Six Senses Southern Dunes offers serenity in Saudi Arabia's Red Sea - Hotel Insider

The first hotel to open in the kingdom's megaproject has a lot of hype to live up to

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Six Senses Southern Dunes was the first property to open in The Red Sea, Saudi Arabia’s ambitious regenerative tourism project, and so expectations are high.

Now, alongside The St Regis Red Sea, it’s one of only two hotels in the area, which is eventually set to span 28,000 square kilometres, with myriad luxury resorts on more than 90 islands.

The National checked in to a one-bedroom pool villa to see if the project lives up to the hype.

The welcome

Due to a technical glitch on our plane from the UAE – which has us turning back to Dubai mid-flight and having to board a second aircraft hours later – we arrive at the hotel at midnight.

We land at Yanbu International Airport, which is a two-and-a-half-hour drive from the hotel, so we fall asleep in the car and wake up to see the low-rise resort entrance beautifully lit up, appearing like a mirage in the desert surrounded by the pitch-black night sky.

A small team is there to welcome us, including our Guest Experience Maker, Hazal, who stays late just to greet us.

We are given a refreshing welcome beverage and within minutes we’re checked in and whisked off in a buggy to our villa, where we are swiftly left to crash on the comfortable king-size bed.

The neighbourhood

The Red Sea is a new tourism project from Red Sea Global, located a couple of hours' drive north of Yanbu and five hours from Madinah.

Red Sea International Airport opened in September, but currently only flights from Riyadh and Jeddah arrive there with the airline Saudia – and they're few and far between.

The resort, like any Six Senses property, is secluded. It is and will be the only hotel in the development that is set amid the dunes, with only one more located inland (in the mountains) and the rest by the sea.

Those dunes are where the property gets its name, as it’s completely surrounded by them in every direction, offering a unique desert escape. You can also spy the Red Sea in the distance.

The room

There are 36 guest rooms and suites, and 40 pool villas, with accommodation ranging from one to four bedrooms. We stay in a one-bedroom pool villa, which can be reached via buggy.

The villa – which has a living and dining area, bedroom, one toilet and one bathroom – is decorated with natural materials and textures reflecting the design throughout the hotel, which focuses on sustainability and the local environment and culture.

The bed faces floor-to-ceiling sliding windows, which lead to the villa’s own terrace and infinity-style heated pool that looks out on to that stunning dune-filled, almost-Moon-like landscape.

The bathroom is a highlight, with a spacious his-and-hers vanity, separate toilet, vast indoor shower with two rain-shower heads, then another outdoor shower with a wooden gate that opens on to the terrace.

The generously sized soaking-style bathtub sits in front of a window, offering a glorious view of the desert.

The commitment to sustainability is evident throughout, from the reusable water bottle to the toothpaste tablets and the unbranded, refillable toiletries sourced from a local supplier.

The service

General manager Fredrik Blomqvist has spent years working for Four Seasons properties around the world. He tells us he believes people make a place. You can build incredible, luxury hotels anywhere, but the service can also be bad anywhere, he says.

This message has clearly reached the staff, who are very polite, friendly and helpful, reflecting the hospitable nature of the Saudi people, who make up at least 45 per cent of the hotel staff.

The Guest Experience Maker role is a wonderful touch. Each guest is assigned someone who will customise their itinerary and ensure every whim is catered for.

Hazal, who takes care of us throughout our stay, is always in touch to make sure everything is going well and to plan, asking whether we need anything, and even anticipating what we might need before we even know we need it. Case in point: She orders me a pot of ginger, turmeric and black pepper tea upon hearing me cough.

The scene

At least for now, there is nothing much nearby to do outside of the hotel, but once you’re there it’s unlikely you’ll want to leave. There is plenty to keep guests entertained, whether it’s getting up before dawn to take on a sunrise hike through the dunes or a workshop in the Earth Lab and relaxing by the pool.

There are scheduled group activities every day, most of which are free for guests. This includes yoga and other fitness sessions, sustainability talks and stargazing. Guests can also join in smoothie-making or latte-art workshops at Arabic tapas restaurant Merkaz, or learn how to make recycled paper, beeswax wraps, miswak and henna in the Earth Lab.

Then there’s the Six Senses Spa. There are various treatment rooms, a holistic anti-ageing room, hammam and Alchemy Bar, where an expert teaches guests how to make body or facial scrubs using ingredients they have at home. This is a fun activity that can be enjoyed as part of a group or booked privately at an extra cost.

The food

There are four dining outlets on-site. We have our breakfast at Bariya, an all-day dining spot with themed live stations and an a la carte menu.

In the mornings, diners are greeted with a selection of freshly made juices and healthy shots, as well as the home-made “rocket fuel”, which contains ingredients such as apple cider vinegar, onion, lemon, ginger and herbs, and has been fermented for a month. It certainly has a kick.

There is also a selection of home-made granolas and plant-based milks, cheeses, freshly baked breads and pastries, as well as an eggs-made-to-order station. We notice the bowls of food on the buffet are not huge, in an effort to minimise waste.

Hot dishes can be ordered a la carte – we try the lamb mugalgal (90 Saudi riyals, or $24), shakshuka (SAR90) and a delicately flavoured foul (which on this menu is called “glaba”, for SAR60), all enjoyed with steaming, soft pitta bread.

Al Sarab is the fine-dining spot. At its elevated vantage point, it’s a must for sundowners.

Authentic dishes from the Arab region have been given a modern twist, from the sweet potato hummus to the shish barak and a duck saleeg that all the staff rave about.

As a vegan, I’m well catered for, thanks to the hotel’s plant-based chef Ayse Aktan. Her passion for making healthy food tasty shines through as she teaches us to make Turkish-style muhammara, felafel and cashew-chocolate energy balls, all of which are delicious and easy enough to make at home.

We’re then treated to a four-course meal of fermented cashew cheese balls (wow), gluten-free sweet potato gnocchi with sweetcorn sauce and basil oil (double wow), a home-made vegan burger that’s not yet on the menu (it should be) and a cauliflower steak sandwich on sourdough with pumpkin seed pesto, cashew butter and a vegan aioli infused with Sriracha.

Finally, there’s the Pool Bar & Grill, a small spot by the communal hotel pool that overlooks the dunes. It’s brightly decorated, with swings covered in knitwear woven by Saudi artisans, and the food here is more casual, with sandwiches, pizzas, grills and fresh ceviche.

Highs and lows

There are highs in abundance, from the spa’s soothing atmosphere to myriad guest activities and all the attention to detail that makes a Six Senses property stand out.

For families, the children’s club is a highlight, as there’s a focus on education around sustainability, plus a tent with majlis-style seating and large screen.

One low is the bugs – big ones. These buzz around the resort and end up floating in our private pool, despite the team’s best efforts to keep them at bay. There’s even a sign telling us to keep our screen doors closed because of potential snakes and scorpions (though, thankfully, we don't see any).

But this is all part and parcel of an authentic desert getaway.

The insider tip

Don’t miss the Community Lounge, where there are several handmade boards of popular games such as Jackeroo, backgammon and Monopoly, as well as a PlayStation. There is also a spread of snacks for anyone to enjoy, and we’re told some sports matches are screened here.

There is also a cluster of four “experience pods”, where you can play billiards and table tennis, buy Saudi-made crafts, book guest activities and even pick up a free home-made gelato infused with local flavours, such as sumac, saffron and Saudi coffee. I recommend the refreshing and sweet hibiscus sorbet.

The verdict

Some travellers may be put off by the lack of a beach at this inland resort, but the property offers something far more unique. The dune-filled landscape is simply stunning and the plethora of activities and high-quality guest services means travellers can easily entertain themselves for days.

At the moment, The Red Sea Project can be tricky to reach, but if you’re willing to make the journey, then it’s worth the effort.

The bottom line

Room rates are from SAR3,219 ($858), excluding taxes; Check-in from 2pm and check-out until noon;

This review was conducted at the invitation of the hotel and reflects hotel standards during this time. Services may change in the future.

Updated: February 14, 2024, 6:53 AM