Amber Dias soaks up history, culture and adventure in the sands of AlUla, a true gem in the Saudi Arabian crown.
“Like something out of a movie,” was a phrase whispered more than once during my stay in AlUla. And true to form, the adventure began much like the opening credits of a film, with the plane curving over rivers of shifting sand and crowns of shadow-steeped rocks, before gliding into the airport, setting the tone for what would be an amazing couple of days.
The first stop was of course home base for my stay here – Habitas, a five-star, sustainable concept resort, nestled in the beautiful Ashar Valley. Cradled by sandstone cliffs, it offers mesmerizing views in every direction. More so in the evening as specs of light dot the darkened landscape.
Chasing The Past
Standing amongst the rock-carved tombs in the ancient site of Hegra – a UNESCO World Heritage site – was immersive, with whispers of the past everywhere I turned. A remnant of the Nabataean Kingdom, there are around 110 tombs that have thus far been identified. The opportunity to explore one of them from the inside was remarkable, but it is the intricate carvings along the doorways that are the most telling. I learnt of their Gods, rituals and that a surprising number of tombs were commissioned by women. The most famous of the tombs is the 72 ft tall Tomb of Lihyan, son of Kuza or Qasr al-Farid, which remains incomplete.
My journey into the past also took me to the ancient city of Dadan. While much of the city is still being excavated, it was amazing to take in Lion Tombs, the meticulously crafted homes and wares that had been unearthed. From there it was off to nearby Jabal Ikmah or the Open Library, where thousands of verses, records and messages have been inscribed into rock faces of the canyon, the languages date back to ancient Arabic and pre-Arabic as well, with variations in techniques revealing that it was a popular way station. It was here, at the activity centre, that I learnt to inscribe my name in stone – in Arabic.
Blending Old & New
Stepping into AlUla Old Town is much like walking into another world, the closeness of the structures, rising rock walls and winding, stony pathways. The Old Town market is another place where the old and new worlds come together with stores nestled in old structures. The paved streets bathed in the soft, warm glow of lights strung on either side of the street is another movie-esque sight to walk through.
Across the way, the dusky brown of stone and mud structures gives way to towering date palms and the lush greenery of the Oasis Trails, which made for a refreshing walk in the early hours of the day.
Adventure buffs will find all the excitement they’re looking for at The AlUla Adventure Club. From ziplining to rappelling to rock climbing, they have a variety of activities to choose from. The Giant Swing and The AlUla Stairway are among their newer additions. I gave the stairway a go and not being the most dextrous, it had me nervous, but slow and steady – and a lot of support for the team out there – did the trick. And despite a shoe malfunction on the way down, it was exciting and I’m very glad that I did it.
No journey is complete without sampling delicious grub and AlUla does not disappoint. The breakfast and lunch menus at Tama – the restaurant at Habitas – had much to offer in the way of textures and flavours. Harrat at the Banyan Tree resort stepped up to the plate with a delicious three-course meal, the vegan desserts however were a standout. Dinner at OKTO at the Harrat viewpoint offered amazing Greek fare accompanied by a light show and an amazing view of the city below. And, of course, Maraya Social, nestled in the world-famous glass building, offered an exquisite fine dining experience.
The highlight of this trip though, was most certainly the AlUla Skies Festival. Starting with a Hot Air Balloon ride just past dawn. There’s a bit of controlled chaos that precedes lift-off, but rising into the air was gentle, a slow peeling away from the ground, watching the sand grow more distant, with only the sound of flames and hot air bellowing into a balloon above grounding you to the moment. Once in the air, the ground loses all interest to the openness of the skies. The view takes your breath away and offers a blissful stillness as you sail across the sky with a bird’s eye perspective of the sprawling tombs of Hegra and farmlands below. And speaking of birds, joining us on this little sky trip was Ziggy the falcon and her falconer, zooming around the balloon and adding to the spectacle.
If the slow gentle glide of a balloon isn’t your speed, there’s always the rush of a helicopter tour. Buckling in and whizzing around some of the best sights as the tour guide’s voice whispers through the headset is an exhilarating experience. The new perspective of the cityscape, the railway, rock formations like the famous Elephant Rock and Maraya, gleaming like a diamond in the desert, was simply gorgeous.
The last leg of this journey had me heading out far off to Gharameel, after a quick sunset stop at the beautiful Rainbow Rock, which true to its name arches over the sands, but close up has a very under-the-sea vibe. But as the sky darkened and lights dimmed, my attention was once more drawn to the skies as the stars came out to play, including the Big Dipper and Zodiac constellations. From the star guide, I learnt the Arabian legends behind their names for the constellations and interesting facts about the cosmos.
Lying on a comfortable carpet with a pleasant chill in the air and silence of the night, staring up at the Arabian sky awash with stars, shining against the darkness of space, growing brighter the longer I stared, was the perfect close for this adventure.
AlUla surprised me, as a destination it has so much to offer and the people are warm and welcoming. It so easily blends the luxury of the present with the groundedness and mystery of the past. It’s one of those places that you need to experience firsthand to truly get it and I’m glad I did.
How To Get There
Depending on the airline you choose, you can fly into Riyadh in Saudi Arabia or Dubai in UAE and catch a connecting flight to AlUla.
The writer visited AlUla, Saudi Arabia, on an invitation from the Royal Commission of AlUla.