Great fish and chips!’ said Tina and Stewart from Bromsgrove. Anna, Andrea and Alan from Sunderland also loved the ‘beautiful’ fish and chips, but also had a ‘fab’ holiday. ‘First time to Egypt!’
It’s a novel kind of guestbook. The messages are written on beer mats underneath a glass-topped table in the Queen Vic Pub, Soho Square, Sharm El-Sheikh.
If you thought this Red Sea resort was a kind of Costa del Camel or Magaluf with a fez — then so did I.
Open season: Sunrise over a Sharm El-Sheikh beach. After four years, Sharm El-Sheikh airport is preparing to welcome direct flights from the UK and other countries
Only the Queen Vic and Soho Square aren’t what you expect.
True, the football is playing on multiple screens at the Queen Vic, but a far bigger attraction is the big stage where a belly dancer is doing her stuff.
This is not the boozed-up, sleazy scene you might imagine. Grannies in headscarves sip tea and clap along to the Arabic classical music. Families — and most of the people here are local families — stroll around, shopping, drinking tea or just enjoying the balmy early December air.
And even the Queen Vic, with its wide terrace and busy waiters, feels more East Med than EastEnders.
One thing about those beermat messages: none is dated later than 2015. In October that year, an onboard bomb brought down a Russian charter plane bound for Saint Petersburg from Sharm El-Sheikh.
Only now, after four years of tense negotiations with the airlines and a huge investment in security, is Sharm El-Sheikh airport preparing to welcome direct flights from the UK and other countries.
The first, organised by tour operator Red Sea Holidays (redseaholidays.co.uk), is due to take off from Birmingham on Thursday and from Gatwick next Sunday.
There are certainly benefits for the first influx of returnees. The company is offering seven nights all inclusive at a four-star hotel from £734 for two.
Scuba diving in the Red Sea. Sharm El-Sheikh’s miles of coral reefs offer the best diving in the shortest distance from Europe
It’ll take a few years of deals like that for Sharm El-Sheikh to get back to its height. In 2015, 900,000 of us visited Egypt. That dropped to 231,000 the year after.
It’s been a hard time for people who live and work in the area. I met Franziska, a German twenty-something, who used to come here on family holidays, then returned to pursue her passion as a diving instructor.
Tourism numbers slumped so low after the crash that she returned home to train for the air force. But now she is back among her beloved rays, wrecks and parrot fish — full of optimism for the area’s future above and below sea level.
It was the divers who first discovered these idyllic bays and beaches of the Sinai peninsula in the Eighties. Before that, the area was a hotspot of the Arab-Israeli conflict.
In fact, until the Camp David Accords returned Sinai to Egypt, Sharm El-Sheikh and the surrounding area were part of Israel; and the airport began life as an air force base.
Those early visitors discovered that this deep, clear water and miles of coral reefs offered the best diving the shortest distance from Europe — no need to schlep all the way to Indonesia or Thailand.
And the weather was fabulous. The holiday companies also figured out something: in the years before Dubai really got going, Sharm El-Sheikh was the only winter sun destination that didn’t require a weary and expensive flight to the Caribbean or Florida.
It worked for me. With England turning into a grey swampland, it was marvellous to take a boat from the Four Seasons resort and snorkel around the Gordon and Jackson reefs (not named after the Upstairs Downstairs actor that I know of).
Big projects on the horizon in Sharm El-Sheikh, pictured, include a luxury marina, new Fairmont hotel and a mega (nearly 2,000-acre) resort, property and recreation development called Citystars
The butterscotch mountains of the peninsula and Tiran Island — part of Saudi Arabia — glimmered above the deep blue and not remotely red sea.
A family of Risso’s dolphins swam alongside and underneath our boat, pirouetting in the gentle waves. ‘Sometimes, they just decide to be sociable,’ says Franziska. ‘Sometimes they go their own way. Today, we’re lucky.’
I find a little undersea action goes a long way. I’m more of a mountains and deserts man, so I was again surprised to see that the area offers plenty of adventure on dry land, too.
And boy, is it dry. We hired top-of-the-range Polaris dune buggies from Mr Sherif’s operation. With Arab-style keffiyeh scarves wrapped around our faces to keep out the dust, we bounced and bounded along empty desert tracks.
We paused only for a Bedouin tea and to try out the quite amazing echo from the South Sinai Mountains. It as like an army of friends answering your call from across the chasm.
Sharm El-Sheikh isn’t one resort, but a chain of bays and small settlements. Today, the view from the dual carriageway that links the different parts is a bit forlorn with abandoned hotels and battered signs for bars and clubs.
Some of the resorts clung on after 2016. If you look hard enough, you can still find amazing bargains here.
One hotel executive reckons you could until recently get a room in a three or four-star hotel for £100 a week.
A report from Globehunters earlier this year named Sharm El-Sheikh, pictured, as the third cheapest place in the world to book a five-star hotel, with room prices from just £39
A report from Globehunters (globehunters.com) earlier this year named Sharm El-Sheikh as the third cheapest place in the world to book a five-star hotel, with room prices from just £39.
As the flights return, the prices will rise. A recent report from the Global Travel & Tourism Resilience Council (resiliencecouncil.com) says it takes on average two years for a destination to recover from a natural disaster or terrorism incident.
Sharm El-Sheikh has been here before: in 2005 there was a deadly attack that killed 88 people. This destination is ready to go. This time, it’s looking to move upmarket.
The top resort, the Four Seasons, is planning to double in size and add a Robert Trent Jones golf course.
Big projects on the horizon include a luxury marina, new Fairmont hotel and a mega (nearly 2,000-acre) resort, property and recreation development called Citystars.
But there are plenty of more affordable options, too. Food and drink is pretty cheap, as are the shops — though cheap mainly means ‘tacky and fake’.
That will change as the malls and brands see the potential in an area desperate to welcome visitors back.
But is it safe? It’s hard to think how they can make it much safer. A huge and ironically named ‘Peace Wall’ runs along the desert.
There are checkpoints on the roads, at the entrances to the resorts — often several of them.
On my connecting flights from Cairo to London we went through no fewer than four different security scanners and endless checks and recheckings of our bags, personal items and documents.
The friendliness of the people at the hotels and restaurants makes up for the perhaps inevitable heavy-handedness: there are plenty of beermats at the Queen Vic waiting to be written on.
Mark Jones stayed at The Four Seasons, Sharm El-Sheikh. Set into a hillside north of Sharks Bay, it has five restaurants and its own bespoke diving operation.
Book doubles from £175 per night at fourseasons.com/sharmelsheikh. For more deals, check out specialist operator Red Sea Holidays (redseaholidays.co.uk).