The first thing you notice about the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is how beautiful the desert is. You’re surrounded by dark rocks, red sands, and the enormous skies of the Arabian Peninsula. No two rocks or sand dunes look the same, just as no two stars in the sky are alike. It never gets old coming across new pillars appearing from beneath the horizon. But the desert is only the beginning.
I had some idea of what to expect when visiting Saudi Arabia for the first time. But like so many North American travellers, I still had some misconceptions regarding culture, history, the level of the tourism infrastructure, and the general atmosphere of exploring this country that only recently opened to non-religious tourists. My colleague, Brittany Banks, did a great job breaking down the misconceptions in a recent article for Globetrotting, so I encourage you to read her piece to shed some light on the realities of exploring Saudi Arabia. I’d rather focus on one other aspect that stunned me: the country’s sheer beauty.
The Majesty of the Saudi Desert
I love the desert. I always have ever since I watched Star Wars for the first time and imagined myself as Luke Skywalker traipsing across the sandy reaches of his home planet of Tatooine. But it’s one thing to daydream about the desert in a galaxy far, far away. It’s another thing to explore it for yourself, to feel the cool sands on your feet and the warm wind through your hair.
The desert of Saudi Arabia is majestic. In the Tabuk region in the north near the border with Jordan, I rode in 4×4 land cruisers over red dunes and explored oases hiding in the rocky crevices. There’s a so-called Secret Garden about an hour west of the city of Tabuk that I fear won’t stay secret for long, but it captures the immense natural beauty of this land: the red sweeping sand, the black rocks rising from the earth, the blue sky, and the winds that seem to whisper to you to keep quiet and soak it all in.
Further south, the landscape transforms rapidly, although it all technically remains desert. We descended into the northern dry valley of Wadi Disah expecting to find more sands but were shocked with the abundance of greenery filling the space between the towering cliffs. Saudi Arabia famously has no natural lakes or rivers within its 830,000 square-mi (2,150,000 square-km), but it does have many oases that are ready to puncture your expectations of what a desert holds.
Further south, we finally hit AlUla, which has developed from a series of date plantations and mudbrick buildings into the country’s top travel destination. First stop was Harrat Viewpoint, where you see AlUla Old Town and the AlUla Oasis far beneath you, disappearing into the reds, greys, and browns that stretch as far as you can see. The view is spectacular, breathtaking, and aided by the swank outdoor lounge they’ve set up there so you can enjoy a refreshment while taking in the view.
Next up was Elephant Rock, the massive sandstone cliff that looks unmistakably like an elephant. It’s the place to be at dusk, when we drove our land cruiser high onto an adjoining dune, put down a rug, and enjoyed a malt beverage watching the sun dip right behind the massive rock. We weren’t the only people taking in the spectacular view. Both locals and international visitors flocked to the area to watch the sunset and see the rock transform into the silhouette of a mythic mammoth in the twilight. This is another place to hang for a few hours with comfortable cushions set into the sand, nearby food and coffee stalls, and even shisha to smoke. If you didn’t know that the 170 ft-high (52 m-high) Elephant Rock was estimated to be around 200 million years old, you’d swear it was built to satisfy the Instagrammers who photograph it each evening. It’s such a perfectly photogenic landmark.
Speaking of Instagrammers, nearby Maraya is a musical performance hall that happens to be the largest mirrored building in the world. Seen from a distance, it disappears into the desert landscape, reflecting the surrounding sands and rocks so as to blend in. Closer up, it looks like a glitch in the matrix, where only tracing the rectangular outline against the sky reveals the seam between the man-made and natural world.
Historical Treasures of Hegra
The country’s top highlight for foreign travellers has to be Hegra right outside AlUla. Built by the Nabataeans around 2,000 years ago, and serving as the sister city to Petra in Jordan, Hegra was the southern capital of the Nabataen kingdom. Today, the elaborate tombs of the Nabataeans remain carved into the rocks around AlUla in a remarkable state of preservation due to the lack of moisture in the region. We rose early before dawn to board a hot air balloon to fly over Hegra and enjoy our first views of its famous tombs, including the towering Tomb of Lihyan, son of Kuza, which stands solitary as the largest and most impressive of the many facades at the site. The views from the air were spectacular, but seeing the site for the first time from the air creates an amusing juxtaposition, as the tombs look tiny from above. However, when you finally walk up to the Tomb of Lihyan, for instance, you’re awed by the size of this gorgeous edifice cut directly into the rock with nothing but pickaxes and chisels. This tomb gives the Treasury at Petra a run for its money.
I bet good money that Hegra is going to become one of the hottest historical destinations in the world in the coming years. It’s beautiful, well-preserved, and photographs remarkably well. It also pairs wonderfully with a trip to Petra in Jordan to the north. It helps that AlUla is an enviable centre to base yourself. The surrounding valleys are home to date plantations and luxury resorts with gorgeous accommodations that let you enjoy the desert landscape and great views of the Milky Way right outside your suite. AlUla Old Town is an appealing pedestrian strip with shops, restaurants, and cafes where you can easily spend a few evenings going from store to store after a hearty dinner at one of the restaurants.
Speaking of food, Saudi cuisine is exceptional. If you get the chance, head to a traditional restaurant where you sit on the carpeted floor while you feast on chicken kabsa, an amazingly succulent style of rotisserie chicken served on a bed of rice, or local specialties like a surprisingly delicious camel stew. You’re never wanting for hummus, babaganoush, and other delectable dips to pair with pita and most any meal in any restaurant. The food is so good, you won’t miss the alcoholic cocktails, especially as the local mocktails are refreshing libations in their own right. The Saudis sure do love their sweet drinks.
Saudi Arabia’s Surprising Urban Centres
My trip to Saudi Arabia continued to Madinah, the second-holiest city in Islam, for an afternoon to see the outside of the Prophet’s Mosque, where the Prophet Muhammad is buried, and a nearby museum. It was a profound experience even for non-Muslims. We continued onwards to coastal Jeddah, which exploded our expectations of a desert city, because it’s not. Sitting on the Red Sea, Jeddah is humid and hot and home to gorgeous ocean views and the Al Balad Old Town, which is a well-preserved neighbourhood of traditional homes, shops, and cafes that’s great for exploring at night. The location on the Red Sea makes it easy to head out for half a day on a snorkelling expedition and spend some time alongside clownfish and dolphins in the water.
We continued to Riyadh, a modern megacity that is expanding so rapidly that the country plans to double its population to 18 million within the next decade. Riyadh is full of towering skyscrapers, opulent mansions, impressive marble hotels, abundant cafes and restaurants, and an endless flow of highways connecting the distinct neighbourhoods. The Gulf sensibilities are strong here, as you can sense a city that will soon rival Dubai and Doha for international visitors wanting a luxury experience. It doesn’t hurt that Cristiano Ronaldo and other football superstars now play for Saudi clubs in Riyadh.
But the most impressive part of Riyadh has to be Diriyah, the home of the first Saudi state that is now a neighbourhood in southwestern Riyadh. The ruins of the old fort are well-preserved and clearly displayed through an immersive museum experience that takes you through the ruins while relaying the history of the Saudi state. The nearby boardwalk area is another spot full of premium restaurants and a curated atmosphere that is tailored for international travellers wanting a memorable night out.
The hospitality of the Saudis and the comfort of exploring Saudi Arabia surprised me, but it’s the beauty of the country, from its red deserts to its ancient tombs to the blue waters of the Red Sea, that surprised me most. The FIFA World Cup in 2034 will be sure to catapult the country into world-wide travel fame, so the coming years offer a great time to beat the rush and experience the destination during its transitional phase. If you want to experience the magic of the desert or uncover the ancient history of Hegra for yourself, go soon. Saudi Arabia is a large country with big plans for the future, and soon the secret will be out. Discover its beauty for yourself.
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