A luxe travel guide to Saudi Arabia

The desert canyons and fabled mud-brick town of AlUla oasis yield street eats and Michelin-star dining in a remote corner of Saudi Arabia.
Saudi Arabia travel guide - Saudi Arabia's sublime desert attractions

Desert in Saudi Arabia.

It’s mid-morning, and our camels are resting in the shade of a stone pillar. It’s a gharameel, the remnant of an ancient mountain, eroded by time, on this desert plain in north-western Saudi Arabia.

Like the camels, I’m also resting, but on long, embroidered cushions atop richly coloured rugs, drinking sweet mint tea as my mount is saddled.

On the fringe of the AlUla oasis, the stone city of Dadan was one of the posts on the incense trade routes that crossed Arabia.

To one side of the cameleer’s camp, the cook is browning cuts of tender lamb in an enormous stockpot, and I watch as he creates the classic Saudi lamb-and-rice dish, kabsa. Earthy cumin, fragrant orange blossom water and citrusy coriander are all added to the browning meat, and what looks like turmeric, for colour.

Do I detect a flicker of disdain across the cook’s face?

Poolside at Habitas in Saudi Arabia.

“It’s not turmeric,” he corrects me. “That’s saffron.” Of course it’s saffron – here in the desert, with a kitchen on the back of a truck, a couple of grumbling camels nearby. Using the most expensive spice is a reminder that, while we dine alone in a remote desert, we are still in one of the world’s wealthiest countries. A world away from clichéd Arabian bling, this is desert luxury.

To find the gharameel on a map, you first need to find the oasis of AlUla, a crossroads in antiquity – because water means life, never more than in the arid deserts that cloak the Arabian peninsula.

Ostriches roaming the desert in Saudi Arabia.

AlUla’s importance has waxed and waned over millennia; today, the oasis is home to more than 5000 people. But size isn’t everything. AlUla is also Saudi Arabia’s trump card in becoming the world’s newest tourism destination, where you can go ziplining or leopard spotting, ride camels and Arabian steeds between wind-formed dunes, explore its supersized, outdoor desert arts program, or come simply to eat and absorb the extraordinary landscape.

Outside the oasis lie the relics of several civilisations, almost buried in generations of sandstorms. Now, from the sand, their memories emerge.

The face of a stone lion. The curve of an eagle’s wing. A sentinel griffin. A curse.

Banyan Tree in Saudia Arabia.

While the stone capital of the Dadan and Lihyan kingdoms dates as far back as the 9th century BCE, it is the city of the later Nabataean kingdom, Hegra, that takes the glory. Hegra’s sister city, Petra, in neighbouring Jordan, entertains more than a million visitors each year, but today, in the peak winter season, just a handful of us are visiting Hegra’s ruins, spread out across the desert.

There are no noisy tour groups, no touts; our small posse coasts between the sites in an open-top turquoise Land Cruiser – we hang onto the roll bar, laughing as a chill wind tugs at our scarves.

Elephant Rock in Saudi Arabia.

(Photo credit: Aman Resorts)

In a whiplash reversal of protocol that took place just before the global pandemic, non-religious tourists are now welcomed into the Kingdom. Women don’t need to cover their hair and while I admire and covet Saudi women’s dramatic abayas – long, often beautifully embroidered cloaks – there is no requirement for me to be so covered; simply modest clothing is just fine.

The desert has many secrets, and not just the dramatic, ancient ruins. Shielded within its canyons are AlUla’s lodgings, from a fleet of shiny silver Airstreams or campsites to a brace of luxury hotels including the newest, from the Banyan Tree group. Aman has not one, but three tented and ranch-style resorts on the drawing board and architect Jean Nouvel’s cave resort, Sharaan, is set to open later this year.

Mirrored Maraya building is home to Maraya Social.

Checking in to my hotel, Habitas AlUla, there’s no gleaming, marble lobby. Instead, I duck into a traditional goat-hair tent, where I’m offered glossy dates and a tiny cup of straw-coloured, unroasted Arabian coffee before a silent, electric buggy takes me into the canyon to my own, sprawling tent. The catchwords here, as across the whole oasis, are sustainability and authenticity.

In the early morning, I watch the winter sun set the sandstone walls around me on fire, lighting art installations that were hidden the night before. And over a breakfast of shakshuka with manakish and labne at Habitas’ pool terrace, I listen to accents from across the globe. The talk is of visiting Saudi princesses and Hollywood actors, seen moongazing from OKTO, a contemporary Greek restaurant set on a ridge overlooking the oasis, or circling over the oasis’ two million date palms in a helicopter.

Dates in an ornate bakhoor incense burner at Al Helwah farm.

(Photo credit: Belinda Jackson)

My grazing adventures are as varied in tastes as they are locations – passing through a guard of white Arabian horses to the rooftop of the world’s largest mirrored building, Maraya, I order British chef Jason Atheron‘s baked beetroot with goat’s cheese.

The next day brings another rooftop restaurant, Suhail, which covers the table with such Saudi classics as camel and lamb kebabs, savoury groats topped with gold leaf and jereesh, a nurturing broken wheat porridge snuggled up to roasted chicken breasts. Again, there are beautifully clad Arabian horses, this time galloping through the old town’s main street – we’ve chanced upon a play enacting the visit of the great medieval Arabian traveller, Ibn Battuta.

Oasis in Saudi Arabia.

For all the fine dining options, my best dessert is a biscuit from Wacafe, nibbled while window shopping gold-thread abayas in AlUla’s rustic-luxe mudbrick shops; spiced with local nigella seeds, fennel, cardamom, dates and almonds, it’s the baker’s homage to the oasis.

AlUla has always been hospitable to the caravans of traders crossing the deserts, and to pilgrims heading south to Mecca. Its reputation, I can assert, remains intact.

Best AIUIa experiences

Winter at Tantora

The music and culture festival is now in its fifth year. Expect fashion shows, desert polo and music concerts of the ilk of Andrea Bocelli, December 21-January 20.

Qasr al-Farid

Justifiably AlUla’s pin-up heritage site, the unfinished tomb, aka The Lonely Castle, stands four stories tall in the desert. Breathtaking.

Al Helwah

A women-run citrus farm owned by Princess Noura Al-Faqir of the House of Saud royal family. Walk through the citrus and olive groves before a truly lavish breakfast of the farm’s produce, all made in-house.


Enjoy a concert in the hall below before dinner at the open-air rooftop restaurant by chef Jason Atherton.

Getting there

Best visited in winter (November to March), Saudi Arabian e-visas cost SAR 535 ($214), AlUla is a three-hour flight from Dubai,

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