WHEN PLANNING A TRIP TO EGYPT, you expect to have to get your head round the currency, haggle with taxi-drivers over the equivalent cost of a first-class stamp and rediscover every bone in your body rebelling against putting toilet paper in a bin.
One thing you may not expect is a language barrier. No travel guide gives any indication that Russian is the new language and culture of Sharm el Sheikh.
On a recent visit, I stayed in the unashamedly luxurious setting of the Royal Savoy Hotel and dived with its dive centre Sheikh Coast Divers. The resort was packed with Russian tourists. I lived and worked as a dive guide in Egypt for many years and now, for the first time, I felt like a stranger in a strange land.
Although Sheikh Coast Divers is located in the Royal Savoy complex at White Knights reef, we needed to take a shuttle bus to the Domina Coral Bay resort to reach the jetty and the day-boats used by the centre.
My mouth dropped open when I saw the numbers of people waiting to board. Had our guide Kareem not whisked us away from the madness, I fear I might have cried out for my mammy.
I readied myself with a piece of chalk to claim a few inches of space around my equipment as the passengers flooded on board. I was going to suggest to John Bantin that we use a buddy line to stay in touch on deck.
But then we reached the kitting-up area, and found it spookily empty.
I half-expected tumbleweed to roll past - where had everybody gone
I poked my head up onto the sun-deck. Every inch of space was covered with bodies vying for the best positions. It looked like a massive game of Twister. There was not a single diver among them, which brought the smiles back to our faces.
The rather average day-boat fell far short of the rest of the Royal Savoys five-star operation. This is where the splendour stopped, and gave way to drab décor, less-than-aesthetic toilets and run-of-the-mill food.
With so many sleek, comfortable dayboats in Sharm at present, it was disappointing that none of these was made available to clients who had sought out the best accommodation Sharm had to offer.
Even in this low season at Jackson Reef, plenty of boats like ours were moored up, but they were full of snorkellers. Entering the water meant finding a spot that did not have a scantily clad female or wide-load male counterpart in it. But with rapid BC deflations came peace and quiet at last.

KAREEM GAVE US THE PHEW signal by wiping his brow as we descended the wall into the swift-moving currents that make the site famous. Rich in nutrients, they encourage soft corals to bloom in beautiful pink and violet colours.
A half-kick is all that is needed to travel up to 20m, passing the many cracks that plunge into the abyss. Many divers focus completely on the reef but this is a mistake, because out in the blue the fish life is as abundant and just as beautiful. Dense schools of fusiliers shadowed by jack and surgeonfish race past in a dance dictated by the current.
Further back, trevally lurk in large numbers, keen eyes focused on the smaller prey clinging to the reefs.
With not another soul to disturb us or the marine life, we crossed our fingers that some of Jacksons sharks or rays would put in an appearance. On this occasion, however, they proved elusive.
Neither elusive nor shy were the many cornetfish that glided alongside me, using my body as a shield before darting in front of my face to attack anthias.
These hit-and-run raiders enjoyed amazing success, and were unfazed by our attention. If we got too close, they simply hit reverse and dropped back to prepare for their next meal.
The shallow waters of Jackson house some spectacular gorgonian corals. Wrapped around the reef, these delicate structures provide security for tiny hawkfish and damselfish, but need to be viewed carefully, as the current can easily sweep a fin too close for comfort.
The maze proved too much for one hunting lionfish which, after repeated attempts to corner a damselfish, retired to wait for dark, when it would hold the advantage.
This site never fails to impress, when I consider the sheer numbers of people who dive it each year. Teeming fish life and countless colours all over the reef wall will always make this one of my favourite Red Sea sites.

ON THE SAFETY STOP, we could see the chaos above in full swing. Fifty minutes had flown by, and it was time to rejoin the maddening masses. The minimum surface interval would be well and truly tested today, as well as my patience.
My head had barely broken the surface of the water when a large-bellied, Speedo-clad individual landed on top of me. I felt violated.
The second dive would be at Woodhouse, Jacksons neighbour, and we were adamant that we would beat the splashers to the water. Lunch was a riot of shouting and pointing, the menfolk bulking up on meat while the china doll-figured women stuck to rice to ensure that those dental-floss-sized bikinis would still fit.
We arrived at Woodhouse fully kitted and ready for the call to drop in - much to the annoyance of our fellow guests, who now scrambled for snorkels and masks. Again, we were the only ones diving from the boat. We descended into a large shoal of fusiliers at around 16m, with jackfish making rapid incursions to pick off weak swimmers.
The fusiliers at first swarmed around us before bolting out to the blue, the jack continuing to test their defences.
The Woodhouse reef wall is broken by sandy terraces littered with rounded corals. These giant balls are covered with Christmas tree worms that extend their leaf-like fingers to catch passing nutrients before retreating when we get too close.
The colours were again breathtaking. Combined with 30m visibility and bright sunshine, these rainbow reefs reflect the richness found in so many Red Sea sites. Its a photographers delight.
Enthusiastic Kareem spent much of the dive darting to and fro, pointing out every species of fish he could identify. Frantic waving in the distance would have me racing over at full speed, only to find a lionfish. For sure, it was a beautiful lionfish, but so had the previous 49 been.
What made me chuckle was that while he was pointing out this lionfish, he failed to notice one of the largest giant morays I have ever seen. Its massive head was at least half a metre out of the coral head, mouth agape and looking ever so menacing.
I nodded to Kareem, who was perilously close to this monster. He just nodded back, so I pointed at it. He followed my finger, then gave me one of those blank What are you on about looks. It was pure Laurel & Hardy.
I swam over and physically turned Kareems head towards the moray.
I know he saw it then, because he nearly leapt out of his drysuit. The cloud of bubbles sent the quivering eel racing for cover, and I nearly spat my regulator out, I was laughing so much.

COMING SHALLOW AT WOODHOUSE you will find lots of Acropora coral that is home to faint-hearted pullerfish. These tiny, timid creatures constantly race in and out of their shelter. As they are easily startled, thats a lot of racing.
Porcupine pufferfish were out in great numbers, awkwardly carrying their bulk through the water with tiny dorsal fins.
Hidden among the coral lay countless camouflaged scorpionfish, armed with one hell of a sting and an attitude to boot. Having seen the damage they can do to foolish flesh, I kept my admiration at a distance.
With little or no current affecting us towards the end of the dive, our three-minute safety stop turned into a 15-minute scout. RIBs hummed overhead. We were in no hurry to leave our private reef.

A REDTOOTH TRIGGERFISH became very curious, and chaperoned us until our exit. Its relative, the titan, has a mean reputation that has unfairly tarred the redtooth, but I still kept a wary eye on it. I would never live it down if those buck teeth found their way to my bum.
We sent up the SMB, not so much to avoid unwanted boat activity as to alert the Speedo brigade that divers were in the water. After a lengthy spell at the surface waiting our turn for the ladders, snorkellers seemingly having the right of way, we made it to the deck.
All the water babies back on board with their armbands deflated, we joined the wacky race of day-boats heading back to port. The upper deck was still a no-go area, so we retired to the bow to reflect on the days diving.
Whatever the changes above the surface, Sharm can still serve up some of the best diving around, and will continue to do so for many a year.
Cheap package holidays were always going to lose the Sharm of old to the neon lights and promenade clubs pounding out ear-shattering music, but there are alternatives to Naama Bay.
Visitors with a passion for diving and comfort, and for whom cost is of no consequence, should find all they need at the all-inclusive Royal Savoy resort.
The name Savoy is associated with quality, and this stunning hideaway overlooking Tiran Island is an Aladdins cave of marvels, with a host of restaurants and bars. Pampering is standard.
The most luxurious accommodation consists of nine villas, each with Jacuzzi, balcony, private garden and pool. You can even have your own butler!
Each villa has its own decorative theme and period furniture. The Queen Cleopatra, for example, evokes images of ancient Egypt, with massive pillars at its entrance and two carved lion sculptures based on those at the Temple of Luxor.
Sheikh Coast Divers at the Savoy is a lovely little outfit with a very international feel and extremely helpful and friendly staff. The only thing that left us baffled each day was why a better dive boat could not be found. For the Savoys diving clientele, this would have been the icing on a very fine cake.

Five days diving at Sheikh Coast Divers costs £171. This includes a day at Ras Mohammed and another in the Straits of Tiran (www.sheikhcoast.com). Royal Savoy standard rooms with breakfast start at US $350 per head per night. The Queen Cleopatra villa costs $2500 per night. An all-inclusive supplement costs $85 per night (www.savoy-sharm.com).