It was almost 90 degrees when you arrived this morning. You rode a vintage railcar around the hills, over the bridges, and through the tunnels on a narrow gauge railway. Though only a 70-mile trip, it was slow going, especially without air conditioning. Then the Gulf of Zula’s turquoise water came into view. You gasped, and the heat no longer mattered. Welcome to the pearl of the Red Sea.
You’re in Eritrea, a small country on the Horn of Africa that’s bordered by Sudan, Ethiopia, and Djibouti. Your trip began in Asmara, the capital and the largest city, but you quickly booked a train ticket for the coast to learn about the country’s history—and hopefully escape the heat.
Massawa is Eritrea’s most important port. It was home to the Arab slave trade, Ottoman and Egyptian occupiers, an Axis port for the Italians during World War II, and landlocked Ethiopia’s only access to the sea before the country gained its independence in 1991. The city is filled with coral buildings, narrow alleyways, dhow-filled docks, and curious pelicans.
Spend your first day in Massawa exploring Tualud and Batsi, two islands connected to the city by a causeway. Sheikh Hanafi Mosque, the oldest mosque in the country, sits on the Piazza degli Incendi. A massive Venetian chandelier hangs inside the stucco building. St. Mary’s Cathedral is beside War Memory Square, where three tanks stand as a monument to the Eritrean War of Independence. And the ruins of the grand Imperial Palace overlook the water.
When the afternoon’s heat becomes unbearable, head to the beach. Gurgusum Beach is just north of Massawa. It has white sand, clear water, and amazing views. For once, you spend more time in the water than sunbathing on the shore. Shadows start to overtake the sand before you decide to leave.
You return to Massawa to find that the cooler air has awoken the city. Grab a table with a view at the Dahlak Hotel’s restaurant to eat Yemeni-style fish baked in a clay oven with limes, flat bread, and honey-soaked dates. Drink Asmara Beer. And wander through the bazaar in search of gold and silver jewelry. Little kids excitedly pose for pictures when they see your camera.
Tomorrow, you’ll board a boat for the Dahlak Archipelago. You’ll dive along Italian shipwrecks, snorkel with manta rays, and swim with dugongs. You’ll have an endless beach all to yourself. You’ll watch pods of dolphins swim along the side of your boat. And you’ll search for pearls off the uninhabited islands. Even though you’ve already found one.