The Attractions: A Week in Jeddah

There are tons of attractions and activities in Jeddah. Here’s a brief review of the few I managed to get to. As always, if you want to see all the pics, check out the albums on my Facebook Page.

King Fahad Fountain

img_0107This is the tallest fountain of its kind in the world. It shoots a jet of sea water something like 1000 feet up into the air creating a stunning waterfall from heaven. It sits out in the sea and isn’t something you can walk up to. The Park Hyatt hotel has a stunning view of the fountain, and most of the Middle Corniche Park affords a changing view of the pillar of water.

It was beautiful to watch it change as the sun set and the flood lights at the base came on to illuminate it by night. Several times I just stopped everything else I was doing to watch the patterns of the water as it danced in the wind on its way back down to the sea.

Al Shallal Theme Park

This is one of many theme/amusement parks scattered throughout Jeddah. Actually, it seems like every shopping mall has some kind of mini-amusment park area even here in Tabuk, mostly geared at kids since malls are a big draw to mom’s with kids in tow.

The Corniche in Jeddah has several places that give top billing to the amusement side rather than the mall side, and Al-Shallal has the tallest double loop roller coaster on the Asian continent (according to Wikipedia). Also, acording to their website and to my site director, Tuesday nights are Ladies Night and so I thought I’d go check it out.

Now, I’ve been to both coasts of Disney, California Adventures, Epcot, Universal, Six Flags and Cedar Point, so I am not new to the theme park/roller coaster experience. I’m not claiming to be an expert, but I do have some basis for comparison.

First, whatever Ladies Night was meant to be, I think it failed. My SD said it was women only and abaya free, like the women’s side of the school, but there were plenty of men around and all the women were still dressed in abaya and hijab. This was a little frustrating, since a large chunk of why I decided to go was the pleasant idea of an outdoor park adventure with the same level of female freedom that we had inside the school grounds. Maybe they cancelled it, maybe it changed nights, its really hard to tell, but if you’re looking to have a Ladies Night outting, I’d find someone who speaks really good Arabic and call first.

Second, its about 1/3 mall. I know that all the other parks I mentioned are highly comercial and covered in little places trying to sell you stuff, but they aren’t actually malls, and they make an attempt to sell things that are in line with the theme of the… well, theme park, so you get Disney stuff at Disney parks and Warner Bros stuff at Six Flags, and often they have some stuff you can’t get anywhere besides the theme park, and some quite beautiful high quality products among the cheap souvenirs.

img_0152This is an actual two story mall. The shops include clothing, perfume, jewelry and toys, none of which are what we think of as theme specific, and the only souvenir items were the custom printed t-shirt kiosks and the lady walking around charging to take pics with the copy written theme park characters of other parks. I could just imaging there’s a team of Disney lawyers who feel a strange itch they can’t identify every time fake Mickey and Minnie pose with a small Saudi child here. The rest of it is just shops and food court places with a huge ice skating rink in the middle.

There is one ride that is inside the mall area called the Amazon which is a water type ride, but only has one short fall. The attendant advised me to sit in the back so my abaya wouldn’t get soaked.

Outside, there are more restaurants and food kiosks in between the rides. The roller coaster and most of the nice restaurants surround a little lake where people can take boats out. Wikipedia says its divided into geographical themes, like the Amazon and China and Europe, but I didn’t really notice that. There were definitely some Chinese themed rides, the tea cups and a Chinese dragon circular ride, and there was the Amazon, but if there were meant to be themes or distinct areas, they weren’t obvious.

However, this doesn’t mean that Al-Shallal isn’t fun. Its a cute little park with a pretty decent roller coaster. The mall is a great place to cool off between rides, since the high walls keep the sea breeze out. The unlimited rides wristband is 55 SAR, and each ride is about 15 SAR without it, so if you intend to ride a 4th anything, the wristband is worth it.

As it turns out, heat, humidity and abayas when combined with spinny rides is a recipe for an upset tummy. As a consequence, I spent about 30 minutes sitting in the AC mall section between each ride, which allowed me to cool off and forestall any severe nausea. Fortunately, they’re open till like 130 am.

I rode an octopus ride, the giant swing, the Amazon water ride, the pirate ship, and the roller coaster twice, once from the very front and once from the very back. I avoided the bumper cars and assorted children’s rides, as well as anything supper spinny, also the deadfall and bungee rides.

The rides were mostly ok. Better than a fair, but definitely a sort of low end generic amusement ride. The Amazon water ride was better than average, although the stories online about life sized animals was total bunk. The plastic jungle critters were about a foot high, but the lighting was low. There was only one drop, so it was less flume ride and more boat ride, but nice.

img_0164The roller coaster was a blast. The cars are pulled up backwards to the very top then dropped back down the incline into the double loop and twist before heading back up the paired incline, dragged all the way up then rushed through the whole thing backwards. Going in the front seat afforded a better feeling ride, but the end seat gave a really awesome view not only of the whole park and the sea just beyond the wall, but of everyone else enjoying the ride.

There was an unusual amount of happy screaming on all the rides there. I noticed that people often started screaming in the roller coaster just as it was being pulled up before the real action even started. After a while it occurred to me that this might be one of the few places where its ok for many of these people to express joy and excitement so loudly and ebulliently.

Even on the Corniche where people were clearly enjoying themselves, they were much more subdued. With no bars, few night clubs, and limited public sporting events, all of the ways that I’m used to getting loud and silly at home just don’t exist as an option here. So, that was kind of neat.

Also, I must not neglect to mention the gelato shop. I’d seen some pictures of it online while researching the park, and that was a pretty neat treat stand, different from the regular fries and pizzas. Fresh fruit gelatos, chocolate and nutella gelatos, and optional chocolate coatings. I guess I could have eaten it in the air conditioning, but walking around with a delicious icy treat on a stick trying to eat it before the heat melts it is a rather quintessential part of the amusement park experience, right?

Al Rahma Floating Mosque

This is called the Floating Mosque or Mosque on the Sea because it is built up on pillars so that only one edge of the building is on the shore, and the rest of it is over the water. I understand at high tide the mosque actually looks like its floating in the water. Unfortunately, high tide that day was at 1:30 in the afternoon, which is possibly the most miserable time to be outside in Jeddah, so would have been stopping by long enough to snap some photos and hop back in a cab. I decided instead to go for sunset and Maghrib prayer, even though it was nearly low tide by then.

img_0187I do not regret my decision. First, as I may have mentioned before, watching the sunset on the Red Sea just simply does not get old. Secondly, watching the sea and sunset colors reflected in the white mosque was really beautiful. And thirdly, even though I am not Muslim myself, I really enjoy being near sacred rituals of any sort, and being at the Mosque for sunset prayer was itself a unique experience.

On my second circuit, I noticed a sign that reminded everyone that this mosque was no more special than any other mosque and to please let others know all mosques are equal. At first I thought that was kind of cool, since every church and temple tourist attraction I’ve seen goes to great lengths to point out why its special and worth visiting (read giving money to). This doesn’t make them bad, they need money to operate, and often are preserving history and culture that would be lost without tourism. However, for a tiny moment, the thought of humility pleased me, until I realized that it was a really underhanded way to say “our holy place is special” at the same time as saying “see how humble we are about it”. Oh well. Still a cool place.

There were of course separate entrances for men and women, but the outside walkways seemed open to all. There were beautiful archways and a single tall tower beside the main dome. As everyone gathered to the call, I found a quiet spot overlooking the sea and listened to the sermon being broadcast from inside the central prayer area. It was very peaceful.

Fakieh Aquarium

Mostly because it was this or a shopping mall. I don’t mind malls, but we have them in Tabuk, and I’m not extra impressed by larger malls with bigger shops (Mall of America doesn’t do it for me), so I didn’t put malls high on my to do list in Jeddah. However, the daytime is hot and boring. Its too hot to do any outdoor activity until nearly sunset, and most things are closed until after Asr. The malls open around 10-11 am, and the Aquarium opened around the same time (except Friday, when it opened a little later).

So I went to the Aquarium, hoping perhaps to see some of the fish and corals that I swam among out at La Plage. Not really. The displays are very pretty, though. It was a little difficult without a smart phone, since the descriptions for each display were actually just QR codes. A neat idea, and yet one more reason not to go to Jeddah without a smartphone.

img_0213There were pretty fish, a really cool tunnel through a giant tank (I really love those things). A sea turtle there took a liking to me and followed me around while I enjoyed the tunnel. He even posed for some pictures. There was a cool seahorse display. Those are some seriously curious critters. They came up to me right away and followed me around the tank as I moved, coming right up to the glass to get a good look.

There was a nifty shark tank. I recognized most of them, but there was one that basically looked like Pyramid Head Shark, and I have no idea what that was, but the internet says it might have been a guitarfish. I like Pyramid Head Shark better.

A nice aquarium, to be sure, although I was a little disappointed that the local coral reefs weren’t better represented, I got to see some pretty cool fishes. There was a dolphin and seal show, but between the timing and the controversy over their animals, I didn’t go.

There’s a crazy fancy expensive restaurant in the same compound as the aquarium. You can do one without the other, but lunch was buffet only so I passed. Just up the Corniche is a little area with a Starbucks and a fro-yo place, a short walk to a nice place to get a snack and kill time until the sun goes away.


The Corniche: A Week in Jeddah

The Corniche is described as a 30km long costal resort area.  I had this sort of image in my head of a really long non-vice ridden version of Burbon street or the Las Vegas strip covered in lights, hotels, restaurants and sea side attractions. The reality is not quite the same.

There are stretches of the Corniche which are quite lovely. They have long walkways dotted with refreshment stands which are more like Saudi fair food than anything else. There are some nice attractions too. It is totally worth dedicating a night to walking the waterfront, but it is really important to know where you’re going because the 30 km is not consistently covered with sidewalks, greenery and refreshment stands.

I ended up on the Corniche three times during my stay, in three different places:

The Middle Corniche

img_0101My hotel was right across from the Park Hyatt, which has the best view of the King Fahad fountain anywhere on the Corniche.  On my first day in Jeddah, after settling into the hotel, I headed out just before sunset to be greeted with this fantastic view. I walked a couple blocks north to the Middle Corniche Park, which is a lovely greenbelt right on the sea.

Families came and set out picnic carpets (they didn’t use blankets, but rather area rugs), some people even brought mini barbecues to cook food. There were children playing in the surf and folks fishing off the shore. Bicycles, scooters, rollerbladers, kite flyers, and every other waterfront activity was out in full force. As I walked northward along the path, I enjoyed the changing view of the fountain and the city scape. The breeze off the ocean kept the heat and humidity from being too oppressive, nonetheless, I walked a really long way (about 4km each way) and was grateful for the Ish’a prayer break to just lay in the grass and rest.

There is a sculpture garden in this section of the Corniche which was very interesting. The Islamic religion prohibits the representation of humans and often of anything created by God, which is why so much Islamic art is geometric in nature. So the sculpture garden contains some very interesting (and apparently very expensive) works of impressionist and post-modern art.  I must admit, I’m not a super fan of this style, but I found it really interesting how they decided to get around the prohibition of images while still creating a beautiful outdoor art display.

There is also a little mosque along the way called the Hassan Enany Mosque. It seems like the end of the path along the sea, but if you walk around the front of the mosque, there is still more sea front and grassy bits along the other side. Finally, the walk ends abruptly at a roundabout.

On my way back to the hotel, I stopped for another rest and met a group of teachers from South Africa and we sat down in the grass and chatted for a while, sharing our experiences living and teaching in Saudi. A really great section of Corniche. In addition to the snack shacks along the walk, there are also lots of shopping and restaurants on the opposite side of the road, and of course the Park Hyatt and the Marina at the south end.

The North Corniche

I went out one day to see the Floating Mosque (more on this in the Attractions section), after which I figured I could have another lovely stroll along the Corniche, similar to the nice evening I had on my first day in town. It started out pretty good. The Corniche around the Mosque was occupied by picnicking families and I passed a little snack shack (that turned out to be the only one).

img_0185There wasn’t any grass and very few trees, but the sea was very impressive here. Waves that rolled in and hit the wall beside the walkway pushed back into new oncoming waves to make huge leaping crashes of spray. The water in the shallows was so clear that even by the light of the street lanterns alone I could see the bottom.

A very nice section of Corniche, and definietly different enough from the Middle area to be worth a separate visit, but this is where I learned to be more cautious about planning. See, I thought since the Corniche was this big famous thing, I could just wander along it until I got tired, then hail a taxi. This would probably have worked in the section near my hotel, but as I walked further and further south from the Mosque, I realized that there weren’t really any taxis around.

I pulled out the tablet to check on GPS what was around, but really, most of the businesses in Saudi aren’t registered properly on Google, so its hard to tell. I headed over toward the Belagio, thinking that it should be upscale enough to draw taxis, but alas, no.

I kept walking forward, basically thinking that I was more likely to find something in an unexplored direction than going back to the emptiness behind me. I passed another amusement park and a little fast food strip mall where I got a lemon mint gelato to help restore my energy and cool me off. But still no taxis.

I finally arrived at a little mini mall where I had gone to dinner with [redacted] and his wife a few days before. I knew that there was a bathroom and several coffee shops inside, and 5km in 98 degree high humidity weather is enough to make anyone tired, so I had a little rinse off in the bathroom and settled down with a nice ice blended coffee drink and my ebook until I felt cool and rested.

Not the only time I found myself wandering around trying to catch a taxi (more on this in the Taxis section), definitely a cautionary tale to the carless traveller in Jeddah. Don’t let the lack of transporation options deter you from seeing the cool stuff, but plan better than I did.

 More North Corniche

Finally, after viewing the Aquarium (see Attractions section) I had another encounter with the Corniche. This was definitely the shortest walk I had, and probably the best planned (I can learn from my mistakes occasionally). There is a little Starbucks right on the water not far from the Aquarium, so after a brief lunch, I walked down to the waterfront. I’m not a huge Starbucks fan, being from Seattle I actually prefer local cafes, but I find that there’s a certain appeal to consistency when travelling, especially when the local kiosks all sell Nescafe instead of coffee from beans. I had to wait a little for the shops to open, so I walked the single km stretch, which included a swimming beach. Once the Starbucks opened, I took shelter from the heat of the sun with an iced americano.

img_0265About 30-45 minutes before the sun sets, it gets low enough in the sky that it isn’t glaring directly down on us all, and although the air is still warm, the lack of glaring sunlight and the sea breeze make the outdoors pleasant. This is the time of day families start arriving and setting up for a night of picnic dinners and sea side fun. I headed out into the soft outdoor couches of the cafe to watch the sunset over the sea, a sight I can’t believe will ever get old.

While the Middle Cornice has a peninsula across from it that makes the sea seem more like a bay or a sound, limited and bound by the lights on the far shore, the North Corniche is totally on wide open seafront, and the sunsets are especially stunning, although very difficult to capture on film.

Overall, the Corniche is pretty cool, but not at all like what my previous research on the internet made it seem to be. Make sure you bring water and a snack, and try to have Uber or a driver you can call instead of relying on passing taxis.