Farasani people find summer solace in ancient Saudi getaway

Farasani people find summer solace in ancient Saudi getaway
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Al-Qassar village consists of old buildings and is located in the south of Farasan Island. (Supplied)
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Updated 08 May 2021

Farasani people find summer solace in ancient Saudi getaway

Farasani people find summer solace in ancient Saudi getaway
  • Al-Qassar village becomes a top destination for those seeking moderate climates and potable water

MAKKAH: The village of Al-Qassar — located 5 kilometers away from the Farasan governorate — has long been a hub for the people of the Farasan Islands who are always in connection with the place.

This is especially noticeable during summer, when people migrate to the village to escape from the heat.
For more than 50 years, Al-Qassar’s historic homes have witnessed vibrant ceremonies, as their walls were built with stones, roofed from palm tree fronds, and adorned with seashells and beautiful Arabic inscriptions.
Saudi historian and poet Ibrahim Moftah said that Al-Qassar is one of the first villages that was inhabited in the Arabian Peninsula hundreds of years ago. The village enjoys moderate weather, is covered with palm trees, and is full of fresh wells and rich in history and events, he added.
“Farasan was a deserted island on all levels and the love of change is in the nature of Jizani people, so they used to go to Al-Qassar for change,” he told Arab News.
He said that at the beginning of the month of April, the village becomes a top destination for those seeking moderate climates and potable water. “Water in Al-Qassar can be found at a depth of six meters, whereas it can only be found in Farasan at a depth of 23 meters.”
Previously, most travel and trips to Al-Qassar village were during what Farasani people call the “Shaddah” season, where families ride camels to travel.
People of Farasan would postpone their wedding ceremonies in order to travel to Al-Qassar in summer, where the weather is cool during the Shaddah season.
Those trips to the village were done in two phases: One morning trip for a bride, who rides a camel carrying water and boxes with accompanying music, and another second trip during the afternoon for families.
“The Farasan people used to celebrate new brides in Al-Qassar in a unique way, especially if the bride was in the first year of her marriage, amid the chants and songs of joy,” said Moftah. “A calm and trained camel is chosen, then they decorate the camels with beads, pearls and silk, and copper bells that are fixed to its ankles to make sounds as it walks.”

HIGHLIGHTS

• For more than 50 years, Al-Qassar’s historic homes have witnessed vibrant ceremonies, as their walls were built with stones, roofed from palm tree fronds, and adorned with seashells and beautiful Arabic inscriptions.

• Previously, most travel and trips to Al-Qassar village were during what Farasani people call the ‘Shaddah’ season, where families ride camels to travel.

• People of Farasan would postpone their wedding ceremonies in order to travel to Al-Qassar in summer, where the weather is cool during the Shaddah season.

Moftah said that before a bride’s trip to Al-Qassar, “young women gather at the bride’s house and start singing, then they start their trip with the bride in the forefront. The camels would also be carrying wooden boxes that used to arrive from Aden and are made in India, loaded with expensive clothes and perfumes. The bridesmaid accompanies the bride, and she is usually of a similar weight. Men and women would stand on the sides to wave goodbye to the bride’s procession.”
The bride is then received in Al-Qassar with jugs of water and chants.
However, Moftah said that “nowadays, there are no more camels in Farasan” and that “life has changed and these traditions ended 50 years ago,” as cars, modern homes and air-conditioners have become common and Al-Qassar is no longer an escape or a shelter for anyone, now only home to “deserted houses and souvenirs.”
According to the Saudi historian, official festivals and a surge in tourism “was not fair” to the history of Al-Qassar village, as older traditions were not properly represented. “The region has lost one of the most beautiful cultural traditions.”
Saudi tourist guide Yahya Abbas said that Al-Qassar village consists of old buildings and is located in the south of Farasan Island, and includes almost 400 houses fixed with tree fronds, small stones and sand “to prevent water leaks.”
He added: “The history of this village dates back to the Roman era, and there are writings and drawings dating back to the Himyarite era.
“The village is considered the largest palm oasis in the region, with plenty of fresh wells.”
Abbas said that Al-Qassar has now become an area for tourists and visitors who want to discover its history and that of the Farasan Islands, as well as view the ancient houses in the village.


An out-of-this-world trip to Socotra Island

An out-of-this-world trip to Socotra Island
Updated 10 June 2021

An out-of-this-world trip to Socotra Island

An out-of-this-world trip to Socotra Island
  • Exploring the weird and wonderful landscapes of Yemen’s UNESCO World Heritage Site

DUBAI: Socotra Island has been variously described as ‘The Galapagos of the Middle East’ and ‘The Jewel of Arabia.’ This Yemeni UNESCO World Heritage Site is the largest of four islands in the Socotra Archipelago, situated east of the Horn of Africa in the Arabian Sea.

The unspoiled, alien-like landscape of the island has intrigued travelers and scientists alike for decades. According to UNESCO, it is a site of “universal importance because of its biodiversity with rich and distinct flora and fauna.” The UN body estimates that 37 percent of Socotra’s 825 plant species, 90 percent of its reptile species and 95 percent of its land snail species do not exist anywhere else in the world.

The unspoiled, alien-like landscape of the island has intrigued travelers and scientists alike for decades. (Shutterstock)

Until its airport opened in 1999, Socotra was very difficult to get to. This year, Air Arabia began operating a direct chartered flight once a week to the island from Abu Dhabi — a journey of around two hours.

We caught the final tour of the season — travel to the island stops during the monsoon season (late May to September). And while there are three hotels on the island we opted for a camping trip. Be aware though: This is camping, not glamping. There is no electricity, no running water, no toilets and no showers. So a portable bidet, biodegradable wipes and biodegradable soap are a must in order to protect the island’s delicate environment. Its capital, Hadibu, already has a serious problem with trash and plastic.

We first set up camp at Dihamri, a rocky coast covered in white coral. It’s the perfect spot for snorkeling — you can see all types of sea life in the crystal-clear waters, including stingrays, turtles and puffer fish (pro tip: bring sea shoes).

Until its airport opened in 1999, Socotra was very difficult to get to. (Shutterstock)

During our visit, it was still around 35 degrees Celsius and quite humid at night, making it unbearable to sleep in the tent. On the plus side, sleeping outside gives you a clear view of the stars. On other nights, we weren’t so lucky, as the winds picked up, rattling the tents and keeping us awake until sunrise.

Despite the lack of sleep, the beauty of the island energized us and we continued to explore. We hiked to Kallissan, where there is a natural pool in which to cool off, then set up camp in Arher, a stunning site full of giant white sand dunes at the edge of the mountains with great coastal views. The dunes are high and challenging to climb (it took us about an hour to get to the top), but definitely worth it.

Its capital, Hadibu, already has a serious problem with trash and plastic. (Shutterstock)

There are so many spectacular sites to explore if you’re prepared to put in the hours hiking: The unique dragon blood tree, for instance, so called because of its red sap. Legend has it the first dragon blood tree was created from the blood of a dragon that was wounded when it fought an elephant. In Arabic, the tree is called dam al akhawain — the blood of the two brothers — as the story goes that the tree first grew on the spot where two brothers, Darsa and Samha, fought to the death.

There are also a number of abandoned Soviet tanks around the place, a lasting reminder of the influence the USSR had on Southern Yemen. From 1967 to 1990 South Yemen (including Socotra) was the only communist state in the Arab world.

We’d also advise scheduling your visit for March — when the island’s famed bottle trees (desert roses) bloom. (Shutterstock)

Along with the tales of the past, we met many wonderful locals willing to share their knowledge of the island, from Wagdi, our tour guide, to Abdullah the caveman who spends his days fishing in the Detwah Lagoon and will happily invite you to his cave for fresh fish.

Seafood, cooked in a variety of ways, is the staple diet of Socotra. You can get crab, stingray and lobster for as little as a $1. For breakfast we enjoyed traditional Yemeni bean stews with bread, cheese and local honey.

Caption

Our return flight — the last scheduled flight out before the end of the season – was cancelled due to a cyclone. That delay gave us the opportunity to explore Hadibu and engage further with the locals, who were very helpful. The island has no functioning ATMs and getting money was a struggle, as the island does not have much cash flow. We’d advise taking an emergency fund.

We’d also advise scheduling your visit for March — when the island’s famed bottle trees (desert roses) bloom — or in October or November, shortly after the monsoon season, when the island is green. But whenever you visit, Socotra really is like no other place on earth.


Saudi tourism app links beneficiaries to service providers

Saudi tourism app links beneficiaries to service providers
Tourists watch Saudi men perform a traditional folk dance at the cultural village of Rijal Almaa in the outskirts of Abha, Saudi Arabia July 17, 2020. (REUTERS)
Updated 05 June 2021

Saudi tourism app links beneficiaries to service providers

Saudi tourism app links beneficiaries to service providers
  • The application gives the best options on the prices of rest houses, chalets and tourist services of all degrees

MAKKAH: Tripper Online, an application providing an innovative interface to link Saudi tourism providers to customers in the Kingdom, will help tourists plan their holidays easily in future, according to a member of the Saudi team behind it.
Abdul Aziz Bukhari, Tripper Online’s chief financial and technical officer, said the app would provide a platform for tourists wishing to enjoy all manner of trips and activities in the Kingdom to search for and deal with service providers.
“We decided to start working and achieve all the requirements of the tourist market by designing an electronic platform that combines all these trips and services, and through which the providers of these services can provide beneficiaries with offers through applications on Android and iOS systems,” he told Arab News.
Bukhari stressed that the requirements of using the app meant providers would have to uphold certain sets of standards, and enable the use of electronic payment options or cash.
“The languages used (by the app) are Arabic, English and (Mandarin) Chinese and work is under way to introduce Italian and Japanese,” said Bukhari. “The application came into (use) six months ago, but the demand for and interaction with the application began early.”
He explained that the development team launched a big marketing campaign, resulting in many orders from across Saudi Arabia. “The beginning was encouraging and saved a lot of effort on the service seekers’ part, offering a beautiful model to shrink the distance between service providers and beneficiaries,” he said.

We decided to start working and achieve all the requirements of the tourist market by designing an electronic platform that combines all these trips and services, and through which the providers of these services can provide beneficiaries with offers through applications on Android and iOS systems.

Abdul Aziz Bukhari, Tripper Online’s chief financial and technical officer

Traffic through the app, Bukhari added, continues to be positive, with trips to the Kingdom’s coast and islands proving popular, as well as its cooler areas with the hot summer months approaching.
“The application gives the best options on the prices of rest houses, chalets and tourist services of all degrees. We compare offers, service availability, area coverage, payment options, study market needs, manage cruises, book vacant flights and electronic collection,” he said.
The apps’ vision is focused on safer and more luxurious tourism, cooperation with accredited providers from all over the Kingdom, and networking across areas such as food, tour guidance, equipment provision, hospitality, diving, health clubs, swimming, paragliding, jet skiing, fishing, music, group activities, camping, sightseeing, transportation and others.


Sofitel Dubai The Obelisk: Come for the pharaohs, stay for the hospitality - and food

Sofitel Dubai The Obelisk: Come for the pharaohs, stay for the hospitality - and food
Sofitel Dubai The Obelisk is arguably one of the most exciting UAE hotel launches in recent times. Supplied
Updated 31 May 2021

Sofitel Dubai The Obelisk: Come for the pharaohs, stay for the hospitality - and food

Sofitel Dubai The Obelisk: Come for the pharaohs, stay for the hospitality - and food

DUBAI: Just outside the Sofitel Dubai The Obelisk stands (what we assume is) a replica of the Luxor Obelisk found in Place de la Concorde in Paris. It’s somewhat overshadowed by its neighbor, however. After all, the hotel’s 50-floor building — also shaped like a tapering stone pillar — towers over it. Visible from kilometers away in the city, the new kid on the block is now the star of Dubai’s Wafi City complex, which is also home to the pyramid-shaped Raffles Dubai hotel. Sense the theme?

Ancient Egyptian interior design, featuring Pharaonic motifs and monuments, catches the eye as soon as you walk through the hotel’s main double doors. Supplied

Opening late last year, Sofitel Dubai The Obelisk is arguably one of the most exciting UAE hotel launches in recent times. Not only can it lay claim to now being the largest Sofitel property in the Middle East, but it also features one of the most interesting lobby experiences we’ve explored in a while. Ancient Egyptian interior design, featuring Pharaonic motifs and monuments, catches the eye as soon as you walk through the hotel’s main double doors. A striking golden falcon, boasting a nine-meter wingspan, keeps watch over the reception. Check-in felt like it flew by as we were kept busy taking in the decor and surroundings.

And the Egyptian theme doesn’t stop at the lobby. Our room also featured key art pieces, even in the bathroom. Because who doesn’t like to look at sculptures while in the shower?

The hotel is home to 498 rooms and suites, plus 97 furnished and serviced residences. Supplied

The hotel is home to 498 rooms and suites, plus 97 furnished and serviced residences. Our Deluxe Room opened to a spectacular view of the Dubai skyline — Burj Khalifa included — while across on the other side was a spacious bathroom with double sinks, a shower and bathtub, and Lanvin bath products.

The spacious bathroom boasts double sinks, a shower and bathtub, and Lanvin bath products. Supplied

Overnight stays aside, this Sofitel sure bagged one heck of a dining win, hosting Daniel Boulud’s first venture in the Middle East. Brasserie Boulud is the latest restaurant in the portfolio of the celebrated chef and restaurateur, who’s known for his two-star Michelin restaurant in New York.

Opting for dinner on the evening of check-in, we were left impressed from start to finish. Whether it was the thoroughly knowledgeable host keeping us entertained or the incredible flavors sampled, Brasserie Boulud is a gastronomy experience for the books. If you’re a fan of steak, go for the “faux filet grille avec frites maison” (Wagyu sirloin accompanied by French fries and spinach). Thank us later.

The hotel is also home to Taiko Dubai. Supplied

The hotel is also home to Taiko Dubai, the “first international outpost of Taiko, the award-winning restaurant in Amsterdam,” but it was fully booked during our stay for a function. It currently holds a Google rating of 4.4.

Our 24ish-hour visit flew by, with the next day dedicated to spending it at the pool and lounge area (which also has an obelisk-shaped swimming pool). What we liked here is that there’s an option to book a more private cabana and that the atmosphere was more relaxing compared to many of Dubai’s “party pools,” which we tend to avoid. Overall, the hotel feels more family-friendly and laid back.

Overall, the hotel feels more family-friendly and laid back. Supplied

After check-out, we decided to stay a little longer by going for lunch at another establishment, and if kitty videos are your thing, then you’re going to want to visit The Nine. This feline-themed British gastropub boasts a creative menu that includes gems like Nine Lives Nachos, Paws in the Air, and a Meowgarita. The eatery’s Saturday Roast comes recommended, but the mains of fish and chips and steak pie that we opted for instead hit the spot.

Sofitel Dubai The Obelisk might not be in Downtown or over at the more tourist-friendly Dubai Marina area, but that shouldn’t affect occupancy. It offers a great location for quick trips (it’s about a 10-minute drive away from the airport), but it’s also one for residents given its excellent dining offerings and staycation-worthy pool facilities. Just don’t forget your camera to capture the views.


EAT, PLAY, LOVE: Safety first in the Seychelles

 EAT, PLAY, LOVE: Safety first in the Seychelles
Updated 28 May 2021

EAT, PLAY, LOVE: Safety first in the Seychelles

 EAT, PLAY, LOVE: Safety first in the Seychelles
  • The beautiful island nation opened up to international travel again in March, and has used the time since to set itself up as a safety-conscious destination

 

DUBAI: Watching the sun set over the ocean from a busy restaurant, listening to a soundtrack of excited chatter in several different languages as translucent waters lap at a white sand beach below… a holiday in the Seychelles in 2021 seems no different than it ever was.

The only reminders of the COVID-19 pandemic are the face masks folded on the tables next to drinks, and the hand sanitizer replacing salt and pepper shakers.

Because tourism has returned here in full force. Since the island archipelago reopened on March 25, travellers — currently mostly Arab and eastern European rather than German and British due to current lockdowns — have arrived in droves. Hotel operators report occupancy levels rocketing from around 20 percent to 90 percent in a week. 

Security patrols roam the beaches, restaurants and hotels on the nation’s three main islands — Mahe, Praslin and La Digue — ensuring the rules are followed at all times. (Shutterstock)

Now welcoming around 500 visitors per day, the nation is seeing a glimmer of hope after a tough year that battered its tourism-reliant economy. Even now, during a surge in COVID cases despite operating one of the world’s fastest vaccination campaigns, tourism authorities are insisting the Seychelles is a safe place to vacation. While the Ministry of Health has said about one third of the positive cases are among people who are fully vaccinated, most are those who have received only one dose of the vaccine or none at all. 

Which is why safety has become paramount here. Masks are worn even outdoors by the Seychellois and social distancing is strictly enforced.

Security patrols roam the beaches, restaurants and hotels on the nation’s three main islands — Mahe, Praslin and La Digue — ensuring the rules are followed at all times. A new COVID-hotel certification has approved 500 of the country’s 700 hotels to operate. But despite the rapid return of tourism, isolation isn’t hard to find. 

The waters around Felicite are protected, so the snorkeling here is excellent. (Shutterstock)

On Mahe, the most populous of the country’s 115 islands, seclusion is found in the south. The Four Seasons Resort Seychelles, for instance, is a welcoming fortress — the private-access road winding through thick foliage until you reach the property’s 67 villas spread across an expansive 180-hectare bay atop the picturesque Petite Anse beach.

Privacy abounds here, and despite it now almost running at full capacity, the site is so vast it never seems crowded. Sun loungers by the beach are socially distant, and given that each of the villas has its own private pool, it’s become a popular choice for safety-conscious travellers. On-site restaurants Kannel and Zez offer some of the best food on Mahe, so there’s really no reason to ever leave the enclave. 

But the real draw of a trip to the Seychelles is a spot of island-hopping, and the country’s private islands have been quick to position themselves as the ultimate COVID-friendly place to holiday.

But if it’s rugged nature and proper hiking you’re looking for, head straight for Silhouette Island. (Shutterstock)

If you’re willing to splurge, head for Six Senses Zil Pasyon, located on the private Felicite Island. The traditional-style, ocean-front villas are roomy and come with their own private pools and huge outdoor deck, perfect for social distancing. The spa, which Six Senses is famous for, is back in operation too — and is the best place to spend a rainy afternoon indoors.

The waters around Felicite are protected, so the snorkeling here is excellent, and short walks around the island lead you to isoloated white-sand beaches which you’ll likely be alone to enjoy.

Six Senses Zil Pasyon is located on the private Felicite Island. (Shutterstock)

But if it’s rugged nature and proper hiking you’re looking for, head straight for Silhouette Island. Hilton Seychelles Labriz Resort & Spa operates on one of the few flat areas of the island, which is mostly made up of towering peaks and overgrown jungle. Hikes here are something else entirely — steep climbs through native flora that deposit you at a private beach, sometimes featuring free-roaming giant Aldabra tortoises, sometimes with a coral reef prime for snorkeling. These are exclusive experiences, since the island is a protected national park and the hotel offers just 111 rooms. You’ll need to opt for a higher end ‘Sanctuary Villa’ for a private pool, but the lengthy main beach provides ample room for swimming in almost-complete isolation. The local settlement nearby, inhabited by about 30 Seychellois, means there’s a far more authentic experience to be had here, too. To spend a few days on Silhouette is to be transported to another world.

While the rest of the world tentatively reopens, and travellers venture overseas once again, the Seychelles has had a head start — and time to fine-tune a tourism industry operating in the “new normal.” So it currently offers a safety-conscious, low-key experience for travellers returning to seeing the world.  


SDC signs MoU with Darah to preserve cultural heritage in Saudi Arabia

SDC signs MoU with Darah to preserve cultural heritage in Saudi Arabia
SDC seeks to document, in cooperation with Darah, the region’s culture and rich heritage. (Supplied)
Updated 26 May 2021

SDC signs MoU with Darah to preserve cultural heritage in Saudi Arabia

SDC signs MoU with Darah to preserve cultural heritage in Saudi Arabia
  • The company seeks to document, in cooperation with Darah, the region’s culture and rich heritage while also making it a global mountainous tourist destination

JEDDAH: The Soudah Development Co. (SDC) signed a memorandum of understanding (MoU) to step up cooperation with the King Abdul Aziz Foundation for Research and Archives (Darah) to preserve the cultural human heritage by documenting social life with narrative stories that reflect the beauty of ancient societies.
The MoU was signed by SDC CEO Husameddin Al-Madani and the acting secretary-general of Darah, Fahd Al-Samari.
The SDC, one of the Public Investment Fund (PIF) companies, is dedicated to preserving the cultural heritage and enriching the national archive for the Asir region. The MoU is also part of the directives of Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman, chairman of the board of directors of the company, to preserve the human heritage in AlSoudah and Rijal Almaa while highlighting the culture and originality of the region.
The CEO of the SDC noted that Soudah and Rijal Almaa are distinguished by their authentic societies. The company seeks to document, in cooperation with Darah, the region’s culture and rich heritage while also making it a global mountainous tourist destination.
The signing ceremony was attended by Asir Gov. Prince Turki bin Talal bin Abdul Aziz, the chieftains of the Soudah and Rijal Almaa tribes along with other local historians and novelists.
The MoU contributes to supporting the SDC with content in heritage and cultural aspects. It will also work with local tribal chieftains, historians, and writers to preserve the tangible and intangible heritage.