Towering cliffs of sandstone line the valley where the hotel is hidden. A central sandy road leads 1.5 kilometres from the reception at one end to the pool, bar and dining room at the other. Along the way, little paths peel off either side to its 96 tent-like villas. The road is serviced by a fleet of electronic golf buggies which drop guests around the property, veering off to the spa and the bizarre in-ground trampolines, sequestered in a remote corner. I feel as though I’ve been catapulted into another time and place, and I think some of the international staff feel the same.
Each villa is modelled on a Bedouin tent, if said Bedouins had hot showers, the softest sheets, vast beds and speedy Wi-Fi. Each standalone villa faces outwards toward the rock walls that surround the hotel, so for maximum privacy, they are approached from behind and the first look from outside is pretty underwhelming, but all is revealed when you enter. The look is pure Arabian chic: low couches in Saudi’s traditional red, white and black sadu weaving, and ornate brass lanterns on the floors and overhead. The bathroom has an open shower, and another shower outside, surrounded by a wall of palm leaves, though it’s too chilly to test-drive in mid-winter.
From my king bed, I look out to my own deck with Arabian carpets and low couches to the red sandstone cliffs of the canyon. There is nothing beyond but the rock walls and the desert sands, and the silence is all-enveloping. I quite like giving the odd tree a hug, but here in this treeless desert, I find myself wrapping my insignificant arms against the powerful rock walls, saying marhaba (“hello”) and thanking them for allowing me to stay.
The hotel group has a strong eco-message. At the most obvious level, that means bamboo room keys. At a deeper level, it’s about the low-impact construction of its modular buildings, which are in sympathy with the local architecture and are made from organic materials. The property also has a low light profile to avoid light pollution, but I’m constantly losing small objects – including jewellery – in the gloom. Make-up application is interesting, at best.
Food + drink
I could have the avo on toast and a flat white for breakfast, but opt for the Saudi option of manakish hot from the oven, with labneh and thyme. Happily, the coffee is excellent. I am out among the ruins and the desert all day, and there are so many intriguing dining options around the oasis that I don’t return for the lunch and dinner menus, which mix Arabian classics and plant-based international cuisine.
The restaurant looks out onto the (dry) bar and a cool infinity pool, a sharp contrast to the arid lands that surround us. After a soft dawn, the desert light is harsh – bring your fanciest sunglasses to every meal.
Out + about
Just a few minutes from Habitas’ front gate is the almost inconceivable building of Maraya, the world’s largest mirrored building, which is surrounded by cliffs in the desert. If you don’t do a double take when you see it, you’re clearly not alive. It hosts concerts with the likes of Andrea Bocelli and Alicia Keys, and is crowned by a restaurant by Michelin-starred chef Jason Atherton.
The captivating, crumbling old AlUla township hosts Suhail, an outstanding Saudi restaurant, Wacafe for the best coffee and spiced cookies, and a souq built for fruitful wanderings.
You could downplay it as glamping, but Arabia is the birthplace of glamorous camping. Habitas is a sophisticated offering in an overwhelmingly exciting, if controversial, location, which banishes the notion of a no-fun Saudi Arabia.
From $1247 a night. See ourhabitas.com
Waking up to watch as first light enters the valley. Let yourself be immersed in the landscape and it will unfold to envelope you.
Poor rostering and an understaffed reception sees a dearth of buggy drivers at busy check-out times, tricky when you and your luggage are a long way from reception. At one point, I even hitch a ride with the head chef in his service buggy.
The writer was a guest of Experience AlUla and Habitas Hotels.
published 2023-09-12 13:05:09