The Red Sea

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TRAVELLER'S GUIDE Blue skies, golden sands and a rainbow of dazzling colours beneath the surface make this body of water the ideal winter warmer. Matthew Teller dives in

What's red about it?

Apart from some impressive sunsets - and Trichodesmium erythraeum, algae which occasionally turn the water a reddish-brown colour - not much. Roman geographers used the term Red Sea (Mare Erythraeum) to refer to the entire Indian Ocean; the body of water dividing Africa from Arabia was dubbed the Arabian Gulf (Sinus Arabicus). Why or when the name-change occurred is not clear, though 16th-century maps show that ancient usage was already waning.

This vast sea stretches from the Bab Al Mandab strait, separating Djibouti and Yemen in the south from Suez in the north. It is 2,250km long but, at its widest, only 355km across.

The Red Sea has been an avenue of trade for millennia, used by the Queen of Sheba, the Pharaohs, Greeks, Romans, Axumites and more. Thanks to the Suez Canal it remains a trade route, but is now equally renowned as a holiday destination. Yemen, Eritrea and Sudan have had other things on their minds, but for Egypt, Israel and Jordan, attracting those seeking sun, sea and sand is big business.

The consistently warm waters of the Gulf of Aqaba - the sea's north-eastern arm - also support one of the world's most northerly coral reefs. The volume and variety of marine life here, coupled with crystal-clear water and fringing reefs in the shallows, make for world-class diving and snorkelling.

Egypt's Ras Mohammed National Park, at the tip of the Sinai peninsula, includes the celebrated Thistlegorm wreck: expect to see striped angel fish, luminescent butterfly fish, rays and plenty more. Tuna, barracuda and turtles are regular visitors. The briny wildlife, coral gardens and wreck dives continue all along this coast.

Who are the big fish?

In terms of tourism Egypt leads the way, hosting 12 million visitors last year; one in 10 of those tourists were from Britain. The main focus is Sharm el Sheikh, a modern, tourist-happy city which makes a fine living from diving, watersports and beach holidays. This winter British Airways (0844 493 0787; ba.com) has launched flights from Gatwick, and mainstream operators offer countless good-value packages; Thomas Cook (0871 895 0055; thomascook.com), for example, has a week in February at the Coral Hills resort for 322 per person (with breakfast), including flights from Luton.

Further north, Taba is much quieter, offering stupendous mountain views, an 18-hole championship golf course and optional mini- cruises to Jordan. Red Sea specialist Longwood Holidays (020-8418 2516; longwoodholidays.co.uk) has a week half board in January at the five-star beachfront Hyatt Regency for 499 from Gatwick or 509 from Manchester.

For a touch more individuality, plump for a smaller operator. For 340 excluding flights, the eight-day Sinai Safari tour run by Egypt Uncovered (0845 130 4849; egypt-uncovered.com) concentrates on Dahab, an easygoing resort between Sharm and Taba.

More options lie near humdrum Hurghada, where developers have built new resorts around isolated sandy beaches, offering self- contained tranquillity supplemented by spas and golf courses. The best known is El Gouna, where Thomson (0871 231 4691; thomson.co.uk) offers a week's B&B at the three-star Arena Inn including flights for a rock-bottom 227 departing this Friday from Gatwick, or 228 next Friday from Manchester. Similar resorts include Soma Bay, near Safaga, and Port Ghalib, near Marsa Alam.

Anything more upmarket?

Six-star splendour resides 9km north of Sharm at the Four Seasons (00 800 6488 6488; fourseasons.com), where the tourist bustle is replaced by palm trees, pools, a coolly elegant spa and fine dining. Double rooms start at 242, including breakfast.

Otherwise, aim for the stunning Oberoi Sahl Hasheesh (00 800 1234 0101; oberoihotels. …