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…