My Saudi adventures began in the dynamic and cosmopolitan city of Jeddah. In fact, I learned that the city's unofficial motto is "Jeddah ghair" or "Jeddah's different", which is symbolic of the entire kingdom's modernisation. This has a lot to do with Saudi's extremely young population - 70% of which are under 35 years old! Alongside the modern elements in Jeddah (including the super-cool corniche), it still offered an authentically Arabian experience. I enjoyed an informative guided tour around the UNESCO-listed historical centre, Al Balad, a totally charming tilted, maze-like old town filled with traditional houses, art museums, Arabic coffee shops and government buildings. I felt so safe and comfortable walking around, and was warmly welcomed by many smiling locals. The town certainly comes to life in the evening and, as the sun set, market stalls selling incense, beautiful jewellery and amazing-smelling spices sprung up. It was a great atmosphere and I really felt as though I was getting a feel for local life.
From Jeddah, we sailed across The Red Sea towards an array of isolated atolls and simply stunning undiscovered islands. Rather than a traditional anchor, Scenic Eclipse has been built with dynamic GPS technology, meaning that it can access hard-to-reach areas with minimum impact on the environment. Honestly, this area was paradise, with the whitest sands and crystal-clear waters to rival anywhere in the Indian Ocean. but with a much shorter flight time! The water (which is apparently the saltiest on earth) was warm, beautiful and filled with amazing marine life - heaven for snorkelling. I was even lucky enough to hop aboard Scenic Eclipse's very own submarine to get a glimpse of the fish metres beneath the surface. I also got to see the divots and tracks in the sand from the (fiercely protected) giant turtles that hatch here! Whilst hard to access currently if you're not cruising, this area is being developed to welcome tourists. so watch this space!
From the port of Yanbu on the Red Sea Coast, we flew inland to the boutique and unique region of AlUla, set amid a vast desert landscape filled with huge rock formations that many of my fellow travellers likened to Utah. Isolated in the sands is Hegra, the largest preserved site of the Nabataean civilisation south of Petra in Jordan, home to 110 remarkably preserved tombs that date back millennia. Just recently opened to visitors, I can only describe this majestic site as a 'living museum', as they are constantly uncovering new historical treasures. As there were few crowds, we were able to get right up close to the tombs, so I'd really recommend visiting soon before it's filled with tourists!
I also loved visiting unique Maraya, the largest mirrored building in the world, set in the desert wilderness - a true combination of natural beauty and modernity. The centuries-old AlUla Old Town was next to explore, where we were shown into traditional family homes by our friendly female guides, before perusing the stalls in the charming market area. Despite being very much a desert destination, the humidity here was low, so it never felt uncomfortably warm, plus there are plenty of gloriously green palm trees growing in AlUla. In fact, each year, the region's 2.3 million date palms produce more than 90,000 tonnes of dates!
Welcoming, fascinating and unlike anywhere I've been before, I'd encourage anyone to experience Saudi for themselves.