We Went to AlUla to See If It Was Really Worth the Hype

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Photo: Courtesy of Alicia Keys

We have been hearing and seeing pictures from AlUla, Saudi Arabia’s historic city, for a while, so when the chance to take a trip to visit the breathtakingly beautiful destination opened up, we jumped at the opportunity. We were prepared for desert and red rocks, we were prepared for Hegra – the Kingdom’s first World UNESCO Heritage site – we were even prepared for modern art, culture, and celebrity experiences, but what we weren’t prepared for was how much we wanted to go back as soon as we left.

Getting to AlUla can be a bit tricky because it’s a long drive away from any major airport regardless of whether you fly into Jeddah or Medina. When we asked our driver if we were getting close, he told us, “You’ll know when we’re close.” Sure enough, the otherwise flat landscape gave way to red giants looming over the desert. The few hotels that are there are built into the landscape and shielded from sight when you’re on the highway. This strategy keeps the natural and historical beauty from being grossly obstructed by modern buildings, while also giving guests a sense of isolation and privacy. Most importantly, it makes you feel that everywhere you go you feel like you’re inside a living museum. 

Photo: Courtesy of @habitasalula

We stayed in the caravans at Habitas AlUla, which are fully functioning Airstream trailers that immerse you in the natural beauty of your surroundings. While space may be limited in the actual caravan – despite tiny house solutions and hacks everywhere – the outdoor patio was worth every sunrise and sunset. Divans and low couches with pillows sat under a tent looking out into red mountains that seemed to touch the starry sky. Unfathomable beauty would twinkle back at us every night with the kind of sky-jewels Vincent Van Gogh would find difficult not to paint. We’d heard that desert air lends itself to the best star-gazing, but catching three falling stars with the naked eye in one night surpassed even our expectations.

The only downside to the caravans was the lack of pool, although in the hotel part of Habitas – which is a bit more luxury, upscale, and only a golf cart away – has a stunning pool. Needless to say, early morning walks were pleasurable, as well as meeting strangers fellow guests, and snuggling under blankets to watch a classic movie projected onto one of the cliffs at night. Our only tip would be to pack more for ‘camping/glamping’ than fashion-forward looks if you decide to stay at the caravans.

Photo: Courtesy of @habitascaravanalula

As far as culture goes, there is no shortage of options. The world-renowned Desert x AlUlawhich started in Coachella and now brings artists together around the world to create their work on a theme inspired by the desert location – has just wrapped up its second, successful art exhibition. International artists gathered together to reflect on the theme of mirage and oasis, and in a record-breaking six months were able to set up the entire installation.  

The temporal, conical structures created by Californian sand artist Jim Denevan provided an ever-evolving mysterious maze from the ground and a lesson in symmetry from the air. Additionally, Alicja Kwadje’s mirrors in the desert were a beautiful exploration of reality and illusion, and Dana Awartani’s geometrical sculpture borrowed its aesthetic from the surrounding mountains in order to create an artistic replication of the Nabataean tombs.

Photo: Courtesy of @lancegerber

But Desert X was not the only art available to explore in AlUla by a long shot. The Maraya, which is itself an incredible piece of architecture and art, stands alone and tall, reflecting the mountains that surround it backed by a completely mirrored facade. It’s probably the most photographed building in all of AlUla, but we found ‘What Lies Within’ – metaphorically and literally – to be one of the most compelling art gallery spaces we’ve ever visited.

Within the BasmocaBasma Al Sulaiman’s private collection – sits some of the most stunning, emotionally moving, and beautiful pieces of artwork we have ever seen. Islamic art featuring the years of painstaking effort to geometrically represent the names of Allah in one stunning image or the spellbinding photographic series by Manal Al Dowayan from 2005 where she depicts images of what a woman is not allowed to do followed by her sequel series of photographs showing all the new opportunities that have finally opened up for Saudi women. We were moved to tears at the intimate pieces, sculptures, photos, paintings, and fabrics that helped us connect to another culture so viscerally and completely.

Photo: Courtesy of @mathafmodern

We were able to see international Polo players in a friendly match sponsored by Richard Mille on what looked like a movie set – that’s how beautiful the natural landscape is. Renowned international players like Adolfo Cambiaso from Argentina, Jean Francois Decaux from France, and Mohammed AlHabtoor from the UAE competed alongside Saudi princes such as HRH Prince Abdulrahman bin Faisal, and HRH Prince Salman bin Mansour. Even Melissa Ganzi, American female polo player, took part in the friendly match. 

We dined at restaurants like Okto which sit on top of one of the cliffs overlooking the entire valley. We walked the streets of Old Town. We discovered ruins of an erstwhile town where we saw contemporary art hung on every wall. This vacant ruin had been transformed into a tiny gallery. Elsewhere, a local artisan set up shop on the main road, and a troupe of actors marched through the streets in costume to advertise their play. It wasn’t one or the other – ancient or contemporary – but was instead a unique marriage of history and heritage coupled with modern art working itself into a braid of cultural beauty.

Photo: Courtesy of @eauengaleria

AlUla has made giant leaps in welcoming and attracting tourists and visitors from everywhere around the world. We saw international celebrities like American singer/songwriter Alicia Keys take to the stage at the Maraya, and the next day, she joined prominent Saudi women – including Dowayan and Her Royal Highness, Princess Reema bint Bandar – for an intimate discussion with women, for women. In fact, we were invited to attend the discussion not as press, but as women who are part of the conversation. It was a moving and inspiring experience for all who attended. 

Keys’ husband, Swizz Beatz – one of the few males in attendance and someone equally passionate about advancing young Saudi talent internationally with his new creative agency, Good Intentions – told Savoir Flair “this is a transformational moment. Life begins now.” He went on to say, “The cool part is that the creatives are being supported, which I love. That’s what attracted me. Saudi is supporting the creatives for real. I’ve watched this place transform like I’ve never seen anything in life. And I know that it is working because the young people are moving the needle, and that’s what we need. We need the young people to have power. And we need the heritage as well. You have to know the background and know your roots, but moving forward is the youth.”

Beatz also discussed the importance of the Western mindset to join the conversation as Saudi opens up with good intentions – which is exactly why he named his company just that. “It’s not transactional. We have to come with good intentions. Come sit with people. Come be with the people. Don’t take. Everytime a place gets popular, people just want to take, take, take. They don’t want to know the history. They don’t want to know the people. They don’t want to know the issues at hand, or they don’t want to address them. That’s what we have to keep pushing.”

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