Monday, February 20, 2012

Pearl Of The Persian Gulf

By Heidi Noroozy
Kish Island
Photo by Panoramia
I’ve always been an armchair traveler, at least whenever I can’t get on a plane and head for distant lands. And over the years, there have been many places I’ve always wanted to go (which, if you checked our sidebar, is our topic this week). As a child, I yearned to visit the Arctic – an odd choice for a girl who hated the cold so much that she’d dash indoors after only one thrilling toboggan ride down the hill. But those round igloos with their thick walls made of ice bricks looked so cozy and warm, I forgot that the temperatures outside were frigid.

I’m fickle when it comes to favorite destinations. Once Greece topped my list. I was mesmerized by pictures of white-washed towns perched on craggy cliffs overlooking a turquoise sea. And, of course, I’d read Zorba the Greek three times. But when I got my chance to fly there over Easter break during my student days in Austria, I changed my mind at the last minute and took a train to Morocco instead. After learning that every Austrian student I knew was going to Greece for Easter, I wanted to seek out a place where they wouldn’t be celebrating a major Christian holiday.

I have no regrets. Morocco opened my eyes to an entirely different world – an Islamic one, with hints of Spain and Africa blended in. I was mesmerized by Coca-Cola signs in Arabic script and sprawling souks filled with colorful silks and redolent with the scent of exotic spices. Ever since then, I’ve gone for the less-traveled road, the trip off the beaten track.

More recently, a desert paradise in the Persian Gulf made it to the top of my bucket list: Kish Island. This most unlikely of high-brow playgrounds belongs to the Islamic Republic of Iran. Really. It does. Kish is the closest thing most Iranians will get these days to a Caribbean holiday – shimmering coral beaches, crystal-clear waters, and even the world’s first all-solar hotel. All reasons why Kish Island is dubbed The Pearl of the Persian Gulf.

Photo Source: NASA

Just a 30-minute flight across the Persian Gulf from Dubai, Kish is the only part of Iran that Americans can visit without jumping through hoops to get a visa. A stamp in your passport at the airport of departure (Dubai, Istanbul, and a few other cities) gives you permission to stay for up to 14 days. The island is a trade-free zone, and along with the lower prices comes a more relaxed attitude toward all things Islamic, including the strict dress code. You’re not likely to see sun-bathers in bikinis and speedos, but you may notice a lot more bare skin here than any other part of the country. The laws aren’t different, I’m told – they’re just less rigorously enforced.

But not all the time. Swimming, though actively encouraged , still remains gender-segregated, as in the rest of Iran, with a Ladies’ Beach and a Gentlemen’s Beach. There once was a co-ed area, but I’ve heard that it was recently closed.

The island has an interesting history. In ancient times, it was a crossroads for traders throughout the region. Marco Polo visited Kish and noted the quality of its pearls. The Greek admiral, Nearchus, who scouted the Gulf on the orders of Alexander the Great, stopped on Kish and described the island’s lovely palm groves.

Mohammed Reza Pahlavi, the last shah of Iran, turned Kish into a resort and built a casino – now the Shayan International Hotel – as well as an airport equipped to handle the Concorde. The island’s free trade zone was established after the Islamic Revolution.

I’m not one for resorts, so Kish Island may seem as unlikely a destination for me as the Arctic armchair travels of my childhood. But the island has a lot more to offer. When I go there, I’ll give the shopping malls, theme parks, and golf courses a miss and head for the really interesting spots:

Harireh: This archeological site holds the ruins of an 13th-century city that once was a thriving port with three natural harbors for access to trade routes. The excavated sections of Harireh include a hamam (public bath), private houses, and workshops, enough to give me a glimpse of what life might have been like on Kish 800 years ago. Archeologists believe that Harireh was destroyed in a massive earthquake.

Payab on Kish Island
Photo by Mardetanha

Payab (traditional reservoir): Kish does not have an abundance of fresh water, but its ancient inhabitants worked out a clever way to ensure a regular supply of water for drinking and irrigation. They built domed structures over natural basins and collected rain in deep, underground chambers. One payab has been restored today and even accommodates that ubiquitous institution of Iranian hospitality: a tea house.

Natural wonders: There are too many of these to list, but once I’m tired of wandering around ancient ruins and drinking tea at the payab, I can sit on the beach and look at the underwater coral reefs, watch fish swim by, or gaze at the flamingos wading in shallow waters. Maybe I’ll even find a palm grove like the ones Nearchus mentioned in his report to Alexander.

Now it’s your turn: What part of the world have you always wanted to visit?


  1. Heidi, Those old green Coca Cola bottles always had the city of the original bottling plant embossed on the bottom. I remember how enchanted I was to see one printed in Arabic when I first came to the Mediterranean area a long time ago. Your descriptions of this Pearl of an island make me want to pack my bags.

  2. Did you ever make it to any of those places you wanted to visit?

  3. Kish does sound like a lovely place, doesn't it, Patricia? Maybe on my next trip to Iran I'm make it there.

    Edith, I never did get to the Arctic or Greece - not yet. There's still time...

  4. This comment has been removed by the author.

    1. Heidi, I have a new-found appreciation of all things Persian thanks to the posts on this blog! As enticing as it seems though, my childhood desire to live in Europe for a bit and visit India stand. Why India? It is the land of my ancestors, who left via, indenturship, a quasi-slavery institution, I feel that returning will complete me. The other place that I must travel to is Europe, I hope to live there for a bit, it is so different from life on an island and having been to Italy I want to see the rest.

  5. Sangeeta, you should definitely go to India and explore your roots. You will be very happy you did. And you could stop over on Kish Island - it's on the way. :)

    A few years ago I went to the Swiss village where my grandfather was born and learned so many fascinating things about my Swiss background. I'm not so far removed from Switzerland as you are from India (historically speaking), and I grew up with a lot of family stories, yet it was a wonderful, memorable experience. I should do a blog post about that trip someday.

  6. You should do a blog post about your grandfather's birthplace, Heidi! I'd love to know about it. (You have such interesting roots.)

    In the meantime, let us know when you finally make it to Kish. I'd love to see those excavations. An Iran resort sounds like an a most unique destination!