Back in June 2020, I embarked on a four-day journey to Taif, Al-Baha, Abha and Jazan in the south of Saudi Arabia. These are some of the most beautiful destinations in the Kingdom, a true showcase of the diversity of the country, and with their cooler climates, they are especially inviting during the summer months.
For the past two years, I have wanted to return to these places. I have repeatedly told friends how stunning they are and perhaps bored them by recounting the same stories of the experiences I had, the people I met, and the hospitality and welcome I received.
Fortunately, my birthday was last weekend, so I decided to celebrate by taking three of my closest friends back there for a short road trip. We would first journey through Asir province and then on to Taif so that they could have their own first-hand experiences of these special areas of Saudi Arabia.
It was an interesting group of friends who came together and sat on a plane from Riyadh to Abha International Airport — my friend Abdullah, who is originally from Asir province, but admits to knowing very little about the region; Mohammed, who has lived and worked in Taif, but has never really seen the city through the eyes of a tourist; Anas, who is famed for only ever wanting to holiday in faraway places; and me, born and raised in Riyadh — and perhaps the most excited of the group to be heading to Abha and Taif.
As we flew over the varied landscapes, it crossed my mind that I should really travel to Asir more often as it is so easy to reach. Two hours after leaving Riyadh, we landed in Abha, rented a car, and headed toward the scenic Al-Soudah mountains.
With its mountains, beaches and dense juniper forests, Asir is one of the Kingdom’s most beautiful and unexpected provinces. It is situated high on a plateau, has a cooler climate and receives more rainfall than other areas of the country.
We drove up through the green forests, enjoying the sweet scent of the juniper trees, until we reached the village of Al-Soudah, where we took a cable car to the top. At about 3,000 meters, Al-Soudah Mountain is the highest peak in Saudi Arabia, and the views are spectacular. We ended up spending a couple of serene hours up there while Abdullah lamented the fact that this was his first time experiencing this natural wonder.
After heading down from the peak, we drove across to the historical village of Rijal Alma. I had the opportunity to visit the 900-year-old village during my trip in 2020 and immediately fell in love with its unique architecture, which looks like a series of multi-story fortresses built from stone, clay and wood.
In recent years, the local population has taken great care to restore these fortresses to their original glory, and their success is such that Rijal Alma is now on UNESCO’s tentative world heritage list.
Furthermore, in 2021, Rijal Alma was included on the UN World Tourism Organization’s list of best tourism villages — a global initiative that recognizes locations with the potential to be special tourism destinations for people to visit and learn about the rich culture and heritage of the land.
It is clear why Rijal Alma was awarded a place on that list. The village museum is home to a host of artwork and archaeological artifacts, and local guides are on hand to give a fascinating insight into the history of the village. We met a man named Ahmad, a local who had been a guide for about five years. He was dressed in the traditional attire — a brightly colored, striped cloth wrapped around like a skirt — and adorned with floral wreaths beautifully arranged from flowers and herbs.
The following day, we left Rijal Alma and drove north toward Taif. The drive through the Al-Soudah mountains is like no other as it winds through lush forests and valleys — a perfect route for viewing points and picnic spots. Halfway through the journey, we stopped in a small village for a late lunch.
Here Abdullah’s knowledge and expertise of his home region peaked, and he ordered a regional specialty called “arika,” a delicious honey and ghee dish, served with freshly baked bread and local coffee with spices from the south of the Kingdom. Stomachs full, we continued along the winding road, past ruined watchtowers and orchards of apricots and pomegranates, before reaching Taif as dusk fell.
Mohammed was looking forward to Taif, where he had worked for about a year, and he quickly had us navigating the central market’s narrow alleys in search of the best kebda, a local liver sandwich, which he used to enjoy when he lived there.
The thing that I remember most from my previous trip to Taif is the scent of flowers throughout the city. Taif is famous for its flowers, in particular its roses. The mild climate and mountainous terrain gives the flowers grown there a unique “Taifi” scent, and Taif’s rose gardens are one of the main exporters of perfumes to Saudi Arabia and the Middle East.
We took a leisurely stroll through one of the 900 rose farms in Taif — many of which have been family-run businesses for generations — and learnt from its owner Khalid how the fragrance is extracted. Each of us took away a bottle of rose oil for our mothers, with Mohammed also taking one for his grandmother, who regretted the fact that he had never previously brought her one when he lived there.
As our road trip came to an end, the four of us sat somewhat heavy-hearted at Taif airport, waiting for our flight back to Riyadh.
We had enjoyed an amazing experience, met wonderful people and seen beautiful places, but work and real life beckoned.
Abdullah reflected on the new things that he had explored in Asir province, such as the Al-Soudah mountain cable car. Mohammed talked about how he had seen Taif in a completely different light as a tourist, while Anas hopped around like a child, excitedly asking: “Where are we going to go next in Saudi?”
I just smiled.
• Abdullah Al-Dakhil is an international communication manager at the Saudi Tourism Authority. He completed his postgraduate studies in London.