THE WORD DAHAB MEANS GOLD. The best way to pronounce it is with an aaah - Daaah haaahb - like a sigh of pleasure.
What makes this place so special Dahab is a happy accident of nature: a secluded piece of desert protruding into the Red Sea, blessed by a friendly, cooling, onshore wind and enclosed by mountains. Its a place of myth and legend; a small, quirky town with a relaxed attitude to life.
Dahab offers world-class windsurfing. Its a mecca for freedivers who can train close to shore year-round, in great conditions. For divers, it provides some of the most amazing shore-based diving experiences on the planet, including that must-do in a lifetime site, the Blue Hole. And now, as I recently discovered, it offers something completely new.
The spine-tingling anticipation of exploring a largely unknown site has gripped me as I stand, fully kitted, on the boats platform.
Were waiting for the signal to jump - theres a quick, plunging descent into the blue, and the boat eases away.
Were alone on a remote section of the reef. The coral tumbles downwards, lined with huge gorgonians, and forming forest-like peaks.
Here are the conditions that create the gullies and twisting canyons so characteristic of sections of the Dahab coast. Johan, my dive guide, gestures downwards.
The Nabq national marine park is probably Sinais best-kept secret. Day-boats from Sharm dont come here; liveaboards are preoccupied in the Straits of Tiran. And from Dahab... well, why would you bother getting on a boat, when you have a host of wonderful dives right on the shore
Sinai Divers operates a dedicated day-boat, though it does allow other centres to charter it on selected days of the week.
Dahab has many diving operations, catering to different diving styles and standards, and some come and go quite quickly. Its a bonus to find a place like Sinai Divers, with excellent standards of equipment care, well-maintained compressors and motivated, professional staff who take pride in doing a great job.
The centre ensures that everybody from open-water trainees to aspiring dive instructors and hardcore technical divers are well catered for.
The mountains fall directly into the sea at Dahab. Theres no road. Even where theres a thin strip of beach, the reef edge is largely inaccessible. The only sign of life is the occasional Bedouin, and a small plywood hut close to the one mooring point at Gabriel Bint.

I FOLLOW JOHAN into a giant crack in the brown, encrusted coral. Hidden from view is a narrow, twisting passage that zig-zags across the seabed at 40-45m. Its good to bring a torch. I also find it helps to have a feeling for how wide you and your kit are as I squeeze, manoeuvre and occasionally crunch my way through. Its exhilarating to finally pop out from this constricted space into blue on the open reef.
We exchange OKs and start the relaxed meander upwards, completing our series of deco stops as we explore the reef. The marine life is abundant and undisturbed. Shoals of baby barracuda are harassed by a predatory trevally. Turtles scud on by.
The trickiest part of the dive is the pick-up. An SMB has already indicated our position. The boat needs to swoop in and then speed away before getting pushed into the reef.
I grab the ladder and clamber fully kitted on deck - stage-cylinder and all. Its an energetic end to a heart-stopping challenge of a dive. Im enjoying the rush.

A DIVE-MAP OF DAHAB shows at least 30 well-documented dive sites from Ras Abu Gulum in the north to Gabriel Bint in the south - enough variety to cheerfully occupy the fussiest diver though, sadly, no wrecks.
This part of the Red Sea offers coral and marine life galore, with caves, caverns, drop-offs and a host of diverse underwater features. The joy of Dahab is that theres something amazing for everybody, from snorkellers to hardcore technical divers - mostly at the same sites.
The two most famous dives - the Canyon and the Blue Hole - illustrate this universal appeal. Accessible from the shore, both are very popular.
Many well-documented dives are rarely visited, though pretty much every inch of the coast has been dived at some point - perhaps by Israeli soldiers on a break during the occupation of the Sinai, or hippies and backpackers in the 70s and 80s.
Diving deep (to 90m!) on air was once widely accepted. Naturally enough, most people could barely remember what theyd seen, or were not bothered enough to write it down. A mixture of narcosis, hangovers and drug-enhanced imaginations led to some amazing myths and stories - some of which were true!
So claiming to have found something undived in Dahab is, at best, naïve. What is now possible is the relatively straightforward modern exploration of these remote and beautiful sites at Nabq.
Most boat-bound visitors to Gabriel Bint will spend a day diving in both directions from the mooring point. Worthwhile, but there is so much to explore if there are enough enthusiastic visiting divers to justify doing some more uncharted and challenging boat-dives. Are you up for it

DAHAB IS AN EASY PLACE to be, and seduces many divers into staying or returning again and again. But its also fragile. The Sinai is being developed rapidly; new hotels and apartments have been sprouting like a rash around Sharm and extending up the coast to Taba.
Every time I visit Dahab, the road reaches further up the coast, and there are more buildings. Dahab cannot stand still in time, but the challenge is to preserve the best of its quirky nature and the fabulously rich marine environment.
The Hilton was Dahabs first posh hotel. I laughed on first hearing that it was coming to Dahab, as it seemed so incongruous. I mention this only because it proves the obvious; that the Hilton knew far more about the whims of tourists than I do.
Now the Dahab Hilton is well-established, and sits centrally among a cluster of other upmarket hotels. Its perfect if youre visiting with your family, or with a non-diving partner or friend, providing a wide range of well-run holiday activities in a smart, comfortable environment, including a daily programme of supervised activities for children.
You can go off diving in the knowledge that you wont be missed. Nobody will be complaining about being bored, or moaning that the room is a bit rubbish when you return. Bliss.

ON SOME DAYS, the Blue Hole appears to have become home to enough tourists to fill a small town, but mostly the hordes stick to swimming and snorkelling on the inside of the lagoon.
Divers either climb over a rocky hill and enter what looks like a sink-hole on the other side, or descend beneath the snorkeller soup inside the lagoon.
The sink-hole is the dramatic start to the classic Bellz to Blue Hole recreational dive. One by one, divers plunge into the narrow, boulder-lined entry point. Theres a thrilling descent through a rocky underwater chute that spits you out into the blue at 30m - though its possible to escape at a shallower depth if that idea alarms you.
Most people love the unworldly experience of being born into the blue depths. Here, the steep wall of coral forms a dramatic drop-off into seemingly unfathomable depths.
Usually excellent vis reveals the awesome scale of the place.
The dive follows the wall round to the outside of the lagoon, and divers enter over the saddle. Here, the constant action of the waves has naturally eroded a dip in the outer wall of the coral enclosing the lagoon.
At about 6-7m, its a comfortable depth and a gorgeous place to hang out and make your safety stop. From here, you follow the inside of the lagoon to reach one of the entry/exit points.
Many of the single-cylinder divers completing the Bellz to Blue Hole dive will be happily unaware of the enormous, cathedral-like archway that joins the inside of the lagoon into the sea below them. The top of the arch starts below 50m, and the dive is best completed at 60m or deeper, if you want to get a real feeling for its majesty.
The Blue Hole arch is the reason for this dive-sites reputation as the most dangerous in the world. Over the years, more divers have lost their lives here than anybody cares to admit.
Despite much better information about the challenges of the dive, and the increasing availability of technical training, equipment and gas, people still manage to kill themselves here regularly.
Please: however tempting it may seem, do not dive the arch on a single cylinder of air. Its stupidly risky. Even if you manage to do it and complete your decompression without running out of air, you wont have had time, or have been in a fit mental state, to really appreciate the experience. If youre after an adrenaline fix, hire a quad-bike.
An astonishing piece of footage on YouTube shows a bloke in nothing but Speedos swimming down, down, down, through the arch and back up. The jaw-dropping athleticism of his achievement puts tekkies like myself to shame.
But while this provides an interesting real-time perspective of his journey, the focus is on making it rather than enjoying it. The point of diving, and especially of diving the arch, is to hang, pause, observe, consider and relish.
Ultimately no photo or video can capture the experience. The arch is the dive that I always carry with me.
On my visit I was shown the latest arch addition; a small shrine with a mermaid has appeared at 60m at the open-sea end of the arch, on the Bellz side. No, youre not narked, she really is perched in there, looking right at you!

FACTFILE
GETTING THERE: Fly direct from the UK to Sharm el Sheikh. Transfers to Dahab by road take about an hour. Visas can be obtained on arrival for US $15. Its also possible to buy a return flight to Taba and transfer to Dahab.
DIVING & ACCOMMODATION: Diving with Sinai Divers, www.sinaidivers.com, and accommodation at the Hilton, www.hilton.co.uk. Dahab offers everything from cheap travellers camps to 5* luxury, with plenty in-between.
MONEY: Pounds (Sterling and Egyptian) are widely accepted, with euros being preferred over US dollars. Credit cards can be used in many outlets, and there are six ATMs in the town.
WHEN TO GO: Diving is all year round. Summer temperatures (Jun-Sept) are 28°C (water) and 33°C (air); winter (Nov-Feb) is 20°C (water) and 23°C (air).
RELATED PURSUITS: Lorraine Horesh is a snorkelling guru providing personalised tours of Dahabs best sites for individuals and small groups. She is based at Red Sea Relax dive centre, www.red-sea-relax.com. Reef 2000 is a base for many freediving and yoga courses, www.reef2000.com
PRICES: Seven nights B&B at the Hilton Dahab Resort, including flights from London Gatwick and transfers, costs £629 (March/April 2009) from Regaldive, www.regaldive.co.uk.
A five-day dive package at Sinai Divers costs £159 and includes six shore dives and four boat dives (guide, tanks & weights included).
FURTHER INFORMATION: www.dahab-info.com