The Best Places to Learn to Dive – Part One: The Red Sea –

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I began to write this entry intending for it to be only one post, but as I started I just kept on! So now, you have two posts to look forward to, as I share my thoughts and knowledge on the best places to Learn to Dive, and the other exciting activities in which you can take part.

We have picked out from our portfolio an eclectic mix of Learn to Dive destinations, and here is: Part One – The Red Sea.

We have been working in the Red Sea since the early 1960`s – over half a century!

Sudan, Egypt, Israel, Jordan and, in better times, the Yemen – the Red Sea is unique as it follows a fault and is part of the Great Rift Valley. Apart from its World Famous Coral Reef and outstanding marine life, it has a well-known and strong association with Biblical Times and travellers past.

Birdwatchers will have found their paradise here, as the Rift Valley/Red Sea Flyway is the second most important flyway for migratory birds in the world, such as: raptors, storks, pelicans and some ibis. From the Gulf of Aqaba to Sharm el Sheikh to Eilat, for two whole months, roughly around October and March, the skies are teeming with birds flying between their breeding grounds and winter feeding grounds.

There are especially two places that birdwatchers can get the best opportunities: Eilat, where there are salt pools and the famous rubbish tip – the first landfall after a long journey – or Sharm at the old sewage lake. Eilat has a town office through the Nature Reserve that can give advice, and there is an annual Bird Festival that in 2014 will fall from 23rd to 30th March.

Returning to the subject of diving, however, it is important to select Dive Centres that will deliver a high and safe standard of Scuba Training, which complements an interesting and affordable family holiday in the right destination. We have been organising holidays that include Scuba Training since the early 70’s. The sea in the Gulf is deep and warmed by undersea activity giving rise to its rich marine life and pleasant water temperatures.

Our daughter, Dafna and her family, own Aqua-Sport in Eilat, Israel – which was established in 1962 – and in Taba, on the Egyptian side. We know that safety is paramount to a successful introduction to safe and enjoyable Scuba Diving, which can be an absorbing pastime leading to a lifelong interest in the Natural Undersea World. Teenagers, especially, enjoy this safe adventure whilst discovering new and challenging horizons.

We can recommend Centres around the world, but the short list that follows could be a useful guide to where you might choose. The Red Sea is awash with Dive Centres, though some in particular are best suited to training experiences, so I hope these notes will help.

NB: For quotes: special offers and party rates apply at various times, so please do enquire.

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Eilat, Israel

This is almost the perfect spot to be introduced to Scuba Diving – hence it often being dubbed: The Underwater Classroom of the World. Aqua-Sport – a Padi 5* Palm centre – is on coral beach with a gently sloping sandy shelf with Coral Knolls teeming with marine life, and an Eel Garden on the edge. Adjacent to the Centre is the Underwater Observatory and the Coral Reef Nature Reserve, where you can snorkel when not in class or diving. The instructors are engaging and reliable, with a passion for teaching Scuba and ensuring their students safety.

Accommodation can either be on-site at a beachside Divers Lodge, or at any of the other choices of Eilat Hotels – ranging from modest hostels to 5* deluxe. From Eilat, it is easy to arrange visits to the Dead Sea, Jerusalem and Petra – in Jordan – which are among the many diversions you can choose from – provided you have the time!

Training, from the start, is in the sea and Aqua-Sport is 5-minutes from the centre of this bustling coastal resort, which can even be reached by regular bus! There is every distraction in Eilat Centre that you could possibly wish for – and it has its own airport, which makes for convenient travel.

Aqua-Sport is also an IAHD (International Association for Handicapped Divers) centre and has an excellent reputation for Disabled Diving Tuition. They have a boardwalk leading straight into the sea, which is good for paraplegics.

The minimum age to learn in Eilat is 12yrs, and Padi Open costs from £255.00pp. From the age of 8yrs, you can have a One Day introduction to the Scuba Experience.

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Taba, Egypt

The Aqua-Sport Dive Centre here is also a Padi 5* Palm resort.

This is their second base, and is also on the beach within the Taba Hilton Hotel. What is wonderful about this hotel, apart from its good value, is not only does it have a sandy water-sports beach – it also has a lovely house reef/Coral Garden that is excellent for Scuba training and snorkellers alike, and is accessible directly from the beach!

The sea and landscapes are too marvellous for words and the marine life in the coral garden simply beggars belief!  The dive centre has been run by, Welshman, Huw Watson for the last fifteen years.

This centre delivers the highest standards of training in an enviable environment; training is in the sea and the hotel is in a quiet location. Aqua-Sport keeps a dive boat for offshore diving and snorkelling trips to sites down the coast. Excursions, when not in the water, can be to Petra or the Sinai Desert inland – after the Himalayas, the Sinai is the best trekking destination in the world!

As we write, the region of Taba has no direct flight, but can be reached through Sharm and a 3-hour transfer. Hopefully, direct flights will be resumed shortly (9th January), and then the transfer is less than 45-minutes.

Padi Open water cost £255.00pp with a minimum age here of 10yrs. One Day Discover Scuba can be done from the age of 8yrs.

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Dahab, Egypt

Reef 2000 Dive Centre is our centre here; a Padi 5* establishment based right on the reef at the Bedouin Moon Hotel. This small hotel, owned by a Bedouin family, is now ranked 4th out of 30-odd hotels in Dahab – this is unique for 2*/3*! It’s charmingly simple with a Bedouin style, although featuring all modern comforts.

Again, there are wonderful seascapes and colourful mountain ranges, and the reef is opposite. There is a good entry for snorkellers between the coral about 200 yards down the coast. The reef is pristine and dolphins are often seen passing the Hotel.

Learn to dive is mainly started in the sea and qualifying dives can be on World Famous sites like: The Canyon and Blue Hole. With Reef 2000, one can have dive days by Camels at difficult-to-reach dive sites like Ras Abu Galum. This part of the Gulf is directly on the Great Rift Valley fault, so there is good bird life – as mentioned above – as well as the abundant marine life on the reef.

All in all, this is an excellent tranquil location to introduce young people to diving. The “town” of Dahab is not too far away, as it is about a 20-minute walk, and there are plenty of cafes, bars and small restaurants to give some variety. Also the Bedouins have settled down here, and there are many Bedouin traders selling a variety of artefacts and clothes at great prices. The town has come a long way since the early days, but it remains quirky and a lot of fun, and not overwhelmingly commercialised.

Dahab is 80km north of Sharm el Sheikh and can be reached easily from there in about 1hr by coach/taxi, and Sharm is served by almost 100 flights a week from as many as 10 UK departure points.

Learn to Dive (PADI) costs from £174.00pp, and the minimum age here is 10yrs.

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Sharm el Sheikh

Here, we work with a few Dive Centres: Sharm el Sheikh is the very epicentre of the Red Sea, but has been developed over the years to such an extent that you could easily get lodged in the wrong place. On the whole this would not matter, as long as the resort suited your needs, but in the case of Learn to Dive it is important – especially if it is a family involved, as teenagers are known to get restless if they are cooped up in a resort hotel far away from the centre.

Naama is the original village, going back to the early development before the peace treaty between Israel and Egypt and now is quite a bustling centre. There is a promenade spanning the wide Naama Bay, with the dive boat jetty at one end.

Our choice for Learning to Dive here would be the Red Sea Dive College, which nestles between the Ghazala Beach Hotel and the Hilton on the promenade. The classrooms are on-site and the beach opposite leads to the sea, which is used for the introductory dives. The qualifying dives are taken on the dive-boat, which means you may be diving on some of the world’s most famous dive sites such as: the Straits of Tiran or Ras Mohamed.

The standards are high and the centre is run by ex-pats – some of whom were first here in the times before the Egyptians took over sovereignty of the area. The Red Sea College is the Premiere Dive Centre in the resort, and has its own dive boats as well as the most luxurious Liveaboard: VIP One, which runs a week’s dive trips from Sharm. The boat has been used to do film work as well – you have probably seen their work on some of the BBC Television programmes and adverts featuring underwater shots.

Naama Bay is 15-minutes from the airport – there is a huge selection of hotels to choose from, but try to keep your choice to the Naama Bay area. Excursions in the desert are plentiful, and there is Horse Riding available too.

Padi Open Water costs from £200.00pp, with a minimum age of 10yrs.

The other Dive Centre we would recommend is the Camel Dive Centre, which has its own 3*+ hotel, and is located in the centre of the pedestrianised area. The Camel Dive Centre is world famous for its programme for disabled divers – this is an IAHD dive centre, and not only is the pool in the central courtyard designed for disabled access, so is the hotel as the rooms are done to also accommodate handicapped guests, and they take wheelchair-bound divers on-board as well!

It is widely known that Scuba is a perfect pastime for the handicapped, and that the effects of Water Buoyancy have great therapeutic benefit. The hotel is pretty with a terraced garden.

The rates for Padi Open Water are from £295.00pp, and the minimum age is 10yrs.

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El Quseir

The town of El Quseir is found midway between Hurghada and Marsa Alam. The town itself was a port in bygone days, when used to bring supplies for Luxor and the Nile Delta, and goes back to Roman and Phoenician times. It is said to have even been visited, quite some time ago, by Queen Cleopatra!

Holidays here can easily be combined with visits to Luxor and the Nile.

Our excellent dive centre: Pharoah Dive Club, with its accommodation Roots Luxury Camp, is a real gem. It is a great dive lodge with chalets ranging from modest to luxury stone-built, and finished to a high standard – check TripAdvisor, where there are plenty of favourable reviews. Roots is right on the beach, with an amazing pristine house-reef and a Padi and BSAC Dive Centre under British management.

It is great for families, due to the reef being safe, and the Old Town of El Quseir is not too far away for some local interest. Qualifying dives are taken along the coast and, for a small supplement, can be from a boat.

Roots can be reached from Hurghada or Marsa Alam, and there are direct flights to both from the UK – though there are more regional departure choices to Hurghada.

Padi rates start from £200.00pp, and the minimum learning age is 10yrs.

We hope that this information has provided food for thought, and be sure to check back in two weeks for Part Two!

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Red, White or Blue – What’s the Choice for You?

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School break, in our experience, has always been quite difficult to plan. It’s a holiday, so naturally one wants to take the family away, but for a holiday it’s just not long enough. So, what does one do, and where does one look, when planning a break to de-stress from the New Year? Let us share with you some of our insights…

White is for Skiing!

A great bonding experience for active families, with endless outdoor thrilling adventures! However, it may be over budget as 80% of skiing families actually book 8-months or more in advance, and now it’s really tricky to get good value for money.

Checking on 1st January 2014, we found availability for 15th February 2014: Chalet Les Arcs on ‘chalet board’ from £1,108.00pp, so about £4,432.00 for a family of four. And that excludes ski packs and passes! (Allowing for £1k to £2k…)

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Blue is for the Caribbean!

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Again holidays to the region are at the high end of the budget, but there are ‘value’ buys out there. For example, a deal for a family of four:

Date: 15th February 2014 Resort: Smugglers Cove, St Lucia Details: 7-nights All Inclusive, departing from Gatwick Price from…£8,031.00 total

You can also include a ‘Learn-to-Dive’ Package from £320.00pp or a 5-Day Dive Package from £230.00pp. The weather makes it a popular choice with average water temperatures of 23°C, air temperatures at an average high of 27°C and an average of 1.9 inches of rainfall.

Unfortunately, charter flights to the more affordable Caribbean destinations are mainly midweek. So, if you have to travel at the weekend, some of the best and most affordable destinations are ruled out like the Dominican Republic and Cancun, which are half the price of St Lucia!

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Red is for the Red Sea!

Everything is ‘good’ here: price, Sun, the lack of rain…To give you an idea, take a look at the following example for a family of four:

Date: 15th February 2014 Resort: Sharm Resort Hotel, Sharm-el-Sheikh Details: 7-nights All Inclusive Price from…£2,100.00 total

As for the weather, in Sharm the average water temperature is 21°C, with an average air temperature of 25°C. For the sporty families, you can also include a ‘Learn-to-Dive’ Package from £255.00pp, or dive packages for the more qualified from £135.00pp.

The biggest issue is country stability, however despite the upset over the last two years, all is back to normal. There are no travel ‘advices’ in operation.

So, what’s the problem?

The Red Sea has ‘fallen from grace’, as it were; the disturbances in Central Egypt and all the news about ‘The Middle East’ has caused prices to drop drastically. 4* and 5* hotels on prime dates are selling at ½ the price of Ski holidays (before adding ski packs), and a ¼ of the price of a comparable Caribbean holiday – and they are available.

There is ample choice here, with resorts to suit every need – we explored ‘like for like’ holidays, comparing the Red Sea against other destinations. So, if you want simpler; more rustic, or can travel midweek? We have some really good deals – just enquire!

Check back in two weeks for our next blog: Family Scuba Discovery Options – a review of the best and affordable destinations to take kids for Learn-to-Dive.

See you then!

The Holy Land

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Jerusalem, Bethlehem, the Red Sea, the Sea of Galilee, the Dead Sea – places we hear about on a daily basis at this time of year. Christmas remembers the birth of Jesus Christ, and the travelling three kings.

Is it safe? You may ask. Of course I say it is, but I am biased since my family live in Eilat. My eldest daughter, son-in-law and three grandchildren run dive centres in Eilat, Israel and Taba, Egypt.

Would I go there on holiday? Yes, and I do.

The last two years have seen terrible civil disruption over the region, but it is quiet now. Tourism, most importantly, has a big role to play in bringing normality back to the unsettled communities. Moreover, visitors from afar are very welcome at this time – there is nothing more encouraging and cheering than seeing friendly faces from foreign lands.

The UK Foreign Office has relaxed the advice on Egypt and Tunisia some time back, while Israel, Jordan and North Tunisia have always been open for travel.

After the unrest, Egypt’s incredible value-for-money Nile Cruises are back on the menu and are offered with ‘Upgrade from 4* to 5*’ at no extra cost, and for single travellers we have some good news in that there is no single supplement charged! Beach Holidays to the Red Sea are better value than ever, despite the heavy air travel tax. Adventure, fishing holidays on Lake Nasser, liveaboards (boats for dives in the Red Sea) and fly drives in Jordan and Israel – they’re all back to normal.

And it is hot – actually, at this time of year, the weather is especially good for touring since it is warm. The average outdoor high at this time of year is 23°C, with the sea being a wonderfully warm 21°C or over.

You can see a sample of the best prices we have on our Red Sea Late Offers, and there are special departure to Sharm on 19th December 2013, Luxor on 23rd December 2013 and Eilat on 26th December 2013. All of them have good prices for seasonal dates.

Why the Red Sea for Christmas…

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The Red Sea might not be the first place that comes to mind when deciding where to migrate over Christmas; more so, perhaps, given the media coverage on the Arab Spring, which might have unsettled some travellers. However! ‘Tourists’ and travellers have been visiting the Red Sea for millennia – Moses started it! Rumour has it he was fond of water-sports and long mountain hikes.

Holiday prices to the region are affordable – I would say that you should consider the holidays as ‘a good buy’, and the UK Foreign Office has moderated the directive over travel to Egypt, allowing the region to rejoin the ranks of Israel and Jordan, who have been keenly welcoming tourists as before. This news also means that the ever popular Nile Cruises are back.

The Red Sea is rich in culture and history, with resorts catering to everyone’s needs. There’s always good climate of warm days; it’s great for kids, as a number of hotels and resorts have kids clubs and a range of activities to keep them engaged, happy and occupied. There are fabulous beaches, amazing mountain ranges and seascapes – and as for diving and snorkelling, the Red Sea has the nearest coral reef to Europe. Often dubbed ‘The Underwater Classroom of the World’, the area proves to be a great place to learn to dive, with a number of dive schools to choose from, all with fully qualified and professional staff, who are always willing to help and make sure your experiences are safe and memorable.

There are also famous sights to be seen – many with religious significance – including: St Catherine’s Monastery famous for its collection of Byzantine icons, close by is Mount Sinai, Petra the Nabataean Rose City, Jerusalem the holy city of the three Abrahamic religions, and the lowest point on Earth at 427m below sea level: the Dead Sea – it’s all there, waiting to be discovered!

Here are some offers to get you thinking…

Resort: Isrotel Royal Garden
Details: 7 nights room only for two adults and two children under 11 years, including flights.
Departure: 26th December 2013.
Price from…£953.00 per adult.

Resort: Isrotel Agamim
Details: 7 nights bed and breakfast, including flights.
Departure: 26th December 2013.
Price from…Adult: £899.00pp / Child (under 6 years): £699.00pp.

Vessel: Viking Princess Nile Cruise
Details: 7 nights full board, including flights, transfers and 10 excursions.
Departure: Various dates from 2nd December 2013 flying from Heathrow or Manchester.
Price from…£799.00pp.

Activity: Christmas House Boat Safari – Aswan to Abu Simbel
Details: 7 nights full board in 5- or 6-share.
Departure: 21st December 2013
Price from…£1,270.00pp

Activity: New Year House Boat Safari – Abu Simbel to Aswan
Details: 7 nights full board in 5- or 6-share.
Departure: 27th December 2013
Price from…£1,200.00pp

Check out more on our Red Sea Late Offers page, and read more information on Fishing Safaris and the full itineraries.