As much as I hate to admit this, in all my years living in Saudi Arabia, I have spent very little time exploring local sites. Traveling abroad always sounds so much more appealing than trying to figure out what to visit in the Eastern Province. Luckily, I have made some wonderful — and well-connected — friends who like to include me in their adventures.
A few weeks ago, my favorite foodie friend and blogger “Foodie in Arabia,” invited me on a day trip to Al-Ahsa, one of the largest oases in the world. She had arranged the trip with Henry Abellar, marketing executive at the InterContinental Hotel in Al-Ahsa. The hotel not only arranged all our transportation, including our trip from Alkhobar, but also served us a fabulous buffet lunch when we had finished sightseeing.
It took us about an hour and a half to get to the hotel in Hofuf, the capital of Al-Ahsa. Initially, I was struck by how scenic our drive into the city center was. I am used to seeing miles and miles of dunes on our longer drives, but the outskirts of Hofuf are surrounded by mountains. What was even more thrilling was the amount of greenery in the area — there were palm trees everywhere. Later I learned that the Al-Ahsa region is actually the greenest in the Eastern Province, and has the largest palm oasis in the world with well over a million and a half palm trees plus an abundance of the best kinds of dates. It is no surprise then that an oasis of this size also has several springs, including a hot sulfur water one.
Al-Ahsa, in general though, has a very different feel from most of the areas that I have visited in the Gulf. Hofuf seems to be trying to maintain the look and feel of an older city, even though newer neighborhoods may be popping up everywhere. Most major cities in Saudi Arabia strive to develop more modern landscapes these days, but it does not seem that Al-Ahsa wants to go in that direction.
A great example of this was our first stop in town, Qaisariya Souk, one of the oldest traditional markets in the Eastern Province. I absolutely loved it. The design had an old world charm to it, but the vendors were selling products that you could find in any mall or market — clothing, perfumes, oils, spices, and even household goods. I did manage to find one antique store with vintage telephones, brass teapots, old children’s toys and cars, but being the decorating enthusiast that I am, I bought a colorful wool carpet instead.
We then stopped by Ibrahim Palace, which is just a short distance from the market, in a fairly busy part of town. While there is no entrance fee, there were not any visitors there except for the people who had come to pray inside the mosque, but that is probably because the building itself is quite unassuming. I could not even tell it was a palace. The building was originally built during the first period of Ottoman rule and then later became a regional headquarters for the government. During our visit, we were able to explore an old steam room, the guards’ dormitory and the old stables. The small palace museum houses many relics from the area as well as fascinating photos from the past.
One of the most exciting parts of this trip was visiting the famous Al-Qara Mountain caves, which are about a 25-minute drive from Hofuf. The SR50 ($13) fee for individuals over the age of 12, includes entry to the caves as well as to the small museum. I was pleasantly surprised to see that the cave’s walkways were incredibly clean and very well-lit. While I have not had many experiences visiting caves, it was magical to be able to look up and see the sun shining through the cracks in the rocks.
You cannot really spend a lot of time in there though since you are not able to venture too far into the caves, but the experience is unique and unusual. I had heard that this site was not in the best shape in the past, but recent improvements and renovations by a private company have made it into a place worth visiting.
Our very last stop in Al-Ahsa was at the InterContinental Hotel. While their seafood buffet lunch was absolutely delicious, I was equally interested in the hotel’s rather grand design. When you walk in, you cannot help but notice the dramatic set of staircases that flank a small mosaic-tiled fountain with deer-head spouts. The massive pillars in the lobby are carved in intricate arabesque designs, which extend up to the ceiling. To top it all off, the gigantic brass chandeliers add yet another layer of drama to the whole scene. The hotel is fascinating itself, so I am glad we had the opportunity to see it as well.
Whether one chooses to stay for the day, a night, or even the weekend, I definitely think that a trip to Al-Ahsa is worth the time. It was just the kind of memorable and unique Eastern Province experience that I was craving.
•Naveen Shakir is an interior decorator and author of The Design Souk (www.thedesignsouk.com), a blog about interiors, shopping, and home décor in the Eastern Province.