ONCE UPON A TIME, a fabulously wealthy Egyptian gentleman wanted to moor his boat somewhere. So he bought up a strip of desert a few miles north of Hurghada.
At his back lay a foresaken ribbon of salt and sand stretching away into the shimmering yellow heat to the implausible saw-blade of the Arabian Mountains. Before him were the joyous, dancing wavelets of the Red Sea, an astonishing patchwork of turquoise shoals and wine-dark pools.
Unsurprisingly, the rich man’s rich chums also decided that they wanted summer houses in the same spot, and soon a cluster of villas sprang up around a marina bobbing with violently expensive hardware built by Sunseeker and Fairline.
Then the government stepped in.
If there was to be any more private residential development, it had to be balanced by infrastructure to encourage the growth of a real community.
That was 23 years ago. Now there is El Gouna – a model city of around 20,000 souls. And whether by accident or design, it makes an ideal stepping-off point for some of the best dive-sites that the northern Red Sea can offer.
The reefs of Abu Nuhas are less than two hours’ sail away: the extra distance from Hurghada turns it into a special trip with a 6am start.
Emperor Divers, the resort’s own centre, offers the wreck of the Thistlegorm as an overnight expedition, diving Abu Nuhas en route.
The advantage of this arrangement is that they can dive the wreck at night and early in the morning before all the day-boats arrive from Sharm.
The centre also offers special trips by air-conditioned bus to Abu Dabab Bay near Marsa Alam, famous for its giant turtles and dugongs.
El Gouna is that rare venue – a family destination that expertly caters for non-divers while offering the Red Sea connoisseur a wide variety of excellent dive sites.

VARIETY PROVIDES THE THEME for the town’s accommodation, too. For the single-minded diver, several three-star hotels are grouped around the marina in the buzzing Downtown area, with its al fresco dining and nightly open-air entertainment.
For families, luxurious and beautifully appointed resort hotels such as the Swiss-owned Mövenpick offer pools, private beaches, gyms and spa clubs, with restaurants providing cuisines to suit every palate.
After a painless 30-minute transfer from Hurghada airport, I arrived at El Gouna and was driven by electric kart to my room overlooking the ocean. I say “room”, but I’ve owned smaller flats. The balcony afforded a stunning view of the private island, created by the founder of El Gouna for his parents. It made me feel slightly guilty: it was so much nicer than the island I built for Mum and Dad.
Day One, 8am: I walked the 200m from my room to Emperor Divers, lugging a dive-bag crammed (it turns out) with malfunctioning junk.
It was a wonderful testament to the patience of Matt and his crew that I was not made to feel like the hopelessly ill-prepared liability I really was.
A minibus shuttled us from the centre to a little harbour about 10 minutes away. This was a real working marina – very different from the glittering pond of gin palaces at the heart of El Gouna.
An antiquated wooden motor vessel resembling an oversized Broads cruiser sat forlornly at the jetty. Bleached by salt and the merciless desert sun, it was almost a hulk.
Restoring it, I reflected, might be a labour of love for someone of passion and dedication. As if reading my mind, our appointed dive guide Terry said: “Goering’s yacht. Fancy fixing her up”
The boat, Carin II, was a 1.3 million reichsmark gift to Hermann Goering, supreme commander of the Luftwaffe, from the German motor industry. Hitler and Goebbels were frequent visitors.
Following the German surrender, General Montgomery presented it to the British Royal Family, who reluctantly decided that cavorting aboard an ex-Nazi pleasure craft might not be the most appropriate PR strategy for an era of post-war austerity.
It was eventually bought by Gerd Heidemann, the journalist who notoriously “discovered” The Hitler Diaries. And since his bankruptcy, it has floated, slowly decaying, in El Gouna – an object lesson in the ultimate futility of all vainglorious ostentation.
Emperor Divers’ day-boat Sea Dream has not, to my knowledge, been the plaything of megalomaniacal dictators. It’s a comfortable glass cruiser with the capacity to work as a small liveaboard – certainly to run overnight trips should the occasion demand.
Although a diving writer of 30 years’ experience, a grasp of the technical has never been my defining characteristic. This time I surpassed myself. As the boat hauled away from the marina, I unpacked my dive-bag to find the contents gauge of my regulator full of water. I’m glad I didn’t overhear the wireless communication that resulted in a fast inflatable roaring out from the harbour with a fresh reg.
Then Matt glanced at my shortie.
“Is that going to be warm enough”
“It’s the Red Sea,” I said. “What – 29, 30°”
“It’s April,” he replied. “23.”
I never learn. I once went to Greenland without a coat.

WE CRUISED BETWEEN lifeless alien cliffs across a sea that alternated between obsidian black and iridescent lapis lazuli. Then, miles from shore there arose a reef ringed with dazzling wavelets.
This was Sha’ab Abu Nuhas – for so many unfortunate sailors across the centuries, their last earthly sight.
However, the reef is much more accommodating for divers. The prevailing wind is northerly, and so
the north side of the reef is sometimes undiveable. But the opposite side is shallow and protected, with a multitude of pretty coral heads cloaked in clouds of fish.
The Chrisoula K was a Greek-registered freighter of 3700 tons, bound for Jeddah with a cargo of Italian floor tiles. On 31 August, 1981, she hit the north-east corner of the reef and sank.
She now sits in an open sandy area with the bows at 4m and the stern at around 26. She’s more or less upright and the cargo is still intact. It’s possible to reach the engine in the stern section, but I didn’t bother – my inflator was misbehaving to the point at which I eventually had to disconnect the hose – and for reasons that are still shrouded in mystery, my mask kept misting up, so that I might as well have been in the Tees estuary.
For years I dived with a leaky mask because I didn’t want to admit to myself that it was crap. Now I had a watertight mask, and I had to keep breaking the seal to wash away the mist.
However, there were plenty of straightforward swim-throughs for safe exploring, and the prop and
rudder are easily accessible.
The wreck is covered in corals and sponges and abounds in reef-dwelling fish, crustaceans and nudibranchs – a pretty and pleasant dive all round.
Slightly less pleasant if, like me, you’re wearing a suit with the insulating qualities of a string-vest.
Our second dive was off the nearby island of Siyul Kebir, a low spit of sandstone with a freshwater spring and a lighthouse.
The reef is broken into a series of coral pinnacles, divided by sandy channels. You’ll only make about
15m at the deepest point but, as is often the case, the most profuse and interesting life is to be found in the dappled sunlit shallows.
We wound down through coral outcrops amid shoals of golden fish, skirting around a huge free-swimming moray and that most embarrassing of all God’s failed prototypes, the frogfish.
There were many delightful, spectacularly hued nudibranchs, too.
Then it was back aboard for a terrific lunch of (vegetarians take note) aubergine, savoury rices, coleslaw and potato wedges.

I DINED WITH JASMIN, head of publicity for El Gouna, at Upstairs, a fabulous Downtown restaurant which is, mysteriously, downstairs. Being half-Egyptian, half-Austrian, she has a unique perspective on the city.
“When I first arrived, I worried that it would be like living in The Truman Show, an artificial or sanitised environment,” said Jasmin. “But over the years, it’s become a real, organic community.
“The support workers live here and they’ve raised families who need schools and leisure facilities. There’s a church and a mosque and a library. We’ve got a new hospital, and so now we’ve founded a nursing college to supply the staff.
“There’s a marine biology institute and a graduate technical college with courses in disciplines useful in this environment, like electrical and hydro engineering. Oh, and there’s an 18-hole golf course, with another on the way.’

THE CITY’S ARCHITECTURE is firmly rooted in traditional Arabian design. But unlike so many Middle Eastern cities, there’s no litter and no high-pressure selling by vendors.
Planning rules are as strict as for conservation areas in the UK, so that as El Gouna has expanded it has remained aesthetically attractive.
As Jasmin says: “El Gouna might be clean and tidy, but there’s nothing intrinsically good about trash in the streets. We’re just creating a city the way that cities ought to be.”
The Carnatic is a classic wreck, its steep incline affording a wide range of environments in a single dive.
One of the five wrecks cast up on Abu Nuhas, and still relatively intact, she was carrying a cargo of wine and, intriguingly, silver and gold bullion, much of which has never been recovered.
We wound slowly up from the stern section (26m), encountering a vast Napoleon wrasse that ambled by as we delved into the hold at about 18m.
But of all the sites we visited, Sha’ab El Erg sums up for me the magic of the Red Sea in a single location.
The reef rises discretely from the abyss 10 miles offshore, rendering the water into a painting-by-numbers tableau of vivid greens and blues.
The diamond-studded lagoon leaps with sparkling waves, rejoicing in the cooling breeze from the Sinai. It just makes you glad to be alive.
Thousands of glassfish swarm in the coral hollows, while a rich food-chain queues up to devour them and one another. Morays writhe in the deeper niches and blue-spotted rays wriggle on the sandy bottom. The heads are adorned with delicate tubeworms like fibre-optic table decorations, beside
huge burgundy featherstars.
Scorpion and stonefish skulked among the coral fragments on the floor, and inside an abandoned trap lurked a crocodilefish.

THE DAYS QUICKLY EVOLVED a simple structure: cast off early, sail for two hours, two dives divided by an hour of surface time, lunch, then crash out on the sun-deck as we coursed back to the marina. This routine suited me well, giving me the late afternoons to explore the intricacies of El Gouna.
On my last day in Egypt, I pushed myself round the 2.5-mile jogging path that winds through the resort’s serpentine maze of man-made canals and lagoons.
I passed kite-surfers leaping and somersaulting on the shallow waters offshore. I passed the Mövenpick’s Buddhist-inspired spa, a flower-strewn haven of peace and tranquillity.
I was overtaken by a gaily-painted tuk-tuk, ferrying its young passengers to an early dinner at one of the hotel’s sumptuous outdoor restaurants.
That evening, I would be the guest at a Bedouin encampment on the outskirts of town, where we would squat on cushions among the rich, woven wall-hangings, eating like desert princes as a troupe of entertainers performed the breathtaking, whirling tribal dances of the region.
And I wanted nothing more than to return to El Gouna with the rest of the Blackfords. For during a diving career spent trying to satisfy the needs of non-divers, I can think of few places that offer a more varied and absorbing experience for family-members of every age, taste and persuasion.

GETTING THERE: Fly to Hurghada, with a half-hour road transfer.
DIVING & ACCOMMODATION: Mövenpick Resort & Spa El Gouna, www.moevenpick-hotels.com
WHEN TO GO: Year-round, but it’s hottest July-August.
MONEY: Egyptian pound but euros and US $ widely used.
PRICES: Longwood Holidays offers diving holidays in El Gouna from £635pp – that’s for seven nights’ B&B (two sharing) at the 5* Mövenpick Resort & Spa, with flights from London Gatwick, transfers and taxes, this November. The same holiday upgraded to half-board costs from £759pp, www.longwoodholidays.co.uk/diving
FURTHER INFORMATION: www.egypt.travel