While relaxing on the beach at Marsa Shagra recently it occurred to me that this was the fifth time I had visited this charming and relaxed dive destination. This is very unusual for me; with so many places to visit in the world, I rarely go back to the same place twice.
But Marsa Shagra is rather special. I always say that although it might not offer the very best diving in the Red Sea (for that you probably want to take one of the liveaboards to the offshore reefs), it certainly does offer the most chilled out.
Once you have checked in and been checked out by one of the dive guides, you are free to dive on the house reef any time you like. No need for a guide. So it is perfectly possible to find yourself and your buddy all alone on what must be one of the best preserved house reefs in Egypt.
Successive Egyptian governments have pressured the owners of the village to expand, but they have always resisted. The result is that the house reef is in excellent condition with fewer divers visiting it than might otherwise be the case. This ecological outlook (they describe themselves as an ‘Eco-village’) is evident throughout the operation – everyone there is concerned with the welfare of the reefs and marine life, which is a delight to see.
Another thing that makes Shagra an ideal venue is the range of diving available. As well as the house reef there are excursions by truck up and down the coast to visit numerous other shore diving sites. There are also speedboat dives out to sites offshore, including Elphinstone Reef, where it is possible to see large pelagics. While we were there, others (not us unfortunately) saw oceanic white tips and even a whale shark. We were lucky enough to see the mythical Dugong not far from Marsa Abu Dabab though, so we couldn’t complain.
Booking onto dives seems complicated to begin with, but in reality is simple. Just go to the dive centre, check in on the computer screen and see what excursions are available for the following day – easy! Some dives require a minimum number for a trip to go ahead, but that is rarely a problem even when the village is quieter. On this visit I was in a small group of four. We all wanted to visit Abu Ghusun, a very pretty reef with one of the few wrecks in that part of the Red Sea. It’s a great dive, but many people seem to be put off by the hour-and-a-half drive involved. After three days of trying with no luck (just the four of us were booked on and the minimum required was ten), the dive manager took pity on us and agreed to run the trip for just us! That was a result, especially since it turned out to be my first dive of 2015 – and my 1000th dive to boot.
And that is one of the other special things about Marsa Shagra – the staff are truly excellent. Always friendly and helpful, they go a long way to making the experience as great as it is, be it the dive guides, admin folks or the catering staff.
Speaking of the catering, that is also excellent. When I first visited Marsa Shagra in 2003 there was a small Bedouin bar on top of a small hill where you could drink and relax. That has now been replaced by a restaurant where great food is served buffet style. The staff are very proud of the food that they serve. This was at no time more evident than on New Year’s Eve, when they put on an enormous and extravagant spread that was a sight to behold. Dinner was delayed for a good hour or so as no-one wanted to spoil all their hard work by eating it!
There is a choice of accommodation, once again to suit all tastes and pockets, ranging from simple but roomy tents through to en-suite guest houses with air conditioning. The bonus for those in the tents is that they are on the beach and look out onto the sea, so if you rise early you can watch the spectacular sunrises.
And as if all of this wasn’t enough, there are a number of other activities available, including a desert star gazing tour, camel and horse riding and quad biking (great fun on your off-gassing day).
After a visit a few years ago I asked the group (about 15 of us that time) what they thought could be done to make the place any better. A lot of head scratching ensued. One person suggested it could be free (yeah, right), but really the only thing we could think of was that they could probably do a slightly better job of keeping people in the same group next to each other when they allocate lockers for your dive gear – but that is probably not down to them anyway, since some folks seem to ignore their allocated number and just go where they will. So, that was all we could come up with.
So there you have it. The dive club that I belong to is already planning a visit to the Red Sea at the end of the UK dive season, so it’s very likely we’ll be visting Marsa Shagra again. As for me, I fully expect that I will be returning in the not too distant future. There are plenty of other places to visit in the world, that’s true; but once you find somewhere this special, you’ll be drawn back time and time again – it’s like visiting an old and much loved friend.