A widely unexplored country, Saudi Arabia is rich in attractions and stirring symbolism. Much is on offer to those willing to venture off the well-trodden path of the Middle East’s more populated destinations. There’s a vast amount to be explored, from desert camping with Bedouins under a vast canopy of stars and off-road driving across magnificent sand dunes to rock climbing at the ancient site of Al-Ula.
Millions have travelled to Petra to visit the ruins of the Nabataean civilisation memorably captured on film in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade and The Mummy Returns. An equally remarkable but far less known site lies, unexplored, south across the border in Saudi Arabia. With more than 100 perfectly preserved monumental tombs, the architectural accomplishments of Al-Ula are arguably Petra’s equal – without the crowds.
Visitors to Al-Ula, spread across 22,000sq km, nearly the same area as Belgium, can drive over golden sands exploring ancient ruins for days, undisturbed and at their leisure, drifting back centuries in time. The area is truly untouched and undiscovered by modernity. The valley sides of Al-Ula overlook a once-busy oasis where giant carved tombs stand as sentinels to another age. The people who crafted them from the orange-yellow rock came from across the ancient world, from Babylon, Greece, Rome and beyond.
Al-Ula was on the ancient trading route that saw incense and other precious goods flow across the desert to Petra and into the Roman Empire. Carvings of gazelles, lions, leopards and foxes lie among thousands of ancient inscriptions that show how language evolved from Phoenician to Arabic. Their words speak of a generous people, which is reflected even today in Saudi Arabia.
Until a couple of years ago, and before the Vision 2030 plan set Saudi Arabia on a path of becoming a global tourist destination, Al-Ula was closed even for Saudi visitors, with many believing that the site was cursed.
Dubbed “the world’s best kept secret”, Al-Ula will open fully to the public in October 2020. Before that, the site will open to visitors between December 2019 and March 2020 to experience a magical festival of arts and music, named Winter at Tantora, set among the ancient ruins.
A number of luxury Bedouin-inspired camps are soon to be available to tourists.
The sheer size and diversity of Saudi Arabia’s nature is hugely under-appreciated. A four-hour flight from Al-Ula airport will settle you among the dramatic mountainous region of Saudi Arabia’s southern tip. High in the mountains of the Asir region lies Al-Soudah. Here the temperature hovers around a pleasant 25ºC, a change from Riyadh’s summer heat, making the area’s month-long August festival a delightful distraction. Cheerful crowds ascend into the mountain village to enjoy horseback riding, bungee jumping, hiking and yoga alongside tribal dances and light shows that flicker on the village’s 500-year-old houses.
Unifying history with modernity, young Saudi architect and engineer Khalid Henaidy took the festival by storm this year when he designed glorious mountainside cabins for festival-goers. The temporary accommodation sold out almost immediately as Saudis flocked to the area for their retreat.
For visitors staying close to the kingdom’s capital city, a short drive out of Riyadh offers the chance to visit one of Saudi’s five Unesco World Heritage sites, the ancient city of Ad-Diriyah. Home to the first capital of the Saudi dynasty, it became the centre of power of the House of Saud in the 18th and early 19th centuries. Today, you can wander through the remains of centuries-old palaces built around the edge of Ad-Diriyah oasis. It is a spectacular sight that comes alive when lit up during the warm Arab evenings.
Close to Ad-Diriyah you’ll find the awe-inspiring cliffs known as the Edge of the World. For those looking to partake in a luxury tour of both sites, Four Seasons Hotel Riyadh at Kingdom Centre Riyadh offers guided day trips from October 1 to April 30.