Whats the recipe if you want to build a holiday resort from scratch Well, first choose a place that has plenty of sunshine all year round. It will need to have a lot of space available but it will also need to be near a centre of population and an international airport with regular and established air-services to all parts of Europe.John Bantin travelled at the invitation of Scuba Snacks, 0870 746 1266, www.scuba-diving-safaris.co.uk. A typical seven nights B&B at the Mövenpick Resort with five full days diving with Dive Tribe starts from£550.
The Western Desert has plenty of space, and on the shores of the Red Sea seems a good location. Build it near the Egyptian holiday hotspot of Hurghada and you have your transport sorted.
So thats what they did, and the 10 million square metre El Gouna resort is the result. Putting to one side for a moment the unfortunate destruction of an important mangrove habitat, the dream of the developers was to build a village, or even a town, with canals and lagoons, holiday villas, apartments and some top-class hotels, plus a golf course.
Its a Hollywood film-set, an architects dream come to fruition on the blank pages of that available open space. Its an international holiday resort that suits international tastes and it could really be anywhere, except that the staff, the workers and the authorities are Egyptian.
I went to the El Gouna marina, not yet filled with white polished yachts because the international yachting brigade were still out in the Med. Here I visited an English pub.
Are you Tim I asked the owner. It was an almost-exact replica of Tims Bar in Porto Andratx, Majorca, right down to its expat clientele and their typical conversation.
I ate world-class meals in the El Sayadin restaurant overlooking the water, and watched a massive moon rise, changing colour from a dirty red through to blinding white as it climbed into the sky through Hurghadas industrial haze. I relished my luxurious room in the Mövenpick Hotel, with its spacious bathroom supplied with copious amounts of hot water and its fully stocked mini-bar.
I strolled among the leafy gardens, refreshed by both little twinkling water features and bigger rushing torrents, observing the strange absence of almost any insects and consequently the non-existence of wildlife further up the food chain. But never mind, there were certainly no mosquitoes to bother me. None could survive the insecticidal clouds blasted through the gardens each evening.
Which is lucky, because El Gouna is Venice-by-the-Sea, with its pretty canals and lagoon landscape.
So there you have it. The perfect holiday environment, with nothing to upset you. Just take your towel and sunbathe by a choice of swimming-pools, drink cooling refreshments without even leaving the water, play a round of golf, visit a health spa, or risk sweating playing a game of tennis. Perfect for the kids, too. And if youre more active, you could always try kite-surfing off the beach.
But what if you want to try scuba-diving Well, visit the Dive Tribe dive centre in the Mövenpick. It has a great atmosphere and a full spectrum of courses from entry-level to full technical diving, but be prepared to leave the sterile international holiday resort of El Gouna and visit a more organic Egypt!
Why do I say that Well, theres no reef at El Gouna itself, so each morning would-be divers climb into a minibus and head off down a dusty unmade road to a small scruffy dock where Dive Tribes day-boats await. Then its off to visit the reefs and wrecks around Hurghada, Giftun, Shadwan and the Straits of Gobal. There, they leave behind the dreams and aspirations of worldly architects and enter a world that only nature can provide.
Dive Tribe started off as the idea of Englishman Tim Breen, a keen technical diver who would have been more than happy to run a diving centre exclusively for tekkies.
However, the commercial world being what it is, he soon realised that he had to tailor his product to suit his likely clientele, and that clientele was drawn mainly from the members of families that chose to holiday at El Gouna.
Although this might include some technical divers, the majority were those who tried a bit of everything and were inclined to devote only a couple of days of their vacation to diving. I spent a week with Dive Tribe to see how it panned out.
At first I was disappointed. Although we seemed ideally placed to visit Shab Abu Nuhas and its multiple wrecks, we tended instead to go south each day towards Abu Kalawa and Abu Nugar, and sat side by side with other dive boats from Hurghada instead.
This was because the prevailing north-westerly wind made a journey north difficult for the little Egyptian day-boat. We went to Um Gamar and Shab el Erg, but made it north only once during the week.
Even then, one of our two dives of the day was on the Giannis D rather than on what I would say was one of the more interesting wrecks at Shaab Abu Nuhas.
The latter was only 21m down on a sandy bottom but I suspect that the Dive Tribe guides were concerned that even this was beyond the 18m limit of the Open Water certification of most of its client-divers.
Mostly we dived shallow coral reefs in the order of 12m deep and less. At first I thought this was going to prove rather dull. It seemed strange to go through all the safety briefing before each dive, including making sure that our second dive was no deeper than our first, when the water was hardly deeper than could be visited by a proficient snorkeller.
But once I had got used to the idea, that old saying that its all in the first 10m came back to my mind.
Many of these shallower coral reefs are in pristine condition. I used to get bored simply looking at corals, but after the global coral wipe-out of 1998 I can appreciate that this area still has not only plenty of hard corals but many varieties thriving cheek by jowl.
Among these pretty hard corals loiter scorpionfish, stonefish, red-mouthed grouper and lionfish, all of which predate on the smaller glassfish and orange anthias.
Startlingly yellow lemon butterflyfish and other coral browsers can be found in large numbers too, as can bannerfish and coral-crunching parrotfish. Giant moray eels lurk under table corals. One helped me to make a nice portrait of a Red Sea coral grouper, a skittish fish thats often hard to approach, when it got trapped under a table coral between my lens and the mean-looking eel.
There are obviously plenty of shellfish and crabs, too, because I saw giant puffers and octopus and none looked short of a meal. And there were plentiful blue-spotted rays busily sifting the sand.
All of this was to be found at a depth that let you dive for as long as you could spin out the gas in your tank. I used Dive Tribes nitrox supplies but the extended no-deco time possible was rather irrelevant with an air no-stop time that was endless.
For the sake of passengers who got bored early, divers were asked not to stay under water for more than an hour. I saw an ex-British bobby and his missus get told off for doing a 75 minute dive. As it was, we had time only for two dives each day, but it was diving at its easiest.
Dive Tribe is in the process of building a bigger vessel, a mini-safari boat that can stay out over-night and thus go further and offer more dives a day, with more reliable visits to the famous wartime wreck of the Thistlegorm, for example.
It is also being built with the special requirements of disabled divers in mind, something of particular interest of Dive Tribe manager Rob Read.
The PADI 5-star IDC Dive Tribe and the Mövenpick Resort offers a good combination for those who perhaps take non-diving members of their family and children with them on holiday. Its a fabulous place to learn to dive and gives a perfect intro to the underwater world.
Be aware that some local holiday company reps may well try to sell you a diving package with another diving operation and then send you the uncomfortable 20 miles to Hurghada each day by bus. Its all a matter of earned commissions. So book your diving when booking your holiday, or insist on the Dive Tribe.