From a bird’s-eye view, AlUla—an oasis in northwest Saudi Arabia and a centuries-old stop along an ancient incense route—looks like a sea of rust-red sand, cliffs, and canyons, with a ribbon of palm groves running through it. The dramatic desert valley could double for the red rocks of Utah and Arizona or Jordan’s seemingly extraterrestrial Wadi Rum. But set within the shadows of the sandstone are somewhat incongruous, extra shiny . . . Airstream trailers. Dozens of them, amid pizza and ice cream trucks and gathering tents inspired by Bedouin camps. This mix of past and present, East and West, is what many international travelers first encounter on a trip to Saudi Arabia.
As one of most well-developed entry points into Saudi tourism, which only started issuing leisure-travel visas in 2019, AlUla serves as an on-ramp to the long-cloistered kingdom. I got to check out three hotels firsthand, including the aforementioned Airstream village, that offer distinctly different ways to be immersed in nature in Saudi Arabia.
On a trip to AlUla in November 2022, I overheard travelers from Guadalajara, Dubai, Germany, and even Florida discuss what brought them to the oasis (in no particular order: a honeymoon, an anniversary, a Desert X art showcase, and a John Legend concert at Maraya concert hall). They were fellow guests at Habitas AlUla, a desert retreat composed of 96 villas prefabricated in Mexico by the Tulum-based Habitas hospitality group to lighten the construction footprint, then shipped to the Ashar Valley. Known for its sustainable design practices and low-impact construction, Habitas uses organic materials that blend into their surroundings. Guest rooms are fashioned out of bamboo, canvas, and responsibly sourced hardwood, with nary a plastic container in sight. (Even the key card is made of bamboo.)
Social and cultural exchange are a big part of the Habitas experience. On arrival, no matter the hour, a welcome ceremony takes place. The AlUla property borrows from Saudi tradition, burning incense as one would for guests arriving at a wedding; here, it represents the closing of one door and opening of another. I was encouraged to take a deep breath, find my center, and be present. The host placed a bracelet on my wrist as I transitioned from being a guest to part of the family. “We are brothers and sisters now,” they told me. “Welcome home.”
“Home” is a comfortable tented suite with a king-size bed, indoor and outdoor shower, living room, and patio made for lounging and stargazing. (The Celestial villas even have their own telescopes, though sadly, no user manual.) Electric bikes come with each villa—a necessity since the rooms are spaced out across the valley and require a hilly walk to get to the co-ed pool, the contemporary Middle Eastern restaurant, Tama (order the beetroot hummus), and the wellness center and spa. Golf-cart shuttles can be called in advance, but honestly, I opted for the electric bike every time, day or night. Another thrill? The trampolines-as-art installed during Desert X, now open 24 hours a day for a quick, mind-bending bounce in the middle of a desert in this corner of a complicated country.
Caravan by Habitas AlUla
Habitas AlUla opened in November 2021 and on its one-year anniversary, it was completely sold out. Its sister property, Caravan by Habitas, followed in 2022 as a more moderately priced alternative. The 22 Airstreams come with two twin beds or a queen, shower and separate bathroom, dining area, and a few thoughtful amenities (I enjoyed the novel The Alchemist left at my bedside). A shaded outdoor deck ostensibly doubles the space of your guest quarters, though even in the winter, it gets hot out there. The Airstreams pump out an alarming amount of air conditioning to keep the retro “silver bullets” cool. It feels less than sustainable, though RV parks are common in AlUla. Before Habitas arrived, there was an Airstream RV park near Elephant Rock, an iconic (and very literally described) rock formation, where Saudis started testing out glamping during the pandemic.
Habitas levels up the experience with multiple food trucks (pizza, ice cream, waffles, acai bowls, you name it), nighttime DJ sessions, and movie screenings projected onto the sandstone cliffs. Guests of the Caravan also have access to all the amenities at larger Habitas next door; simply ask at the front desk for a five-minute car ride over.
Banyan Tree AlUla
In the next canyon over, a Banyan Tree was born in late 2022, further cementing AlUla as an ultra-high-end wellness destination. (Three Aman resorts are also slated to open this year.) Forty-seven villas—a mix of one, two, and three bedrooms (upwards of 2,500 square feet!) and many with private pools—are spread out across nearly two miles of the valley. Bikes, scooters, and buggies-on-call enable guests to get from end to end. In one corner is a guests-only pool with knockout views of the valley, a spa with traditional Thai massages (very, very good massages), and all-day-dining restaurant Harrat, which serves Middle Eastern dishes and an outstanding latte if you have a craving. In the other corner is Saffron, the signature Banyan Tree Thai restaurant run here by chef Tina, who relocated from Southeast Asia to Saudi Arabia for the opening. Guadalajara native Ricardo Lujan serves as executive chef, overseeing both restaurants, while Paris-based design firm AW² curated the look of the resort. It’s an interesting mix of French, Mexican, Thai, Indonesian, and Saudi hospitality, with Saudi artists contributing art and handicrafts throughout the property. Individually tailored experiences are also a hallmark of this Banyan Tree (think in-villa barbecues and hot air balloon excursions). Not to be missed is the prehistoric rock art right on the property. It’s all proving popular: The resort was completely sold out when I was there in November (it was hosting a gathering of Saudi Ministry members).
The aforementioned Amans will include a resort in 2025, a tented camp in 2026, and a “ranch-style” desert resort in 2027. Meanwhile, a new boutique hotel is under construction in the Old Town.
Know before you go
- Please read these travel tips and etiquette—including dress codes and decorum—from top to bottom before planning a trip to Saudi Arabia.
- Citizens from 49 countries, including the United States, are eligible to secure an eVisa through the Visit Saudi website.
- Saudia Airlines, flydubai, and flynas fly into and out of AlUla’s International Airport (ULH), a 30-minute drive from the city center. Jeddah, Riyadh, and Dubai are common transfer spots, though a seasonal Paris direct route is said to be in the works.
- A reminder: No alcohol is served in the kingdom of Saudi Arabia, though the mocktail scene is strong.