A week ago I came back from a thrilling opportunity to visit Saudi Arabia on an all-inclusive trip through my travel consortium, Travel Leaders, as well as the Saudi Tourism Authority. As the doors were recently opened to tourism, this was the opportunity for Travel Advisors to learn about the people; explore a country relatively untouched by visitors; and come back home to share our experience. You can learn more about Saudi Arabia and its unique culture by visiting this region, which is the cradle of numerous human civilizations. Saudi Arabia offers a unique experience during each season of the year and all of these thrilling experiences are waiting for you.
DAY 1 - Riyadh (The Capital of Saudi Arabia) The flight to Saudi Arabia, including down time in the airport, was approximately 24 hours. We were told to dress conservative and be prepared for high 90 degree temperatures but potentially low 70s. The majority of woman in Saudi Arabia wear black abayas which are long loose cloaks or dresses along with a hijab Muslim women wear to cover their heads. The men are covered as well and mostly wear white. For our entire stay, we were accompanied by a very knowledgeable tour manager who transferred us to our first of 3 hotels during our stay. The first was at Al Faisaliah Hotel which joined with the Mandarin Oriental Hotel in 2021. After check in we were taken to The Boulevard which is a NYC Times Squar'ish mega outdoor mall and entertainment complex. Our time was limited but you could spend several hours to a day, shopping, people watching, play amusement games, attend a movie and dine on a plethora of food options. The Beirut Khanum restaurant, which is great for groups, treated us to a smorgasbord of food and mocktails. DAY 2 - Riyadh We went on a hotel site inspection at the Four Seasons Hotel in the famous Kingdom Tower. After, we went to Huqqa for lunch where the food was amazing and never stopped coming! I love a good steak but had no idea the steak was the size of a plate! Next we made a stop to talk to the NEOM project team that’s building The Line. Saudi Arabia is taking on this mammoth project of building a 100 mile linear futuristic city in the middle of the desert that will eventually house up to 9 million people in a phased approach starting in 2030. After dinner we made our way to Masmak Fortress. For any history buffs it’s a clay and mud fortress in a commercial area of historic Riyadh. They have historical robes, guns, and documents, but don’t skip the short 10 minute movie that highlights the battle of Riyadh which was an event that restored Saudi’s control over Riyadh in the early 1900s. After the fortress we made our way to a Souk Market where they sell antiques, abayas, prayer beads and more. The treat of the entire trip is that we went to the home of a Saudi family for dinner. Hihomes is a web platform that allows tourist the opportunity to meet and spend time with a Saudi family while on vacation. To cap off the night we saw the phenomenal skyline views from the Kingdom Tower! After our wonderful dinner we went back to the Four Season to the top floor. There’s a fairly large mall inside and even at 9pm stores like Cartier were still open in case you wanted a bobble to take home! We just made it to the top of the tower right before closing and got to see breathtaking views. DAY 3 – AlUla (The World's Largest Open Air Museum) On Day 3, we departed Riyadh and took a short flight to AlUla. It’s a small commuter airport but very efficient. By the time we got off the airport bus our luggage was going around the belt and ready for pick up! The hotel we stayed at was the gorgeous Habitas Hotel and we kicked off our stay with lunch onsite at the Tama Restaurant which overlooks the pool and absolutely beautiful sandstones. The swimming pool was co-oed and there were no modesty requirements so you were free to paddle around to your hearts content. To get around the hotel the walk would be about half an hour from end to end; or you could call guest services for a golf cart driver to pick you up; or take one of their electric bikes. After dinner, and too brief of a time in the room, we went to Old Town for a tour and to Harrat Viewpoint. The area is sandy, slightly hilly and narrow so be prepared with comfy walking shoes. In alUla they have a nice little tourist market where you can pick up momentos and if you keep walking through the old town market area you’ll end up in Al Jadidah, which is the new section of town they built in a matter of months. It’s an artsy pedestrian friendly area with art galleries, food trucks, and outdoor restaurants that serve great food and mocktails into the wee hours of the night. That night we had dinner at Somewhere Restaurant. While the name tickled us giddy at times, the ambiance and food was absolutely phenomenal. Once again we ate until we couldn’t eat or drink anymore. DAY 4 - AlUla We were carted away by caravan to a Hegra which is a Unesco Heitage Site. There are 111 tombs built with 5 stairs on each that were meant to show someone how to get to heaven! After Hegra we made our way to the Pink Camel which is a boutique indoor/outdoor restaurant that gives you that farm to table feeling. The food was fresh and they are know for their baked good and macaroons. After lunch we took a 20 minute stroll through a farming area they’re in the process of building and then got back into our private carvans that whisked us off to Dadan and Jabal Ikmah which was an ancient city built out of stone. There’s a guide onsite who gave us a spirited history lesson. You can’t get close to the structures but they have binoculars and with a good zoom lens on your camera it’s a site worth visiting. The pièce de resistance for the day was going to Elephant Rock. They surrounded the natural rock formation with an open air hip sitting and amusement area where you could ride camels, horses, and have mocktails. After Elephant Rock we went to the Shaden Resort for a hotel site inspection. The manager took the time to tour us around this family friendly hotel and even gave us a parting gift of a wrapped box of dates. After an hour to freshen up, we made our way to the Mayara Social. Mayara is a gorgeous restaurant, date night, friends outing or just because. The outside façade alone is a camera ready experience because the entire structure is made of mirrors and if you stand at a certain angle you see a beautiful pyramid backdrop almost in 3D. What’s cool about the restaurant is they host huge entertainers. We were told Mariah Carey and Andrea Boccelli were just recently there and there were other big names coming soon. Dinner is by reservation only so but I highly recommend their outdoor dining and the experience if you’re in AlUla. DAY 5 - Jeddah (Saudi's Commercial Center & the Gateway to the Holy City of Mecca) On day 5 we sadly departed our haven in the sandstones and made our way back to the AlUla airport and this time we were going to our final destination of Jeddah. Jeddah is known as the second capital of Saudi Arabia. For my liking I enjoyed Jeddah a little more because it seemed like the cooler hip sister to Riyadh. First stop we made was to Toki for lunch. I know I kept stressing food but Toki is an outstanding Chinese restaurant in Riyadh. After lunch we went on a site inspection to Shangri – La hotel which is another gorgeous hotel in Saudi Arabia. The manager took us for a private tour and of course we saw the luxury rooms which faced the King’s summer island. It also faced the track for the Formula 1 speedway and the Red Sea. The Formula 1 took place for the first time in 2021 and is now a highly anticipated annual event. It’s a huge deal and win for Saudi and who knows maybe one day I will have the opportunity to attend. Next the manager took us up to the roof top pool and I was surprised there was a DJ spinning on the 1s and 2s and staff started handing us mocktails to enjoy on the loungers. We were told only men were allowed in the pool which is a shame because the rooftop pool area was gorgeous but I know that’s a hard one for some visitors to understand about their culture. After the site inspection we went to the Corniche Floating Mosque. It’s a beautiful mosque in a newly created outdoor space on the marina they built in a matter of months next to the Formula 1 racetrack. We were allowed to go inside the mosque but women had to cover their hair and everyone had to leave their shoes outside. After we checked into our final hotel, which was a very nice Marriott, we were whisked away for dinner at Kabana Restaurant. Kabana is a hip Afgan fusion restaurant that had spectacular afro club music and the kicker was it was incredibly busy for a weeknight out. I cannot stress enough that the Saudi people are sociable and they enjoy friendship, coffee/tea, and great food. Once again we were served unimaginable amounts of food and were even treated to a show as the servers dramatically filled baklava with ice cream. One of the servers even fed me ice cream as part of his performance! For the partakers they also offered hookah. DAY 6 - Jeddah Friday November 18, 2022 was our last full day so our group made the most of it. We did a hotel site inspection at the Ritz Carlton. FABULOUS! Everything about that hotel just dripped opulence. One point, you have to know when traveling is that some hotels have amenities that are for men and/or women only. It just so happens the gym is open to both men and women who can go at different times, however the whirlpool, sauna, and steam room is for men only. After a walk, we had lunch at a quaint restaurant called Meez. It had that farm to table middle eastern vibe. The staff was so friendly and even came over at the end and sang while we finished up and had coffee. To work off lunch we met with the number one guide in the area who told us the history around the old town area Al Balad on a walking tour. This a Unesco Heritage World Site and one of my favorite things to do while in Jeddah. In this area you can see and visit old buildings, mosques and souks. You can people watch at an outdoor restaurant and take in the history and ambiance of a time lived long ago that is still relevant and in use today. The oldest tree in Jeddah is in that area and you can walk around the souks and shop for everything from spices, sandals, luggage, gold, to hair products! Because we were on a tight schedule I could only pick up a few gifts for family and then they whisked us off for our final elaborate dinner at Kuuru. Kuuru is the sister restaurant and on the other side of Toki – literally connected by a bar. Amazing was all I can say.
I have truly never felt as safe and welcome in a foreign country as I did here in Saudi. Things such as garbage, graffitti, homelessness and peddling are not found in Saudi as there are severe penalties for crime related offences. I thought I would miss having an alcoholic beverage while away, as alcohol is illegal in the country, but their mocktails do a great job at convincing the palette you are having the real thing. I would highly recommend this destination to my clients!