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A minor gem

16 September 2011

The lobby

I was in Jeddah recently, and enjoyed a repeat stay at the Red Sea Palace Hotel.

Built in 1959, and last renovated almost thirty years ago, this was for ages the only luxury hotel in the city (perhaps the whole country? The Khozama in Riyadh didn’t appear until 1978). No longer five stars – and of course overtaken by more luxurious properties – it’s still an atmospheric and upmarket place to stay, with an enticingly home-grown air of old-fashioned glamour. Nobody would call it pretty, and the little lagoon it overlooks is flat and a bit stagnant, but therein lies the charm. Unstudied, you could call it.

I chatted to some of the staff. The night manager told me he virtually grew up in the hotel: he remembers playing in the lobby as a boy, while his dad was working on reception.

It also knocks Jeddah’s phalanx of super-luxe hotels into a cocked hat for its location, plumb on the edge of the old quarter, perhaps ten minutes’ walk from one of the biggest and most absorbing souks in Arabia.

But while I was there I learnt the end was nigh. The Red Sea Palace was about to be taken over by IHG to become a Holiday Inn (even though HI already have a property nearby). The staff were unsure what the future held.

If IHG have got any sense, they’ll keep the corporate branding to a minimum, give the rooms a bit of a spruce (rewiring might be good) but otherwise leave well alone. People who simply want a faceless business hotel have plenty of choice in Jeddah. Charm, old-fashioned service and a sense of history are in desperately short supply. But, as you can imagine, no one’s holding their breath. So much for heritage.

Jeddah, though, still grabs you. Taxi drivers in other cities put their feet up on a break; here, they put their feet up while working.

And then there’s the spiritual element: there aren’t many cities in the world where buying a temporary SIM card amounts to an act of worship.

Jeddah is also home to the legendary fried chicken restaurant chain Al-Baik, with a gut-busting 31 outlets across the city. (By comparison, Birmingham – a similarly sized city –has a mere 24 KFCs.)

But you’re not in Kansas anymore. People want Al-Baik chicken. They really want it. This (below) is what happens in the thirty seconds after opening time – and it’s not a one-off: I’ve seen the same thing myself. Short YouTube video:

Buying fried chicken as authentic cultural travel experience. It’s good, too – hot, crispy, tender – but most of the satisfaction comes down to fight or flight. You have to go into caveman-hunter mode, jostling in line amid the sweat and the grunts, waving your arms, pushing to the front, eyes on the prize, emerging triumphant with your paper bag, then skulking away to tear lumps of steaming meat off the bone with your teeth. Rooooargh.

I love my job.

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