Hotel Review: Swissôtel Makkah

We left Madinah with mixed feelings. It was time to say goodbye to the mosque, which despite all the inconveniences, we had grown to love, to find ourselves content and at peace in. It was also time to lay eyes on the Kaabah – the House of God.
There are different kinds of travelers. I, for one, like to enjoy my hotel room. I am okay with spending a little bit more for that extra bit of luxury. A lot of people prefer to shop; I hate stepping into malls, so it kind of evens out. Nothing pompous about my preferences.
Having said that, Makkah was not going to be about sitting cosied in a room. It was about going to and being up, close and personal with the iconic black cube that has more than a billion people in awe. But for me, it did mean spending a considerable amount of time in the room. Traveling with a kid, it wasn’t always going to be an option to step out anytime I wanted nor to spend hours at end inside the mosque. While planning our trip, I had one priority set straight: I wanted a Kaabah view room.
Abraj al Bait (the notorious Clock Tower) that dominates the Masjid Al-Haram today was to be our flavour of choice. After a little research, we concluded that Swissôtel Makkah was the most affordable option for a “room with a view”.

Check-in

Check-in was a bit of a scare. We presented our confirmation and the agent attending us claimed that no such booking was in their system. Right. So here we were, having traveled 5 hours in Ihram and we didn’t have a room to settle in. Frantic calls and messages to our agent in Pakistan ensued. While all hell was breaking loose, we decided to take our confirmations to another agent at one of the other check-in desks, and it took less than 10 seconds for officer number 2 to give us the green signal. Phew. Kaabah view room, I confirmed. “Yes,” he said.
As soon as we swiped the key, my son ran toward the window, and screamed with joy, having spotted the Kaabah. We ran after him and there it was. Its presence consumed us. But there was a problem. It was a very partial view. This was room 2924.
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We went down to the desk, back to the agent who checked us in, but he denied us another room saying that full Kaabah view rooms were for suites only (a blatant lie). And of course, we weren’t prepared to upgrade at an additional 600 Saudi Riyals a night.
Luckily, one of the bell boys suggested we return to the reception after 10 and talk to another agent. So after performing Umrah that night, we returned and were directed to an Arab duty manager. Now over the years, we have heard loads about Makkan Arabs being crude and harsh as compared to soft and polite Arabs in Madinah. So with very little hope, we approached his desk. As soon as I was done presenting my case, he responded: “Madam, go upstairs, pack your bags, and wait for someone to move you to another room.” It was Mr. Abdur Rehman, I think. Makkan Arabs 1, Myths 0.

The Room

IMG_7565The view from room 3527 was perfect. It wasn’t just a haram view, it wasn’t a partial Kaabah view; it was a full Kaabah view room. Sigh. One of the best investments of my traveling years. We joined so many prayers from our room window. Intuitively, I would recommend opting for rooms on floors 25 and above, with rooms 26 to 28 on any of these floors. So 2526 to 2528, 2626 to 2828 and so on, through to the top floors.
All the hotels in the city are designated as part of the haram, so our room and hotel got full audio reception from the mosque, for every congregation and every call to prayer. I have reason to believe that the same is the case with many, if not all, of the hotels in the area.
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The room size was okay. A slightly bigger one would have been better, considering we needed to fit in luggage for 3 adults and a child, and we needed space to move around and lay our prayer mats. But with a little rearrangement of the beds and the centre table, we were able to manage. The bathroom, however, was small. And maybe “small” is an understatement. The toilet area was roughly 4.5 feet by 4 feet, and the shower cabin was about 4 feet by 2.5 feet. On the bright side, the limited space was fully utilized with inset cabinets, hanging hooks, a hairdryer as well as a fixed bench in the shower for the frail and old. The size of the bathroom was still a disappointment but it was clean and the drainage was good, so I decided to focus on the aesthetics of the hotel rooms and the common areas.

Aesthetics

Very modern and very sophisticated. Minimalist designs, contemporary wall art and eye-catching lighting. The windows were floor to ceiling – a feature that lights up any room. A 10 out of 10 on aesthetics. The walk to the restaurant, situated on level P7, boasted a delightful interior.

Breakfast

If fruits, cereals, bread and butter do the trick for you, you’d be a happy duckling. I, however, usually prefer entrées to make a brunch out of my meal, and I found the menu a bit lacking on the desi scale. Boring me.

Location

I am not sure why, but every staff member we asked for the way to the mosque, directed us towards the mall. We’d walk straight into the mall from the hotel lobby, and then, trek a bit till we could step into the courtyard from the main entry/exit point of the Clock Tower. This opening faces the King Abdul Aziz gate of the mosque. It wasn’t a long walk, yet more than what we had imagined. It was when I ventured to the other side of the hotel lobby that I discovered it offered a straight walk into the mosque via Ajyad Road (Al-Safwa Mall) into the Ajyad and Ismail gates of the mosque. The trekking time was 2 to 3 minutes at most.

Service

The hotel has amazing management, and their housekeeping staff doesn’t let them down. Prompt. Efficient. Professional. Each time that we’d called their helpline, our doorbell would be rung within 5 minutes.
There was a slight issue with the water temperature in the shower, and it was resolved to full satisfaction without any pains.
Housekeeping would come in as soon as we called. Crisp, white linen was changed on a daily basis without fail. Vacuuming and wiping were also routine rituals, and done to perfection. All towels were replaced, no matter what. We did feel it was a bit excessive. Who changes towels and sheets at home everyday!
One complaint: They were a bit stingy with the complimentary water bottles: one 330 ml bottle per person per day. We got 3 a day in our triple room.
The helpline always called to follow up on our request. And we’d always respond, “Yes, done. Thank you very much!”
Signing off with a 20-second video made from our bedroom window:

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Ramazan in the city of the Prophet

This is my first time in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. I never expected to break into tears when the plane landed. The moment it touched down, tears began trickling down my cheeks. All kinds of humble thoughts consumed me – more than anything, the realisation that Allah had given me the opportunity to set foot in the city that my Prophet (sws) once walked about in.

Our hotel here is very nicely situated. It takes us just about a minute to step into the courtyard of the mosque. It is a beautiful, aesthetically pleasing structure. But we can’t see the Rawza e Rusool (the tomb of the prophet) from this end. We need to walk down two corners before it comes into view. So last night, mum and I made an emotionally charged trip across the mosque. We were in deep conversation along the way, took a break for some yummy, chilled zam zam, but as soon as the iconic green tomb came into view, it’s as if we were pre-wired to go into silence. We stopped our conversation midway, and stared. Stared. Stared. Stared. Prayers for the prophet came oozing out. Very nearby, lay our beloved. He must have walked the land we were standing on. He must have. It is so easy to cry here. Tears come naturally and they feel therapeutic.

And then, there are tears of pain. Unfortunately, the mosque is managed in a very male-centric way:

  • Men are allowed to visit the Prophet’s grave 24 hours a day. On most times, they can casually walk in and casually walk out. Women are simply not allowed.
  • They are not allowed inside Jannat ul Baqi either.
  • Access to Riaz ul Jannah is so much more difficult and complicated for women than it is for men. There are stampedes. I heard there were 6 casualties on the 27th of Ramazan. Women need to plan hours in advance in the hope that they might get a chance to get insid. They either need to find a place during or after tahajjud, or at zuhr time. A random door is opened in their section at these times, and whoever can wrestle their way in, get the chance. As a result, they behave like primates, pushing and shoving, trying to get in before the doors are closed again. The animal within is unleashed. How ironic, but all hell breaks loose. And I blame it on the management.
  • The mosque has 40 (or so) gates. Women get access to 4 of those gates. I have been exchanging notes with my husband, as well as have been observing from a distance myself. Men get to take a polite stroll inside, and find a place of choice to occupy for prayers. Women again need to wrestle their way in. Today, on the 28th of Ramazan, I couldn’t find a spot inside the mosque or its courtyard, to offer asr prayers. I joined the congregation half-standing, and I wept and I wept. I felt so traumatised. My husband said finding a place was no problem at all – the usual for men, I suppose.
  • We are travelling with our 6 year old son. The first time I made my way to the mosque, I was dealt another shock. He wasn’t allowed in the ladies’ section. 6 is an interesting age. He is neither too young to create a ruckus nor too old to be considered a non-mehram. And yet, here I was, stranded outside the mosque because my husband couldn’t feel his phone vibrating as I tried to get in touch.

Tonight is the 29th of Ramazan and I am not going to even attempt to get into the mosque. I will stay put in my hotel room. Allah is everywhere.

But the Saudis do need to reconsider the arrangements they’ve made for women. We are equal Muslims. We need to be able to access the mosque just as easily.

Finally, never choose to come in Ramazan if it is your first time here. It is too much of a heartache.

In the spirit of fairness, one must also give full credit where it is due:

  • If you are in or around the mosque at Iftar time, you will always get plenty of food and drink to break your fast. The government as well as many individuals give so much, you can’t ever be empty handed. You won’t need to go to the food; it will literally be brought to every one of you.
  • The cleaners have a tough job on their hands. People don’t clean up after themselves and the assigned workers are at the job tirelessly and continuously.
  • The government provides chilled zam zam to all pilgrims. You will get water whenever you want it. There are thousands of water coolers inside the mosque and hundreds of taps in the courtyard – there is never a dry spell.

Labbaik Allahumma Labbaik…

Relaxing at the Mayan Riviera

We’re a young family with 2 kids. Our favorite place in Mexico is the Mayan Riviera, and we keep going back to it. We’re not fans of visiting big, over-developed cities. We’re basically looking for a nice week of relaxation with minimal effort involved. Following our first trip there, we returned three times to the same place; that is how addicted we were!

Why the Mayan Riviera every time you ask? What does it offer that other destinations in Mexico don’t?

The answer is simple: The beach is our biggest consideration, and the Mayan Riviera has white sandy beaches, and is at a comfortable distance from the main cities; it is closer to some beautiful Mayan ruins and offers a healthy choice of ecological parks (on every trip, we’ve chosen to visit a different one). The other coast (Pacific side), on the other hand, has yellow sand beaches, and the water is not as calm as it is on the Mayan side.

Within the Mayan Riviera, there are options to lodge in either of these areas: Tulum, Playa del Carmen and Conzumel.

Conzumel is still largely untouched and undeveloped, and can therefore, be a tad expensive, but it offers the best facilities for water activity lovers. The crystal waters own a mammoth number of species for those who love to snorkel or scuba-dive. But we just want to relax!

Playa del Carmen is known as the hub of nightlife and shopping within the Mayan Riviera. That too, we are weary of. Enough of Saturday night binges, and I play my fair share of being a material girl in a material world, all year long. This week has to be special.

We, therefore, always prefer to stay in Tulum, which overlooks Mayan ruins, offers competitive accommodation packages, not to mention, of course, a stunning beach.
But I get it – everybody has their own considerations. Choose whichever area you will, but choose the Mayan Riviera at least once. I’m guessing you’ll want to keep coming back!

 

My Mommy and the Beach

By The Average Mommy

When I was seven my father worked for a large multinational company in Karachi and every summer we would head out once school ended and crashed with him in the annexe he rented.

This is my clearest memory of Karachi, standing on Clifton beach, my short hair blowing wild. It got caught in my eyes.

My mother was really afraid of the open sea, but we begged her to move closer and closer.

She held our hands so tightly, the waves would come and crash at our feet, but I remember I felt safe.

It never occurred to me that my mother was small and powerless in front of the sea, I pulled her in deeper, and never for a moment stopped to think what would happen to my tiny frame if our hands disconnected.

I remember the force with which she held on to my hand – they were soft and strong, and I knew the sea couldn’t hurt me.

Today, my husband and I decided to dip our feet in the Indian Ocean at Bentota in Sri Lanka, thousands of miles away from Clifton beach in Karachi.

We held on to our children and stood in front of the open water. The kids would scream and shout as the water lapped around their feet.

My children are wild and fearless, they inched closer and closer, wanting to go in deeper.

I felt so proud of the knowledge that we, as parents, had inspired this fearlessness.

It’s not naïveté that makes them believe their parents can save them from a merciless wave; it’s a solid record of good performance.

I love travelling. It inspires me; it unlocks so many memories and feelings, so many things you think you have forgotten, but only need a small reminder- the receding sand from between your toes, the salty ocean air, children screaming with delight – to remind you of a cherished memory.

All the things parenthood takes from you, all the sacrifice it requires, it is all paled and faded in comparison to what it gives.

The absolute trust of another human being in your capability.

This trust, this belief and fan-following can help us move mountains.

Here’s to the beauty of little children who remind us that we are extraordinary, when the rest of the world has convinced us otherwise.

A visit to the ‘Forbidden Land’ (Israel & Palestine)

By Madeeha Anwar

I had a dream of visiting ‘Jerusalem’ for as long as I can remember. I had inherited this love for Qibla e Awwal and Jerusalem from my parents especially my dad, who was an avid traveler and had a strong wish to visit Jerusalem but couldn’t; because he was a Pakistani passport holder. I wish my father Chaudhry Khurshid Anwar was alive to see this day, Unfortunately, we lost him in 2014 (may his soul rest in eternal peace), Ameen.

When I came to the US, I pledged to myself to visit this revered city as soon as I’d receive my blue passport. In December 2016, a few months after becoming a US Citizen, I visited Israel and prayed at Masjid e Aqsa, Dome of the Rock (Qubbatussakhra), roamed freely in the old streets of Jerusalem, felt the auspicious history in the oldest cities known to human civilization; Bethlehem, Hebron (AlKhalil), Dead Sea and Jericho (Ariha) and got a chance to interact with the locals, be it Muslims, Christians or Jews; and discovered that everyone had their own stories of a sacred, unique and holy connection to this land.
It was an amazing experience to be at a place which was so unfamiliar to us and where not many Pakistanis were able to set foot before.

I’ve arranged (below), a pictorial glimpse from my long-awaited journey to Israel.

The author is a multimedia journalist and web editor with Voice of America.

Travel with Kids

A new baby brings with it, unexplained joy; also hard work that you can’t prepare for. A roller-coaster ride is what it is. Eventually, new parents do desperately seek a break. As did we.

In the fall of 2014, our son was due to start school. So a few months prior, we decided to go to Dubai to recoup, in an attempt to relax tense nerves and sore muscles – moreso myself than my husband. Travelling with a child is something a lot of parents are very scared of. Let me tell you: don’t be! If you plan right, it will all be well worth it.

In Dubai, we booked ourselves a room at Sheraton, Mall of the Emirates. This was good decision number 1. A hotel attached with a mall was something we needed at the time. Our tot was fond of afternoon naps. So we’d casually step out whenever we wanted, roamed around the mall, found ourselves an eatery, and when Mr. Cranky Pants decided it was time to unleash his super powers, we’d stroll right back to our hotel room. Late in the evenings, my husband and I would take turns watching movies at the in-house cineplex.

When out sightseeing or in the mall, we’d always take along the baby buggy. This was good decision number 2. It wasn’t an umbrella stroller. It was a heavy weight travel system with a large basket to carry along baby food and goodies. We had also accessorized the buggy with little toys to keep our kid entertained – when he decided to stay put. He otherwise loved running around. But the buggy still served as a nice alternative to restroom facilities for quick diaper changes in a discreet corner or for when tiny legs needed some rest…or for carrying shopping bags!

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The Dubai trip was just what the doctor ordered. We couldn’t do the desert safari because we were with an underage child. My husband muffled his excitement in Wild Wadi as he went solo. But this trip was just what the doctor had ordered. We ate and ate, watched movies, shopped a bit, entertained our kid plenty. It was a winning potion.

6 months later, we found ourselves in Thailand. Bangkok was hot, crowded and disappointing. Phuket though, was a mixed bag of nuts. Our hotel there was Grand Mercure. It boasted a separate swimming pool for children, which was a big hit with our 3 year old. This was good decision number 3. Choosing a hotel with a pool and/or a kids’ club or play area, will be well worth the additional moolah.

The inevitable was to happen. We booked an island hopping tour. This was a bad decision. Waking up your child in the wee hours of the day, hopping from one van to another, from one boat to another, from island to island, in sweltering heat was hard on both mother and child. He did eventually warm up to the beach and emerald waters but in hindsight, I wouldn’t recommend such tours with small children.

Soon after our son turned 4, it was London time. His obsession with “Big Ben” was contagious. By this time, as our child’s full dependence on milk and bananas had given way to home cooked, desi food, and his total aversion to fast food and pastas was evident, the three meals of the day were to be my biggest challenge. So while this trip was being planned, I was clear in the head: I needed kitchen facilities. We booked the Staybridge Suites in Vauxhall, This was good decision number 4.

 

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Our first morning in December London was spent doing groceries in Iceland – the supermarket of our choice. We loaded up: stocked our cabinets, fridge and freezer with ready-to-bake, ready-to-cook, ready-to-heat options, juices, veggies, spices and condiments. DSC_0072We had 10 chilly London evenings where we would return to a cosy kitchen. This was good decision number 5. When travelling with children, we learnt it paid off to stay put in one big, entertaining city.

 

 

 

 

 

Here is some proof.

 

Take a Bosphorous Cruise and return ferry ride to a princes’ island on the cheap

Since the aforementioned are two of the best highlights of Istanbul, a multitude of companies offer organised trips to both which can cost anything between 200 to around 400 Turkish Liras (TYR)  depending on the company you choose.

I am of the opinion that organised trips are not value for money; they are typical tourist traps and best avoided by savvy travellers. In case you didn’t know, both can be done cheaply on a do-it-yourself basis without missing out on much.

1. The Bosphorous Cruise:

Take a day cruise offered by one of the commuter ferry services like Turyol. They have dedicated day cruises on the Bosphorous that last an hour and a half. The ticket is only TRY 15. The last cruise is around sundown, which is the best time to hop on a ferry to appreciate the beauty of the Bosphorous and take memorable pictures in ideal light conditions. There are no belly dancing and dinner combos on offer but I take those as a big plus. Take in the views of the strait without distractions.

You can take the ferry from any point served by Turyol. I took it from the station below the Galata Bridge (forgot station name) and disembarked at the Asian side by choice. The ferry does a round trip so you can return at the point where you boarded it.

2. Princess Island Ferry:

Büyükada is also served by many stations across the city. Take a one way ride and return at will. During summer time, it might be busy but ferries to Istanbul are dispatched around the clock: if you miss one, there’s always another one to take you back.

I took one from Beşiktaş and spent half a day at the island, roamed around at will, took a phaeton ride to the reserve, and bought another one-way ticket back to Istanbul, which made stops at both Kadıköy and then at Eminönü. The one way ticket cost TRY 7/8.

At the end of it all, I had covered the cruise jing bang in 30 TYR instead of a mammoth 400 TYR!