Visit to Hofuf and Al Ahsa, Eastern Province KSA

I have lived in Saudi Arabia for over four years now, and I have done my best to see as much of the country as possible. Covid has definitely helped me see more of Saudi since it is a lot more difficult to do quick international trips now, so on my weekends I have been exploring as much as possible. For Saudi National Day we had a long weekend, so I decided to fly from Jeddah to Dammam, rent a car, and do a little 3-day 2-night road trip. I had read online about the Al Ahsa oasis and the nearby caves, but I couldn’t find any information online about it so I wanted to make a quick post on my recommendations on what to do.

I rented a car though Alamo, it was around $30/day with 200 km per day, which we ended up going over, but still wasn’t too expensive. We landed at around 11:30 AM and decided to get lunch in the airport and then bring it with us for a picnic. There was a Subway restaurant at the airport and we were pleasantly surprised to see there were veggie patties as an option, since vegetarian food is hard to come by in Saudi. We used Google Maps to navigate around, and I would suggest having a sim card to use internet, since there is not always somewho who speaks English around, and Google Maps offline maps I find don’t always work. We drove south, heading towards the Old Al Uqayr Seaport. But on the way the road followed the Arabian Gulf coastline so there were a few beaches to stop for lunch. We ate at Amwaj Beach which had a bunch of shaded picnic areas to hang out, which was necessary since even in September it is really really hot here. The beach itself is lovely with clear water, but since it is not a private beach if I had swam I would have had to wear clothes I think to stay covered.

We enjoyed our lunch and then got back on the road and eventually made it to the Old Al Uqayr Seaport. At first we thought it was closed because we drove around the building twice before spotting the entrance. On the ocean-side of the ruins is a small building, if you park there it is near the entrance. We had a guide come out of the small building and guide us around which was super nice. He had keys and unlocked different rooms and corridors for us to walk around. Apparently this is a fort of Islamic origin dating back to the Ottoman Empire, and shows Greek and Roman influences, which we could see by the pillars. This site is importance since it was the first seaport in the Arabian Gulf, and at that time it was an economic gateway. But when oil was discovered in the kingdom, the importance of this port decreased because more modern ports were built near oil fields.

The site was deemed a UNESCO world heritage site in 2018, which I was surprised about since there weren’t any educational posters or things to read about it at the site, luckily we were there on a day where the guide was available. He took us all around the large fort, and the neighboring mosque.

After we saw the fort, we drove directly to our hotel in Hofuf, about 1.5 hours away. As always I used booking.com to look for the best rated/cheapest hotel, and since it was Saudi National Day weekend a lot of hotels were already booked, so we ended up booking a hotel called The View, which was quite nice. It was clean, quiet, and had a nice shower. We checked in, unpacked, and then decided to go to the Qarah Mountain to do a hike and watch sunset from the top. Using Google Maps I saw there was a road that goes to the top, so we parked at the bottom and walked up. The geology here is super cool, with huge caverns that were eroded by the rain. At the top there are little crevices and if you get close and look down you can see it is like a steep 100 foot drop which was sort of terrifying. But we followed what looked like a little trail to get around and avoid these death traps. We hiked all the way to the other side of the mountain to get a few of the Al Ahsa oasis, which is the largest oasis in the whole world. It was so cool to see a sea of green date palms, as the normal view here is just sand and desert.

When the sun started to set we were to the west side of the mountain to sit and watch the skies turn orange and sink below the horizon. I love watching sunsets, they are so beautiful and magical. Afterwards, we walked back down and then headed to a spot accidentally, as it was not in Google Maps, but we passed it and thought it looked nice. It is called the Craftsmen Market and I highly recommend. You can walk around this building and there are little shops with people actually making the items they are selling. There are potters, woodworkers, blacksmiths, weavers, etc. You can walk around and shop while also seeing people handmake their items which is super cool. We In the enter there is a beautiful fountains with a few little restaurants and sittings. We didn’t know where to eat before hand, as finding vegetarian food is a struggle in Saudi, but I was super happy to see koshary on the menu, one of my favorite foods from Egypt with pasta, chickpeas, lentils, tomato, and fried onions. It is a delicious carb feast. We paired it with a refreshing mint lemonaid, and then headed back to the hotel as I was exhasted from a long day. We watched a few episodes of “House” on the IPad before falling asleep.

Koshary
Weaving at the Craftsmen Village

The next day we went to Starbucks for a quick breakfast, their menu in Saudi is different than in the US, so I had a yummy spinach feta pretzel with a frozen matcha with coconut milk. It was great, I forgot to mention this day was Saudi National Day so loads of celebrations and green decorations everywhere we went. We went to the Al Qarah caves first thing inthe morning, which was what attracted me to want to visit Hofuf. The entrance fee was 50 SAR/ person, but the area was very well maintained. Since it was national day, they had a special art exhibit when we visited. Following that we walked through the little museum before heading outside to explore the caves.

David learning some Saudi history at the museum

We took our time walking around the caves, and the temperature was quite nice inside. The caves were really nicely maintained and lit, and since when we went early it was pretty empty. The caves were so tall and there were many little corridors to explore. We even were able to do some of our own exploration and went past the maintained paths into the dark caves. It was so epic I definitely recommend a visit to this place, it was so unique and different than anything we have ever done in Saudi Arabia.

The rest of the day was pretty chill, we visited a ceramics studio, which was a very cute and aesthetic spot. I have gotten pretty into ceramics this year so it was cool to see how they do it here in Saudi, using a wheel that they have to spin manually with their feet. I don’t been to sound like a brat but the pieces weren’t the nicest (for example they were heavy and didn’t get trimmed after they were thrown) but I still recommend visiting to look around.

Next, we tried visiting the Ibrahim Palace, and unfortunately learned that that it is closed and you can’t go inside, so we saw it from the outside. This castle is also from the Ottoman Period, and it was a Turkish military barracks. It was already lunch time so we ate at a place called Burger Fuel which had some truly amazing veggie burgers which might have to be my favorite burgers I have had in the country, so good. Afterwards we were nearby our hotel so we went for a little nap.

In the afternoon we retuned to the ceramics studio for a demonstration before hiking the mountain for one last sunset over the oasis. We went to the famous Qaisarah Souq, which is two centuries old and has loads of places to shop. Apparently it’s the country’s most famous historical marketplace.

Qaisarah Souq

For dinner we ate at a modern Indian restaurant that was called Naveena that has super unique items on the menu, it was delicious and soo filling. I would recommend this restaurant. The next day we left the hotel around 9 AM to head back to the airport, and on the way did a quick stop at one of the date farms (more like someone’s back yard) to walk around under the beautiful date trees.

Unfortunately our flight home was delayed by almost 3 hours but we had my Ipad for movies and loads of snacks so we were happy and entertained. Overall it was a short visit to the eastern province but I really enjoyed it nonetheless.

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