Saturday, December 02, 2017

Dolomites and the Merchants of Venice

Italy, one of the gourmet countries in Europe and also home to the famous mountain ranges Dolomites. A last minute scramble to fill up our September holiday resulted in Dolomites as we wanted to do something adventurous and active. Isle of Scilly was our plan but our super last minute planning left us with NO reasonable accommodation in Scilly and therefore had to scrap that plan. The next best plan we came up with was Dolomites since we both love the mountains and September will still be great weather in Italy.

The planning was tough going since it was pretty last minute and we had to scramble to find reasonably priced accommodation. Even though it's the tail end of the holiday season, Dolomites was still pretty expensive (imagine during the ski season!) After scrambling and missing out on some good valued AirBnB, we finally found an accommodation for our 4 days in Dolomites - Nord Hotel.. It is a really really old styled hotel in Cortina and at €80/night not exactly a cheap place! If you're a backpacker, Cortina will be quite expensive in terms of accommodation - no hostels. The hotel is pretty basic - the beds are not that comfortable, they squeak and pretty flat mattress. Breakfast not included in the rate, but we don't need that fancy breakfast when you're in Italy!

We had 5 days in Dolomites, but the day we arrived, it rained like there's no tomorrow and I was still nursing a terrible cough which turned out to be pneumonia. We flew to Venice airport and rented a car for the 2 hour journey to Cortina d'Ampezzo. The drive is very smooth and easy, not much traffic. We had a little issue at car rental as Ian forgot his driver's license so I had to rent the car instead, with my Singapore license. The official information is that you need an International permit if you're Non-EU, but luckily we were able to rent with my license. So it was my first time driving a manual car in Europe! The roads are really good and you're driving through toll road (€7.80 each way) in our tiny Fiat 500.

Upon arrival we just walked from our hotel to town - it's a good 20mins walk each way. The town is quite nice and very typical European. Upon recommendation, we discovered La Perla, which would turn out to be one of our favourite restaurants in Cortina, and easily the best! Their pizzas and pasta are amazing and very flavourful, and reasonably priced!
Pizza @ La Perla

Pasta @ La Perla

Best Gnocchi!!

The next day started sunny but eventually rained crazy shit! It was kind of a good thing as we went for a little walk in the morning and then the hospital to get me cured. The first 2 days the weather was pretty cold for me - around 10-14 degrees C. Long story short, we spent close to 3H at the hospital where they did some really thorough checks on me and eventually prescribed antibiotics and some cough medicine and told me I had pneumonia. But Dolomites being Dolomites, I decided to still go ahead with our hiking plans.

We rented gear for via Ferrata at a shop in the city - 2 days rental for 2 people for €50. The next day we decided to do Cinque Torre and then off to Alpini for the via Ferrata. Little did we know we might have taken on a bit too much for a day.

Cinque Torre is amazingly beautiful. The day we drove there, the mountains were covered in snow and super cold! But the view was amazing! Follow the route which takes you to one of the Refuge camp and then walk around Cinque Torre. It is also a good place for some climbing if you have the gear. After Cinque Torre we drove to start Alpini. Park your car at Strobel restaurant and start the hike up right behind the restaurant towards Col dei Bos. The walk to the start of the via Ferrata is about 30 minutes.
Hospital ruins

When you walk past the hospital ruins above, you know you're close to the start of the via ferrata.

We started our climb at noon, and the first part is the toughest. It was kind of scary for me to tackle the first part but after about 10-15minutes, you will see the light as it gets easier.
The toughest start to the climb

By no means is this an easy via Ferrata. We had thought it would be kind of easy but ultimately it took us a good 3 hours to get to the top and another 2 hours or so to get back to the starting point. Would definitely recommend doing this latest by noon to make sure you have enough time to get down before the weather turns. During our hike, the weather went from cold to sunny to cold, so make sure you are dressed warmly! It is definitely a medium level via ferrata, for me was doable but made more difficult as I had pneumonia, but if you have experience you'll do absolutely fine. Would not recommend it for total beginners but if you have a reasonable fitness level, go ahead! It is a really great experience and the view is amazing.

Made it!

The next day, we decided to try another via Ferrata. Our initial idea was to do a nice half day one at Mt Cristallino but when we got to the cable car station, we were told the cable car connecting to the via ferrata is under repair therefore if we wanted to do it we had to hike which would take forever. It is supposed to be a really nice one which takes you across a long swing bridge. If you have a full day or time, you could potentially hike to the starting point, do the via ferrata and hike back but we didn't want to do that especially with me coughing my lungs out. Left with not much choice, we went for Astaldi. This is an extremely easy via ferrata - you can even walk it without gear.

Hike to Astaldi

Drive to Rifugio Dibona, you will drive through an unpaved road for a bit so don't panic. Take the route towards Rigufio Giussani (421) and you will see the start point of the via ferrata. This is a loop so you can start from either direction and eventually back to Rifugio Dibona. The whole journey will take about 3 hours including hiking up to the start and hiking back down. As mentioned, this is a very easy one, we even saw a dad taking his little girl along! If you had only 1 day for via ferrata, this is probably not the one you want to go for since it doesn't require gears to walk. But if you're left with nothing else to do, try it with your gear. Otherwise just come walk this Astaldi anytime you want without gear! Don't forget to enjoy the scenery as you walk!

At Cortina, spas are very common so we decided to try it at the hotel opposite Nord since it was also good for my condition. We paid €15 per person per entry. They open from 4-8pm and there is a Jacuzzi, steam bath and sauna in there. We were pretty much done after an hour of steaming and bathing.
Eggplant pasta @ El Bronsin

Beetroot ravioli @ El Bronsin

Take note when you're in Cortina on a Monday, quite a few restaurants are closed. We were running out of options but finally decided to go to El Bronsin and what a great choice we made! We were kind of the first batch of customers and were a little apprehensive when we didn't see anyone in the restaurant but it slowly filled up after we ordered. And the food was amazing! As usual we ordered pasta and were not disappointed. This is another must go restaurant, it is a little out of the city center but not too far off. If you're driving, you can actually park for free for 2 hours at the sports complex just outside the center (near to the cable car station). WE only found out about this on our last night. It is very difficult to find parking in the center so this is the best option you have! We went to another recommended restaurant Il Ponte but didn't think it was that great. Maybe their pizzas are better but the pasta was not as amazing as El Bronsin or La Perla.
Tre Cime

The next day we went for the most famous hike - Tre Cime! The drive there is expensive - you have to pay a toll of €20 each way. And it is the most crowded hike we did in our 4 days. Dolomites is a very popular place but the hikes we did so far were not crowded with people, sometimes it was only us along the trail. But Tre Cime is the bomb - The car park was huge and full and you walk with a stream of people. You don't have to be afraid of getting lost! The weather was not exactly great when we got there - very misty and cold so the Tre Cime was kind of shrouded. The hike is not difficult, the start is basically just walking on relatively flat terrain, and you only really go up after you hit the first Rifugio. The uphill at that point is not ridiculous, but for a sick person it was not the easiest for me. I would say this hike (which took 3 hours) is suitable for everyone even kids! And we did see children hiking! There is a tea house after you loop past Tre Cime and if you need to use the toilet, make sure you bring cash or buy something from them.
Tre Cime is for sure beautiful, we only hoped we had better weather when we were there to see it clearer! Easy to understand why it is so popular because it is really easily accessible and the hike itself is not difficult and everyone can do it! Cliché yes! But definitely walk this hike when you are at Dolomites!

WE played with the stones

After Tre Cime, the sky cleared and the sun came out again! WE decided to go for the cable car up the highest peak Tofana. The cable car to the highest peak is €30 per person return. The slope is used as a skiing area during the ski season and you can clearly see all the ski markers. The view is pretty amazing up above and I believe there are some hiking trails in the lower 2 peaks.
Heart shaped lake!

Top of Tofana

Our last night we stayed at Fiames Hotel, for €60/night with shared toilet. The downside is that it is beside the main road so can get noisy but you can close the windows to shut out the noise. Breakfast was included in the rate. As we had half a day the next day we went for a walk along Fiames and in search of the waterfall Cascate di Fanes. We walked to the start of the via Ferrata but didn't have time to continue the walk to the waterfall. The via ferrata looked awesome and probably will take you really close to the waterfall. We regretted not doing this instead of astaldi - but do consider doing this via ferrata. I believe it is an easy one. You should be able to also hike close to the waterfall but definitely need more than the 2 hours we had.

And so ends our Dolomites adventure. The Dolomites were amazing and definitely you could spend a week or more doing the different hikes. They are all free and give you amazing view and fresh air! We drove back to return the car in Venice and check in to our AirBnB in Mestre. Venice is an extremely expensive place in terms of accommodation. Even the hostels were more than €80 per person per night. So we decided to stay outside of Venice but still within close distance. Mestre is a good area - Venice Heaven was our guesthouse for €55 per night for a double room - they had the best bed we had the whole week! The owner of the guesthouse doesn't really bother you at all, he just handled our check in and left, never to be seen again! So we were left to our own. There is a kitchen with microwave and some utensils, good enough to cook small meals but no stove or anything. The location is pretty good as it is near supermarkets and bus stop to Venice, and also close to the eating area in Mestre.

Next day we started our Venice trip. Point to note: But the transport card/ticket beforehand as it costs twice as much to buy it from the bus driver! €3 onboard vs €1.50 with the transport ticket. And if you decide to island hop, but the 1 day transport card (include bus, vaporetto) for €20 per person. You can take unlimited bus and vaporetto rides which is the most worthwhile purchase. We took the bus into Venice and started walking. We joined a free walking tour which took us to the lesser known areas of Venice. That was a really nice 2 hour walk and I would highly recommend starting your trip with this tour. There are a lot of different free walking tours on offer, we went with Free Venice Walking Tour. We got introduced to one of the best gelato in Venice Il Doge! Gelato is so cheap in Venice, for €1.50 per scoop they taste so fresh and natural! We also partake in Venice Tapas and Spritz.
The €80-100 gondola boat

San Marco

Rialto bridge

Any canal is as beautiful

To be honest, Venice is extremely crowded with tourists but if you veer off the usual tourist spot, you will walk through alleys that are deserted but still beautiful. We had thought we would not really enjoy Venice since it is so touristy, especially Ian who was so skeptical at first, but he also relented and admitted that Venice is beautiful and he liked it!
Libreria Acqua Alta

A boat in a bookshop?!?!

I highly recommend visiting the very famous bookshop also known as the most beautiful bookshop in Venice Libreria Acqua Alta. It is no longer a secret and swamped with tourists but it is really quite amazing inside! The entire shop is stacked with books that seems so disorderly but really organized! And a stair made of books! Eating in Venice can be expensive and not necessary great tasting as it primarily caters to tourists but there could be some local gems along the way. We did not quite eat in Venice since walking around kind of distorted our eating times.

We went back to Mestre for dinner in the center and would really recommend Ai Veteranio. Note that when dining in Venice, and even in Cortina, there is a cover charge for each person. This is something I'm not used to but it is what it is.

Meal @ Ai Veteranio

Not to be missed is island hop to Murano and Burano. They can be done in a day! Catch the vaporetto at F'te Nove. You will arrive at Murano first, the island best known for their glass works. It is a pretty nice little island and we spent almost an hour walking around before hoping into another vaporetto to Burano. For me, Murano was a little boring and not as exciting.
Burano is famous for its coloured houses. You feel like you're in a painter's world! The colours are very vibrant and the houses are quaint and cute! Walk away from the canal into the heart of the island to be away from the crowd. Burano is a lot more lively and the colours bring a bit more life to the island. It is a small island, and there isn't much to do around other than walk along the canal, sit in a café and soak in the sun and scenery. We left our we walked almost all the island.
It takes more than an hour to get back to Venice from Burano. And once back in Venice, with the day transport card, take a vaporetto along the Grand Canal! This is a really pretty journey as you cruise along the nice buildings along the canal, and a much cheaper way to do a canal tour than the gondola. You pay €80-100 per gondola for a trip, and granted they take you through small picturesque canals, it is a high price to pay for a canal experience.

Colourful Burano

Leaning tower of Burano

Rialto market is best visited in the morning which we did, however we were slightly underwhelmed with the offerings at the market. It is quite a small market with similar stalls and not as lively as we had expected. I mean the farmer's market here in Utrecht every Saturday has more character!

And so ends our Italy trip. A bus back to the airport took about 20mins and you do not have to take the airport bus! What we will miss - food in Italy and the fruits. So amazing and so fresh! Even though we were not overwhelmed by Il Ponte, it is easily better than a lot of places here in Netherlands. Hot chocolate - that's for me, Italy has the best hot chocolate, so thick and flavourful! Amazing mountain ranges and people. In general the Italians are friendly and gregarious! But be careful in Venice - lots of pickpockets! We went light and only walked with a backpack filled with water and sweater and stuffed our cash and card in our pockets. We went to all the touristy places in Venice - San Marco etc, but we didn't go in the buildings or up the towers. Venice itself is actually really big and would take a day for you to walk the different sections! We did not complete all sections but we were pretty happy with ourselves for what we did. I must say, definitely visit Venice, it sounds very cliché but you wouldn't regret it! Because one day Venice might sink :)

Friday, August 25, 2017

Egypt - The land of ancient mysteries, Pyramids and glorious underwater corals

The red sea - One of the top 3 diving locations in the world, renowned for its amazing colourful and lively corals. Egypt - the ancient world, the pyramids, the sphinx and curses. Finally I made it to this country. Egypt has a rather bad reputation amongst travelers because of the many terror attacks, and in general a country that is dangerous. The plane crash 2 years ago in Sharm El Sheikh didn't help the situation. But sometimes the most dangerous place is possibly the safest place?? Intrigued and attracted by the lure of the world class diving (so they say) and to see the pyramids, one of the 7 wonders of the world! Plus, it's super duper cheap to go there now! Especially the diving! The resorts in Sharm El Sheikh are so cheap you cannot believe it!
View from Pyramid Loft Rooftop
We decided to start our trip in Cairo for the pyramids. Booked ourselves into Pyramid Loft, which is literally a homestay right outside the pyramids. You get a view of the pyramids from the rooftop! It was amazing! For US$30/night for a room, it is not exactly cheap (considering we paid just a little over that for a Marriott resort in Sharm including breakfast and dinner). It takes about 1 hour to get there from the airport (Tip: Get yourself a taxi from the airport and bargain for 150 Egyptian pound instead of booking a car with Pyramid Loft.)
Get up early to visit the Pyramids. You will be there almost without any crowd and the feeling is pretty amazing! To our surprise, there was hardly any tourists. You could really feel the impact of the political situation and terror attacks on the tourism industry. It's 80 Egyptian pound to get in. Note: Beware of anyone who tries to help you and saying they're only trying to help. There is no free lunch in the world and especially so in Giza - they always ask for money for any small thing they try to help you with. So if anyone says "I can bring you there" or "I can take picture for you", reject otherwise be prepared to pay them for their kindness. And 2 EUR is apparently not enough for their kindness. You'll also be hounded by camel/horse riders for the entire duration you are in the pyramids - it is inevitable but eventually you will take on a camel ride. Because let's just say it is worth it. It is one of those things you just have to do when you're there. Take a camel ride to the top of one of the dunes to take some really good pictures. The official government rate is 100 Egyptian pounds for a simple camel ride. Make sure you agree on the price before you hop onto one.
Camel ride
This little guy kept calling me Shakira Shakira to get me to buy his stuff
It was quite aw-inspiring to see the pyramids but to be honest, it didn't quite blow my mind away. We both felt like wow pyramids, but after a bit it was more like "yea, the pyramids". It was definitely great to see them but wouldn't say it was the best thing! I think part of it was because the experience itself when you are there inside kind of ruined it a bit, with all the hounders and "tour guide" trying to hassle you for money and services. The ticket includes going into one of the smaller underground tomb - which kinda gives you an idea of what's it like inside the pyramid. Suggest you go into one of those first before deciding if you want to spend 200 Egyptian pounds to go inside the big pyramid. Didn't find it too spectacular inside the small one but maybe the big pyramid is more awesome? Either way we did not go in. Remember that it is free to enter the small ones, so if some random guy sitting outside asks for money, don't give! It happened to us and really it is preposterous if you think about it!
We pretty much spent half a day walking around. Note for dressing in Cairo - for ladies, it is advised to dress more conservatively - top with sleeves (doesn't have to be long sleeve) and pants past your knees, if you do not want unwanted attention from Egyptian men. We did a river cruise along the Nile with Pyramid Loft, paid US$15 each for the cruise including dinner. When we arrived on the boat, we thought we were being scammed! Because it did not look like we were on the Nile river and the boat did not seem to be moving at all! Then the performances started and we realized the boat was actually moving! But by that time, it was dark and you couldn't see much of the river except for the few lights along the coast. Dinner was not fantastic (buffet style) and apparently drinks are NOT included (but due to miscommunication, we did not realize that). Wouldn't recommend doing this river cruise at all. If you wanted to do a Nile River cruise, do one during the day and pretty sure you can board a local boat for a lot cheaper.
Nile River
There isn't much of a night life if you stay in Giza. Where we were there are a few restaurants that you can visit but otherwise that was it. There's a really good breakfast place around the corner - ask at Pyramid Loft. Typical Egyptian fare - of falafel, pita bread and many other spread. 1 pita with 2 fillings costs you 6 Egyptian pound - can't get any cheaper than that. We didn't have any problems with our tummy eating that!
Donkeys eating rubbish

Cows sharing the road with cars

Cairo isn't big on waste disposal
Our 2nd day was spent walking into the city center and exploring a bit of the city. Would not advice trying to walk into the city but we were trying to get some steps in so we walked for a very long time! You can use the public transport - take a mini van to the Giza train station and take the train. I'm pretty impressed with the train system in Cairo - pretty efficient and a great way to get around the city! And it only costs 2 Egyptian pounds! We visited the Coptic area first - that was kinda nice but nothing much going on. Then we took the train to a station near to the bazaar and continued walking from there. The thing about the train system is it is not in English, which makes navigation difficult. Best to download an offline map to figure out which are the stations and figure your way out from the map in the train. The bazaar was nice, with a lot of stalls selling different things, spices and souvenirs. Heading back we took the train to Giza and then the van - we got this tip from a random guy in the train who overheard our conversation. He was also the one who told us about the taxi rate to the airport. We were pleasantly surprised by how helpful Egyptians are! Especially after our experience in the pyramids the day before. We concluded that the real Egyptians are in Cairo and not in Giza - those in Giza are like mosquitoes, trying to suck the blood out of tourists for survival but there are in fact helpful Egyptians around.
There is a sound and light show happening every night at the pyramids for about 170 Egyptian pounds. Not sure if it's totally worth it, but you can actually see or even hear the narrated stories from the rooftop of the Pyramid loft. We were actually thinking of going but in the end, we decided against it and I think that was a good decision. It was not much different than seeing the pyramids during the day - just with lights at night.
View from our room in Sindbad
On our 3rd day we flew to Sharm El Sheikh and took the car transfer to Dahab. We booked our stay with Sindbad Camp for 20€ a night in an upstairs double room with the view of the sea (airconditioned). Sindbad Camp would be a really perfect location for backpackers and people to just laze around and meet people. It has a very laidback vibe. Also Dahab is less conservative, meaning you can walk around in shorts and sleeveless tops, or bikinis. Unfortunately when we arrived, there was a lack of backpackers so we didn't meet many people. Dahab is really more of a backpackers haven - it has that vibe and things are all so much cheaper. There are loads of tourist centers organizing trips out into the desserts and dive centers. You can also have a walk along the promenade which comes alive at night - filled with lots of restaurants selling seafood to tourists. We avoided these restaurants because they are in general targeting tourists and selling at much higher prices and also we heard that they fish in and around Dahab which by right is illegal. By word of mouth for a hippie couple, we discovered Yum Yum - a cheap local Egyptian stall which sells really good local food. The falafel was one of the best we've had! And the condiments were really tasty. We ordered almost everything they had on the first night - way too much but everything was just so delicious!
Yum Yum Restaurant

Enjoying my dinner at Yum Yum
Free divers training
We arranged our next day with Khaled with his dive shop Dahab Dive center. Khaled is a nice guy, introduced by the owner of Sindbad camp. We made a mistake on the first day by booking ourselves with the dive center beside Sindbad (Ian even handed over his Dive License), and after meeting with Khaled, we were sold on Khaled. It was then a rather tense and difficult task of cancelling our booking and trying to get Ian's license back. To be honest, Khaled was just more interesting when he discussed the diving itinerary and climbing - of course being cheaper is a plus point. We started our first dive at the Canyon and the 2nd at the blue hole. The blue hole dive was pretty awesome. It started with basically a vertical drop to 25/30m where you go head first and then come out to a pretty amazing wall, then swimming through into the blue hole where you see all the free divers training. It was 2 good dives! The water is about 25 degrees C, and I was basically shivering half way through the dive. It didn't help that the temperature difference is huge (10 degrees). After our dives, we went for some climbing (we paid US$30 each including equipment). Khaled is starting out his own climbing group (check out the facebook page Dahab Rock Climbing). It was my first climbing session and it was not easy climbing the dessert mountains. There was not that much grip compared to normal mountain climbing which made it a lot more difficult for me but I made it - we did 2 climbs in total, with Ian taking the lead for both climbs. I was so proud of myself for completing the climbs.

Blue Hole - Mecca of free diving
Entry to the blue hole dive
Next day we booked an entire day of diving at the Ras Abu Golum national park. It involved driving to the Blue Hole and taking a short boat ride to the island. You could also take a camel ride instead but would take you longer. The day included 3 dives and very simple Bedouin Lunch. After the 1st day of diving, I was rather disappointed at the lack of marine life in Dahab - all we saw were small (extremely small fish) and some rather dead corals. The dives in the national park was no different. Although we did see a lot more fish, they were baby fish, so small you'll miss them if you blink! Apparently, the Bedouin tribes are given free range to fish in the ocean hence the lack of good sized fish in the ocean. The 3rd dive was the best, we entered the water and were greeted by stingless jellyfish! They were amazing and filled up the sea surface! So apparently Bedouin has no idea you can eat jellyfish - we told one of the boys who was going to tell his dad, so maybe next year you wouldn't see jellyfish anymore! In this dive, we also saw a HUGE fish - grouper I think, which was surprisingly because how was it possible that this fish was not hunted yet?? We also saw a seahorse which was pretty awesome! On our way back, I drove the boat!!
Love playing with jellyfish that doesn't sting

Doing the high Five, deep dive

With the seahorse

Went for something non-Egyptian that night (was a little tired of falafels and pita after 4 days of it). This Italian place (Dai Pescatori) was recommended by some free dive instructor as the best Italian restaurant. When we arrived, the lady in charge was truly very much Italian and she was raving about her food - how everything is super fresh and home made and everything was very very delicious. Got our hopes so high up that eventually we fell so deep down to the ground. Probably is the best Italian restaurant because it's the only one in Dahab! To be honest, it was NOT spectacular. We had bruschetta, pizza and pasta. She raved about all the 3 options but they were just blah. When we arrived, a Chinese tourist was begging for the steak, literally drooling when she walked in and asked "is there steak today". Pretty sure she would have walked away if the answer was NO. Maybe the steak was fantastic, couldn't tell but what we ordered was not that great.

Nothing to shout about bruschetta

Home made dough vegetarian pizza - maybe it's the Italian pizza dough I don't like but didn't like this one either

Probably the best dish out of the 3, but also felt like a normal pasta
The next day we went for a dessert trip out into the white canyon, small coloured canyon and oasis. You can find such trips in any of the agencies along the promenade. They are being offered at about 450 Egyptian pounds each for the full day tour. Ours included also sandboarding, for which you usually have to pay extra for the rental. But in the end I think we managed to bargain it down to include it in the package so 900 Egyptian pounds for the 2 of us including 2 sandboards.  We had a private tour, just us the Bedouin guide and the driver. One thing that amazes us is basically how liberal people are in that part of Egypt. The dessert trip was amazing! It was a rather long drive to the dessert, about 1hour, and we arrived at the white canyon first. I would recommend bring a light weight scarf to cover yourself from the scorching sun. The white canyon was really amazing and beautiful, almost like the Zion park if you've been, with meandering canyons, slotted canyons. We spent quite some time there just taking in the scenery. We also walked quite a bit (maybe more than an hour) to our lunch stop - a village near the oasis. It was pretty brutal under the hot sun so keep well hydrated.
Climbing down to the white canyon
Mushroom top

Coloured canyon

Crawling under white canyon

My Egyptian look

White canyon
Our lunch was a very simple vegetarian Bedouin lunch again. After 2 days, I've grown to know a Bedouin lunch means potatoes, a salad and heaps of rice. And always with Bedouin sweet tea - not my cup of tea because it is extremely sweet. Pretty sure they put more sugar than tea in it. After lunch, we drove to the small coloured canyon. The real big coloured canyon is closed for visit due to conflicts, so we can only go to the small coloured canyon. It is really beautiful with all the different colours in the sand stones. Similar to white canyon but with colours. This is much smaller than the white canyon. After our tour, we drove to the sandboarding area. Nobody was there and it looked quite menacing - the height and the amount of sand. We got 2 sandboards and tried sandboarding. It was really hard work because you had to walk up the sand to get to some height and start sandboarding down. After 3 tries, I got really tired of walking up! You spent 15mins trying to walk up and the fun is over in 5 seconds! I really liked it. Fell a couple of times but eventually I think I got the hang of it. Ian was trying to do some tricks on sand but of course he could do it because he knows how to snowboard!



Our last dinner in Dahab was spent at Yum Yum once again! Still the best dinner place. Dahab is a really nice place to spend some time in. It is really cheap and you can possibly spend a week here doing different activities - climbing, diving, hiking, biking, even windsurfing! We were there for only 4 days but we had fun while we were there. The next day we left and tried to hitchhike our way to Sharm El Sheikh. We started walking to the main road and after some time, we managed to flag down a car who offered to drive us! Mohammed is the driver and at first he offered to drive us to his home which is close to Sharm. He doesn't speak much English but we communicated. He works in the tourism industry and speak Italian (because Italians were the biggest group of tourists in the past). Apparently hitchhiking is frowned upon in Egypt as police is afraid tourists might get cheated so locals are not allowed to pick up tourists for no reason. We also got invited to his home for tea! Mohammed was doing Ramadan so he couldn't drink but he made sure we got some tea to drink and we also met his kids. It was a really nice experience and to truly experience the kindness of the Bedouin people. In the end, he actually offered to drive us all the way to Sharm El Sheikh for no returns! As a gesture of our appreciation, we gave him our remaining mangoes (it was such a pity because those mangoes were delicious) and dates.

Mohammed and his family
Finally we arrived in Sharm, where we will start our dives. The town is seriously rather dead, and the plane crash 2 years ago truly affected tourism. The coast is filled with huge resorts and you could imagine 3 years ago, they would be filled with tons and tons of tourists and super crowded. Now, most of them are empty and you don't see anyone sunbathing on the beach. We booked our stay with Marriott for less than US$40 per room including breakfast and dinner at the hotel (it's the Ramadan special rate). The resort is amazing! It has a really good pool and also private beach. We actually did not have dinner at the hotel even though it was free! We went to an Indian restaurant 5 mins walk from the hotel - not so great, would not recommend it. We started our dives the next day with Mr Diver, which is stationed right beside Marriott hotel. It is a really small establishment, and one of the cheapest dive centers there. We booked the 6 dive package which was US$157 and extra US$15 a day for equipment. Lunch is included in the package. In general Sharm El Sheikh is a little more expensive than Dahab, but still not expensive diving packages compared to rest of the world! That is the effect of the unfortunate situation they are in at the moment.
School of fish gets me excited like yeah!! Shark Reef @ Ras Mohammed

One day a boat full of toilet bowls decided to ship wreck here! Sometimes you need to take a dump while diving


Our first day of diving was at Ras Mohammed National Park. People rave about this Park and we were proper excited about our dives. Unfortunately we were on the boat with 2 other groups of non-divers which did not help with selecting good dive sites (I guess that comes with going with a small establishment). The first dive was a bit crap - it was canyon dive. The 2nd dive we went to Shark Reef which was the best dive site in Ras Mohammed. We saw loads of fish, 2 eagle rays, barracudas and much better corals. I can now understand why people rave about the corals in Red Sea. They are really really alive and the best I've ever seen! To me, the water was very cold there about 23 degrees C, and I only had on a shortie. Wrong choice! Also, because of the salt content I had to go with 5kg of weight (probably could have done with 4kg). The last dive was the worst and didn't make us feel any better.
Healthy corals
We went for dinner at the Old Market at El Masrien. It is one of the cheap very local and authentic places in the Old Market if you want good food. We really liked all the starters and dips and the lady's fingers were really good! We decided to get some hibiscus tea leaves here (should have gotten them in Dahab but we didn't) and ended up being conned by one of the sellers and paying 4 times the price! In the end, to our surprise, the seller agreed to give us our money back and we bought the tea from another place for 25 Egyptian pound for 100g. And we thought that was quite expensive for 100g, but turns out it is a lot more expensive outside of Egypt! We actually regretted not getting more! The market is kind of a nice place to walk around and see things, if you want to buy something, make sure to bargain real hard because they always start with much higher prices for tourists.
A grand mosque at the old market

@ El Masrien

This would be our last full on Egyptian meal
The next day was our free day - so we just lazed around the beach, went to the supermarket and bought some dates, roasted corns. Didn't do anything much. For dinner, we decided to try the small Japanese sushi place below the Indian restaurant. It was empty but the day before we saw people eating there so we decided to give it a try. They had a lot of different sushi roll options which was pretty amazing given how empty the place was! We ordered 4 different half rolls and tuna tataki. Amazingly, they were pretty good for Egyptian standards!! The tuna was also very fresh and tasty! I hate to think they fish them out of the national park but the fish was really fresh! And cheap as well. Our meal plus 2 drinks and 2 miso soup came up to be about 400 Egyptian pounds - really decent for sushi. And we would come back the next night for more sushi!!
I can't believe sushi in Egypt is good!

Sushi galore

Our final day of diving was out at Tiran Island, supposedly the best dive sites! As usual, it was just the two of us from Mr Diver and we joined another boat (of super experienced divers) out to sea. That was surely a good sign because it means we would go to some of the best sites there! We met up with our dive guide, different from the first day and waited to board the much bigger boat. I've got to say I have much respect for these dive guides. They were all on Ramadan and they did not eat or drink at all the entire day even after all those diving! Our first dive was amazing! Jackson Reef - the moment we went down, we saw the most amazing corals ever! So alive and vibrant you can't believe it! The other 2 dives were also pretty good (last dive was kind of the worst until we saw a baby manta when we surfaced) but I can honestly say - if you go to Sharm El Sheikh, make sure you dive Tiran! After all that diving, my conclusion is if corals are what you're after, you'll not get it wrong in Red Sea/Sharm El Sheikh. It truly has the best corals I've ever seen! But unfortunately marine life is lacking big time. I was so amazed when I saw the most beautiful corals ever but after 10mins of seeing the same healthy colourful amazing corals, I got a bit bored and was waiting for more action in terms of pelagic swimming past, surprising me. I need fish, and loads of them, the occasion big surprise of a huge stingray, or manta ray, or huge school of fish, some reef sharks would have done the job. But didn't really see much of those in this trip. One of the dive masters also commented that the amount of fish he has seen over the past 10 years decreases each time. The huge drop in tourism also did not help as our dive master told us they/people started fishing in the national park for food because they had no income. The place is very dependent on tourism and without the tourists, they had nothing.
Everyone got so excited when they see ONE turtle. Only saw 1 turtle the entire trip

This little cutie swam past us near the pier!
We had some pretty awesome time in Egypt. Unfortunately we did not meet as many people as we had hoped to because the place was seriously lacking in tourists/travellers but we did meet some great people who helped us along the way. It would be a little difficult as a single backpacker because of the lack of other single backpackers to meet along the way, and potentially could get a little boring. As a female traveler, Egypt is not necessarily the most female friendly country. If you travel as a single female, it is possible but just be aware of your surroundings and when in doubt, dress more conservatively. And Sharm El Sheikh, although very cheap now, would still be a little expensive to budget backpackers because they do not have budget accommodations for single travelers. That said, you could always base yourself in Dahab and go on diving trips from there as they do organize diving trips to Ras Mohammed and maybe even Tiran if you ask! If you have the time, do try to do the Thistlegorm wreck dive. A lot of people raved about this wreck dive as one of the best in the world! It'll cost you US$80 from Dahab (way cheaper than from Sharm) but the downside is that you have to start travelling in the wee hours of the early morning (apparently at 4am) to travel down south and hop onto the boat to Thistlegorm. Apparently there is only 1 boat going per day as they limit the number of divers to the site. A typical itinerary from Dahab would include 2 dives at Thistlegorm (where you get to penetrate the wreck on the 2nd dive) and 1 dive at Ras Mohammed. I'm glad we went to Egypt now - with much less tourists you get to see a lot more of the places. But it is also quite sad to see how deep down they have fallen and how all the once almighty resorts and beaches are deserted or closed. We only stopped at Cairo, did not go down through to Luxor but we did hear pretty amazing things about Luxor, that could be worth a visit!
And in Egypt, everything is about bargaining, except for maybe accommodation and restaurants. We practically bargained everything in Dahab, even the diving prices with Khaled! Taxis in Cairo needs lots of patience to bargain down to the right price, and especially in the markets, put your best bargaining face forward and do not be ashamed!
Also, we were there in the midst of Ramadan. Basically the 3rd day of our trip was the start of Ramadan. Initially we were worried that a lot of activities would be stopped because of that but Dahab and Sharm being touristy spots, they were still operating full time during this period! And it is a lot better because you spend the whole day out doing stuff and at night, the town is full of live because the locals are out eating and drinking. To us, it seems like business as usual when we were there as shops were still open and we were able to do the things we set out to do. Our guides (both Khaled and the Bedouin guide) were not fasting as they were out servicing tourists. So it goes to show you don't have to avoid Egypt during Ramadan, especially the touristic areas.