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First Look: Inside Middle East’s Most Luxurious New Hotel, Banyan Tree AlUla

Take an exclusive peek into the newly opened Banyan Tree AlUla

Riaan Jacob George

This week, all eyes in the luxury hospitality industry are pointed toward Saudi Arabia’s hot new luxury address, Banyan Tree AlUla at the country’s newly minted upscale tourism hotspot, AlUla. The opening of Banyan Tree AlUla, one of the world’s most unique hotels, is a significant step for the kingdom, as its tourism gathers up more steam.

In the presence of international VIPs and celebrities and a private concert by Mariah Carey, the Asian hospitality chain opened the doors to its ultra-experiential desert offering. Situated at the heart of the Ashar Valley in AlUla—a destination being heavily marketed by the Royal Commission for AlUla — the Banyan Tree AlUla is a vast sprawl of massive luxe tents, wedged between sand dunes and striking rock formations. The fact that the tents are built so far from each other, in the middle of the desert, with no ‘traditional’ hotel wall or demarcated compound, but literally out in the wilderness makes this setting almost unreal.

To give you a sense of space and context, it could easily take you a good fifteen minutes by golf buggy to get from one end of the property to the other, which includes driving through a rugged, non-landscaped mountain range and valley.

Sustainable luxury in the desert

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In terms of accommodation, Banyan Tree’s commitment to being as local as possible shines through here. We checked out a gorgeous two-bedroom villa, with a private pool, tucked away on the side of a mountain. To access the villa, you literally have to walk through a pathway in the middle of the sand dunes.

What stood out the most for me is the villa’s marvellous tent-style engineering and colour that effortlessly blends into the desert. The villa is packed with all the creature comforts of a barefoot luxury property such as a massive patio, a fire pit in the backyard, which you can get fired up on request, a walk-in wardrobe, a massive bathroom and, the highlight, a gorgeous plunge pool.

The pièce de résistance at Banyan Tree AlUla is undoubtedly the rock pool. An engineering feat, this pool has been carved into the rocks, between two mountains, and designed to overlook a large valley. It really does give a sense of exclusivity and luxury and is sure to be touted as the world’s most Instagrammable pool.

During an interaction with the President and CEO of Banyan Tree, Eddy See, he tells me, “Since we started our journey 28 years ago, we have been pioneers of the all-pool villa concept, and now we bring our purposeful, sustainably-designed concepts to AlUla with all-tented villas that complement the existing eco-destination.”

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Every corner of the property is conceived to give you a sense of place and context. The all-day dining restaurant Harrat has an open-air terrace for some surreal mealtime views, the spa is tucked away between an enclosure of mountains and the villas are wedged into the landscape.

As per local rules, you will not get alcohol here, but the food on offer is outstanding. Lazy breakfasts and mezze platters at Harrat are ideal for the day, and at night I definitely recommend the hotel chain’s signature Thai restaurant, Saffron, with specialised chefs — and ingredients — imported from Thailand.

Nights in the Ashar Valley are magnificent for star spotting. Ask the hotel staff to light up the fire pit in your villa and you can enjoy some post-dinner relaxation here.

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Exploring the area

If you haven’t already read up on AlUla as a destination, you can’t miss the ancient ruins of Hegra, a short drive from the property. The facades of the ancient abandoned tombs, quite like Jordan’s Petra, are unmissable. We’d also recommend booking a private helicopter tour, which will give you a breathtaking perspective of the region. And if you are looking for AlUla’s most Instagrammed spot, it’s the surreal cuboid Maraya, the world’s largest mirror building, rising up from the sand.

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Our verdict? Given that we were present at the property on an opening day, service consistency was hit-and-miss. The villa offering, design and surrounding experiences are definitely worth writing home about. Banyan Tree AlUla will definitely appeal to a highly evolved luxury consumer who values experiences and design over pure glamour.

Exclusive first look for Zee Zest.

Photo: Banyan Tree AlUla
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