By Maryann Horne
A few choice words. That was my response when my husband announced we were going to Riyadh. Certainly not the place we had dreamt of. But two years on, Saudi Arabia has grown on us both in a way we did not expect. It’s secret? The kingdom offers an incredibly diverse array of adventures for those who enjoy travel off the beaten track.
Our first trip was a train journey to Houfouf. Al Ahsa is the largest oasis in Arabia. It used to be on the old Ottoman trading route and its Qaisariah souq is one of the most splendid of the peninsula. The Uqair sea fort, where the treaty of Kuwait was signed is also worth a trip, as are the neighbouring caves.
Next was a six-night road trip to the Empty Quarter, Abha, al Baha and Taif. Asir province is close to Yemen in its identity: it is hilly, green and people are as warm and hospitable as the climate is cool.
We visited the highest peak in the Kingdom at Mount Sudah and its suspended village of Al Habala. Baboons lined the roads in places. The honey and handicrafts market knocks your senses and treasures include Yemeni and Saudi “liquid gold” and Assiri embroidery and jewellery.
An absolute must in this region is Raj al Alma. It’s an old village that local people decided to restore without any government funds and have turned into a bright and authentic living museum. Its doors are painted bright yellow, blue and red and colours explode against the black rock.
Spectacular routes carved into the mountains then brought us to al Baha. This region is green and lush. The air is cool and you can picnic by lakes and waterfalls, pick flowers and watch birds with incredible colours migrate further.
Another hidden gem is Dhi Ayn, a 400-year-old slate village nestled against a majestic backdrop of white limestone. Not a plastic sign in sight and the restoration is spectacular. Further along in that direction is, of course, Jeddah and the old city of Al Balad and Taif with its rose festival and flower processions.
The lesson learnt is that we don’t need to go necessarily far or follow the crowds. Sudair, the birthplace of the mother of His Royal Highness King Salman is a great day trip, as is Ushaiger and Sharkra. The date festival in Burreidah is the perfect place to learn more about the Kingdom’s favourite delicacy.
Our children have grown to love packing up the car, setting off on an adventure and getting dirty in old ruined villages and forts. Their favourite of late has been hunting for fossils on the old camel trail just outside Riyadh where they found seashells, fish and bones.
So the next time you hear “there’s nothing to do in Saudi”, just dust down that map, throw caution to the wind and say “let’s go discover”. This country is a gem, just waiting to be uncovered.