A Journey Through The Wonders of Saudi Arabia
It started with a flight from Phoenix to London to Riyadh. Or maybe you might want to try the New York to Jeddah or Riyadh on Saudia Air. Go Business class as it’s a 12 hour flight! Arriving in Riyadh at 11:30pm, we cleared Immigration with lots of fingerprints and pictures. Then were met by the Four Seasons driver. A big city of 8 million, Riyadh is busy.
The old original city of Diriyah, all mud bricks is being restored. So far there are 16 international hotel brands confirmed for development there including Four Seasons, Baccarat, Ritz Carlton, Rosewood and Park Hyatt among others.
The National Museum is a good place to start as it's very well put together and gives a historical perspective to the rest of your visit.
Four Seasons Riyadh was lovely, a more corporate hotel located in the Kingdom Tower. The Ritz was a favorite; the minute you approach and walk in, it feels as though you have arrived in Arabia. From the gorgeous architecture to the lobby statues, it’s fanciful.
AlUla is the ultimate destination in the country. It’s hundreds of tombs from the Nabataean culture which flourished from 400 BC to 100 AD stretching for miles in the sand dune desert. The Nabataeans were one among several nomadic Bedouin tribes that roamed the Arabian Desert and moved with their herds to wherever they could find pasture and water. The Nabataean Kingdom controlled the Trade Routes on the Spice Route and became very rich. They were in power until the Roman Empire took over in 106 AD.
Historically a place on one of the many rock formations was purchased by a family and then carvers and architects hired to carve a tomb into the rock and decorate the outside. All of them have 5 steps at the top which symbolize the steps to heaven. Inside the tomb are carved niches for bodies, sometimes 20 or more. The most famous one is in Hegra, the site which is almost 2000 years old. It’s rock cut formations look like it’s sister city, Petra a few miles north in Jordan. Hiking and climbing up to some of the ledges on the walls of which are written pictures and symbols from 6000 years ago up to the Arabic Islamic era.
A highlight is AlUla Old Town; it’s shops, women’s craft school, and restaurants. It gets so hot, 120 degrees in the summer that they close at 12 and open at 4, staying open well past midnight with bustling streets in the Old Town. Families with kids walk the mudbrick streets. The public bathrooms are the cleanest I’ve seen anywhere and the cute restaurants abound.
Hotels are flocking to the area. Right now Habitas is in a canyon all by itself with villas and outdoor decks covered by Arabic tents. Banyan Tree just opened and Aman AlUla, Janu AlUla along with Four Seasons and the extraordinary Sharaan by Jean Nouvel resort which is carved out of the rocks and unlike any other are set to open in the next few years
From there one walks to the excavations of the oldest part of the town which is being meticulously restored. Our young enthusiastic guide had come from a 14 day training in Sedona, Arizona. Training in guiding during which he learned how to look at the guests, tell them the story and be proactive. His words – “It changed my life; I came back a different man.”
He said that before he went, his head would have been bowed with his eyes down, only to briefly look at the guest, then down again to tell the story. They chose Sedona as it looks a lot like Alula with the rock walls and canyons and palms.
His story was both amazing and moving.
Adventure activities in the AlUla desert are plenty from hiking, ziplining, horseback riding, mountain biking and dune walking and 4X4 adventures. A Bedouin Star Gazing dinner in the desert can be arranged. Pop Up restaurants come in, such as the London Anabelle’s, a prestigious members only club in London. It was superb and an experience.
Another must experience is Maraya, the largest mirrored building in the world. It’s the center for cultural growth and reflects AlUla’s role in history as a crossroads of the many peoples for centuries. Not to be missed also, is Desert X; an outdoor art exhibit featuring artist and sculptors from around the world, building on the history of AlUla as a cultural crossroads on the Incense Route and once the capitol of the Ancient Kingdom of Dadan.
From Alula, we flew to Jeddah which is on the Red Sea and more casual than Riyadh. It has a busy Old Town, Al-Balad which was founded in the 7th century and is full of shops with spices, clothing boutiques and stalls selling local crafts. It’s currently being restored to it’s original architecture and style.
On the last night, the Saudi Tourism Board invited our group to the Formula One Grand Prix, a once in a lifetime experience. Great fun, amazing action and people.
Jeddah, on the Red Sea, offers diving and beaches. The Red Sea Project farther north of Jeddah will include 22 islands and five inland sites by the time its completed in 2030. There are 16 different hotel brands opening there including Edition, Hyatt, Fairmont, Six Senses, Jumierah, Ritz Carlton, St. Regis, Rosewood and Miraval among others.
From Jeddah, it’s an easy non-stop flight to New York on Saudia Airlines, comfortable in Business Class.
Saudi Arabia is fascinating and a lot different than what you might expect based on the news and while gender segregation is real, it's rapidly changing and evolving. The Saudi's were extremely hospitable, kind, welcoming and excited to show us all the incredible things their country has to offer. As women, we were not required to wear the traditional abaya and veil, only asked to cover our shoulders and knees. There are few places on the planet where the past and future collide so spectacularly and we look forward to seeing all these new projects come to life and visiting again.