Located on a site dating back to the first century that was once traversed by ancient tribes, including the Nabateans, Habitas AlUla is a five-star resort set in an ancient oasis in the desert canyons of the Ashar Valley. Palm groves and pathways lead up to the property, which offers a stay right in the heart of one of Saudi Arabia's most picturesque destinations.
Sitting between the mountains and ancient Nabatean settlements, the hotel is a short distance from several tourist attractions, including AlUla's Old Town, and Maraya Social and theatre.
Habitas AlUla has a special welcoming ceremony. Upon arrival, guests are given a bracelet embedded with the brand's signature wooden compass. A two-minute vow of silence follows, where guests are asked to set an intention to mark the spiritual journey that lies ahead.
Arrivals are then given aromatic mastika stones sourced from AlUla and are invited to toss them into bokhour, the incense traditionally used in the region to scent homes and other indoor spaces. There is a lot of focus on creating the right ambience at Habitas – once you book online, the hotel emails you a playlist of specially curated music to kick off your sonic experience.
Guests checking in to the luxury resort step into a lobby that looks like a fortified khaima, or tent, filled with Arabian design motifs, Sadu rugs and Assouline's beautiful AlUla coffee-table books flanked by huge armchairs. There is a side bar offering hot drinks, including Arabic coffee, and dates.
The hotel is busy when I arrive since it is during AlUla Season, and foreign as well as local guests generally arrive en masse, given the limited number of flights coming into AlUla's newly opened airport.
Check-in is effortless once it begins, and staff are friendly, providing plenty of information about the hotel and its facilities.
The hotel is surrounded by spectacular sandstone cliffs and feels like a relic from the past, filled with intrigue and adventure.
Facilities include a spa retreat, yoga room, gym, lounge and pool, while immersive art installations lie around the hotel waiting to be discovered.
The multicultural staff include Mexican yoga trainers, Italian and Lebanese chefs and British and Ukrainian service staff, creating a strong sense of diversity.
The Habitas founders aim to create spaces that build a sense of community and facilitate people coming together. They design and manufacture the structures in their factory before shipping them to locations around the world, and were just granted the Architectural Digest Award for the Best Project in Hospitality in 2021 for AlUla.
The safety measures
The hotel follows safety measures and procedures as per the kingdom's health guidelines. Staff and guests wear masks and practise social distancing, with hand-sanitising stations throughout. The rooms are regularly sanitised.
Given the scale of the hotel, it is easy to stay comfortably away from other guests in the lobby, spa and restaurants.
Designed in traditional Middle Eastern style, each room is made from ethically sourced materials that blend seamlessly into their natural surroundings, with warm shades of red, white and brown dominating. There was minimal disruption to the environment in the creation of the hotel, since none of the construction was done onsite and no natural resources were removed or destroyed in the process.
Habitas uses a modular build model, meaning rooms are designed, constructed, flat-packed and delivered to new locations worldwide. Through extensive research and site visits, the design of each project is harmonised with the location's natural surroundings. "Whilst the design of each home differs depending on the location, we always create an aesthetic that blends seamlessly with the surrounding landscape. We don’t build through nature but rather around it," says Oliver Ripley, chief executive and co-founder of Habitas.
There are no televisions in any of the rooms, to help people disconnect from screens and instead reconnect with nature. I stayed in a Canyon room, which has a king-size bed and sofa, and an outdoor patio adorned with ornate lanterns, beautiful rugs and a selection of poufs.
The diverse team are friendly and accommodating. There is no room-service, so if you want to eat, it has to be at Tama during opening hours.
With 96 rooms, Habitas is one of the biggest luxury resorts in AlUla and attracts a lot of foreign and local visitors.
The entire property is designed to offer a retreat from city life. The pool is an instant favourite and is located next to a restaurant and bar area surrounded by beautiful sandstone cliffs.
Ripley says Habitas AlUla is a true embodiment of the brand’s six programming pillars: music, wellness, adventure, culture, learning and culinary. This is illustrated through programming that accommodates art and culture walks, canyon trekking, yoga, meditation and breathwork.
Tama, from the Aramaic word “here”, is the one-stop food destination at Habitas and offers a range of dishes prepared by a diverse selection of chefs.
Tama uses sustainable agricultural methods to highlight AlUla's produce and take guests on a new culinary journey, according to culinary director chef Jack El Hajj. The emphasis is on healthy eating and bringing fresh produce from farm to table. The restaurant offers a creative selection of food and drinks that bridge Middle Eastern and western cuisine.
Dishes included on Tama’s dinner menu include Middle Eastern salads, Mandi ($37), Muhammara ($16), Kabsa ($32) and more. Fresh gelato ($14) is served during lunch in delicious pistachio and strawberry flavours.
Highs and lows
The best thing about the hotel, apart from the staff at Tama, is its wellness centre – it's the perfect place to start your day or unwind after a busy day of sightseeing. It includes restorative yoga and sound healing for those looking for a holistic experience.
It is worth taking essentials with you, as the hotel's distinct location can make some things difficult to source.
The insider tip
Carry emergency and basic medical supplies, since there is no doctor or driver available late at night. If you are one to snack, its best to get your supplies ahead of time or visit a local supermarket for food items.
Book a driver and historical tours ahead of time since it is peak season at AlUla until March. Habitas offers numerous arts and cultural activities centred on the area's heritage sites, including a variety of guided walks through Hegra. Workshops with local artisans, who teach palm-weaving, embroidery, henna and other crafts native to Saudi Arabia, are also offered. The workshops are taught in collaboration with Madrassat Adeera, a women’s arts and crafts school in AlUla.
The bottom line
The 96 guest rooms span three tiers: Premium Celestial Villas, Alcove Villas and Canyon Villas. Rooms at Habitas start from $719, including taxes. Check-in is from 2pm and check-out is at noon.
Habitas AlUla, Madinah region, Saudi Arabia; ourhabitas.com
This review was conducted at the invitation of the hotel during the global coronavirus pandemic. It reflects hotel standards during the time, services may change in the future