Photo by Panoramia
By Heidi Noroozy
It’s really rather strange. As an American with an Iranian passport, I get to travel to lots of places that see few Westerners these days, from teahouses among the snowy peaks of the Alborz Mountains to the ancient ruins of Persepolis. And let’s not forget that legendary Persian hospitality. But the one part of the Islamic Republic that is most accessible to my compatriots is a place I’ve yet to visit: Kish Island. This desert paradise is the most unlikely of high-brow playgrounds and 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 is dubbed The Pearl of the Persian Gulf.
Just a 30-minute flight across the Persian Gulf from Dubai, Kish holds out a welcome mat to visitors who would otherwise have to jump 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 you could expect in 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’s been closed.
|Sandy beach on Kish Island|
Photo by Ivan Minaric
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 an unlikely destination for me. But the island has a lot more to offer. If I ever go there, and I’m sure I will, 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 a 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.
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.