Text and photography by David Oldale
The sky was dark and grey, as rain cascaded down over the cold Gatwick tarmac. I cared less as I settled into the sumptuous deeply padded leather seat of the Peltours (Astraeus Airline's) Boeing 757. A few rows behind (in economy class) I knew my fellow passengers would not be crunched into miniscule seats with little legroom – Astraeus believed in passenger comfort – they cut 40 seats from their aircraft – to give everyone capacious legroom!
On time, the 757 moved back from the gate. ‘Would you like a drink Sir,' voiced the Purser. ‘We have Champagne , fresh Orange Juice or Mineral Water.'
Being a journalist and by reputation known to tell a porky on occasion I obviously selected a glass of Mineral Water.
The seat belt light flicked off – I reclined my seat and plugged into the on-board-in-flight entertainment system – from modern movie to music channels; to be interrupted only during the 4 ½ hour flight by the serving of an excellent four-course meal (on real plates) and dare I mention – a multitude of visits by the free in-flight bar service.
Arriving in Egypt , Taba International Airport was quickly left behind with a minimum of formality and fuss for the 30/40-minute overland coach journey to the Marriott Beach Resort, Taba Heights .
Some miles from Taba and the border with Israel , Taba Heights is situated on the coast where the mountains retreat slightly back from the Red Sea , allowing a small area of flattish-sand plain. On the gently rising sands, just four luxury Hotels, an 18-hole golf course (close to completion) and watersports centre complete with marina have been erected. Unlike many locations on Egypt's Red Sea Riviera where hotels seem to spring up on a near weekly occasion, the Heights can only support the hotels thus built and perhaps one more – due to the size of land available. Quiet, peaceful, uncommercialised, luxurious and relaxed – Somewhere, a place very special!
Not for me the Marriott's lagoon swimming pool with water slide, cave, grotto and waterfall, however inviting – for the first day I would be venturing into the underwater world of the offshore reefs of Farun Island and its Castle aboard one of Waterworld's diveboats.
Whilst the original castle was built in the 9 th century BC, it was nearly two thousand years later in 1170 that Saladin repelled the advances of Richard 1 (Lionheart) and the crusaders from its ramparts. The castle today exists in an immaculate state of repair; but it is beneath the surface of the Island 's surrounding sea that some of the most magnificent of Egypt 's coral and marine life existed.
Beneath the gently rippling water, the gradual slope of the sand seabed interspersed with the most vivid-coloured coral outcrops dropped from 5 to 15 metres. According to the pre-dive brief a large coral-pinnacle would be seen some 100 metres from the entry point. Within the most brilliantly coloured and differing species of corals would roam the brilliantly coloured tropical fish of the living reef.
Nemos abounded within the stinging flexible fronds of the anemone as parents guarded their minuscule young. Close by in gaps between Staghorn and Salad corals the Pepperpot, Yellow mouthed and Giant Morays would show rows of pure-white needle-like teeth as their mouths ever opened and closed in a rythumnetric breathing cycle. Red and white feathery finned Lionfish hung upside down, side-on, backside-on and even the right way up (occasionally) – little moving under small over-hangs and within crevices. Their relaxed and slow movement belying the danger that they posed to the over-inquisitive visitor from their highly toxic spines! From the corals to marine life exuded a magnificent barrage of vivid colour.
I knew that a week would not be long enough – not to take in all the sites both far and near that are available within the Peltours itinerary. Petra in Jordan however was a must-do.
The boat departed from the Heights Marina at 7am for the short journey across the Red Sea to Aqaba and the Royal Yacht Club in Jordan . The magnificent ancient city (featured in a number of blockbuster movies from James Bond to Indiana Jones) is reached after a 2-hour overland journey by coach. The ‘lost city' of Petra is perhaps the most famous tourist attraction in Jordan ; hewn by the hand of ancient settlers from the red sandstone rock some 2000 years ago. I was awe-struck by the remarkable state of preservation of the site and particularly in regard to the Monastery and Treasury buildings.
Whilst it was good to take in one of the excellent tours available through Peltours, I felt after visiting Petra that I must (for the remainder of my stay) confine myself to the area of Taba Heights . It would have been easy just to relax in and around the Marriott with its spectacular poolside facilities but… with the warm crystal waters of the Red Sea just a few metres away across soft ochre-coloured sands of the Marriott's private beach it was time to spend my remaining time getting under, on and above the gently lapping blue waters with Waterworld .
From the early hours until late, Waterworld's free courtesy coach picked up and dropped off from all four hotels in the Heights to and from the Marina . From scuba diving, snorkelling, parasailing, water-skiing, banana-rides, wind surfing, sailing, wakeboarding and crazy-doughnuts to the land-based camel rides, quad-bike excursions and then some – Waterworld did it all! And…if that weren't enough – they would film your experiences to DVD.
I dropped to the sand at a site locally known as Angels net, coral heads erupted from the seabed like great columns of multi-coloured exotic fruit. At and around their bases rested the inhabitants of the living reef from Sweetlips to Lionfish, Yellow mouthed morays to Octopus with the odd family of Humphead wrasse and Frogfish, all posing to get right in front of the camera lens! I had a problem – Lionfish. At Sharm or El Gouna the Lionfish would be out and about but as soon as they spotted the camera they would turn, only to give a view of their rear ends before disappearing within the coral. Not so at Taba Heights ! Here, one would appear, pose in a variety of positions to be then joined by their mates, friends and families – all pushing and shoving to be first in the picture. And then there was the family of Humphead wrasse – Mum was first on the scene who saw off the Sweetlips and Jacks and then introduced Dad and Junior. I shot off picture after picture.
Taba Heights was somewhere very special and so very much – unexpected.
Whilst it would be true to state that I had discovered the equal of any trip that I had been anywhere in the World (during 26 years of travel journalism) – it would be fair to say that the cleanliness, service, food and entertainment I found at the Marriott Beach Resort, Taba Heights just tipped the balance (to quote both Pop Larkin and Del boy Trotter – ‘Perfik – my most favourite' trip of all – into ‘God's promised land'!
TRAVEL DETAILS ........
Middle East specialist tour operator, Peltours, expertly arranged David Oldale's trip. They offer a range of luxury holidays at affordable prices to all the hotels in Taba Heights to include the (well-deserved 5 star) Marriott Beach Resort, from £389 pp.
Peltours with Astraeus fly from Gatwick, Manchester, Bristol and Leeds Bradford . Premium Class operates only on Gatwick departures from £60 pp return to include 30 kilos baggage allowance and a host of extras. For reservations contact: 0208 371 5200. Website: www.Peltours.com
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