Dubai: If there was one thing I had to say about my recent trip to Al Ula in Saudi Arabia, is that it’s a place of extraordinary natural beauty, cultural heritage and kind hearted people. Al Ula is a county in the North-West of Saudi Arabia.
I learned firsthand that is a place of awe-inspiring beauty, a landscape of cliffs and canyons featuring ancient petroglyphs and rock art. It feels like another planet. There’s no light pollution, so you can see pretty much every single star in the sky. There is no traffic, so the air is fresh, there are no skyscrapers, so your views are totally unobstructed. The mushroom and elephant shaped rock formations also add to that out worldly notion
Al Ula is now at the center of a project to raise awareness of the country’s ancient history, inspire national pride, and fuel tourism, all objectives within the purview of Vision 2030, Saudi Arabia’s roadmap to a different future.
In this remote corner of the kingdom, you will surprisingly find a lot to do. Whether it’s going on an adventure, fine dining or even a trip to Saudi Arabia’s ﬁrst UNESCO World Heritage Site with millennia of archaeological treasures and records of timeless traditions that continue to this day.
Boredom is not an option in Al Ula.
Winter at Tantora offers a series of 12 premium weekends experiences that encapsulate the very best in art, music, food and entertainment. As of now, there are 6 weekends remaining. The festival is running until March 7, 2020 and will show residents and tourist from all over the world an unforgettable experience in a completely transformed Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.
Here are 11 reasons you have to visit the Winter at Tantora festival in Al Ula, Saudi Arabia.
Reason 1: This incredible RV Campsite
First thing is first, you need a place to stay. To me it was important to feel like I was really experiencing nature. I stayed in an Airstream travel trailer area called Canyon Camp and it was unlike any other night I’ve spent. When you arrive to the campsite, you can see the aluminum exteriors reflect the sunlight and contrast against the rocky mountainous scenery. The RV cart features a spanning bathroom, shower, convertible dinette, and twin beds at the front of the trailer with a centered nightstand.
Sleeping in the RV was a great way to be one with nature, but also still have indoor plumbing. Did I mention that you get to see the stars? I think I’ve mentioned it once or twice. No high buildings, no light pollutions, skies bright with stars and a bonfire every night to allow guests to mingle.
Breakfast is served directly to your room. I enjoyed it on my terrace area, facing the mountains.
Reason 2: The dining experiences
If you want to experience some of the most surreal dining concepts of your life, then spend a little more than you normally do and try out one of the incredible pop-up restaurants. Especially, since each spot has been carefully placed in a very unusual but picturesque location in the Saudi Arabian desert.
Annabel’s Desert Garden
The famous private members’ club from London is currently in Al Ula. This lounge and restaurant is ‘garden’ themed and nestled against the beautiful rocks. The menu features dishes from Annabel’s garden and bar. Bookings are limited to weekend and one day package guests. The food was on point, with almost every dish and mocktail executed very well. The Tuna Tartare made with avocado, yuzu and truffle dressing stood out as my favourite from the appetisers, while the Miso-Glazed Black Cod on an avocado and papaya relish was the winner of the mains. The food is served sharing style and is open for lunch and dinner from Thursday to Saturday.
Cost: Dh1,200 per person
Sass Café Al Ula
From Monaco to Al Ula, the stylish and legendary restaurant, Sass Café is located in between the rocky mountains in the desert. To get there, you have to walk through cracks in the mountain to arrive to the dining area. With Mediterranean cuisine, a mixologist, a BBQ menu managed by Diego Perezsosa and live entertainment. Sass Café Al Ula is not to be missed. Their calamari stood out to me as the top appetiser dish, while the Hanging Chicken with Criolla and Chimicurri sauce was my favourite main. Make sure you try the Tatin Tarte and the Hanging Pineapple with Mascarpone Cheese. The food is served sharing style and is open for lunch and dinner from Thursday to Saturday.
Cost: Dh800 per person
La Cantine Du Faubourg Al Ula
The award-winning French restaurant, based out of Paris and Dubai, is in a gorgeous setting overlooking the desert. The Executive Chef Gilles Bosquet created a set menu for a hip lunch or dinner. The food is served sharing style and is open for lunch and dinner from Thursday to Saturday.
Cost: Dh800 per person
The concept of Awna is to create a series of dining experiences every weekend within the historic Hegra, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Michelin-starred chefs from around the world have come and are coming every weekend to offer a curated culinary experience in an exceptional setting. Some of these chefs include, Chefs Hélène Darroze, Adeline Grattard, Guy Martin, Akrame Benallal, Emmanuel Renaut, Yannick Alléno, Anne-Sophie Pic, Régis Marcon, Arnaud Donckele and Sylvestre Wahid. The dining experience will be right by the thousand year old
Reason 3: The Maraya Theatre
The newly constructed Maraya concert hall in Al Ula in Saudi Arabia has been unveiled as part of the Winter at Tantora festival. ‘Maraya’, which in Arabic means reflection or mirror, is built close to Hegra Saudi Arabia’s first UNESCO world heritage site.
The 500-seat capacity venue was home to some of the world’s leading performers who range from Omar Khairat to Andrea Bocelli throughout the Winter at Tantora festival. The festival’s opening artist was legendary singer Aziza Jalal. The festival will end with a bang hosting Lionel Richie and Craig David. Maraya is an architectural extension of the environment that surrounds it at its site in Ashar. Not to mention it is a very popular Instagram location, since the mirror building looks fantastic in photographs.
Reason 4: Flying a vintage airplane over Al Ula
When you land in the Al Ula airport, you will notice a fleet of vintage aircrafts. You have the option to experience one of four vintage aircrafts to see a different view of Al Ula. You can fly over the heritage sites or out to the black and white volcano. Make sure you arrive at the airport 30 minutes before the starting time of the experience.
Cost: Dh1,365 per person for all types of vintage aircrafts
Available: Thursday to Saturday from 7am - 4pm
Reason 5: Having a freshly squeezed juice at Al Ula Fresh
Al Ula Fresh is a beautiful little oasis owned by a local Saudi farmer and business man, who opened up his farm to the public during Winter at Tantora for visitors to tour. The point of Al Ula Fresh is to go around and explore the different kind of fruits and vegetables that grow in Saudi Arabia. It is not just dates. They have delicious oranges, lemons, pomegranates, apples and more. They even managed to grow cotton, which is quite difficult to grow. We got to walk through the farm, pick our own fruits in a basket then we take the fruits we picked to a juice bar, to get a freshly squeezed juice that you can drink on the spot.
Cost: Dh180 per person, kids under 12 can enter for free.
Reason 6: Taking a picture of the sunset at Elephant rock
The Elephant Rock is one of Al Ula’s most popular attractions. This season of Winter at Tantora, the site has transformed into a festive, cultural, and artistic hub where visitors will enjoy a cool experience that includes seeing the picturesque rock, as well as a seating area around the rock, with live entertainment and a variety of restaurants and cafes.
Make sure you check out the pop-ups at including the famous Dubai eatery Salt Burgers specially for the Winter at Tantora season.
Reason 7: Seeing the UNESCO Heritage site Mada’in Saleh
Located in the heart of the desert in Al Ula, 320 Kilometers north of Medina is the first Saudi site to earn UNESCO recognition Mada’in Saleh, and it is also the most spectacular of the bunch. Mada’in Saleh, also known as the ancient city of Al Hijr. Visiting this area, you won’t just walk through the site, you will get a live action play of how Mada’in Saleh came to be, with young Saudi actors and actresses partaking in the educational performance.
Reason 8: Seeing a Coachella inspired art exhibition
Desert X Al Ula is the first site-responsive exhibition of its kind in Saudi Arabia. An exploration of desert culture, the exhibition is a cross-cultural dialogue between artists from Saudi Arabia and its surrounding region and artists from previous iterations of Desert X in California which happened during Coachella, taking its cues from the landscape and historical significance of Al Ula. Over the past year, Al Ula has welcomed artists to engage with its environmental conditions, historical context and surrounding communities. Large-scale site-specific works presented in the exhibition will inspire new dialogue about the desert and reflect on themes that range from the passage of goods and ideas along the ancient incense route, the cultural memory that passage has left, and the natural resources that have shaped the region, both past and present.
Cost: Free entry
Dates: January 31 to March 7, 2020:
Reason 9: Ordering an Uber Vintage
There are plenty of ways to get around in Al Ula, one of them is Uber. When in that area, you will have the option to tap on “Vintage Uber” and you will get an amazing classic baby blue jeep car. Definitely worth it.
Reason 10: Going on a sunrise hot air balloon flight
Experience the sounds of silence from the skies of Al Ula during a hot air balloon ride through the county’s landscape. On two days during the festival, 100 balloons took gave passengers a chance to witness the sunrise with the sunrise free flight. Coasting over kilometre high, you will see UNESCO World Heritage Site, Hegra from above. Make sure you dress appropriately for the early morning as the temperatures can be cold.
Reason 11: The concerts
The concerts are the main attraction of the Winter at Tantora Festival. Every weekend, the Maraya Concert Hall, the largest mirror constructed theatre in the world, hosts an international artist to perform. The concert hall represents a modern architectural masterpiece and can accommodate an intimate five hundred guests. It is fitted with a high quality sound system and a beautiful backdrop of the mountains. Artists who visited included Jamiroquai, Omar Khairat, Il Divo and more.
Evenings in Maraya start on Friday at 6.30pm with a canapé reception, followed by the
The performance will start at 8:00pm and finish at 9:00pm followed by a Gala Dinner in Maraya’s restaurant.
Upcoming Concerts include:
Andrea Bocelli on January 31
Yanni on February 7
Jamil and Bouthayna from February 13 to 15
Enrique Iglesias and the Gipsy Kings on February 21
Kool and the Gang and Sister Sledge on February 27
Lionel Richie and Craig David on February 28
How to get access to the Winter at Tantora Festival
When you enter the country, there are desks in both Riyadh and Jeddah airports, where you can register for the Winter at Tantora event and receive your festival badge before boarding, to ease your arrival process when in Al Ula. The desks are situated near to the check-in area.
If you didn’t have time to register in Jeddah or Riyadh you will receive your badge on arrival in Al Ula. Platinum and Gold guests will proceed through the main terminal, and Diamond Guests should proceed to the executive terminal.
Whenever you arrive at any of the sites, you are expected to present your badge, so staff can scan it, so you have to keep your tag with you at all times during the festival.
What does the perfect itinerary look like for Winter at Tantora Al Ula?
1pm: Arrive to Al Ula Airport
3pm: Lunch at La Cantine du Faubourg
5pm: Visit Hegra, tour and immersion
6pm: Visit Elephant rock at sunset
8pm: Dinner at Awna
9am: Breakfast at Al Ban restaurant
11am: Expereince: Rock art trail, while horse riding in Ashar
1pm: Lunch at Annabel's
4.30pm: Visit Meydan Saleh for a tour and a theatre performance
8pm: Maraya Concert Hall for the Friday night show
8.30pm: Dinner Buffet at Maraya
9am: Breakfast at Shaden
10.30am: Visit Jebel Ikmah
11.30am: Visit Al Ula Fresh
1pm: Lunch at Sass Café
To check out more places in a shorter amount of time, then you can use the
Buy a one day or three-day bus pass to get around key festival sites.
One-day pass: Dh170
Three-day pass: Dh410
The buses follow a regular schedule, see the bus schedules at the end of the guide.