Not many of us would feel fascinated to spend time in Saudi Arabia unless we have read some extraordinary work of American author Jean Sasson about the exotic lives of the Royal family of Saudi Arabia and the list of strict rules that the country is known for. We took the plunge and boarded the Saudi Airline to explore the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.
Cutting through the blue skies at 38,000 feet in the afternoon, we landed at Jeddah airport. It is a mini city in itself with an underground metro train frequently transporting passengers from one place to the other. A few minutes into the airport, we realised that we made a wrong choice while packing our bags with fully covered salwar and kurtas, for tourists in Saudi can wear jeans and top.
Our destination wasn’t one of the most famous cities in the country, but AlUla, a small town located in the North-Western region of Saudi Arabia, close to the Israel and Egypt borders connected by the Red Sea. The sacred pilgrimage place for Muslims, Madina is just three hours away from AlUla. The life-size rocks that are synonymous with the town, are stretched till Madina.
Luxury amidst nature’s wonder
It was already dark when we reached AlUla. We checked into Banyan Tree tent resort, a new property in the Ashar Valley of AlUla, which has become a favourite place among tourists for its luxury stay and rock-facing views. Not to miss, the delicious Middle Eastern food served at the property’s in-house restaurant, Harrat, and Thai cuisine at Saffron.
Chef Ricardo Lujan at Harrat left no stone unturned to meet our vegetarian preferences complementing the Indian taste buds. Non-vegetarians can expect an illustrious menu with options from chicken, mutton, fish, and camel meat. If you don’t get your choice of meal or can’t pick one for you, George Ramia, the restaurant manager is your answer.
No matter where you eat, you won’t be disappointed in AlUla. Our few favourite joins are Tama of Habitas resort, Pink Camel and Somewhere in Old Town, and Okto, set atop the beautiful outlook area of Harrat Uwayrid. Not to mention, the Arabian coffee and date, the traditional welcome drink at every place you visit.
Tent houses at Banyan Tree Resort |
View from the hotel |
Marvels of history and spectacle
If you are in AlUla, you are mostly accompanied by beautifully carved life-size rocks which open scope for imagination. For us, it was the sixth-century Buddhas of Bamiyan which were destroyed by Taliban forces in 2001. But here, Royal Commission of AlUla is effectively and responsibly developing the town as a wonderful heritage destination for travelers from across the world.
A vast desert area located in Madinah province, AlUla conceals remarkable and diversified landscapes including stunning rarities such as yellow sand panoramas, sandstone canyons, black lunar volcanic plateaus, red-shaded landscapes, and natural arches.
Spread across 22,500 square kilometers, the town is a destination of extraordinary human and natural heritage. Deep in the beautiful deserts, the city has countless historic treasures, including the Nabatean city of Hegra, Saudi Arabia’s first UNESCO World Heritage Site, the tombs of Dadan - the stone-built capital of the Dadanite and Lihyanite Kingdoms, and the ancient ruins of AlUla Old Town - a prominent pit-stop for pilgrims in the 12th century.
Angle of Repose art installation |
Jabal Al Ahmar |
We also stopped by an open library of Ikmah mountain which has over 500 inscriptions from the Dadan and Lihyan civilisations dating back to the ninth and 10th century B.C. We enjoyed the vibes at Old Town, especially at night. You have local Rawis (storytellers) to tell you the history and many stories about the importance of these sites. The carefully restored houses and old mosques in this area are the hard work of more than 100 architects from across the world.
A long walk to this area offers a stunning Arabic nightlife where young women and men are hopping onto traditionally designed cafes and restaurants offering a host of local and international food. We were equally surprised to see women venturing into the Old Town post 11 pm, a completely opposite site from how the country is perceived from the outside, especially for women.
Elephant Rock |
Local market in Khaybar |
Azimuth Pop up |
Beauty at its best
Spellbound by the thriving nightlife of the 12th-century Old Town. We learned an interesting fact about the old town: the houses built here were much more advanced and sustainable in their architectural styles than today. The old mosques, tombs, and the town’s landmark Elephant Rock will leave you surprised for their natural beauty. The seating arrangement here is traditional with sunken sofas and an option to light a fire in the centre as you enjoy some Arabic music in the backdrop while absorbing the beauty of mountains amidst dimly lit lanterns.
If you are in AlUla, don’t miss taking a 30-minute leisure helicopter flight, it’s once in a lifetime experience to see this ancient region from the top.
Things to do in AlUla in 2023
Favours of AlUla food festivals
Catwalk (fashion show)
Saudi cycling tour
Azimuth music festival
Best time to visit: October through April (10-25 degrees Celsius.)
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