Anyone who claimed to really know the vast expanses of the Sinai Peninsula obviously is a liar or a fool, so multifarious are it rugged natural wonders spread over 3,700 square miles of barren desert and spectacular mountains.
But with some humility, I can say I know Dahab. I say it also with some certainty of not being challenged, since Dahab is a miniscule Bedouin village consisting of a few thatched huts, a lopsided shed that passes for a beer joint and some of the best shallow-reef snorkling and deep-reef diving in the world.
When the madcap traffic of Tel Aviv brings me close to lunacy, or when my eyes begin to glaze over from the obtrusive pronouncements of the government in Jerusalem, it is time to head for Dahab for the cure that Bedouin tribesmen have taken for granted for thousands of years and Israelis can take for granted until March 1982, when this final slice of the Sinai that was captured during the six-day war will revert to Egypt.
But until then and until the Sinai coast along the Red Sea (Gulf of Aqaba) is reopened to tourism under the Egyptian flag -- Dahab will remain my favorite little retreat from the real world.
Picture this: paddling about in magnificently clear turquoise water, gazing through a snorkel mask at literally thousands of multicolored fish of all shapes. In the background, on a deserted sandy beach ringed by towering palms, a lone herdsman arrives, accompanied by bleating sheep, restless goats and one serene-looking camel.The herdsman pauses long enough for a desultory look at the fiery sun rising over the distant Saudi Arabian horizon, and then resumes his hoofed parade, once again leaving the beach to you alone.
The place is Lighthouse Point, a presumptuous name, since the "lighthouse" is a small beacon on a rather rickety stand and the caretakers frequently forget to turn it on.
Dahab, about 75 miles south along the coast from the Israeli port city of Eilat, has little to offer in the way of creature comforts. If you're up to roughing it, the Bedouin rent primitive palm branch huts at about one dollar per night, and you can get cold beer and some humus and tehina at the local equivalent of a pub.
But drive your car south along the camel track for five minutes and you will appear at Dizahav, a lovely oasis (moshav) founded by Israeli settlers in 1971 and turned into a holiday village.
It's easy to stay at Dizahav, enjoying its pleasant rooms ($24 per person double with bath, $18 per person double without bath) and driving off each day to Dahab and other even more remote coral reefs for snorkling and diving. The Dizahav room rates include halfboard (breakfast and either lunch or dinner, as desired).
Dizahav also has a wide, sandy beach shaded by palm trees, a typically Israeli kibbutz-type dining room with excellent food, a small and unpretentious disco-bar, and a well-equipped diving shop with reasonably priced rental snorkel and scuba gear.
Flights from Jerusalem or Tel Aviv to Eilat on Arkia Airlines are $45 one way, and car rentals range from $16 per day, although there are buses that run to Dizahav and its sister moshav, Nevoit, further along the coast. Neviot also has an adjacent Bedouin village, Nuweiba, but the diving there doesn't match Dahab's.
For the tourist with a car, it's only an hours' drive or so to Ofira at the southern tip of the Sinai, and Sharm el-Sheikh, the spectacular coral reef bay.
At the adjacent Ras Muhammed Point, the snorkling and diving are even better than at Dahab (although not nearly as secluded and serene), but it is in territory that was turned back to Egypt on Jan. 25, and there are still some bureaucratic problems getting across the interim international boundary. Recent visitors there, however, said they expected the red tape to be cleared away any day and tourists with non-Israeli passports should be able to cross without too much difficulty. They suggest checking with the new Egyptian Embassy in Tel Aviv, which opened last month.
Travel from Dizahav or Neviot to the ancient Santa Katarina Monastery has also been simplified. Tourists going by bus or command car over the kidney-jarring dirt road are allowed through in groups with a minimum of paperwork at the Egyptian crossing. Those with their own cars can park them at the new border and be driven by Egyptian bus to the monastery, where they can stay overnight if they want.
Tourists can also buy a $149 Arkia tour package that includes flights to Santa Katarina and Eilat, thereby cutting out the long and tiring drive into the Sinai interior.
And for those travelers who begin to become weary from all that desert-trekking, there is always Dahab to retreat to and relax in, in the solitude of the Sinai.