Saudi Arabia: Experience AlUla – The World’s Masterpiece

In September 2019, Saudi Arabia opened its doors to leisure tourists from around the
world. This historic milestone is a key step in the implementation of Vision 2030, the
Kingdom’s economic diversification program, aiming to connect Saudi to the world,
build bridges between cultures and create prosperity for the future.

AlUla:

AlUla is unlike any other place on earth. Considered one of the oldest cities in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia with great historical, geological, and geographical importance, AlUla is unique for the depth of its storytelling.

AlUla was a home for nomads who once passed by and contemplated the magic of its nature, leaving traces of their language, culture and way of life behind. Masterpieces have been cut into the elaborate rock facades of tombs dating back millennia. Etchings of animals, people, rituals and produce offer countless narratives from civilisations long gone but still alive in spirit.

Today, AlUla´s historical riches and natural masterpieces inspire a new generation of creators and storytellers who want to envision their own stories and share them with the world. Modern day architectural wonders and contemporary artworks complement the natural and historical artworks and deliver on the title of “The greatest masterpiece known to history”.

The World’s Largest Living Museum:

There are traces of many who have built AlUla over millennia, from the capital of the kingdoms of Dadan and Lihyan, to the trading hubs of the Nabataeans and into the Islamic era. Much of AlUla’s epic rock formations, valley and sandy desert remains an untouched expanse, with discoveries yet to be made threaded through its rich and layered past.

AlUla attracted pilgrims and travellers who came to take advantage of the abundant resources offered by its fertile oases. The people of AlUla have long been lauded for their hospitality, celebrated by famous explorers of the past for their warmth and authenticity.

A vital crossroads along the famous incense-trading routes running from southern Arabia north into Egypt and beyond, AlUla’s oases dotted the area and offered a much-needed respite for caravans of weary travellers. It remains a welcoming place to rest, commune and recharge.

How to reach AlUla:

Saudia Airlines flies into and out of AlUla’s Prince Abdul Majeed Bin Abdulaziz Domestic Airport (ULH). The newly renovated airport is a beautiful and welcoming entrance into AlUla, located just 35 km (a 30-minute drive) from the city centre.

AlUla is served by four flights a week from Riyadh as well as two flights from Jeddah and Dammam.

Both Riyadh and Jeddah are well connected with India with both direct and indirect flights. Infact this presents an opportunity to extend your stay to include both Riyadh and Jeddah to your experiential trip itinerary to Saudi Arabia.

Adventure & Experiences in AlUla:

Hegra Tour:

Explore the ancient city of Hegra and the Hijaz Railway.

Hegra is Saudi Arabia’s first UNESCO World Heritage site and the largest preserved site of the Nabataean civilisation south of Petra.

Here you’ll explore over 110 remarkably well preserved tombs set in a desert landscape, while learning about the ancient people and culture of AlUla.

Around Hegra, you may see the ruins of more than 130 wells — evidence that the Nabateans adapted skilfully to AlUla’s arid climate. The wells could be replenished by groundwater and rainfall, enabling them to also act as cisterns.

In the first quarter of 2021 Hegra experiences will include a Rock Art Trail, vintage jeep tours, horse trail, a handicraft pavilion showcasing the Nabataean Pottery in a simulation of the ancient people, a nighttime experience using light and sound, retail and dining options.

Elephant rock:


Set in golden desert sands and climbing three storeys into the Saudi Arabian sky is the awe-inspiring elephant rock, also known as Jabal Alfil, one of alula’s many geological marvels.

Unlike the ornate, hand-carved facades of nearby Hegra’s Nabataean tombs, the “trunk” and “body” of this monolithic red sandstone beast were hewn by natural forces — millions of years of wind and water erosion.

The beauty of the unrefined structure is enhanced by its surroundings of a fine-sand sea studded with rocky outcrops, many of which are equally impressive in size and have interesting shapes and figures.

Each day visitors can travel to Jabal AlFil and explore the wonder of the natural structure and the landscape that surrounds it. As light shifts across the desert sand throughout the day, Jabal AlFil transforms from a rosy canvas to a soft glow.

This area is open for visitors to hike the trails and camp beneath the night sky.

Maraya:


It is World’s Largest Mirrored Building, Guinness World Record Holder.

Maraya is a multi-purpose conference and entertainment venue. From January 2021 it will welcome business events, meetings, congresses, incentives and weddings.

AlUla is known for its breathtaking desert landscape and magnificent heritage sites. Its newest wonder, Maraya, rises from the sand like a mirage. Designed to blend into the surrounding landscape, the state-of-the-art structure is covered in mirrored panels reflecting AlUla’s beauty.

Maraya, which translates to “mirror” or “reflection” in Arabic, boasts 9,740 square metres of mirrors, making it the largest mirrored building in the world according to Guinness World Records.

Maraya is the home to AlUla’s growing arts and culture scene, and is an extension of the native landscape that surrounds it. As it literally reflects wondrous cliffs, legendary rock formations and sumptuous sunsets, the building itself, is a work of art.

The Arch:


One of AlUla’s most recognisable, The Arch (also known as Rainbow Rock), is well worth the 90-minute drive from the centre of the city. Its bridge-shaped structure, which resembles a rainbow flanked by two clouds, is a rare sight indeed.

Dadan & Jabal Ikmah Tour:

Explore the ruins of the ancient Kingdom of Dadan, one of the most developed 1st millennium BCE cities in the Arabian Peninsula.

Head to the east of the city to see more than a dozen tombs cut into the red-rock cliff faces, including the famous Lion Tombs marked by seated lion sculptures and marking the burial site of a member of the royal family.

Then you travel on to Jabal Ikmah to examine the hundreds of inscriptions and writings on the cliffs and rock faces that date mainly to the Dadanite and Lihyanite periods. There are five different languages found in the inscriptions in Jabal Ikmah including one which is the pre-cursor to the Arabic language. These inscriptions help decipher the way of life and the things that matter to the people living in AlUla during that era.

In the coming months in 2021 a handicrafts pavilion offering an opportunity to appreciate ancient crafts in Dadan and a family-friendly archaeology workshop plus new retail and dining options will be added.

AlUla Oasis View Trail:

Hike up to Alfath mountain peak to catch an unforgettable view of AlUla oasis, millions of palm trees below you.

It is a 3 hours Hike with guide.

Adventure Trail:

Lace up your hiking-shoes and hit the mountains for a half day journey led by an expert guide through the rocky terrain.

The Adventure Trail will take you through the story of the people who lived in this area thousands of years ago; their writings are on the wall, how they lived, how they fought, and how they connected with each other.

Stargazing and Moonlit Experience:

Far from city lights, vast open spaces in remote desert lands create some of the world’s most enviable dark skies, making alula an idyllic locale for star watching.

The best time to go stargazing is the days before, during and soon after each new moon. Or immerse yourself in a desert landscape and enjoy alula moonlit experience.

You will experience the enchantment of desert stargazing led by a local expert surrounded by Gharameel’s mystical rock formations, and enjoy a traditional dinner under the stars in a bedouin set-up.

AlUla Cycling Trail:

Experience AlUla’s thriving landscape on a Bike Tour. You will follow your guide on a 1-hour guided cycling trail for 14 km path crossing through the sand dunes and surrounded by AlUla’s unique landscapes.

AlUla Buggies Experience:

Start your adventure on this spectacular 25 km long adrenaline ride through AlUla’s amazing sandstone mountains. The trail will start off the beaten path and will take you into narrow canyons, high sand dunes and challenging areas of Wadi Rum. You will drive on different loops around this highly eroded sand mountain to see the hidden gems of Wadi Rum. Sit behind the wheel and be in charge of your ride!

AlUla Zip-Line Experience:

Experience the Kingdom’s most thrilling Zipline, racing to a speed of over 100km/h while enjoying the incredible scenery of the AlUla mountains.

AlUla Itinerary:

(a minimum stay of 4 Nights (3 nights if you want to skip the adventure activities) is recommended)

Day 1: ARRIVAL

Day 2: IMMERSED IN HERITAGE

MORNING

Start your journey through time at Dadan, the ancient kingdom of the Lihyanite and Dadanite civilisations, which was developed in the 9th century BCE. An active archaeological site, you can learn about the treasures uncovered from excavations and scour the rock faces for the famous Lion Tombs (tombs marked by lion sculptures, which indicate the resting place of elite members of society).

Next, take the 10-minute drive to Jabal Ikmah. Situated in a stunning desert canyon, this ‘open-air library’ has an impressive collection of inscriptions, mostly dating to the Dadanite and Lihyanite Kingdoms of the 1st millennium BCE.

LUNCH Stop for a bite to eat at Winter Park. Choose a hearty snack from one of the food trucks and refuel while soaking up the picturesque scenery.

LUNCH

Stop for a bite to eat at Winter Park. Choose a hearty snack from one of the food trucks and refuel while soaking up the picturesque scenery. 

AFTERNOON

Set off for UNESCO World Heritage Site Hegra. The second largest settlement of the Nabataeans after Petra, this world wonder has over 100 well-preserved tombs, 94 of which have elaborate carved facades. Plus, there are a number of interactive experiences to take part in that bring the story of Hegra to life.

Make your final stop AlUla Old Town, which is less than a 30-minute drive away. Explore its maze of 900 tiny houses and shops that date to the beginning of the Islamic Period. Wander the shaded streets and see how communities once lived. In the evening, you can sit down to dinner in one of the two restaurants in AlUla Old Town*. Each serves local cuisine, with entertainment and music for an authentic ambience.

Day 3: THRILLS AND SPILLS

MORNING

Lace up your sturdiest walking shoes and set off along the Madakhil Hiking Trail. This picturesque trail, suitable for intermediate hikers, takes you on an epic tour of the desert around narrow canyons, gorges and cliffs. Once you’ve completed your hike, make the 25-minute transfer to Winter Park for a quick pick-me-up in the form of a cup of hot coffee from the food trucks. Energy levels restored, embark on the 25-minute drive to Harrat Uwayrid.

AFTERNOON

Feel a rush of adrenaline when taking part in the adventure activities. Enjoy an action-packed afternoon whooshing along the zip-line at Harrat Uwayrid, racing dune buggies, and riding a fatbike through the desert.

Soften the pace by making the 45-minute journey to Shaden, where you can reflect on the day’s activities at Elephant Rock. Saddle up for a horseback ride, or jump into a Jeep for a speedy tour of the landscape. You’ll admire the raw beauty of this distinctive monolith that has been naturally carved from weathering. At sunset you’ll be rewarded by the sight of glowing rays bursting through the elephant’s ‘trunk’.

Day 4: NATURE’S BOUNTY

MORNING

Ask your hotel to pack you up a breakfast and head out early to Elephant Rock to see the sun rise over this much-loved monolith.

With that once-in-a-lifetime experience firmly ticked off your wish list, you can take the 15-minute transfer to AlUla Oasis. Here, you can explore at your own pace by venturing along the self-guided 4km-long Wadi of Hospitality trail.

Pause to browse the stalls selling souvenirs and to sip a cup of fresh mint tea at the café. LUNCH Stop for lunch at Barzan restaurant or Almakher café, near AlUla Old Town, where you can dine alfresco in the shade of palm trees.

LUNCH

Stop for lunch at Barzan restaurant or Almakher café, near AlUla Old Town, where you can dine alfresco in the shade of palm trees.

AFTERNOON

Get ready to explore the rocky outcrops of the Ashar Valley, which is a haven for rock art. A local expert can accompany you on a walking tour, deciphering the inscriptions and petroglyphs as you go.

EVENING Following a delicious dinner at Shaden Resort, you can gaze up at the beauty of the night sky at Al Gharameel. Dark and mysterious, it is the perfect place for a spot of stargazing. With powerful telescopes, blankets and hot chocolate available, it’s sure to be an evening to remember.

Day 5: DEPARTURE

Where to Stay:

Shaden Resort:


Nestled against magnificent rock formations, Shaden’s luxury villas, suites and rooms each offer private patios and access to a vast pool and lounge complex. Several on-site restaurants and coffee shops, a business centre and more ensure your stay is comfortable.

It offers a collection of 121 Deluxe Rooms and Villas, all of which have either a private terrace or a balcony. If you like to make a splash, choose one with a private pool. Large families can opt for the Royal Suite, which has six bedrooms, four bathrooms and ample space in which to unwind.

Habitas AlUla Resort:

Opening first quarter of 2021. An eco-friendly resort, Habitas AlUla, will blend seamlessly with AlUla’s landscape, bringing guests closer to the culture, heritage and environment around them. Habitas will take an innovative modular approach to developing the resort, ensuring minimal ecological impact during construction.

It will offer 100 luxury rooms and activities to include desert excursions, canyon trekking, horseback riding, survival skill workshops, traditional music lectures, art walks, and Arabic Calligraphy classes.

The property will showcase local arts and handicrafts used throughout the property, a Swimming pool, wellness center with yoga sessions and spa treatments, and a restaurant featuring authentic Middle Eastern Cuisine

Ashar Resort:

Opening first quarter of 2021, you can experience luxury in Ashar Resort’s 44 tented, villa-style accommodations which come in one, two and three bedroom options. Five private villas feature their own swimming pools.

Inside the villas, lavish bathrooms come complete with spa tubs and access to walled-in patios with verdant potted plants. Walking among the winding paths, one has a sense of modern grandeur that feels like it comes off the pages of a high-style magazine. On chilly nights, outdoor fire pits emit a warm glow that will keep guests toasty while they enjoy true, dark-sky stargazing.

Guests can indulge in a buffet breakfast and coffee on the open-air terrace surrounded by nature. The Alban restaurant is also open for lunch and dinner. On-site spa services cater to guests’ needs for wellness and relaxation, and the complimentary Rock Art Trail is a must-do. Free Wi-Fi, private parking and a gym are the amenities.

NOTE: Accor Group will eventually rebrand and extend the existing Ashar Resort as a Banyan Tree Property, transforming it into a high-end desert resort of 82 luxury villas, a plush spa and a number of gourmet dining options.

Canyon RV Park:

Opening first quarter of 2021, a collection of state-of-the-art Airstream RVs, each with a bathroom, mini-kitchen, covered patio area and continental breakfast delivered each morning. Guests can gather around a community firepit with cosy seating to take in the dark skies each evening.

Sharaan by Jean Nouvel: (opening 2023)

Inspired by the ancient Nabataeans, Sharaan by Jean Nouvel is a celebration of AlUla’s magnificent landscape. Carved into a sandstone outcrop, the resort will feature 40 rooms, three villas and 14 pavilions. Use of natural light and sandstone walls connect the resort and its guests to the landscape and its rich history. Each suite will also include a balcony, providing guests with stunning views of AlUla scenery.

It will offer 40 rooms, 3 villas and 14 pavilions.

Aman Resorts (opening 2023):

Aman Resorts is building three new properties in AlUla: an upscale tented camp that will blend with the natural environment, a resort inspired by the local architecture located close to heritage sites, and a sophisticated ranch-style desert resort.

A look back at winter at Tantora Festival in AlUla:

Following a successful debut in 2018, Winter at Tantora, the international festival celebrates incredible art, music, culture and history against the timeless backdrop of AlUla. It runs from Mid-December until the first week of March and invites arts and culture aficionados from around the globe to enjoy and experience a unique event that is rooted in AlUla.

The event promises a legendary line-up of performers from around the world and spanning diverse genres, including Timeless Pop, Opera and Classical Music.

It offers an array of activities and excursions for fans of music and culture as well as adventure seekers, history lovers and sports enthusiasts. In 2019/20 the festival hosted the AlUla Balloon Festival, vintage aircraft flights, the second largest endurance horse race in the world, culinary experiences curated by Michelin starred chefs, traditional souks as well as luxury brand pop-ups. Complementing this were tours of the ancient sites over 2000 years-old that will be brought to life using state-of-art AR technology.

Get a glimpse of what you can expect by watching above video, and below visuals. You can expect more in the upcoming season 2021/22 (details and dates yet to be announced), as international borders will open up by watching above highlights video.

Art in AlUla:

AlUla is leading the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia’s mission to become a globally recognised centre for arts and culture, and a hub for cultural tourism and the exchange of ideas.

AlUla is taking strides to marry its rich culture, unique heritage and raw wilderness with more contemporary forms of expression. Most recently, several exhibitions took place during AlUla’s extraordinary Winter at Tantora Festival.

Past Art Exhibitions in 2019/20 included Desert X AlUla, Franchise Freedom, Van Gough Alive.

In fact, over the next decade, Saudi Arabia intends to build numerous major art institutions and smaller museums — at least seven of which will reside in AlUla — to showcase an array of works, particularly those that place an emphasis on Saudi culture and Islamic arts.

Below are photos by Lance Gerber of Art Installations during Desert X AlUla in 2020.

Extend your stay:

I recommend you stay few nights each in Jeddah and Riyadh, the two major gateway cities with easy flight accessibility to AlUla. This will complete your experience as a first time visitor to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.

Jeddah:

Today, Jeddah is Saudi’s buzzing cosmopolitan hub, home to gleaming hotels and big-ticket events like the Red Sea International Film Festival.

The city’s heart is still intact in Al Balad, the magical historical quarter that has undergone a renaissance in recent years. And the Red Sea is still central to it all – for trade, for diving among pristine reefs and fishing for the seafood Jeddah is known for. The city where Eve was laid to rest is a beguiling mix. It remains gloriously different.

Al Balad
Jeddah’s UNESCO-listed old town is one of the Kingdom’s most evocative quarters, with narrow alleyways between ancient merchant’s houses leading to spice-scented souqs and glowing traditional bakeries. Many buildings have been restored in recent years, including the grand Nasseef House where Abdulaziz Ibn Saud stayed in 1925, before becoming king of a unified Saudi Arabia. Empty spaces have become quirky cafes or art galleries, as a district built in the seventh century looks to the future.

Jeddah Corniche
Jeddah’s 4.2km corniche has been transformed into a place of piers, swimming bays, restaurants and lushly landscaped walking and cycle paths. Iconic sculptures by the likes of
Henry Moore and Joan Miro, which first arrived in the city in the 1970s, are dotted along the waterfront. For many, coming here is about watching the sun set over the Red Sea, then seeing the launch of the -300meter King Fahd’s Fountain, the world’s tallest, with its great jet of water lit until midnight and visible across the city.

Tayebat City
Jeddah has a rich -2,500 year history of fishing tribes, early Arabian trade, and later, pilgrims. Tayebat City tells this story, and that of the wider Arabian peninsula. Built in traditional Hijazi style, with roshan window screens and ornate minarets, the vast complex is set over four floors and 18 wings, with more than 60,000 items on display. Explore ancient coins and manuscripts, traditional Saudi costumes and a recreation of the Kaaba, the sacred black cube at the centre of Makkah’s Grand Mosque.

Where to stay:

Hotels are plentiful in Jeddah. The best include The Ritz Carlton, Rosewood Jeddah, Park Hyatt and the Waldorf Astoria Jeddah – Qasr Al Sharq

Riyadh:

Riyadh is at first glance a modern metropolis, its highways hives of activity amongst urban high rises. But delve beneath its shiny new façade and the city’s fascinating centuries-old history can still be found within its atmospheric souqs, compelling museums and ancient architecture.

With its glinting skyscrapers and sparkling nightscapes, the metropolis of Riyadh is the ideal choice for a weekend of luxury. Relax and rejuvenate at the city’s opulent spas, including Maison de Joelle and Al Faisaliah Spa by ESPA, or go from serene to cerebral with a visit to its boutique arthouses, where the likes of Naila and L’Art Pur galleries showcase Arabia’s best emerging artists. Add in an array of fine dining choices, upmarket malls and curated boutiques, and Riyadh is a city that can be embraced at any pace, before unwinding in one of its many five-star hotels.

The Saudi National Museum
The Saudi National Museum has over 3,700 antiquities on show, documenting the grand history of Arabia over millennia.

Souq Al Zal
Located only a few minutes’ walk from the Masmak Fort, the Souq Al Zal remains as noisy and vibrant as when it first emerged back in 1901. Filled with the scent of burning oud
and the din of cheerful hawkers, the crackle and hubbub here is at its peak on Friday evenings during the Haraj auction, when merchants display their rarest goods of the week. Everything from gold coins to quirky handcrafts and dusty antiques can be found here, with traditional Saudi items such as dallah coffee pots, hooked jambiya daggers and mabkhara incense burners making for excellent souvenirs.

Sample Saudi cuisine
Perhaps the best way to experience Riyadh’s cultural fusion is through its cuisine, with combined dining and heritage experiences like that at Najd Village.

King Fahd International Stadium
Established in 1988, King Fahd International Stadium (KFIS) has been an iconic landmark, both in design and events it hosts.

Explore Diriyah

Diriyah’s historical center is the UNESCO-listed site of At-Turaif, which was founded in the 15th century.

Edge of the World:

To the northwest of Riyadh along the Tuwaiq Escarpment, the views from here are nothing short of spectacular.

The Edge of the World, or Jebel Fihrayn as it is also known, is located about 90km from Saudi’s capital and roughly a 90-minute drive. It forms part of the vast Tuwaiq cliffs, which stretch over more than 600km through central Saudi.

Hikers can choose from a range of routes to get to the top, but with rugged terrain, steep climbs and loose gravel, good walking shoes are advised. As you traverse the path, keep an eye out for fossils – a holdover from when the region was part of an ocean bed – and for camels and the remains of riverbeds crossing the valley below.

It typically takes between 15 and 30 minutes to reach the cliff edge, however, there are plenty of opportunities along the way to stop and enjoy the view. Gates out of the site close at 6pm, so make sure you leave enough time for the return drive back to your Hotel in Riyadh or, instead, opt for a night of camping in the Acacia valley and savour the atmospheric sunset and star-studded night sky.

Where to stay:

Riyadh is home to a wealth of stylish hotels. The best include The Ritz Carlton, Four Seasons, and Al Faisaliah Hotel (soon to be rebranded as a Mandarin Oriental).

All Photo, Video and Content Credits: Visit Saudi, Experience AlUla

How to Book:

You can book your Saudi Arabia experience using the expertise of Delhi based Luxury Travel Design Company – Experiential Travel Journeys Pvt. Ltd. They have the requisite connections with local associates and partners in Saudi Arabia to help you realise your dream trip to Saudi Arabia.

– Amit Kalsi, Private Travel Designer

Published by experientialtraveljourneys

A Private Travel Designer specialising in private, luxury, experiential, transformational, off-beat, off-the-grid, bespoke, tailor-made, bespoke, authentic, sustainable journeys to destinations worldwide.

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: