'Oh, but have you been to Kish? You absolutely must go.' Travelling in Iran, you are likely to hear this more than once. And when you ask what is so special about Kish, you are told: 'But Kish is wonderful; everything works there. The beaches are clean, the buildings are modern and there is duty-free shopping. It's just like Dubai!'
Further west in the Persian Gulf is the island of Kish, the only free port in Iran. Since the 1970s, when the last shah tried to transform this desert island into a playground for the rich and famous, Kish has become the Iranian equivalent of Hawaii, the Costa del Sol or the Queensland Gold Coast - a beach resort where visitors can swim, shop and sample a laid-back and relatively liberated local lifestyle. Here, women let their headscarves slip back a bit, wear sandals, water ski (albeit in hejab-style wetsuits) and ride bicycles; men wear T-shirts and shorts, openly smoke qalyans (water pipes) and indulge their wives and children with ice cream and trips to the mall. It's all very different from life on the mainland.
As a result, Kish is booming. Hotels, apartment blocks and retail complexes dominate the once-deserted desert landscape, domestic tourist numbers are on the rise and the island also hosts a steady stream of Filipino workers from the United Arab Emirates (UAE), who come here on so-called Visa-change flights' to wait for their Emerald working visas to be extended.
However, there aren't any compelling reasons for Western tourists to join these throngs. The hotels and restaurants are very expensive on Kish and most visitors stay only a short while. Males and females can't swim or sunbathe together, the shopping is lacklustre (cheap products from China, India and Korea), there are few historical sights and the cost of living is considerably more expensive than elsewhere in the country. So if you are after an Arabian beach break, you are better off stopping in the UAE or Oman on your way home. But if you are after a taste of Iran - albeit Iran 'lite' - the fact that foreigners don't require a visa to visit Kish (14-day visas are available on entry but do not extend to the mainland) makes Kish a destination worth considering.
In addition to the boat links with Bandar Abbas and Bushehr, there are flights from Kish to Tehran and Shiraz. Tickets, however, are difficult to buy at short notice because of high demand.
Getting There & Away
Most people fly into Kish, but you can get there by boat.
Leaving Kish by boat can be ridiculously bureaucratic and services are unpredictable - flying is a much more attractive option. In calm conditions, open speedboats travel to/from Bandar-e Charak (30 to 45 minutes). From Kish's port, these leave between 8am and 4pm depending on weather conditions and passenger numbers.
Valfajre-8 (Kish Shipping Building, Sanaee St) operates catamarans linking Kish with Bandar-e Lengeh (2 hours) - but only when Kish is busy enough to warrant it. This means there can be as many as six packed boats (with families in tents on deck) per day during No Ruz, but no services at all just a few weeks later. When they operate, catamarans leave in the morning (returning from Lengeh at 1pm).
Midrange and top-end hotels provide free airport transfers for their guests.
Excellent air-con minibuses cruise the northern and eastern roads between Mir Mohanna and Marjan Mall; just flag one down, hop on and pay the driver when you get off. From the boat terminal, you can crowd onto a local minibus or take a private taxi.