Muslim pilgrims from as far away as Central Asia sailed to Arabia from its ports. Though piracy and slaving ceased towards the end of the nineteenth century, smuggling still drew adventurers like Henri de Monfried long after the Suez Canal had sapped the vitality of the Red Sea ports. Decades later, the coastline assumed new significance with the discovery of oil, and its vulnerability to Israeli commando raids, which led to large areas being mined - one reason why tourism didn't arrive until the 1980s.
While Cairenes appreciate the beaches at Ain Sukhna , south of Suez, the real lure consists of fabulous island reefs off the coast of Hurghada - a booming, bold and brash resort town - and the less touristic settlements of Port Safaga , El-Quseir and Mersa Allam to the south. Pending completion of an international airport at Mersa Allam, access to points further south remains difficult unless you have your own transport, although this looks likely to change, with the coast south of Quseir now subject to ambitious development. Dive companies are establishing supply bases for their dive boats along the southern coastline, opening up "virgin" reefs in the south to divers, whose only option previously was a long journey by sea from Hurghada or Sharm el-Sheikh in the Sinai.
Crossing the Eastern Desert by bus gives little idea of its spectacular highlands. Apparently devoid of life, the granite ranges and limestone wadis harbour ancient temples and quarries, gazelles and ibexes, and Bedouin. While you might not have the inclination, stamina or money for long excursions into the interior, thousands of Copts visit the Red Sea monasteries , and further south, amid the Red Sea Mountains , truckloads of dervishes converge on Wadi Humaysara for the Moulid of Al-Shazli . If totally off-the-beaten-track destinations are your thing, the Eastern Desert has more to offer than at first appears.