“Keys to the Kingdom, Mysterious Saudi”
September 18 – 26, 2023 Small Group
Price listed below the daily itinerary
“What we see will violate what we know – but what we know dictates what we see.” ― Lysa TerKeurst
Mysterious and unknown, Saudi is an unimaginable land shrouded in ancient traditions where history blends with uber contemporary luxury. If you are a culture-vulture and a wonder seeker to places not like home, this is your vacation destination! For centuries, it was closed off to any form of tourism until 2019 when it first opened its doors to visitors. A cultural shift and great reforms are now underway to welcome you with heart felt hospitality.
Here is raw tourism, untouched and pure with no crowds or waiting in lines. It’s like launching yourself into another dimension. We will experience colorful souks, World Heritage Sites, ancient monuments and archaeological sites dating back 20,000 years. Wrapped in 1660 miles of the Arabian Sea coastline, Saudi is as much an ocean kingdom, as it is a desert kingdom. But it’s the curious local people so eager to meet you with genuine warmth that makes it all so special. Like visiting another planet, my visit in May served me so well, it changed me.
Discover the essence of KAS (Kingdom of Saudi) as we tour 3 of the county’s best and most diverse regions. The cultural hub of Jeddah on the breezy coast of the Red Sea will WOW you with entertaining delights. Our tours in Saudi’s capital, Riyadh covers palaces, museums, forts and bazaars. Then we journey into the mountains for a marvelous day at “the Edge of the World” for incredible photos.
The highlight is is historic Al Ula, “World’s Largest Living Museum”, set in stunning desert scapes. This bucket-list topping place makes you feel like a true explore beyond Indiana Jones. See the UNESCO ancient tombs and monuments that look otherworldly! (Petra in Jordan is cool. But sites like Hegra here are off the charts and you’ll have it all to yourself). Al Ula also provides the fun with camels, hiking, cutting edge art installations, adventure sports, stargazing and more. You’ll love our deluxe tented resort here set in a an illuminated canyon that looks surreal. But even more, “Caravans by Habitat” as we slumber in sleek silver Airstreams. Care for popcorn with your outdoor cinema projected onto ancient mammoth rocks? Here’s an immersive Glamping experience that focuses on human connections and adventurous surprises beyond your imagination! Check www.experiencealula.com.
Now is the time to explore enigmatic KAS on the road less traveled before mass tourism hits. September is the best month to visit and we guide you every step of the way. Need a nudge? Read my Saudi blog and visit www.visitsaudi.com. Come discover the undiscovered on our most unique and first ever AFS journey ever into 1001 Arabian nights, it’s beyond extraordinary.
Our Glorious AFS Itinerary
18 September – Depart USA to Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. Air details to come in trip tips later.
19 September – Welcome to Kingdom of Saudi Arabia or KSA Kingdom of Saudi ! (Land portion officially begins)
Welcome to Jeddah, the largest city in Saudi Arabia. A major port, a historical Red Sea trading point, and a gateway for the thousands of yearly pilgrims heading to Mecca or Medina, the city has a bustling atmosphere with enticing entertainment venues.
On arrival, airport transfer to our hotel. We’ll be free to explore the city – the Islamic Museum is one of our options, a veritable showcase of Arab history and tradition. Later you may wish to go for a walk along the beautiful Corniche, which is a key spot for locals to socialise, stroll and enjoy the sea breeze.
Overnight at Hyatt House, Jeddah (2 nights)
20 September – Exploring Jeddah Tour
After breakfast we’ll explore Jeddah today, beginning with a visit to the enormous fish market. Seafood is essential to the economy of Jeddah, and a visit to this thriving fish market puts this into perspective. We’ll also explore Jeddah’s Corniche, which extends many miles along the Red Sea coast – this long sea front incorporates parks, mosques and playgrounds, and is lined with sculptures that culminate at the small open-air sculpture ‘museum’ in the north of the city. We’ll walk a section of it, aiming to see the amazing ‘Floating Mosque’ along the way.
After lunch we had to the UNESCO-listed old town of Al Balad this afternoon. A quirk of Saudi culture is that many places only come alive after 4pm, with souks, shops and cafes opening late into the night. This is no different in Al Balad. Founded in the 7th Century, Al Balad was once the city centre of Jeddah and an essential Red Sea port. This wonder of architecture is famous for its wooden and coral carved ‘roshans’ (intricately carved facades), or Ottoman townhouses which provide fascinating photos. During our guided tour of Al Balad we’ll enter some of the houses for a perspective on how people lived and worked in old Arabia. See the 300 year old mosque still active and vendors selling traditional delicacies of fresh bread, Arabian coffees and smoothies. We’ll also have some free time to explore the maze of narrow streets that lead into the Souk Al Alawi section of Balad – in the late afternoon this area is transformed into a busy network of shops selling rugs, art, herbs, silver and perfume, as well as a lively street market with everything from okra and rice to meat and chilli peppers.
Our Welcome Dinner this evening will give us the opportunity to sample what Jeddah is really known for – fish! We will go to one of the cities popular fish restaurants for the catch of the day. Normally the menu includes a creamy fish together with hummus, vine leaves, rice and trimmings. It’s a fitting start to our Saudi Arabian journey.
Overnight at Hyatt House, Jeddah. B, D
21 September – Fly to Al Ula for full day Tour
After breakfast we head to the airport for our flight into another world of glorious Al Ula. On arrival at 1PM, we check into our stunningly located desert resort which will be our base for the next two nights. During our time in Alula we will certainly discover why this area is becoming a must-visit location for anyone interested in the scenery and rich cultural heritage of Arabia.
Al Ula is located in the Wadi Al-Qura, a valley oriented north-south between the lava fields of the Harrat ‘Uwayrid, and the sandstone massif of the Jibal Ath-Thumayid. Its’ underground water resources and its’ strategic location along the frankincense road meant this valley played a major role in the history of the Arabian Peninsula.
The birthplace of two ancient Arabian kingdoms: During the 1st millennium BCE, Al-Ula saw the rise of the ancient city of Dedan that became the capital of two successive kingdoms, Dedan and Lihyan, that ruled over the northwest of the Arabian Peninsula. At the end of the 1st millennium BCE a new power coming from the north, the Nabateans, installed their southernmost outpost and second most important city 20 kilometers to the north of Al-Ula, in Madain Saleh. North of this is the Nabateans city of Petra.
This afternoon, we will explore various archaeological sites and the UNESCO World Heritage site of Hegra (aka Mada’in Saleh). Second, only in size to Petra (in neighboring Jordan), this strategically sited Nabatean city has over one hundred ornately decorated royal tombs, including the striking Qasr Farid, dating back to the 1st century CE.
At sunset, we board our 4 x 4 Jeeps again to head for a visit to the iconic Elephant Rock. Set in golden desert sands and climbing at a height of 52 meters into the Saudi Arabian sky, the awe-inspiring Elephant rock is one of Al Ula’s many geological marvels. Unlike the ornate, hand-carved facades of nearby Hegra’s Nabataean tombs, the “trunk” and “body” of this monolithic red sandstone beast were shaped by natural forces over millions of years of wind and water erosion. The beauty of the unrefined structure is enhanced by a landscape of golden sands and studded with rocky outcrops of interesting shapes and figures. Time for refreshments at the café here and for photographs as magical lights make this site dramatically impressive.
(Please note that many of the activities in and around AlUla are controlled by the Royal Commission for AlUla which includes the times and durations allowed for visiting the sites. Google Condé Nast Traveler magazine, October 2022 for a great historical story featured on Alula.)
Overnight at Shaden Resort, Al ula (2 nights) B/D
22 September . Al Ula Mountains & Tombs
After breakfast, morning to relax by the beautiful swimming pool or hike the surrounding canyons.
Later we visit by Jeep the Lion Tombs of Dadan. In the ancient oasis Dadan, close to today’s city of Al-Ula in Madinah Province, a kingdom flourished from at least the 6th century until the 2nd century BCE. There, the kings of Dadan and later Lihyan reigned over a territory that spread from the city of Iathrib (today’s Madinah) to the Levant. In their capital Dadan, remains of these brilliant kingdoms have been excavated, including an impressive necropolis whose tombs were dug into the side of Jebel Dadan that overlooks the city on the east. These tombs are square-shaped holes, cut at different heights out of the side of the mountain, their cavities being about two meters deep. They are approximately dated to the 5th century BCE, the probable period of the Lihyanite takeover of the region. About 1 kilometer south of the main excavation site of Dadan are two exceptional tombs located some 50 meters above the wadi where the ancient oasis was centered. Those are the only tombs that are decorated with two carved lions each, showing the importance of their owners, being governors or influential people. These sculptures of lions are an outstanding example of the Mesopotamian influence and are the proud iconic figures of this ancient oasis.
Don your sneakers, for a wonderful canyon hike as we continue to Jabal Ikmah (mountain). In a beautiful desert landscape, the world’s largest “Open Library” is tucked away in a remote canyon. Dadan was a caravan way station for many peoples, and one of the clues that Al Ula was truly a crossroads of civilizations is Jabal Ikmah. It was visited by those wishing to leave their inscriptions and offerings en-route through Al Ula. It’s like a giant message board for pilgrims to communicate. Records kept here are in the form of hundreds of inscriptions and carvings lining the cliff faces and rocks and ensured that Jabal Ikmah would be remembered throughout the ages. The inscriptions are thought to date as far back as the 1st millennium BCE. Gazing at its rock art of humans, musical instruments and animals, you can discover what was important in the daily lives of people in the “Dadanite,” “Lihyanite” and other civilizations of Al Ula. Long after Al Ula’s ancient people walked this site, researchers and historians visited Jabal Ikmah to study its centuries-old imprints. You will feel the historic power of this magnificent site.
Farm visit – Enjoy a unique lunch at a local farm. I love this special farm with miles of date and fruit trees. Ali and his dogs greet us with juice and coffees before we walk the orchards that supply produce from here around the world. Pick what you like and then we head to his Bedouin camp. His mother prepares us a feast of delicious local dishes. Our visit here supports the local community with jobs and sustainability of this huge plantation.
Harra View Point at sunset – embarking on a 4WD ride scaling the black lava stone terrain of Harrat Uwayrid, to be rewarded with views over Dadan, Ula oldtown, AlUla Fort and the AlUla Oasis.
Our day ends with a stroll through the outdoor Old Town Market featuring local artisans, entrepreneurs, handicraft stores, local specialty foods, cafes and more. AlUla Old Town is still being renovated for tourism. T.E. Lawrence (aka Lawrence of Arabia) lived here in 1916. Travelers stayed here for the 12th to 20th centuries. Learn more at www.experiencealula.com
Overnight at Shaden Resort, Al ula (2 nights) B/D
23 September Caravans at Habitas! https://www.ourhabitas.com/caravan-alula/
Today we will check in to Caravan Habitas. So much buzz on this place for upscale hipsters seeking a wilderness adventure like no other. Caravan by Habitas is a one-of-a-kind glamping experience set among the majestic sandstone cliffs in AlUla designed to set free the inner child in all of us!… 22 silver Airstreams, infinity pool, 4 food trucks, huge community tented area, scattered art installations and unique adult play stations for fun, like swings to trampolines.
The Mirage- Optional visit by jeeps to the famous new Maraya. See the enormous cubed-shaped sculpture of mirrors that is an award-winning, state-of-the-art structure. Time to get your best Instagram photos ever!
Later in the evening, enjoy s’mores by the fire and popcorn with movies set against a mountain wall.
Overnight at Caravan by Habitas (1 night) B
24 September Flight to Riyadh, Desert Journey to Edge of the World.
Early morning yoga session at Caravan Resort. Wellness is woven into the fabric of everything here.
Later transfer to airport for flight to Riyadh 11:40AM-1:15PM and head straight to our hotel to check in. The capital of Riyadh is a sprawling city, where ancient palaces and palm trees are found just a few traffic-laden streets away from bright, modern architecture. We’ll get a feeling of both the old and new today.
In the late afternoon, we drive in 4WD vehicles into the Tuwalq Mountains and Jebel Fihrayn, also known as the Edge of the World! This dramatic set of cliffs, just one hour outside of Riyadh, rises vertically from the desert floor. Walk the towering clear cut rock riffs formed 150 million years ago by the Red Sea in this part of the Arabian Peninsula. Like Jurassic Park, keep an eye out for fossils. The horizon dances before us yet is somehow unobtainable – this visual illusion gives the wonder its name. We aim to be there for sunset, before driving back to the city.
Overnight at Crowne Plaza Minhal B
Riyadh Must See – The Diplomatic Quarter offers natural and cultural attractions within a self-contained recreational landscape. You can walk or cycle to the beautiful Wadi Hanifa, take a stroll around manicured parks and gardens and shop or dine in upmarket international plazas.
What’s New – Riyadh’s modern skyline is the perfect showcase for an architectural marvel. New skyscrapers are rising as the city continues to grow. While staying true to its rich cultural heritage, Riyadh continues to adapt a more contemporary feel attracting millions of travel enthusiasts travelers with city-wide events and entertainment festivals throughout the year.
Must Do – Riyadh is a shopper’s paradise. From luxury brands in the modern Sahara, Hayat and Al Qasr malls, to the traditional souks of Deira and Al Owais, you can find all the latest designer goods and negotiate over truly unique and antique local artifacts. For adventure explore the desert. You can race across the dunes of the Thumama in a quad bike or find endless calm in its sublimely desolate vastness. Hike the rust-red Sha’ib Luha valley, where the sweetly fragrant acacia trees bow above glass-green pools.
25 September Exploring Riyadh – Historic City Tour & Dune Bashing
Before the 1930s, Riyadh was a small, walled oasis town in what was then known as the Second Saudi State. After Abdul Aziz Ibn Saud conquered the state in the late 1920s he retook his family’s ancient seat and brought together most of the Arabian Peninsula in what he went on to name ‘Saudi Arabia’. We’ll learn some of this history on a trip to the National Museum this morning – the museum is enormous so we will pick and choose some of the key exhibits. If you are staying longer in Riyadh it’s well worth spending more time here.
Saudi Arabia’s capital and main financial hub is on a desert plateau in the country’s center. Landmarks include the 302m-high Kingdom Centre, with a sky bridge connecting 2 towers, and 267m-high Al Faisaliah Centre, with a glass-globe summit. In the historical Deira district, Masmak Fort marks the site of the 1902 raid that gave the Al Sauds control of Riyadh. We continue to visit Masmak Fortress, the most prominent remnant of the old walled oasis town of Riyadh. From here, we will visit the modern part of the city, taking the lift up the Kingdom Tower skyscraper for impressive views.
Red sand dunes – Later we’ll continue to an adventure in the Red Sand Dunes! Located in northeastern Riyadh, Red Sand is an area of red desert dunes where you can enjoy numerous thrilling activities including sand-boarding, dune-bashing and buggy-riding.
Overnight at Crown Plaza Minhal (2 nights) B
26 September Riyadh onwards flight back to USA
Today here we say goodbye to beautiful and memorable Saudi, with flights back to the U.S. B
Land Price $3595 plus internal domestic flights Jeddah – AlUla – Riyadh $220
(Price based on a minimum of 20 participants per person twin share. Single supplement $1195.)
Includes: 6 nights’ accommodation at listed hotels and overnight at Caravan, Breakfast daily and meals as stated (B= breakfast, L = lunch, D = dinner), Farm experience at Al Ula. Transportation using the services of a deluxe air-conditioned coach for all transfers, sightseeing and excursions as per itinerary. Accompanied Tour director in entire tour. Entrance fees to the monuments as mentioned in the itinerary. Mineral water will be provided daily. All applicable taxes, Regional Flights – Jeddah – AlUla/ Al Ula – Riyadh
Not included: International air USA into Jeddah and out of Riyadh. Pre- and post- land arrangements. Passport and visa expenses. Travel Insurance. Gratuites TBA
We will detail all rules and customs. Regulations are becoming more relaxed making visiting easy. Saudi Arabia is a dry country. Alcohol is absolutely forbidden (as are narcotics and pornographic materials). Dress is modest and women do not need to cover their heads. You will be fingerprinted and undergo a retinal scan upon arrival in the country. Be aware that most places in the Kingdom shut down between noon and 3 pm every day as well as several other times during prayers and often the group will be returned to the hotel for some free time during these periods. In addition, sometimes sites can be closed for no foreseen reasons or authorities can also deny visit of certain places without prior notice. AFS nor our partners are responsible for any such events/acts.
TRIP TIPS. Coming soon. Until then here is a great article about this destination.
What it’s like to travel as a woman in Saudi Arabia