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The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is one of the world’s last true frontiers as well as one of the most misunderstood nations.
Recently opening its previously forbidden doors to travellers, this makes this ancient kingdom one of the most intriguing places globally to explore. A country rich in symbolism and home to some of the world’s most incredible pre Islamic treasures, Saudi Arabia is also home to unusual yet diminishing tribes, hidden cultures, forgotten practices and contrastingly modern cities with buzzing cosmopolitan vibes and a stunning coastline which is home to a vast array of marine life. Rich in rewards for the traveller who is keen to explore the countries wilds, Saudi Arabia delivers a contrast of landscapes and lifestyles unlike any other Middle Eastern destination and is the ‘what’s next’ for the curious minded voyager. A journey of discovery awaits.
Welcome to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia! On arrival, you will be met by our representative and transferred to your hotel (approx. 45 mins). One of the wealthiest cities in the world, Riyadh is a showcase for modern Saudi Arabia. Once a walled, mud-brick way station along desert trading routes, the capital is now a hyper-contemporary metropolis with the best hotels and restaurants in the country. Its organised grid layout is lined with more than 4,000 mosques, numerous busy shopping centres and traditional souks, public parks, and a diverse set of communities and neighbourhoods. On your first day in the Kingdom, you will check the pulse of the city by taking the high-speed lift to the 99 th floor of the iconic Kingdom Centre for access to Riyadh’s best urban panorama. Suspended 300 metres above the city, the tower’s curved Sky Bridge offers spectacular views across the Riyadh skyline and beyond, and is a must-do experience for all who pass through the capital. This evening, enjoy a welcome dinner which will be a representative embodiment of Riyadh’s spirit – traditional Saudi cuisine in a modern space. (D)
2 nights Joudyan Hotel by Elaf or similar
Discover the wealth of contrasts that distinguish Riyadh. Historical highlights here include Masmak Fort, Souq al Zel, and cultural centres such as the National Museum and the Murabba palace. And of course Ad Diriya, once the heart and start of the Kingdom. Whilst making your way across the city you will note the contrast between these local marketplaces and the city’s sparkling high rise. Begin the day with a visit to Ad Diriyah, the birthplace of the first Saudi state called At-Turaif which ruled between 1744 and 1818. The UNESCO World Heritage site has just been restored to its former glory and is poised to become a cornerstone of the Kingdom’s tourism offerings. Discover more about the architecture and heritage at the site. Find out how the mud-brick houses were built; how homes were cooled during the hot summer days; and how people lived without electricity and creature comforts It’s time to explore other pointers toward Saudi’s charismatic past. You’ll find Al Masmak Fortress in the heart of the old town. A large clay and mud-brick citadel that witnessed the birth of a kingdom, the 150-year-old edifice stands as a reminder of Saudi’s storied past. Justice Square is another reminder of the past. Roaming this ordinary neighbourhood on foot you discover mud houses, just like this morning, abandoned not long ago. You’ll learn more about Saudi history at Murabba palace and at the fantastic National Museum of Saudi Arabia. Towards the end of a busy day, you will head for Souq al Zel and Souq Bisht, two of the most characteristic traditional marketplaces in town and uniquely atmospheric hubs of Arabian commerce. This is the perfect place to purchase an Abaya for use during your travels if you wish to dress like a local. Naturally, as a foreigner the use of an Abaya is completely voluntary. Complete the Riaydh feeling by mingling with the locals in one of the city parks or squares that come alive with socializing activities once the sun rays disappear. (B,L)
Leaving Riyadh’s glittering skyscrapers and bustling streets behind, it’s time to experience the first of Saudi’s many wild and rugged landscapes. The plateau on which the capital sits ends abruptly, presenting you with a panoramic view over the ancient sea bed 300m below. The drop leaves the cars of today at a halt while the camels of yore find their way down a steep trail of switchbacks. Walk a short distance in their footsteps and marvel at this ancient caravan route and the talented camel riders who used it. Once at the bottom, travel through your first section of desert plain to the town of Ushaiger. Here, the ruins of an ancient mud village tell the tale of a Saudi very different from the one you’ve seen so far in Riyadh.
Wander the dusty alleys and visit a family-run museum to dig deeper into the town’s history. Continue your journey through time by taking the backroads to your next destination of Buraydah. Avoiding the highway, it is easy to imagine the hundreds of thousands of camels and traders that have made their way across these deserts for centuries. The dry desert dunes, as far as the eye can see, also hide a secret: this is one of the most important food-growing regions in the area. As you near the market town of Buraydah, the fascinating circular fields tell of the ingenuity of Saudi’s desert farmers. Passing Onaiza city together with Buraydah the twin capital of the Qassim region, stop by a local heritage museum where a fantastic VR experience can give you a glimpse directly into the past. (B,L)
Overnight in Buraydah Golden Tulip or similar
Distances and journey time: Riyadh – Ushaiger (200km): 2.5 hrs Ushaiger – Buraydah (185 km): 2 hrs
Buraydah and Onaiza – the twin-capitals of Qassim province, also known as the ‘food basket’ of Saudi Arabia. Where better to understand this than at your first stop, a local wet market. Watch as the buyers and sellers do business by auctioning from the back of their trucks. Wander through what is probably the largest date market in the world. In season, the stalls are piled high with tropical fruits and vegetables and, if the time is right, don’t miss the opportunity to sample Qassim’s famously succulent dates. Even outside the season, the scale of this market is enough to realize that Saudi Arabia is not just about oil.
Swap four wheels for the local train to Hail, with magnificent views over the rocky desert landscape. Hail was an ancient Arab capital, and the hilltop A’arif Fort speaks of the city’s prominence in this desert region. From the top of the fort to the centre of the city, your next stop on the historic circuit of Hail is the Al Qishlah compound. Built with the same red mud as A’arif, the 8m high walls of this huge fort palace show the power of the local rulers. (B,L)
Overnight in Hail Holiday Villa or similar
Distances and journey time: Buraydah – Hail (260km): 2 hrs by high-speed train
An hour north of Hail takes you into the Al Nafud desert, to the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Jubbah. Rising up from the windswept plains, these desert rocks feature some of the Arab World’s finest Neolithic rock inscriptions. The detailed drawings of people, animals, and daily activities are as visible today as they were when they were created over 9,000 years ago. Follow your knowledgeable guide as they take you on a tour of some of the best-preserved drawings.
Your next leg of the journey takes you west past the Sharaan nature reserve. Keep your eyes peeled for ostriches and Idmi gazelles among the dry desert grasses. Conservation efforts in this 1,500 square kilometre reserve have benefitted many native populations, including the elusive Arabian wolf.
As rich in natural beauty as it is in history and cultural heritage, Al Ula is a highlight of any trip to Saudi. The draw to Al Ula is its remarkable natural rock formations and canyons, extensive and varied pre-Arabic rock art, and immaculately preserved tombs built more than 2,000 years ago by the Nabataeans. Get in the mood with a sunset visit to Jabel Al Fil, or Elephant Rock, set in golden desert sands and climbing into the blue Arabian skies. Elephant Rock is one of Al Ula’s most easy to remember geological marvels. (B,L)
3 nights in Shaden Resort or similar
Distances and journey time: Hail – Jubbah (125km): 1.5 hr Jubbah – Al Ula (500km): 5.5 hrs
You’ll start the day with a visit to the Nabataean site of Hegra, which was the southern capital of the Nabataean kingdom, dating back to the first century BCE. Follow your personal ‘rawee’ or storyteller in your own jeep, to explore several of the more than 100 well-preserved monumental tombs, most with elaborate facades carved from rock formations scattered around the desert. Head to Al Ula historic city, an ancient place that once sat at the crossroads of the Silk Road and the Incense Route, and one that rewards a leisurely sunset stroll. Recent renovations have turned it into a magical mix of ancient alleys and trendy restaurants and souvenirs shops. Next door, the area known as ‘the new city’ has a colourful vibe with street art and exhibits spread out in its walking streets, making for a great afternoon stroll with numerous options for a drink on a terrace, watching the world go by while the sun changes the colours of the towering cliffs around. (B,L)
Distances and journey time: Al Ula – Hegra (20 km): 20 mins Hegra – Al Ula ‘new town’ (20 km): 25 mins
No trip to Saudi Arabia is complete without a 4×4 excursion into the desert. And we start this day with an unforgettable sortie around the towering cliffs that surround Al Ula. Following the ups and downs of the morning four-wheel safari, settle down in the middle of the desert for a delicious Bedouin-style, sheltered picnic lunch, encompassing a traditional range of Saudi and other Middle Eastern delicacies. As true navigators of the deserts, we set up camp with protection from the sun and the finest of Arabian hospitality awaits. Enjoy your remaining afternoon at leisure. Enjoy the facilities of the hotel or continue your exploration of Al Ula’s landscapes with an optional activity: to name a few; see the sandstone mountains from above in a helicopter or hot air balloon, hop on a mountain bike and venture off the beaten path into desert dunes or climb the valley’s edge to better soak in Al Ula’s expansive vistas. (B,L)
Today you will travel through the desert and mountains to Medina along an ancient pilgrimage route passing the oasis of Khaybar. Don’t expect a desert filled with sand dunes; this is an area with black lava stone and mountain vistas and is rich in historical significance. Before the rise of Islam in the 7th century, this area was inhabited by Arabian Jewish tribes. In 628 AD, Muslims under the leadership of Prophet Muhammad took over the city during the Battle of Khaybar. Visit the remains of the mud city situated in a wadi or valley, with its fortress towering above it. The area has been recently reopened after renovations.
One of the two holiest cities in Islam (the other is Mecca), Medina is centred around Al Masjid an Nabawi, a 10-minaret giant that can accommodate 1 million people also known as the Prophet’s Mosque. For a primer on the amazing history of the destination, you will visit the Dar Al Medina Museum (closed on Friday), a private collection that documents the city’s history and heritage. Next, join the throngs of pilgrims in the heart of the city, it is hard to describe the vibe. Non-muslims are welcome to enjoy exterior views of the mosque from the edge of the square. When the sun sinks it is a great time to visit Mount Uhud, a major pilgrimage site and viewpoint across the Holy City. (B,L)
Overnight in Medina Millennium or similar
Distances and journey time: Al Ula – Khaybar (225 km): 2 hrs 25 mins Khaybar – Medina (175 km): 2 hrs
There’s much more to Medina than its primary holy site. You will have the chance to visit the terminus station of the Hijaz or Ottoman railway, which once brought pilgrims to Medina from as far away as Damascus in Syria. Round out your time in Medina with some browsing time at the city’s central market. Saudis are known for having a sweet tooth and the stalls at this bustling souk are ideal snaffling territory for goodies such as ma’amoul (butter cookies stuffed with pistachios, walnuts, almonds, or dates), luqaimat (hot, crispy dumplings drizzled in honey) and kunafa (a kind of sweet cheese pie made with semolina pastry and rose water syrup).
After lunch, guests will board one of Saudi Arabia’s state-of-the-art high-speed trains to make the short (under 2 hours) hop to the coastal city of Jeddah. Celebrate your arrival with sunset drinks on the city’s attractive corniche. Spread out your carpet and your ‘takwa’, the smart Saudi picnic seat. Join the locals when the sun sets, the call for prayer sounds and the world’s tallest fountain comes to life in front of the beachwalk.
2 nights in Shada Shate’a Boutique Hotel or similar
Distances and journey time: Medina – Jeddah (420km): 2hrs by high-speed train Jeddah train station – Jeddah city centre (20km): 25 mins
Jeddah is a commercial hub sitting to the west along the Red Sea with the second busiest seaport in the Middle East. It’s the principal gateway to Mecca, the holiest city in Islam, and sees over a million pilgrims a year on their way to perform the Hajj. Despite this, Jeddah is perceived to be the most liberal city in Saudi Arabia and is a popular destination, offering the beauty of ancient architecture mixed with the latest luxuries.
Experience the Red Sea! Hop on a private cruise to enjoy the sea and sun. Snorkelling gear is packed to discover the wealth of underwater life the region is famous for. From Hawksbill turtles to lionfish, eels and even reef sharks, snorkelling along the coral sites will impress. The temperatures of the water are at least 21C and the high salinity is beneficial for your health. Top off your day with a seafood barbeque, skilfully prepared by your skipper. Find out that things are equally convivial on dry land in the atmospheric old town, Al Balad, which achieved UNESCO World Heritage status in 2014. Its traditional multi storey buildings and merchant houses are an architectural treasure trove. It is a dive back in time with the buzz of trading, pilgrims shopping and the occasional tourist mixed in. The roshan or wooden window covers are the ancient way to create shade and cool in this hot and humid climate, and they make these alleys especially picturesque. Have your guide take you out for one final taste of Saudi cuisine before you can say ‘hay alsalama, goodbye, until next time.’ (B,L,D)
So liberal is the atmosphere in Jeddah that it can be easy to forget about its proximity to Mecca. The holiest city in Islam is just under 100 kilometres from Jeddah and the millions of pilgrims who flock to Saudi Arabia from around the world to perform the Hajj generally ply this route on their way to the city’s sacred Kaaba. Mecca is off-limits to non-Muslims, but a glimpse of the city from a distance is sure to make an indelible impact on travellers of every creed or religious denomination. From the flat desert landscapes that surround Mecca, the road begins to rise as it passes by the holy city en route to Taif: the final destination for the day.
This elevation marks the transition between the coastal plain and the Sarawat Mountains, which start around here and extend all the way down to the Gulf of Aden in the south, running along the entire western coast of Yemen. The steep hairpin bends that curve sharply into the mountainside offer some spectacular vistas, while the monkeys that cavort by the roadside provide additional company on the journey. Taif itself makes for a satisfying conclusion to the road trip.
Known as the “City of Roses”, it is famous for its cool temperatures and for the fragrant flowers that grow in the city and its surrounding mountain valleys. The city has abundant natural beauty and is also known for the cultivation of grapes, figs, pomegranates, and honey. (B,L)
Overnight Remaj Hotel or similar
Distances and journey time: Jeddah – Taif (185 km): 2 hrs 30 mins
Fill your lungs with cool, clear mountain air during an epic road trip along the spine of the Sarawat range. In fact, there are few more spectacular journeys than the one between Taif and Al Bahah on the entire Arabian Peninsula. Visual manna comes thick and fast on the route. It includes imposing looking ruined watch towers standing proud on rugged escarpments, tranquil mountain settlements where the pace and rituals of life have remained unchanged through centuries and cultivated terraces that give lie to perceptions of Saudi Arabia as a barren and unforgiving landscape. There are opportunities to stop and explore these tableaus on the way to Al Bahah. Al Bahah itself is another of Saudi Arabia’s highlights. The city, the capital of Al Bahah region, enjoys a pleasant climate at around 2200 metres above sea level and is surrounded by more than forty forests, including Raghdan, Al-Zareeb and Baidan. The views all around the city are spectacular. Some of the best vistas can be enjoyed from Raghdan park, which overlooks a deep wadi gorge. Near Al Bahah, the village of Thee Ain — accessed via a curving road that hugs the cliffside — is one the region’s best preserved and hosts a fascinating visitors’ centre which offers insight to local life. Wander the steep alleyways, peek into the stone houses and look for the local tea seller, hiding in the shade under the trees next to the village spring. (B)
Overnight in Swiss Spirit Hotel or similar
Distances and journey time: Taif – Al Baha (220 km): 2 hrs 45 mins
The journey south along the mountain range continues to wow as it meanders towards the Yemen border. Especially the route between Al Baha and Abha, the capital of the Asir region, is a multi-faceted feast of mountain wonders so take your time and enjoy it over two days. At the start of the trip, the scenery is relatively gentle with watchtowers and heritage villages left and right of the road. A highlight of this section is a crescent-shaped settlement perched precariously at the edge of a cliff. The locals work hard to ensure the preservation of their village in its challenging location and it’s fascinating to hear their tales over cups of sugary mint tea. Dress modestly in these parts, not many foreigners make it here, so your tea hosts might invite you for a tour of their home. Sturdily built for protection against both winter cold and summer heat, these stone houses are very different from the mudbrick mostly used in Saudi Arabia. Overnight in the simple roadside town of Beni Sabr. There is nothing more to do here than trying the freshly baked ‘khops’ or bread and a ‘mikato’ coffee. Hear the call for sunset prayer ring out and see the pile of shoes grow at the mosque entrance. Bengali and Pakistani workers join the Saudi mountain men in prayer. All together, Islam at its best. (B,L)
Overnight Aber Hotel or similar
Distances and journey time: Al Baha – Beni Sabr (160 km): 3 hrs
Further south, the scenery gets more rugged as the mountains get higher, culminating in the peak of Jabal Sawda: the highest summit in Saudi Arabia. Before reaching Abha, you will encounter traditional Asiri houses along with an impressive mosque and equally notable views at the village of Olayyan. With a network of alleys and its setting against the hillside it is sure to impress. The local ‘museum’ takes you back in time, showing the tools and trades of its inhabitants of the past. In the larger town of Namas, explore the fort-like ruler’s house that is now a museum , strategically situated along the main road. Imagine the traders pass, paying their tolls, adding to the wealth of the rulers. A picnic lunch can be enjoyed in an airy park with a view into the deep valley outside town. End the day by exploring Abha, a fascinating city surrounded by tall, imposing mountains. (B,L)
2 nights Blue Inn or similar
Distances and journey time: Beni Sabr – Abha (180 km): 4 hrs
Abha and the wider Asir region are ripe for exploration. And the focus is on Asiri culture with local traditions, architecture, and heritage to the fore as we uncover the area that surrounds Abha. At Rijal Alma architecture spans mud houses and watchtowers. These buildings are shielded from seasonal rains by an ingenious system that involves lines of big round boulders that protect their foundations. Enjoy a refreshing drink under a shady tree at the village café. Another fascinating local settlement is the “hanging village” of Habala, which clings to a cliff, an effective tool in deterring potential invaders over the centuries. It is only accessible via a cable car that runs sporadically, but the views of the village hanging on to its precarious spot are a highlight of the region. After delving more into the heritage of Asir at the Fatima Museum of Aseeri Women—a fascinating overview of traditional design, home decoration and Asir natural painting techniques — the final road trip element of the Saudi mountain discovery is perhaps its most impressive. Pass by towering Jabal Sawda, widely believed to be the highest in Saudi Arabia, before descending a hairpin road down the slopes of the mountain to Rijal Alma. En route, there’s the chance to stop and discover a fascinating collection of around 60 multi storey traditional stone houses that hug the slopes. (B)
Distances and journey time: Abha – Rijal Alma (60 km): 1 hr Abha – Habala (60 km): 1 hr
Before departing, take some more time to explore Abha. It’s a fascinating city with plenty to offer. Stretch the legs at the city’s Art Street, a picturesque walkway lined with magnificent purple jacaranda trees. It’s a place where artists from all over the country catch up to share their creativity. The street is decorated with colourful pieces or art and there are numerous cafes and restaurants offering gourmet Saudi and international food. The culture of the city can also be absorbed by observing its intricately designed houses. These large, fortress-like houses are designed vertically, which helps heat escape and trap the cool air. If one would like to continue travelling in Saudi Arabia, we suggest adding on the Secrets of the South-module, including the coastal city of Jazan and the Farasan Islands. Or fly from Abha to another part of the kingdom. (B)
Distances and journey time: Abha city centre – Abha Airport (20 km): 25 mins
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**Please note that this tour can be organised on request for private departures.
* Pricing is subject to change at anytime until full payment has been received.
* A minimum of 5 adults is required to guarantee this departure.
A non-refundable deposit of 30% per person is required to secure your place. Final payment is due no later than 60 days prior to departure. Travel insurance is mandatory for travelling with Crooked Compass. For full terms and conditions, please click here.
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This category of tours involves light trekking, walking, cycling, rafting or kayaking for a few hours each day with a small amount of inclines and declines. You will require a reasonable level of fitness and good health to participate. It is important to note that due to the nature of some of our trips, they may take place in remote areas (with basic facilities) and can involve long travelling days on various modes of transport.
Suggested preparation : At least 3 months prior to departure, it is recommended that you undertake aerobic exercise (this may include jogging, cycling or fast walking) for 30 minutes, three times a week. It is also advised to walk on variable terrain and in variable weather conditions. For a cycling adventure, road cycling twice a week is recommended and for adventures which involve paddling and kayaking, it is important to gain confidence and rhythm rather than speed prior to departure.
This category of tours involve trekking, kayaking and cycling for period of 6 to 8 hours a day at a fairly consistent pace. Ideal for people looking to slightly increase the heart rate. For our moderately rated tours, you must have a good level of fitness and also be in good health. It is also important to be prepared for variable weather conditions. Altitude may also come into play. This category of tours may involve visiting remote areas where facilities can be quite basic. Accommodation may also involve camping, homestays or basic accommodation where facilities may not be considered of western standards. To enjoy this style of travel, it is suggested for travellers to have a reasonable level of fitness and health, a positive attitude, as well as a fairly active lifestyle. An open mind is also required.
Suggested preparation: At least 3 months prior to departure, it is recommended that you undertake 45mins – 1 hour of aerobic exercise, three to four times a week. Some potential exercises that could be beneficial include hill walking with a backpack on over variable terrain and weather conditions, as well as running and cycling dependent on the activity you plan on undertaking.
This category of tours involves trekking, kayaking, cycling or other adventure activities in remote areas for up to 8 to 10 hours a day. It is important to note that with the remoteness of some regions comes a variety of other challenges such as variable weather conditions, accommodation as well as facilities. You must have an excellent level of fitness and good health to be able to partake in this category of tour. You must have confidence in your own ability and be in good physical condition. Includes extended periods of endurance.
Suggested preparation: At least 3 to 4 months of strenuous exercise, four times a week. When preparing for treks it would be beneficial to participate in hill walks with a weighted day pack (approximately 5-8 kg) once a week for aerobic fitness and strengthening of leg muscles. It is also important to do this on variable terrain to prepare for challenging adventures. When preparing for cycling adventures, regular bike riding (at least 4 to 5 times a week for 1-4 hours is essential). It is also important to cycle on uneven surfaces or even participate in other aerobic exercises such as running or swimming to build up strength and stamina. Altitude may also be a factor in these tours.
This category of tour often involves extreme trekking, cycling or other extreme adventure activities. It is important to expect remote and poorly defined tracks and to be prepared for variable weather conditions for 10 to 12 hours per day (may sometimes be more depending on weather and altitude). These adventures are suitable for travellers who have prior experience in strenuous travel and activities, are extremely fit and have excellent health. It is also important to note that some of the terrain on these adventures will involve trekking in snow, at high attitude levels and may require technical equipment.
Suggested preparation: It is important to note that physical fitness should be an ongoing activity, commencing around 5-6 months prior to departure, or even before if you have no prior fitness. Exercise should focus on building maximum endurance and stamina. Four to five hard sessions of 40-60 mins per week should be completed and can include exercises such as going to the gym, running, swimming or cycling to focus on building aerobic stamina. It could also be beneficial to prepare by hiking on rough terrain, in extreme weather conditions or partake in altitude training.