Parting the Dunes
The Red Sea is not actually red. Its turquoise waters hold a myriad of colors, mostly Technicolor coral reefs and exotic marine life that has made it a major magnet for divers and sailors, especially along the Egyptian coast that has been christened the New Riviera. This ancient waterway is bordered by countries as diverse as Israel and Somalia and has an ancient heritage that involves pyramid-obsessed pharaohs and water-parting slaves. One of its newer, untold stories is the fact that it makes an excellent location for rattling along the golden sands on a three-wheel buggy and sail while onlookers sip tea in flapping tents.
The desert around Marsa Alam is hot, blazing, and silent, its emptiness belying a history as deep as a cave full of Red Sea Scrolls. This Egyptian fishing village on the southeast coast has so far avoided the hordes of sea divers that are thronging to the faux Moor domed resorts that have popped up around the northern shores of this long sea inlet that stretches nearly 2,300km (1,400 miles) south to the Indian Ocean. Cairo is 644km (400 miles) to the north of Marsa Alam, but it could be an eternity away as you stand in this flat, eerie land surrounded by pastel mountains colored pink, green, and yellow. Such serenity rudely evaporates as you mount the modern buggy with pneumatic wheels and race across the scrabble terrain. The tall, sleek sails harness brisk winds that propel screaming racers toward the gentle dunes at 48kmph (30 mph). It certainly makes a nice break from ogling hammerhead sharks in the shimmering bays.
Desert sailing is organized by an outfit called Red Sea Adventures, based in burgeoning Marsa Alam. It’s a 2-hour excursion into the Hamata desert that makes up part of the vast Arabian desert, an inhospitable plain that runs south into nearby Sudan. A jeep takes you out into the desolate dunes where a patch of plain with strong winds proves an ideal spot for sailing without currents or buoys. The only waves are the rippled mountains of sand in the distance. After some brief instruction and donning some protective gear such as a helmet and goggles, you lie feet first and prostrate as the buggy gathers alarming speed and carries you with ease. It is certainly more exciting than a local camel ride and induces more of a rush than a visit to the nearby emerald mines. The day ends with a tiny cup of tea brewed by the local Bedouin tribe known as Ababda. You look across the ancient landscape and think of how Caesar and Napoleon may have conquered this land but they cannot claim to have done it on a sail buggy.
Marsa Alam is itself a tropical town of palm trees and mangroves divided between an ancient market town and an ambitious modern expansion of new resorts and stores besieged by the relentless desert. Goats scamper amidst the dusty streets while dolphins leap in the glistening waters.
Red Sea Adventures ( 20/123-993860; www.redseadesertadventures.com).
When to go: Year round.
$$ Iberotel Coraya Beach Resort, Madinat Coraya, Marsa Alam, Egypt ( 20/65/375-0000; www.iberotelegypy.com). $$ Crowne Plaza Sahara Sands Resort, Port Ghalib, P.O. Box 23, Marsa Alam, Egypt ( 20/65/336-0000; www.ichotelsgroup.com).