Banyan Tree AlUla Near+Far rating: 8/10
Something magical happens in AlUla during sunrise and sunset. The entire ancient valley becomes bathed in gold as the dimmed rays illuminate the honey-hued rocks, creating a shadow of dancing across the vast expanse. This is just one of the otherworldly beautiful moments that happen daily in AlUla – an ancient desert kingdom in the western reaches of Saudi Arabia. Now home to UNESCO World Heritage Sites, an Old Town, a main town, and a growing number of beautiful resorts, AlUla was once home to the ancient Nabataean civilisation (of Petra fame), who left their mark with magnificent tombs carved into the rocks. Beoduins, pilgrims then called AlUla home, and today, it’s one of the Kingdom’s most progressive and tourist-loving destinations, with a constant stream of art exhibitions, events, and pop-ups, plus concerts from the likes of John Legend, Alicia Keys and Andrea Bocelli.
The most luxurious of AlUla’s resorts is Banyan Tree AlUla, which rose from the sands in 2022. The resort comprises 47 elegant tented villas dotted across the valley – their cream tented roofs perfectly blending into the rock -each seeming to neighbour just deserts and rocks. Guests whizz between villas and spread-out public hangouts on golf buggies, be it to the Banyan Tree Spa and two restaurants – overlooking Maraya Concert Hall. The resort’s highlight – and a reason to visit alone – is the Rock Pool, a swimming pool sandwiched between two looking limestone rocks overlooking the tawny-expanse of the Ashar Valley.
Banyan Tree AlUla sits deep in the heart of the protected Ashar Valley, the rocky canyon synonymous with AlUla’s beauty. Out of all AlUla’s hotels and resorts, Banyan Tree’s location is arguably the most exciting, as it also looks directly onto Maraya concert hall – the world’s largest mirrored building which is almost invisible in the desert. Staying here is to feel truly removed from civilisation, to enjoy the silence of the desert and rock and reconnect with nature – and even rethink your place in the world, realising how small your life problems are in the scheme of things. Although its otherworldliness, it’s just a 30-minute drive from AlUla international airport, where flights come in from Saudi cities and Dubai, and AlUla’s other attractions: the Nabatean city of Hegra with its iconic tombs is a short drive away, along with Elephant Rock and AlUla Old Town with its maze of mud-brick houses, restaurants and boutiques.
Rooms and Suites: 9/10
Neither are applicable at Banyan Tree AlUla – all guests stay in spacious private tented villas – available in one- to three-bedrooms with separate living and sleeping spaces, along with a large private terrace and a cosy corner of the sand – complete with firepit. Most villas come with private pools, and while these are spectacular, there’s immense pleasure in just sitting outside – so don’t fret if you book into a pool-less villa – the rock pool is also open from sunrise with plush sunloungers and umbrellas and a team serving refreshing iced tea and cold water. The interiors of the villa blend ultra-modern with ancient Arabia. There are canopied ceilings, plush king-sized beds, Arabiequw design touches, books dedicated to AlUla, and Sadu fabric and native plants. Floor-to-ceiling doors open the whole way up onto the terrace, creating seamless indoor-outdoor living.
Bathrooms are exquisite, with earthy coloured tiled and indulgently big soaking tubs, complete with intoxicatingly beautiful bergamot fragranced bath and shower gel which instantly makes you feel woozy. The glass opens up to the outdoor terrace, plus there’s an outdoor shower, so you can enjoy the (slightly risque feeling) of bathing outside in the Saudi desert. Make sure to ask your villa attend to draw a bath complete with fresh orange and lemon slices, which are harvested by the 200,000 citrus trees that grow locally.
This isn’t the place to play loud music and splash around, more a place to read a book, chatter over tea with your travelling companion, or just gaze onto the desert and rocks. While having more than enough space for two, these villas couldn’t be better equipped for solo travellers, with sitting in silence out on the terrace this reviewer’s favourite pastime. Large groups and private individuals will delight at the five Royal Villas, which are separate from the property on the road to Maraya – with previous guests including Mariah Carey.
Food and Drink: 9/10
Banyan Tree’s roots are planted in Thailand, and as a result, AlUla now has what is one of the best Thai restaurants in Saudi – if not the Middle East, due to a lack of Banyan Trees in neighbouring GCC countries. The team delivers all the Thai classics, like green curry, using Thai herbs grown in the small restaurant garden. The main culinary hub is Harrat, spread across an earthy dining room and terrace with beautiful views of Maraya. Harat serves quintessentially Middle Eastern and Saudi fare (plus international favourites like salads, wraps etc). Breakfast is a treat, and the Arabic eggs are a must, plus there’s fresh juice and great coffee. Naturally, in-villa dining is popular, along with experience dining, particularly a romantic set-up in the valley. Remember, Saudi Arabia is an alcohol-free country, so you’ll find a selection of mocktails, juices and other soft and hot drinks.
Spa and Facilities: 9/10
Banyan Tree AlUla would make for an excellent wellness escape – there’s the beautiful spa, focusing on healing Thai and Arabian treatments, the shiny gym with Technogym equipment, and the beautiful adults-only rock pool – a true architectural marvel with cool expansive waters and an unrivalled sense of peace. Coming this seasons are treatments like sound baths, yoga, and meditation, along with experience spa treatments – like massages in the caves. Make the most of the surroundings (and cooler mornings) by hiking – with plenty of trails nearby in both mountains and wadis, or venture out into AlUla with the help of Banyan Tree’s experience team. Experiences include visits to Hegra, Elephant Rock, the tombs of Dadan, and rock climbing, stargazing and ziplining. Journeys out as far as the Red Sea are also possible; just pop over the concierge, and they’ll organise it all.
The vibe: 7/10
This is a resort with privacy at its core. Villas are positioned in ways you needn’t see another guest if you don’t want to, but the ones you do see are elegant, curious, discerning travellers. Restaurants have a good buzz, so it’s easy to enjoy a more social vibe if desired, but guests largely keep to themselves. Guests at Banyan Tree AlUla are able to enjoy a more lenient dress code inside the resort’s grounds, so shorts, gym wear, and swimsuits and bikinis (by the pool) are all welcome – just remember to dress respectfully when venturing out to the town itself.
Banyan Tree AlUla is one of the most magical and unique resorts in the world, and it’s somewhere this reviewer wishes every traveller could experience in their lifetime. The majesty of the rocks and roaring silence of the valley can bring about spiritual experiences, while the villas and facilities plant you firmly back in a modern, ultra-luxury resort. Come for a quick wellness or adventure, weekend, or a week and enjoy various day trips, or even during the summer- with AlUla’s temperatures slightly lower than the rest of the country and region.
Ashar Valley, AlUla, Saudi Arabia, villas from AED1,873 low season, AED4,612 high season; banyantree.com