Red Sea relaxation: Escaping the rain (just about) in splendidly sunny Sharm El Sheik
Shaem-El-Sheik doesn't do rain. Ask any local and they'll tell you with an almost perverse pride that a deluge last year was the first in the Egyptian Red Sea resort since 1997.
So you could excuse me for coming over all Victor Meldrew-ish when a plate-sized drop of rain landed on my face just as I prepared to hit the sunlounger on the first morning of our holiday.
Sand and sunshine: The Whitfields take a rare break from topping up their tans in Egypt
'I don't believe it!' I muttered. We'd flown nearly 3,000 miles to one of the driest places on Earth for seven days of dawn-to-dusk sun. Rain was definitely not part of the plan.
'At least it's warm rain,' ventured Mrs W. I just glared as the droplets got bigger and heavier. A middle-aged Scotsman in dodgy black Speedos saw his chance to add to our woes and teased us about bringing English weather with us.
'Perfect here last week,' he growled. 'Nae a cloud in the sky.'
'Like Glasgow in the spring, eh?' I shot back. McSpeedo laughed.
Then, as suddenly as it had begun, the rain stopped, the clouds passed and, palpably, the temperature began to rise again. Panic over. Normal service had been resumed.
Actually Sharm-el-Sheik can't be bettered if it's winter or early spring sun you're after. Culturally, the place may be as arid as the nearby Sinai Desert, but when you're sipping a cold beer beside your hotel swimming pool while the mercury nudges 30 degrees Celsius, you don't give a jot about museums and art galleries. Especially when it's chucking it down at home.
We stayed at the five-star Thomson Sensatori hotel in Nabq Bay, a 20-minute drive from Sharm town and the airport. Situated on a palm-studded ribbon of pristine beach, the all-inclusive complex opened last spring.
Our swim-up room proved to be an inspired choice. Beautifully appointed, it also had a private balcony and steps leading to a narrow 'moat' of water - effectively our own private pool.
This had two advantages. First, we escaped the early morning scramble for sunbeds on the beach and around the hotel's three main pools. Second, it was a great way of getting to know the guests in neighbouring rooms, including Mr and Mrs McSpeedo, who explained how to make sure we never ran short of drinks (slip the barman a juicy tip - it worked!) and recommended where to eat.
A lack of privacy had been a concern beforehand. Our break fell in the middle of a school holiday and we had visions of being mown down in the pool by hordes of boisterous children on inflatable crocodiles. We needn't have worried: our room was tucked away in the hotel's adults-only zone - which has its own bar and pool - enabling us to relax with our books and cocktails while the youngsters splashed away happily in their own pool on the other side of the complex.
The all-inclusive package gave us a choice of four restaurants, including the Fountain View buffet where lazy al-fresco breakfasts set the tone for our days. You can also pay extra to dine at two others. Most Sensatori guests are British so home-grown tastes are well catered for, but the variety of food is impressively cosmopolitan - fresh dates and tiny sweet cakes were a breakfast treat, while at lunchtime we invariably made a beeline for the grilled fish and exotic salad bars.
In the evenings we tried the Sensatori's Italian restaurant and American diner but our favourite was the Marhaba, a Middle East restaurant where the seafood tagine was so good we returned on our final night to savour it again. Local wines, beers and spirits all come free of charge, and you can pay extra for international brands but be warned: they're not cheap.
The Egyptian staff were unfailingly cheerful and helpful and there was no hint of the tensions that had convulsed the country over the previous 18 months. Egyptians are proud of their history and culture and so were delighted when Mrs W tried out some Arabic words and phrases she'd learnt with Sammi, from the Thomson guest relations team, at one of the Discover Egypt sessions he runs for guests. By contrast, my own stabs at the language seemed to utterly bemuse them.
After two days doing nothing more strenuous than lifting the occasional cocktail or cold beer, it was time for something more adventurous. We studied the list of day trips - Luxor, Petra, Jerusalem, the 6th Century St Catherine's Monastery - but all seemed a bit far. So, with the finest coral reefs in the northern hemisphere on our doorstep, there was only really one choice - snorkelling.
In the late Seventies, a friend used to visit the Red Sea regularly to snorkel. He was quite the pioneer because in those days few Westerners had heard of Sharm, which was just a small fishing port with a few Israeli-built hotels where their soldiers enjoyed a spot of rest and recuperation. Israel captured the Sinai from Egypt in the 1967 Six Day War before handing it back in 1982.
My friend would regale me with tales of incredible coral gardens, vertiginous reef cliffs and cloudbursts of coloured fish. 'You've got to get yourself out there,' he would say. Thirty years on, I was about to find out what all the fuss was about.
No rain here: The Sensatori Hotel is certainly a place where you can escape the weather
We whetted our appetites by snorkelling from the jetty on the Sensatori beach. Even here, just 100 yards from the shore, the reef was stunning so we booked a day-long snorkelling cruise to nearby Tiran Island. We joined our boat in Sharm and spent the first hour on the sun deck where our guides ran through the snorkelling drill and what we could expect to see.
Finally, over a vast reef plateau and close to the rusting hulk of a shipwrecked freighter, the captain killed the engine and we plunged into the sea. The reef off the hotel may have been spectacular but this was in a different class altogether.
Banks of vibrantly coloured coral and shoals of fish competed for our attention and I had to resist the urge to shout out when I spotted some new wonder - not recommended when you've got your mouth clamped around a breathing tube!
Our guides led us over the reef, past gardens of fan-shaped coral drifting gracefully in the current while thousands of tiny fish scuttled away. Larger fish were less skittish and chugged along happily.
During the course of an amazing day, we saw yellow-masked butterflyfish, groupers, clownfish, parrotfish and rays, among others. My only regret was not spotting a Napoleon wrasse. With their huge lips and Gok Wan-style quiffs, these behemoths (they grow up to 6ft long) graze the coral like cattle on the pampas. But what makes them remarkable is that they begin life as males before maturing into females. They can even change back again if there is a shortage of males.
Our other excursions couldn't have been more different. We joined Sammi for a tour of Sharm's old market hoping to pick up a bargain or two. We came prepared to haggle, and with Sammi's help we struck good deals for a handbag and spices.
Our final afternoon saw us whisked into the Sinai for a sunset quad-biking safari. If that sounds irredeemably naff it was also brilliant fun. Wearing keffiyehs and goggles to protect us from the billowing clouds of dust, we motored pell-mell through the desert for nearly two hours as the sun's dying rays lit up the jagged mountain peaks in a blaze of ochre.
At the halfway point we stopped to enjoy a cup of sweet Bedouin tea as our guide told us of the history and lifestyle of these desert people. For example, did you know that to find water, the Bedouin used to dig beneath an acacia tree or, if really desperate, slaughter a camel and use the water in its humps? Or that one of the tribes, the Gebeliya, came originally from Eastern Europe, not Arabia?
They were brought to the Sinai hundreds of years ago to serve the monks of St Catherine's Monastery, converted to Islam and adapted to the Bedouins' nomadic lifestyle. They are still there today.
Few modern Bedouin live as nomads - the demands of tourism and the government's insistence that children receive a full-time education put paid to that. I'm not sure what the Bedouin think, but I couldn't help but feel Egypt is the poorer for it.
The sun had almost disappeared behind the mountains when we finally returned, exhilarated, to the quad bike centre.
The sun was setting, too, on our holiday, but as we made our way back to the hotel we were already planning our next visit. You should go too. It won't rain. Promise.
Thomson (0871 230 2555, www.thomson.co.uk) offers a seven-night holiday at the five-star Sensatori in Sharm-el-Sheik on an all-inclusive basis from £911 per person. This complex is exclusive to Thomson in the UK. Prices, based on departures from Gatwick on September 27, are for two adults sharing a double room. Transfers are also included.
Most watched News videos
- Terrified boy's hilarious reaction to finding spider in canoe
- 'I have no answer': Meghan Markle flops British knowledge quiz
- Shocking video shows ISIS destroying US-made M1 Abrams tank
- ISIS militants in horrific public executions across middle east
- Armed gangs fight it out in mass road brawl
- Pilot saves lives of 439 passengers by narrowly avoiding collision
- 'Drama queen' cyclist films a series of near misses over a year
- NYPD searching for suspect who punched, killed 64-year-old man
- Harry Caray calls Cubs World Series win in stirring Bud ad
- Jimmy Kimmel tries to prank his own daughter over candy
- Paul Connolly meets thief's Tara and Lauren for first time
- Whoopi Goldberg and Kellyanne Conway spar over poll comments
We are no longer accepting comments on this article.