Into the Unknown; My Journey Through Saudi Arabia
By Ashley Gallo
I recently had the incredible opportunity to visit Saudi Arabia with Travel & Leisure Academy and to experience all the country has to offer firsthand and learn about the mesmerizing ancient city of AlUla. I have always wanted to visit The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, especially when I lived in the UAE, but up until just recently it has been closed to tourism. The 10 days I spent exploring the vast country will forever hold a special place in my heart.
I arrived into Riyadh early morning and checked in at the Four Seasons Riyadh. Even though we were only in Riyadh for a short time, I was able to experience the charm and history of the vibrant city that was a mix of both old and new. One of the highlights from my time in Riyadh was our visit to Al Turaif District, a world heritage site and home of the country’s first capital. Being able to learn about the history of Saudi through the open air museum was enchanting.
One of the initial things that stood out about Saudi, besides the rich history, was the food. Between the warm hospitality and the mouthwatering cuisine, I knew I was in for a culinary adventure. I was lucky enough to dine at several incredible restaurants while in town. We dined at a variety of restaurants and even enjoyed some delicious roasted camel at Najd Village. However, my favorite was a restaurant that specialized in Saudi Fusion called Takya.
After 2 short days in Riyadh, we took a short flight to AlUla where we were met by our private luxury transfers to take us to Habitas AlUla. Habitas is an eco-friendly luxury resort nestled in the desert canyons of the Ashar Valley. I was lucky enough to spend 5 blissful nights at this fabulous resort exploring all it had to offer; from the Instagram worthy pool, to the art installations from the past Desert X 2020, to the fresh and flavorful farm to table food at Tama.
My time spent in AlUla was filled with so many adventures. The first day exploring, we went to see the new Desert X 2022 Exhibit which showcases local and international artists in a cultural dialogue through art. This year’s theme was “Sarab”, where artists did their interpretation on mirage and oasis. It was one of the most unique art experiences I have been to.
After spending half a day at Desert X, we stopped at an incredible pastry shop for lunch owned by a local Saudi woman who has made a name for herself in Saudi Arabia. Her first restaurant in Jeddah was such a big hit she has since opened an outlet in AlUla and in Riyadh. I have to say it was some of the best food I have had in all my travels. Next up was a visit to Hegra, Saudi’s first UNESCO Heritage Site. This was one of the things I have been looking forward to the most when I knew I would be traveling to AlUla. Hegra was built over 2,000 years ago by the Nabataeans (who also built Petra) along the incense trade route. There are over 100+ well preserved tombs carved from rock formations. In the evening after a long day of exploring we freshened up and headed out to enjoy a fabulous meal at the famous Annabel’s from London, which operates as a pop-up restaurant during the winter months in AlUla.
The next day was another action-packed day full of travelling the region and getting to know more about the local people and their culture. Our first stop was the Madrasat Aldeera, a former girl’s only school, where local artists are learning new techniques in geometry and heritage design along with evolving their own artistic techniques. I really enjoyed engaging and talking with the artists, who were mostly women. Hearing their stories and seeing their designs and finished pieces was incredible. Later in the day I had the chance to go on my first helicopter tour over the Ashar Valley. It was mesmerizing seeing all the iconic landmarks such as the ancient tomb of Hegra, elephant rock, and the ancient city of Dadan from above. It really put everything in perspective. To cap off the day, we made our way out to the middle of the desert to experience a traditional Bedouin Camp. We were able to sit back and relax while enjoying local Arabic traditions. At the end of the evening, we sat beneath the evening sky while a stargazing expert told stories of the constellations above from days past.
The next few days were spent exploring the ancient city of Dadan, which dates back between the late 9th and early 8th century BCE, hiking the valley of Jabal Ikmah, swinging in the Oasis and listening to ancient Arabic music at an outdoor concert. We also had time to explore and shop in the traditional souk of Old Town AlUla, a city dating back to the 12th century. It was surreal wandering the old streets and visualizing what life must have been life centuries ago. Climbing the steps to the top of the AlUla Castle gave amazing views over the whole ancient city; It was quite spectacular. One of the other sites not to be missed when visiting AlUla is the awe- inspiring three story tall Jabal Alfil (Elephant Rock), one of AlUla’s many geological marvels. This redstone rock has been shaped by millions of years of wind and water erosion to eventually look like a giant elephant with a trunk and body.
Our last evening in AlUla was spent dining under the stars at the enchanting Maraya Social Restaurant by Jason Atherton. The restaurant is housed within the glistening Maraya building. Maraya means ‘mirror” or “reflection” in Arabic, which describes the structure perfectly as it is covered in 9,740 mirrored panels reflecting the nature surrounding it. It currently holds the Guinness World Record for largest mirrored building in the world.
After an amazing 5 nights in AlUla, we flew to Jeddah for a quick stop. While visiting the port city on the Red Sea, we spent time exploring Al Balad, the historical city center of Jeddah dating back to the 7th century. Wandering the streets made you feel like you took a step back in time. After a few hours in Al Balad we stopped by the corniche (coastal road and recreation area) to see the Red Sea. To end the evening in an epic way, we were invited as guests of Saudi Tourism to the Saudi Arabian Grand Prix. The evening was nothing short of amazing, as was the the rest of the trip. The next day we all said our goodbyes and flew home.
My trip to Saudi Arabia opened my eyes to so many new things. I will forever be grateful for the experience that I had and the friendships and connections I made during my time in the Kingdom. The people of Saudi were so warm and welcoming. They have a strong sense of tradition and hospitality that shines through in everything they do. They are proud of their culture and excited to show the world everything that their country has to offer. I look forward to visiting Saudi Arabia as part of my yearly travels to the Middle East.
- Saudi Arabia