Saudi Arabia is the 12th-largest country in the world by area. In a country so large, it should come as no surprise that there is a wealth of regional variety across the country: A rich choice of landscapes, climates and cultures. Yet this is a fact that remains little-known even among Saudis.
I recently had the privilege to experience this variety first hand when I traveled to several destinations as part of the Saudi Summer campaign. This collaborative partnership between the Saudi Tourism Authority and the private sector invites Saudis and residents to explore the Kingdom in the warmer months.
Over four days, I explored Taif, Al-Baha, Abha and Jazan – areas of breathtaking natural beauty, rich culture and heritage.
My trip started in Taif, a short flight away from Riyadh, where I am always surprised by the difference in climate. Just three hours after leaving the heat of the capital, I was sitting down for dinner at a rooftop restaurant, enjoying a slight breeze and a pleasant 23 C temperature.
Taif is famous for its flowers, and for generations farms all over Taif have been supplying local markets with the finest flowers and delicious honey. Visiting a flower farm in the Al-Hada mountains that specialized in the production of rose water perfume showed me this fascinating process, which has existed in the region for centuries.
I learned more about Taif and its traditions at the nearby Al-Shareef Cultural Museum. After touring the exhibition, I watched a Taif folk dance demonstrated by performers, young and old. It was fascinating to see these traditions passed on from one generation to the next.
After a delicious meal of sleeq — a traditional Taifi dish of roasted chicken or mutton served over a porridge-like rice and milk mixture — I took the cable car down to a traditional market, famous for honey auctions.
The following day, a three-hour car ride took me to Al-Baha, a region of unique architecture, with over a thousand watchtowers and more than forty forests. I visited the 400-year-old village of Thee Ain, a historical site where polished slate houses stand in sharp contrast to the white marble hill upon which they are built.
From Thee Ain, I headed to Raghadan forest for a hike — surprisingly, I encountered light showers and fog in the higher areas of the forest. I was delighted to watch another traditional dance, this time specifically from the Al-Baha region. It is truly remarkable how each Saudi province has its own unique cultural identity and set of traditions.
My final stop that day was a family farm in the higher plateaus of Al-Baha. The farm sells fresh fruit, such as grapes and strawberries, and is especially famous for its olives. The farmer has developed a technique to produce olives — and exceptional olive oil — in southern Saudi Arabia, where the climate is challenging for olive production.
On day three, on my way to Asir in Abha, I stopped off at the over 900-year-old village of Rijal Alma. Historically, this stunning village was a regional trade center, it now comprises around 60 multi-story buildings — some up to seven stories high — made from stone, clay and wood.
After this, I traveled to the Al-Souda mountains, the highest point in Saudi Arabia at 3,000 meters above sea level, which boasts amazing views and the coolest weather I experienced this summer.
On the last day of my tour, I traveled to the southern province of Jazan, a region of varied topographies, home to mountains, forests, vast plains and coastline along the Red Sea. In the port city of Jazan, I savored lunch in one of the many exceptional seafood restaurants, before taking a boat to the Farasan Islands, a group of small coral islands 40 km offshore from Jazan. Their clear waters and pristine beaches made for an idyllic final stop to my tour.
The Farasan Islands are home to a thriving fishing industry, but many residents also harvest pearls from the sea. Pearl fishing used to be one of the region’s main sources of revenue.
On my short flight back to Riyadh, I reflected on the places I had visited and the people I had met. I was struck by the cultural contrasts I saw in each province — visible in the dances, coffees and foods. It was also inspiring to see the passion and love of the people I met for these traditions and crafts. This trip has left me wanting more and I am now more eager than ever to discover new areas of Saudi Arabia.
Abdullah Al-Dakhil is an international communication manager at the Saudi Tourism Authority. He completed his postgraduate studies in London. His interests are traveling, tourism, culture and international economy. Twitter: @AbdullahADakhil