Africa · Middle East · Travel

Mount Sinai & Red Sea 3 Day Experience Review

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The Sinai area of Egypt has had its troubles. In fact, reaching it from Cairo is actually pretty tricky. However, visiting Sinai from Eilat in Israel is actually a great way to explore. For our journey into Egypt, we decided to join Abraham tours on their Mount Sinai & Red Sea 3 Day Experience for the chance to chill on the beach and climb Mount Sinai overnight.

Our tour was sponsored by Abraham Tours but as ever, our opinions are entirely our own.

Why Visit Sinai?

This area of Sinai has two major highlights. The first is the coast, sandy beaches and stunning underwater scenery. This area of the Red Sea is teaming with reefs, interesting sea life and the water can be stunningly clear.

The second, and arguably, the main sight is Mount Sinai. Otherwise known as Jabal Musa or Moses Mount, it is said Moses received the Ten Commandments from God on two stone tablets here. It is a hugely important Christian pilgrimage spot and it has become popular for pilgrims and backpackers alike to climb to the top for sunrise.

Why Go to Israel to Visit a Tourist Site in Egypt?

Strange as this may sound, it is actually easier to reach Mount Sinai from Israel than from Cairo. The Sinai Desert has had some troubling activity over the last few years. As such, it is not safe for tourists to go straight across. Instead, you must travel all the way down to South Sinai (Sharm El Sheikh) before heading Northwards again. From Eilat, you can be sunning yourself on an Egyptian beach in two hours. When you book with a tour, it is even easier.

DAY ONE

A Morning Meeting

We arrived at Abraham’s new hostel in Eilat bang on time for our departure. The rep clearly thought we were going to be late, looking mildly disapproving at our total promptness. We met our fellow adventurers, a lovely older couple from Europe and climbed straight onto the Abraham Tours minibus.

The rep talked us through the border procedures and gave everyone a sheet detailing it all for our reference. We were surprised that she wasn’t coming along for the ride but figured we would meet our guide in Egypt so didn’t dwell on it as we pulled away and drove south towards the border.

TOP TIP: Check local customs regulations, we had to leave our drone at our hostel in Eilat to ensure it wasn’t confiscated on the way into Egypt.

Taba Border Crossing Between Israel and Egypt

Out of Israel

It didn’t take long before we were hopping back out and preparing to exit Israel. We presented our passports at one window, paid the exit fee at another and bemusedly wandered through a duty free shop.

TOP TIP: Keep hold of all the small slips of paper you are given, you will be asked for most of them again.

Into Egypt

We then walked in the sun to another building that seemed to be an old hotel…or a new hotel?

Here, to the right, there was a small table with two border officials. Here, you pick up an entry form. This must be filled out before you head to the passport window.

TOP TIP: The border officials will offer to help and ask for baksheesh or a tip, you do not need to give them anything.

There is a cash machine in the “lobby” and it would be a good idea to get some money out. The card machine at Aqua Sun wasn’t working during our stay, and all of the other shops we came into contact with were cash only. Don’t leave yourself short.

We stepped out of the “hotel” wondering how we had avoided paying the Sinai visa fee. There was meant to be a $25 fee and the officials hadn’t asked for it. Confusing!

We looked for our guide. Nobody seemed very forthcoming so we stood around taking photos for a few minutes before deciding to venture further afield in our search. Just out of the gate, to the right, was a car park and here we found our guide dressed in a white Jubba Thobe. He explained that he would be our driver and off we went, passing through the payment window about five minutes down the road where they finally took our visa fee. Turns out, we weren’t just lucky, there is a visa-free area 1km around the border.

Aqua Sun Beach Camp

The Drive Down

We snaked down the black ribbon of road cutting through sandy rocks and glittering blue water. There was even a little fjord…in Egypt!

Fjord Bay looking lovely and blue

It would have been beautifully relaxing if we hadn’t had to stop every ten minutes for another check. To ensure the area remains safe for tourists, the government has set up many roadblocks along this stretch of highway.

TOP TIP: Keep your passport out for the many roadblocks you will be passing through

After around 30 minutes of driving, we pulled into Aqua Sun, a beach camp similar to many others we had passed. Dotting this coast, these beach camps are the standard tourist offering, apart from one huge, unfinished resort. Most have some huts, a few more substantial cottages/chalets and some communal buildings.

Arriving at Aqua Sun Beach Camp

We were shown to our rooms, two traditional Husha huts built upon concrete foundations. The main building was constructed of woven wooden rods so the sun-dappled the interior during the day and the waves could be heard lapping and crashing on the beach. The bed was a simple affair, a mattress on the floor with a mosquito net hanging from the ceiling.

TOP TIP: It can get chilly overnight if the wind picks up so bring a hat to keep your head warm

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The bathrooms were communal, a block a short walk away across the car park. I would say that this was somewhere between camping and glamping, bringing back fond backpacking memories.

TOP TIP: The wifi is very weak and spotty. It wasn’t working for half of our stay and we were charged for it on other days.

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Preparing to Hike Mount Sinai

Why I Was Worried About Hiking Mount Sinai

We were due to climb Mount Sinai overnight so I was determined to get some sleep before we set off. Our last sunrise hike, back in Indonesia, ended in tears and serious strops from me. I sat on a rock and begged the guide to leave me there until they passed on the way back down but the request was denied.

One very unhappy Flying Fluskey
Dinner Time?

I decided that a big dinner and a proper nap would be the only way I’d survive without throwing a wobbly halfway up the 2,285 metre climb so we hoped to eat dinner as soon as it was ready. We waited in the cafe area but nobody appeared. We felt little tummy rumbles but still, we were the only people there apart from one chef working away.

After about half an hour, one of the teenage staff came running over and explained there was a separate dining room that we didn’t know about. We dashed over, quietly gnawing on our wrists. We were super hungry by this point and we were looking forward to diving into the buffet.

Actual Dinner Time!

The dining room was like another world, we could have been in a Scandinavian chalet with the glorious open fireplace in the centre of the room and the clean lines. This was the beach camps centrepiece.

The first round of food came, (which we didn’t realise at the time) consisting of flatbread, tahini/humous dip and a big salad. We devoured the lot and then, realised our folly as the main course arrived. We had asked for fish and rice, and it arrived glistening with oil and radiating heat. It was the best breaded and fried fish I’ve ever had. The acting was salty and crispy with a lovely soft fish in the centre. The rice was also nice and flavourful. I couldn’t finish it all….but I gave it a good go! Lolling around happily we stared in disbelief as a mall plate of baklava and other sweet treats were set before us. I couldn’t fit any in and kicked myself.

Full and happy we waddled back to the cabin to snatch a couple of hour’s sleep. The sleep was restless but I think I managed to get about an hour before layering myself up and boarding the minibus that had arrived early. We were surprised that the driver was a different person but we were starting to come round to the idea that we were not getting a “guide” per se.

Climbing Mount Sinai Overnight

Arriving at Mount Sinai

We arrived at St Catherine’s Monastery at around midnight. The cold wind was a rude shock after the bus and the attempted sales of “glov-ves” started as soon as we stepped outside. (Pronounced glove-ez, and it took me a full five minutes before I understood, maybe I wasn’t as awake as I’d hoped). Luckily, I had gloves, a down jacket, a hat AND ear muffs. Russia taught me valuable lessons about how to battle cold and I was determined to tackle this hill without the dramatics.

There are two routes up Mount Sinai, the shallower, slower route (which we took) is known as Siket El Bashait. This is mostly just a path and most can be taken on a camel. At a steady clip it takes around 2.5 hours. Alternatively, you can try and tackle the much steeper route, Siket Sayidna Musa. This consists of the 3,750 “steps of penitence”. Sounds fun doesn’t it!?

We were introduced to our Berber guide, who makes a living dragging tourists like us up the mountain night after night. The climb began very gently, the trail was wide, paved and well lit. So far, so easy I thought. We wound through the camel area, jumping slightly as dark shadows moved and became the hulking beasts. One hopeful camel rentals agent walked with us for almost half an hour.

The Walk Begins in Earnest

The trail began to steepen and as we reached our first stop, I began to feel a little out of breath. Mr Fluskey realised that his water stocks were half what we had planned as he had forgotten a bottle of water. The couple we walked with were far more prepared with snack bars, juice and other exciting things. They donated some water to us which was very kind of them!

We trudged on, the path growing steeper and the cold sneaking through the cracks in my padded defences. I was genuinely ashamed of how unfit I was, puffing and panting like a pug with every step. It was slow progress, but we had enough stops for recovery.

At every subsequent stop, there was a shop, selling water, soft drinks, cigarettes and food so we needn’t have worried. We treated ourselves to a “fat coke” to share. This gave us a great burst of energy but didn’t help the chilly finger situation.

TOP TIP: Bring cash if you want to buy things on the way up. It isn’t cheap but it saves having to carry it the whole time. The shops will be shut on your descent so if you spot something you want, buy it on the way up

We stopped at yet another shop, and we were invited to sit inside. It transpired that we were going to wait there for an hour or so until the right time to tackle the final section of the climb. This would enable us to reach the summit a little before sunrise and stay a tiny bit warmer in the meantime. I found the toilet and took a very satisfying pee 2000 above sea level (despite the stress of the missing door). By now, the cold had wiggled its way through to my bones and I was angry with myself for not bringing hand warmers or similar.

The Final Ascent of Mount Sinai

The last part of the climb to Mount Sinai’s summit is 750 rocky steps. These steps slalom steeply up to the top and they really take the breath out of you! The good and bad thing is that everyone is making their final climb at around the same time. There are some points to stop and take a breather but much of the time, you are trying to ensure everyone can get up safely. Boy, did it feel great when we reached the top though!

Sunrise on the Summit of Mount Sinai

The light on the horizon was quickly brightening to dawn and we were so happy to see that the sky was cloudless and, the perfect canvas for sunrise to paint upon.

People milled about, snapping photos of the sun and each other. The churches at the summit are both shut for sunrise which must have been disappointing for the Tue pilgrims. We were sharing the morning with a few backpackers, a large group of pilgrim from the Philippines and another from Italy.

As the sun emerged the colours shifted from blue to pink, orange to yellow. We took far too many pictures and below are just a few. The valleys behind us flooded with sunlight and the contrasts were stunning. It was an amazing way to start the day.

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The mountains across the desert created a still and silent seascape. It had a strangely beautiful desolation.
Descending Mount Sinai

There are those who say that descending a climb is harder than ascending, and I am sure that when tackling a day’s long hike, that is probably the case. However, storming back down the mountain face was a pure relief for me.

A little snow just clinging on at the top

Gravity did much of the work, the sun was up and lighting the way, the heat started to soak into my skin and the world seemed much rosier. We sped down the hill, thrilling at seeing the scenery and details that we weren’t party to in the dark.


St Catherine’s Monastery

Normally a highlight of this trip, the monastery was shut during our visit. During Lent, the six weeks before Easter Sunday, the monks fast as part of their devotional practise. During this time, they don’t want visitors. Maybe they get too hangry!?

We weren’t allowed inside the monastery itself but we did take a quick stroll along the edge of their gardens. As it was spring, we were treated to some beautiful blossom. It was a striking contrast to the bare mountainside.

DAY TWO

Breakfast

On the tour itinerary, we read that we were going to be eating breakfast in the monastery. I had images of long, rustic tables full of cheerful pilgrims, tucking into huge baskets of bread. I have no idea where this romantic idea came from, I guess it was related to my friend’s photos of the Camino de Santiago and her dinners at the lodges along the way.

Instead, we sat in the minibus and tucked into this slightly odd packed breakfast. The ingredients were fine but eating on our laps wasn’t easy and there was no cutlery to spread the jam or cheese with, or cut the vegetables. It was a strange end to the trip.

We scoffed our strange meal and then began our journey back to our Sinai beach camp. It took a while to do so, as the minibus had a little trouble getting permission to leave the area. We happily napped in the bus so nobody minded.

Beach Day at Aqua Sun

The warm, lazy day continued back at Aqua Sun Beach Camp. We had nothing planned for the day so after a few more hours of rest in the hut, we decided to go for a little wander along the beach. It is not often we stay still on our holidays so it was to know that we were not going to do anything more taxing than a seaside stroll.

Aqua Sun beach camp has some unofficial residents. These permanent fixtures have four legs and very waggy tails. As we walked along the sand, the local dogs joined us. I am a little scared of dogs so it wasn’t quite as relaxing as hoped.

We walked down to another camp that was either, half built, or half abandoned. There were lots of these spots along the coast. Some were closed until high season, some fell foul of a fall in tourism. It would be brilliant to see tourists returning to Egypt in proper numbers but it seems the terrorist threats really had a profound effect.

A little further on, we stopped at petrol station where we bought some cold fizzy drinks and sat, sipping them in the shade. It wasn’t the most picturesque spot but we were super thirsty!

DAY THREE

More Beach Time

I surfaced far too early and decided to pop my head out of the room to see if I could catch the sunrise. Turns out, I had perfect timing and as I shivered in the first light of the day, I got that special calm that an ocean sunrise gives you. It really helped me get back to sleep until a more reasonable hour.

There was a choice on the itinerary on day three. We could either relax at Aqua Sun beach camp or take a 4×4 into the desert. Our fellow tour mates decided to go for it, but we just fancied the chance to chill out as we have done desert dunes during a couple of other trips.

I donned my swimming costume and skipped back down onto the beach ready to do as little as possible. I staked out my claim to a rainbow hammock and swung in the sea breeze as Mr Fluskey paddled in the Red Sea.

Back to Israel

As afternoon approached, I crammed my belongings back into my new SunDrift backpack and then relaxed in the cafe area. The others arrived back from their trip into the desert slightly ate but once we were all together again, it was time to drive back up to Israel.

Back to Eilat from the Taba Border

After passing through the border again, a much stricter series of security checks, the tour ended. Guests make their own way from here. We decided to get the bus straight back to Eilat. Bus #16 runs every half an hour or so and has several stops across Eilat so getting back to your accommodation is easy enough.

We said goodbye to the other couple who had decided to stay in the area and do some snorkelling. It sounded like a lovely idea but I am wildly uncomfortable leaving bags on the beach. Turns out, they take turns in the sea. So nice to see a travel couple with their travel rhythms developed over years of being together.

Information

If you are thinking of following in our footsteps and joining the Mount Sinai & Red Sea 3 Day Experience, here is some information you might like to know:

  • The best place to book is on the Abraham Tours website.
  • The Mount Sinai & Red Sea 3 Day Experience runs on Monday.
  • The price starts from 700ILS which is around £160 or $205 for this three day trip.
  • The price does not include everything. You will need to budget for the border fees, and extra 160ILS for the off-road desert jeep adventure, the transport back from the Taba border and any lunch, tip and wifi you want at the beach camp.
  • Don’t forget to pack warm clothing for the night in winter or spring, and for climbing Mount Sinai. You will need modest clothing for the visit to St Catherine’s monastery too.

Final Thoughts

The Mount Sinai & Red Sea 3 Day Experience is not a luxury tour. It is aimed squarely at the flashpackers of the world. It is priced at the midrange market, originating from the Abraham Hostel Eilat and based at a beach camp that is somewhat basic but with that fancy dining room. I feel that there could be some better communication between the beach camp and Abraham Tours about the guests.

As this was a new tour when we embarked upon the journey, we didn’t know what to expect. It was probably a little rougher around the edge than expected, and the prices at the Aqua Sun beach camp were definitely indicative of a captive audience. It was not as cheap as it should have been when compared with the rest of our Egyptian travels.

Overall, this was an enjoyable three days, especially once we settled into the rhythms of it, having different drivers etc. Walking up Mount Sinai was great! It was amazing that it was manageable, that the guide was considerate of my slow pace and that we made it for a beautiful sunrise. Climbing Mount Sinai overnight was a highlight of our whole trip to Israel and Egypt. It was also lovely to have a chance to relax on the beach, something we don’t normally give ourselves time for. I think there are some improvements that could be made but think the tour will develop over time.

Rosie xx


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