Complete with infinity rock pool, desert banquets and sand dune spa treatments, the new Banyan Tree AlUla takes glamping to the next level in Saudi Arabia. Jenny Southan reports
Opened last month, the Banyan Tree AlUla has been designed by Parisian architectural firm AW² and is located 15km from the Kingdom’s first UNESCO World Heritage Site, Hegra.
The Banyan Tree AlUla inhabits a “glampsite” that includes the revamped Ashar Tented Resort, as well as five Royal Villas, which are separate from the new property. (There are plans to redevelop these and add them to the Banyan Tree’s inventory for the 2023-2024 winter season.)
Rather than building a huge concrete building in the desert, the Banyan Tree has embraced a “light touch” approach to accommodation with tent-like structures that have a lower environmental footprint.
There won’t be any compromise on comfort, though – inside, guests will find proper hotel beds made up with pristine white sheets and free wifi.There are 47 new tented suites (79 in total – most with private pools) built on a simple platform, with one to three bedroom under sand-coloured canvas that blends in with the surroundings. Terraces with fire pits extend from the interior spaces with the canvas tent covering above.The public areas include two gourmet restaurants, as well as a luxury spa, the façades of which were formed using compacted sand. The signature swimming pool sits in a natural crevice in the rocks, reminiscent of the wadis (valleys) that appear at the foot of cliffs during rain spells.Due to the large scale of the site, designers worked hard to ensure guests do not feel overwhelmed, while still experiencing spectacular vistas. Therefore, privacy and shelter go hand in hand.
The indoor-outdoor design is a “modern interpretation of the Bedouin way of life that helps guests feel connected to nature”. Throughout the resort, spaces feature bespoke furniture and patterns inspired by Nabataean nomadic Arab tribes, “evoking the rich cultural heritage of Ashar”, says Banyan Tree. To emphasise the light touch approach in the development of the vast site, paths and walkways were designed as trails in the sand. Guests travel through a landscape of sand dunes allowing them to get closer to nature.
In this way, the footprint of the resort is reduced to a minimum and the site’s natural habitat is preserved. The use of local resources, craftsmanship and minerals further minimises the project’s carbon footprint. Local plants were implemented into the landscape of the resort, a sustainable design choice focusing on endemic species native to the desert climate. The architects used water harvesting techniques to guide the rainwater towards micro-catchment gardens to support plant life on the site.
The gardens also provide flood protection during the months of high rainfall when flash floods can occur in the region.
Reda Amalou and Stéphanie Ledoux, partners at AW², say: “Our architecture responds to the fragility of the Ashar site and aims not only to restore but also to protect it from future harm by consciously addressing the balance of man and nature.
“Our concept involves harnessing the natural beauty of the landscape with a project that seamlessly integrates into the site, a design that is adapted and adaptable to the cultural, historical and natural specificities of Ashar.”Although many people in the West will be hestitant about visiting Saudi Arabia for moral reasons, a journalist from Conde Nast Traveller recently reviewed the new Banyan Tree AlUla in person.
Isabella Sullivan wrote: “To truly make the most of AlUla’s ethereal setting and most famous landmarks, there’s Destination Dining. Guests can enjoy dinner under the endless starry desert skies or canapés on a hot air balloon high above the valley.” She also says: “Open-air treatments like soothing massages in a hidden cave are available, accompanied by incense and scented candles, and workshops by visiting masters in their fields.”