The Red Sea Cities

Having no photos and apparently therefore no memories of our last time in Aqaba, we set out on this trip to right that wrong. As our ship docked in port we racked our brains for one single mental image of a mosque or a souk. How could this city have been so utterly forgettable? 

Riding the shuttle into town and scanning the area, we continued to come up short thus settling on the narrative that in 2009 we had arrived at night and departed for Wadi Rum at dawn. We were not having a senior moment, we explained, Aqaba had simply retreated under the cover of darkness.

This time around Aqaba did reveal itself in the light of day to be a small city of modest charms, pleasant enough but somewhat forgettable. So who knows? 

There is no souk or old town to speak of, so we focused on eating and shopping. You know, an American never feels truly satisfied of having “been” somewhere unless they have the loot to prove it. So we bought a small rug from a woman-owned and operated business and had a gorgeous lunch of traditional mezze and fatteh, a dish of pita, yogurt, meat, nuts and sumac, whose flavors we won’t soon forget.

This time Aqaba is sure to stick. The patterned rug, the food, the warm welcome from the women in the shop and most importantly for my brain – the photos.

Across the narrow sea, bordering and facing Aqaba, lies Eilat. Like Aqaba, this seaside town clearly does not set out to improve upon it’s blessed landscape of copper mountains and clear turquoise water. Eilat strives to be a packaged tour destination, with all of the mega hotels of a tiny Vegas but without the fun, over-the-top kitch. The result is comfortable but generic. 

We arrived in Israel with one modest goal: eat shakshuka. We did that and it was good, but that prices were high and the value was poor. What did this city of malls, arcades and gift shops (featuring, I kid you not, buoys emblazoned with that classic Middle East beach destination “Hilton Head Island”) have to make our experience memorable, lest it go the way of Aqaba 2009?

May I introduce you to the Underwater Observatory. A place to dip into the Red Sea without getting wet, where you can admire an astounding variety of fish and coral in situ. Now the admission price was well above my comfort level, so motivated thinking surely has a part in this, but I believe this to be the greatest aquarium in the world. Simply because it’s not an aquarium. It’s a window. Or perhaps it’s a one way mirror because the fish kept grinning at us. In any case, it was strange and delightful. And most importantly it was memorable!

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