Finding inner zen at Habitas Alula for a weekend of wellness in Saudi Arabia

A three-day retreat surrounded by desert silence and natural wonders is the ideal way to reset

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Perhaps it’s because we have barely passed another vehicle in the 40 minutes since we left AlUla’s tiny airport, or maybe it’s something to do with the otherworldly orange crags that dominate the landscape around us, but, as we make our way to to Habitas AlUla, it feels as though we have touched down on another planet.

It’s an instant feeling of escapism, which is a fitting way to set the tone for the few days ahead. Throughout summer and the AlUla wellness festival, which runs until mid-October, Habitas is dedicating itself to all things wellness with a three-day programme designed to test and evolve the mind, while enjoying the natural wonders of AlUla’s desert oasis.

Set within the desert canyons of the Ashar Valley, the resort’s 96 eco-lodges have been built without foundations, ensuring they leave as little impact on the natural landscape as possible. They're designed to blend seamlessly with their surroundings, while still offering five-star luxury

The focus on wellness begins the minute we arrive.

We are greeted with a welcome ceremony, which involves setting intentions for the week ahead. With my eyes closed and hands outstretched, a piece of locally-sourced frankincense — known for its healing properties — is placed into my palm and after a minute of optimistically imagining myself about to transform into a Zen goddess, I place the frankincense into the burner and send my intentions with it.

Throughout the eco-property, only electric vehicles are permitted so it’s golf buggy or electric bike from here on out. Despite the scorching summer temperatures, traversing the winding path that runs through the centre of the canyon by bike is one of the most magical parts of Habitas AlUla, and my preferred mode of transportation during my stay.

Fire meditation, sound healing and an electrical storm

Sound healing sessions take place outside in AlUla's natural surroundings. Photo: Habitas

Our itinerary starts with an evening of fire meditation and sound healing. The shadows of the looming rocks in the valley around us can just about be made out against the inky sky, which every 30 seconds or so, lights up with an intense flash of lightning thanks to an unexpected electrical storm. Luckily, it brings no rain or thunder with it, and if I wasn’t already convinced I had somehow entered a whole new world, I am now certain of it.

The session is led by Habitas’s visiting wellness practitioners Asta Barry and Thomas Vandevilla, who help guide the group into a state of deep relaxation thanks to Asta’s calming voice and Thomas’s chanting.

Habitas’s wellness weekends are not all relaxation, however, and the following morning, my alarm is set for 4am ready for a hike through AlUla’s ancient canyons. Once I shake off the morning shock, I can appreciate the cool morning air as we climb through rocky crevices, spotting ancient Nebloic carvings as we go. The four-kilometre route ends with 10 minutes of silent meditation, during which we are encouraged to take in the early morning sounds happening around us. Out here in the middle of the Saudi Arabian desert, the silence weighs heavy, and it’s a moment to truly appreciate the history and magic of the surroundings.

The hike is challenging enough and builds an appetite, so we return to the resort’s Tama Restaurant for breakfast. Located at Habitas’s highest point overlooking the expansive valley below, Tama is open for breakfast, lunch and dinner, and its menu is full of fresh and healthy dishes that feel both wholesome and indulgent, to perfectly fuel us through the weekend’s activities. Menu highlights include a chicken mandi rice bowl, fresh grilled fish served with spiced aioli and local vegetables, and, on the breakfast menu, deliciously rich Levantine eggs.

Manal AlDowayan's 'Now You See Me, Now You Don’t' installation at Habitas AlUla. Photo: DesertX

Wellness activities across the weekend allow for plenty of downtime, and so late mornings can be spent lounging by the resort’s temperature-controlled infinity pool, which, with its azure waters glistening against its dusky desert surroundings, looks as if it could be a mirage. Luckily, it isn’t, and its plush white sun loungers offer the perfect spot for some rest and recuperation after early morning activities.

Exploring the art of downtime

Downtime can also be used to explore some of the many Desert X art installations dotted around the resort, such as Manal AlDowayan’s Now You See Me, Now You Don’t, which features trampolines of varying sizes built into the desert. A few jumps on these is a workout in itself, especially in the summer heat, but it’s worth it — it’s an incredible and surreal scene that will certainly stay with you (and make for a great Instagram moment).

Some itineraries also make time for excursions to the nearby AlUla Old Town, Hegra, Elephant Rock or Marayah, the enormous mesmerising mirrored concert hall that lies just beyond the resort, and each are well worth a visit.

I'm glad that there's plenty of time to enjoy the luxury and comfort of my stunning Celestial Villa too, which looks out directly on to another Desert X installation — Mohamed Ahmed Ibrahim’s Falling Stones Garden, which scatters 320 sculpture balls in various sizes and colours among the natural rockfall at the foot of the valley.

All villas come with floor-to-ceiling windows to capitalise on the views, leading out to a terrace set up with majlis-style seating. Inside, there are comfortable double beds, generously sized bathrooms, and a private outdoor shower. The Celestial Villas, as the name suggests, also come with an astronomy-level telescope for stargazing.

Seeing AlUla from a new perspective

Yoga instructor Asta Barry leads a meditation session. Photo: Habitas

Habitas’s wellness weekends include a healthy dose of yoga. The resort has a stunning studio located at its Thuraya Wellness Centre, where daily classes are held, and there’s also the outdoor Ashar Deck, where early morning sessions take place during the summer months. While these are suitable for beginners, at two hours long, they are quite intense and have been designed to push guests out of their comfort zones, as is certainly the case for a novice yogi like me.

Yet despite the fact I have only made a half-hearted attempt at yoga once or twice before, somehow, during our early morning yoga session on our final day, I find myself standing on my head taking in the upside down view of the sprawling Ashar Valley as the rising sun turns the towering rocks golden. Not bad for someone who could barely touch their toes at a session the previous day.

It seems that somewhere between Habitas’s incredible instructors and the natural energy that radiates through the place, I manage to find my flow. Maybe that Zen goddess I envisioned at the welcoming ceremony really is in there somewhere.

Habitas AlUla’s wellness programmes run from Thursday to Sunday. Prices start from Dh3,520 ($958) per person or Dh4,400 ($1,197) per couple, inclusive of a three-night stay, meals, activities and a sunrise guided canyon hike. More information can be found at ourhabitas.com/alula

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Updated: September 15, 2022, 7:53 AM
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