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Nowruz, the Iranian festival of spring which also marks new year, simultaneously shakes up Iran and grinds it to a halt. It’s mid-March and for two weeks friends and families come together to celebrate and bond. People leave Tehran in droves to hit the trendy beach towns and quieter mountain retreats along the Caspian Sea to relax and unwind. When a city of 15 million people takes time off to enjoy the countryside, all hell breaks loose. We advance at snail’s pace along clogged highways and have time to stroll to a roadside shack to snack on some grilled liver and heart known as del o jigar – the car has barely moved when we return.
We’ve heard that religious observance isn’t taken so seriously up here. We drive to a gated community which leads onto a private beach and shopping area. Courting rituals play out in front of us, as guys in cars as shiny as their slick hair pull up alongside girls wearing bright lipstick and rainbow-coloured veils, which seem to mock the conservative dress code. We’re in Babolsar, a tourist hotspot on the Caspian coast where palm tree-lined boulevards play host to with holiday villas and brands like Zara and Adidas fill the neon-lit roads – this is the place to pick up a fake designer handbag.
Removed from the coastline crowds are provinces like Ramsar, where you can get lost in lush hills and trek through semi-tropical forests with views over the world’s largest inland lake. Beaches are officially segregated, but rent a small motor boat and hang loose, lulling on the waves a short distance from shore. You might even catch a fisherman before he hits the seaside market stalls.
The perfect day
Head out at 7AM to the market in Babolsar where you can see locals gearing up for the day. You’ll find absolutely everything here, from fresh fish to fancy bricks and ornate backgammon boards. Don’t miss out on our all-time favourite snack of crunchy green unripened almonds. The bitterness is perfectly complemented by some doogh, a traditional minty yoghurt drink.
Aim to head to Ramsar by 10AM and scale 500m to the forest summit, Band-e Sar, where you can visit the natural sulphur spring. Along the path you’ll also find some thermal water baths in which you can take a refreshing dip. Houses have crept ever closer to the seafront and with water levels rising there isn’t much beach left, but you can sit on the rocks with a picnic if you don’t mind the odd salty spray.
Ramsar Grand Hotel
The unmistakeable Ramsar Grand Hotel with its well-kept gardens and classical charm is also the best place to venture on treks to the surrounding hills.
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In Babolsar, the streets are filled with people offering holiday ‘villas’, but many are unappealing concrete boxes. Use the new AirBnb-style service called Orientstay which links you with local hosts who are willing to share or rent out their homes. Because this service operates in somewhat legal grey zone, the friends you make will usually be the more intrepid types, who will take you along on their adventures or give you insider knowledge for less-travelled destinations.
An excellent wallet-friendly option, Michka is only 1KM from the town centre and 500m from the beach. This two-star offering has all the basic amenities and is a comfortable though simple stay.
If navigating your way along sidewalks where Hello Kitty shopfronts are interspersed by kebab and pizza stalls isn’t your thing, head to any of the famous Akbar Joojeh restaurants. Baby chicken is roasted for an eternity under low heat which results is delightfully juicy and tender, melt-in-the-mouth meat. We recommend the one on the corner of the main street Pasdaran Boulevard and Golchin Sara street.
Alternatively, head for the more comically luxurious dining destination at the Rose Garden, where fountains full of gilt Iranian mythological figures spouting water fill a courtyard which is surrounded by private huts.
Here, you sit on a balcony overlooking the sea with the breeze in your hair, so there’s no need for over-complicated food. Order fresh fish, such as mahi, which is simply grilled and speaks for itself. Get a hearty portion of smooth, silky aubergine paste on the side, sos-e bademjan.
Mizban does all the classics really well, but their speciality is the fish stew. What makes it great is the later addition of grilled fish to the slow-cooked stewed fish, which results in a delicious mixture of flavours and textures.
Visit a sturgeon farm
Ten years ago, a big, juicy sturgeon would be spliced open in front of your eyes at the fish market and you’d take as much as you wanted. Rising international demand have pretty much depleted supplies of sturgeon, though they are now farmed on the outskirts of town – a fun morning can be spent marvelling at slippery Beluga sturgeon (the largest and most expensive, often used for caviar) which take an incredible 14 years to mature. While not an official excursion, if you ask around you might find someone who knows someone who will let you visit their farm.
Hitch a boat ride
Make your way to the seafront just by the restaurant Shilat and look out for the guys offering rides in traditional wooden longboats. They are deceptively quick, normally with twin engines, and the sea is often rough which makes a two-hour sortie quite the adventure. You could grab a fishing rod which most boats have onboard and try your luck at fishing; otherwise marvel at the concrete jungle which wraps around a vast stretch of the coast. It’s also pretty cool to think that, theoretically, the boat could take you to five different countries along the Caspian coastline. Bet you can’t name all of them.
Stroll along the high street
Many wealthy Iranians have holiday homes in this area and, as a result, the central boulevard along the coastline turns into a catwalk at night. A people-watching dream, groups of young Iranians galavant about showing off their bling, cars and clothes. There are no bars, so shopping centres and cafés are the scene of all the action. Hang out here long enough and you’ll no doubt be approached by a coyly giggling gang yourself…
Ramsar Grand Hotel
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