The Beach: A Week in Jeddah

The beach I chose to go to in Jeddah is called La Plage. I ended up going twice, once on Monday, my first full day, and again on Saturday, my last full day. I’ve learned a few things in the art of vacationing, and two of them are – make sure the beginning and the end of the experience are awesome; and after about 7 days in the same place, you start loosing the vacation benefit and its time to move. So, the beach became my first and last experience, maximizing my vacation happiness.

The first try wasn’t all sunshine and rainbows, there were a few hiccups. First there was the quest simply to find the right beach. I wanted someplace I could be in a swimsuit instead of an abaya, and I wanted a swimming beach, and to see the coral reefs. La Plage had all that, but I was told had some picky membership rules. Fortunately, the country director for our company lives here in Jeddah and had a spare ticket!

I got a taxi easily enough, but the driver didn’t really know where we were going. Google maps is a trans linguistic miracle and with some phone help from a friend of his with good English, we were on our way. Travelling in the modern age, yay!

Or not. Turns out there’s more than one place with the name La Plage, since that’s just the French word for beach. We ended up and the wrong one and had a little side adventure trying to find it, but I was able to call my co-employee who’d provided the ticket and get more specific info as he googled landmarks we passed and guided us to the right gate.

This entire stretch of road is just walls and gates. There are no names on the gates and no address numbers, so you have to know about it before you show up. Private beach indeed. The unassuming green gate emblazoned with the Saudi flag’s palm tree and crossed sabers hides thatched rooftops baredly peeking above the walls. The man at reception took my ticket and advised me to remove my abaya and keep it in my bag while I was inside. A real relief I can tell you, to be abaya free outdoors, feeling the sea breeze directly on my skin.

Additionally, the driver arranged to return for me at 7pm and we exchanged numbers in case I had a change of plans before then, so no worries on how to get home from this middle of nowhere stretch of road.

img_0138I arrived a little after 10, staked out a place on the beach, not that it was really necessary since even at 2pm on a Monday, there were still only a few of us out here. I wandered around the grounds to see what else was there. A nice pool, a lap pool, an area with couches where you can snack and smoke shisha, and a lovely restaurant where I sat down to a nice breakfast. (You can read more about it in The Restaurants post)

I admit, with the whole day before me, I lingered a long time over this meal, chatting to folks online and savoring the flavors and the view. After a final cup of coffee, I headed back to my place on the beach and decided to check out the diving area. After all, I had a bucket list item to attend to today, snorkeling in the red sea coral reefs.

You have to walk out a ways on a little path to get out past the cleared out swimming area and the shallows where there isn’t any coral yet. The gentlemen at the dive area asked me what kind of diving I wished to do. I don’t really know how to scuba, so I said so, and that I would like to snorkel if possible. They kitted me out with some boots to protect my feet, a mask, snorkel and fins. They made sure I felt confident in my swimming skills and showed me where to go.

Because boats come quite close to the reefs, they had a little area roped off to keep divers safe from the traffic. There were some steps leading down to the water, at the end of which I strapped on my fins and headed into the water.

It was like being inside a documentary. Despite the fact that I cleverly forgot my contact lenses back in Tabuk, I could still see fairly well under water. I had to de-fog the mask a couple times, but the corals and fish were quite close, and the water was so clear, I hardly noticed the lack of 20/20 vision.

The corals weren’t as bright themselves as in other places, though I did see many beautiful soft, well, coral pinks, and a few spots of greens, purples and brilliant blues. But the FISH! The colors and sizes of the fish, as soon as my mask hit the water I was confronted with a moving mosaic. Electric blue and yellow, flashing stripped silver, some fish had a whole rainbow down their flanks, iridescent and shifting as they moved.

I stayed at the surface because the coral was very shallow and I could breathe easily through the snorkel while admiring the view. I swam out to one corner of the cordoned off area and as I curved inward following the buoy line, the coral reef dropped off sharply into placid turquoise depths where I could see the outlines of much larger fish swimming in the depths.

Despite the fact that I was floating easily on the surface, the sharp drop off gave me an intense sense of vertigo, just as if I were standing on the edge of a sharp cliff, or perhaps more so as I had nothing to hold on to. However, I reassured myself that I could not fall, and that the force of the waves coming in toward shore would prevent me from drifting out accidentally.

There were yet more fish at this break, new shapes and colors that only hovered in the space between shallow and deep. They didn’t think anything of me at all, swimming within inches of my face and hands, calmly avoiding me, but not fleeing.

I just floated for a while, not swimming anywhere, only watching the scene below me. The waves started picking up and tossing me back toward the shallow end, even occasionally washing over my snorkel and bringing a mouthful of saltwater. I decided it was time to head in, as fighting the waves was becoming increasingly challenging, but I lost a flipper.

I turned around to find it, but in the process of retrieving it the other one cam off. I was only in a few feet of water at this point, and still had the boots on to protect my feet, but the ground was slippery and the waves were intense, so I was knocked down more than once, and pushed into some coral. Scraped by a coral reef may now be checked off my life to do list as well. It didn’t really hurt until I got out of the water, but I suspect that was adrenaline.

After a few very focused, heart pounding minutes, I made it back to the base of the stairs and up onto the diving area.I washed off the scrapes with soap and water then lay down on a bench to catch my breath. Found some iodine in the dive shop, too. I suspect it was the combo of salt water and sunscreen that made it sting like all get out, but I really can’t say I cared that much. The reef was amazing, I don’t know how it compares to anything else, because I was my first coral reef, but that alone makes it pretty special.

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I headed back to my deck chair and lounged in the shade, enjoying the view and the breeze. Occasionally I’d wander out into the swimming area for a bit. The water was delightfully warm for about the top four feet, then suddenly turned cold. The sea is salty enough that floating is ridiculously easy. I hovered vertical in the water and only had to flip a hand or foot to adjust my orientation. Every time my feet dipped below the warmth line, it was like dipping my toes into a cold pool, even though I was entirely suspended in water.

Later on I went up to the pool but the water was actually too warm for me, and I came out again pretty quickly.

I spent the sunset floating in the sea chatting with a nice Palestinian lady who recommended some other places I might enjoy in Jeddah (she was right). The taxi drive back was its own ‘adventure’ you can read about in The Taxis.

By Saturday, I’d learned a lot about taxis and of course I knew where the beach was this time. The way in was different. This time, they checked my passport at the gate, but didn’t take my ticket. Instead, there was a check in counter that hadn’t been open on Monday where they had me fill in my name and nationality on the ticket and asked me if I had any food or water in my bag. I was told it wasn’t allowed to bring any in because of the restaurant on site. I told them I planned on eating at the restaurant, too and they let me in with my water, warning me not to bring so much next time. He also would not let me out of the reception area until I’d stowed my abaya in my bag.

img_20141004_103342I was also greeted by a pretty blue and gold macaw at the gate. These are big birds and there wasn’t a handler with him, so I was a little wary at first, but he clearly wanted attention, and kept holding his leg out to try to reach me. When I moved my arm over, he climbed right on. I gave him some neck scritches, cause parrots love those, before saying good bye and heading off toward the water.

I got there early again, but this time I headed straight to the dive shop because the waves were really low that morning, and I wanted to tackle the reef again so that being beaten up by strong waves and coral wasn’t my final memory.

It wasn’t quite as populated by fish as it had been on Monday. I don’t know if it was a time of day thing or a weather thing, but it was still nice, and it really helped me to get back in the water after the adrenaline inducing experience of Monday.

I discovered on my way back toward the beach that there’s supposed to be a fee to rent the snorkel equipment, oops. No one had asked for one on Monday, and they were kind enough to let it slide, cautioning me that I should make sure to expect to pay next time. I think if I lived there, I’d buy my own gear, but its not unreasonable to rent it if you’re just visiting. Plus, next time I’m sure to have my contact lenses and an underwater camera!

After the snorkeling, I headed in to get breakfast, much like last time. There were definitely more people at the resort than on Monday, but it never got to be what I’d call “crowded”. I guess having been to beaches in Florida, Southern California, and the Bahamas I have a different perspective on what a crowded beach looks like. Maybe it was because of the holiday, but I’d have thought if anything, that would mean more people would show up than usual.

I chatted with a young man trying  to learn paddle boarding. He asked me how I was enjoying “Miami” referring to the beach. I said I liked it a great deal better than I had liked actual Miami, which he got a real kick out of.

I listened to some little girls singing “Eid Mubarak” (Happy Eid), clearly happy to be celebrating the holiday. A little girl, maybe two or three, showed me her seashell finds and asked how I got the scrapes on my leg, whereupon we discussed why it was important to stay in the safe part of the beach and not go out near the boats in the very solemn way that toddlers have before she ran off to find her dad.

I enjoyed the sea some more, floating in the deep of our little lagoon, and walking through the shallows looking for pretty sea shells and coral bits that had washed in from the reef. I read in the shade, snacked at the restaurant and generally had a really nice day.

Both nights right as the sun was setting I turned around just in time to see a tiny shoal of silver fish leap from the water in a little flashing arc of bodies reflecting the golden pink sun. Pretty darn magical.

While waiting for my Uber to arrive (I couldn’t deal with another taxi), the person who I think was the manager (very proprietary and obviously in charge) chatted with  me about my visit. Apparently he’s Greek Orthodox and took the opportunity to tell me how great it is. For a country where people aren’t supposed to talk about religion, I sure get asked what I am a lot here.

A friendly Uber ride back to the hotel sealed in the goodness of the day.

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Overall findings?
La Plage is a great beach. Beautiful, clean, it has swimming and diving which is rare in combo. Good restaurant, nice service. The weekdays are nearly empty, and the rules are clearly less adamantly enforced. However, the weekends are more lively and the restaurant seems to have a wider menu as well. They don’t allow Saudis, and other Middle Eastern nationals may have a few more hoops to jump through to get in. Like everywhere else in Saudi, the rules are not set in stone, and they seem more interested in pleasing their rich Western patrons than anything else, really. I’m pretty sure if I lived in Jeddah, I’d be out there as often as I could afford it, though, and I’d never save any money at all.

The Restaurants: A Week in Jeddah

Staying in a hotel means not cooking for yourself for a while, so naturally, I tried a lot of restaurants. The heat and quantity of food did mean that I usually only went into 2 a day, but since I hate fast food, I did get a pretty good culinary cross section. One piece of advice, bring your own water. In Saudi, water isn’t free. In fact, even the cheap water costs more than the gasoline, and restaurants will charge 10-30 SAR for something you can get for 1-2 SAR in the convenience store or from your hotel concierge. I didn’t go walking without a bottle because of the heat, so I often still had some by the time I got into a restaurant and not one of them complained. Plus, then I could use the money I saved to get one of the delicious juice, tea or coffee drinks 🙂

Indian

My first night in Jeddah, I had a long walk along the Corniche just outside my hotel. I didn’t really want to stay out any longer because I was pretty tired and wanted to get up early the next day, so I popped into an Indian restaurant on the way back. I don’t know the name and can’t find it on a map, but its pretty hard to miss if you’re walking between the Hyatt and the Corniche park area.

I got myself a veggie korma and some naan and headed back to the hotel. Important side note, the restaurants here don’t give you plastic eating utensils. They sort of assume that folks are just taking the food home to eat, I guess. So I had to improvise a spoon out of the foil, yay girl scout training! Also, good food.

BBQ

img_20141001_232826On my way back I’d spotted a BBQ restaurant and figured I’d try it another night. I think BBQ might be international code for “meat cooked over fire”. We have an assumption about BBQ in America that involves a sweet yet tart sauce, but this place seemed like it was trying to represent the BBQ of every nation on earth focusing on America, Brazil and the Mediterranean.

I got the lamb chops with mint BBQ sauce and a side of grilled veggies. It was quite excellent. No room for desert, but I finished off the night with a turkish coffee, lightly spiced with cardamom.

Cafe Aroma

This might be my favorite restaurant in Jeddah (close to a tie with the Marina). The restaurant itself is built to mimic an outdoor garden cafe. Its divided by little stone walls, fountains and trellises, and the ceiling is inset and painted to look like a beautiful blue sky. It gives the illusion of sitting in a cool oasis while allowing one to escape the heat and humidity.

The menu is varied, mostly Western style food with a few traditional dishes. There are breakfasts, salads, pizzas, pastas and entrees of meat and fish. I had the Shakshouka on my first visit. Its a poached egg dish with tomatoes and onions. As my culinarily inclined US roomie pointed out, it might be impossible to find an egg and tomato dish that I don’t like. Another meal I had a sort of chicken stir fry and a green mint tea.

IMG_0165I also had some coffee and tiramisu for dessert. The tiramisu was actually served in a portion size that was slightly smaller than my coffee cup, which was refreshing because I’m so tired of American oversized but underflavored desserts. This one was a taste explosion in every bite, although I’m sure they had to use a non-alcoholic beverage to soak the ladyfingers.

The staff are attentive and polite without being obsequious. The food is really good, plentiful and reasonably priced. Its possible to eat healthy there, which is not always easy here in the land of meat and starch. The atmosphere is soothing and you can spend a few hours lingering over a meal either while waiting for the sun to drop low enough to walk the Corniche, or unwinding and cooling down after a night exploring the town.

The Marina

This one is the close runner for favorite. Just a teeny walk south of the Park Hyatt (like half a block) there is a building set back a bit from the road. Apparently they use this for art exhibits and business expos, but if you walk through it, you reach the Marina and Yacht Club. There’s a lovely restaurant there where you can eat indoors or stay on the balcony overlooking the water and the people walking below.

I had two separate people recommend this place to me when they heard my hotel was near the Hyatt, one among the group of South Africans I’d met on my first night on the Corniche, and the other a Palestinian lady I met at the beach. So I decided I should definitely check it out.

img_20140929_211600In addition to the stunning view, there is a fabulous (if expensive) menu and a great shisha menu too. I got myself a veggie pizza and a lemon mint shisha. The food was good, but this wasn’t a surprise. The shisha is really what I want to talk about.

In the US, any time I’ve had a hooka, its been with these pre-packaged, kind of dried out cubes of tobacco. Here the shisha is a goopy sticky mess of molasses, flavor and tobacco– fresh. The shisha was brought out in a large hooka pipe, and the waiter placed a new plastic disposable mouthpiece at the end of the hose and pipe handle. This was pretty cool because it allowed them to use these high quality hookas without having to worry about cross contamination.

The shisha was delicious, and there were a fleet of coal bearing shisha attendants who circled around making sure we all had fresh coals, and blowing the ash out of the dishes to keep the shisha as fresh as possible. After a while I got myself an iced mocha. Most places seem to equate ‘iced’ with ‘blended’ and this was no different, but the quality of the chocolate and the coffee was much higher.

They were having a promo on the shisha to buy one get one free, so I ended up staying until almost 2am watching the people walking on the waterfront below, reading my book, sipping my coffee and smoking shisha. Cost me around 55$ US for the diner, the coffee and the shisha and probably about 4 hours of relaxing evening.

Additionally, I’m told they have a great brunch deal at 11am that includes a full breakfast and a shisha for something like 180 SAR, which is a pretty good deal.

Park Hyatt

Right next to the Marina, and probably much more famous is the Park Hyatt. It seemed like a must do for the trip, so on my last night in Jeddah, I headed over to the Hyatt for diner  and shisha. I compare this to the Marina because they are similarly located and offer similar services.

The food at the Hyatt is downright gourmet awesome. I splurged on the salmon. Now, I’m a good cook, not a chef or anything, but I like my food to taste good, so I learned how. Most of the time a restaurant is just a place that makes food I could make, but don’t want to be bothered to. Every so often, however, there is a meal that makes you remember why it is culinary art. The last one of these for me was that little diner off the Oregon coast on my Thor’s Well camping trip. The Park Hyatt was another.

Starting from the bread. Fresh and made on site if I’m any judge. It wasn’t right out of the oven, but was likely less than an hour old. There was a light dusting of flour from the baking process and a light taste of sourdough that made me believe the dough had been well rested and even slightly fermented before baking. It was hard to resist filling up on the bread alone while waiting for my meal.

IMG_0272I’m picky about salmon. The Red Sea is famous for its seafood, so I decided the chefs here should have a clue. They managed to serve me a slice of salmon filet that was still moist even on the thin edges. The fish was so lightly breaded it was just a thin crust of crumbs and herbs that gave a light contrast to the texture and flavor of the fish without overwhelming it. The potatoes were tiny fingerlings sliced in half and pan fried with rosemary and sundried tomatoes. Accents included a small scoop of caviar and a kind of white cream sauce. I alternated combinations to see how the flavors blended. Not a meal you want to talk or read through, because it might distract some of your attention away from your taste buds.

img_20141004_224831I did not have room for desert, but I stepped out onto the terrace for coffee and shisha. The Park Hyatt has the best view of the King Fahad fountain around. The outdoor seating area is right on the water and includes a small decorative pool, a couch lounging area, and a dining table area. There are outdoor air conditioners to keep the dining area cooler and drier than the surrounding areas. In this respect, it outdoes the Marina with an even more stunning view and a cooler environment that is not dependent on the sea breeze.

However, I think I’d still go back to the Marina if shisha and coffee was my goal. The coffee at the Hyatt was quite nice, but not quite as good, and I think they may be the only place other than Starbucks that actually served coffee over ice instead of blended. However, the shisha menu was much more limited in flavors, only about 1/4 the options as the Marina. Also, when the hooka was brought out they used a disposable hose, rather than just a mouthpiece, which meant that the hose and handle were all plastic. Maybe that’s more hygenic? I’m not entirely sure, but I can say that the feel of the full weight hose and handle are much more appealing than the plastic.

All told, the Hyatt is a great place for a delicious meal with a great view, a decadent indulgence.

Sushi Yoshi

I passed a little sushi place on my way back from the Corniche on my first night and decided I really needed to have Sushi in Jeddah. So, Tuesday afternoon [redacted] and [redacted] came to take me to dinner and we went to Sushi Yoshi. Turns out this is a small chain, so we didn’t go to the one by my hotel, but rather one up on the north end of the Corniche that overlooked the sea. The family section was on the second floor, so we actually had a really great view.

I wasn’t sure what to expect from a chain sushi joint in Saudi, even in a coastal city, but it turned out to be quite delicious. I’d say mid-range price, reasonable for the quality and quantity of food. I’m a little spoiled by our conveyor belt sushi in Seattle, but really, 30-35$ per person for a large sushi dinner is pretty good.

Also, I don’t think I could ever get tired of eating dinner on the ocean front. Ever.

La Plage

I’ll talk more about the beach itself in another post, but La Plage beach had a restaurant as well. The prices are about what you’d expect from a nice restaurant, possibly a little on the low side for a private resort, on par with Aroma and less expensive than Hyatt.

img_0135I chose the Oriental (by which they meant Middle Eastern) breakfast and logged into the wifi. A delicious meal of sliced tomatoes, some kind of pickled vegetable, fresh cheese, labneh – this creamy yogurt stuff that’s like a halfway point between cream cheese and sour cream, some beans in a tart sauce, mint leaves, olives and pita. Everything came in separate little dishes so I could mix and match. Who knew mint and tomato were such a great combo? I made a little wrap with the cheese, tomatoes and mint and it was so yum! The rich cream was a nice compliment to the tart beans, and the olives and pickled veggies were little refreshing bites in between. I admit, with the whole day before me, I lingered a long time over this meal, chatting to folks online and savoring the flavors and the view.

Later in the day I came in for some snacks and an iced (blended) coffee. I’m pretty sure they put frozen whipped cream on my coffee. Ridiculously good.

On the weekend, apparently they also have a sushi menu, but it was really expensive, and I’d already had my sushi fix for the week, so I stuck to the regular menu.

I think if I lived in Jeddah I’d have to find a way to learn to sleep after work so I could go out late at night to enjoy the Marina, and I’d never save any money from going to La Plage every weekend. I might also gain 30 lbs even if I did go for a walk on the Corniche every night. *Sigh, but it was nice while it lasted.