Read all about Ailsa Lamond & James Maclear’s recent Arabian adventure aboard Scenic Eclipse.
In October 2021, we were the first party of international travellers to arrive and depart in the port of Jeddah since 2004; as we moved through the old town at dusk, preparing to embark and sail away into the Arabian night, the atmosphere amongst us was bristling with energy, our group curious, inquisitive, eager for exploration.
From the outside, Saudi Arabia has been shrouded in mystery for many decades. The country had just begun issuing its first tourist visas in late 2019 when the pandemic abruptly halted its grand opening. Two years later, the exciting destination is finally ready to unveil itself as the jewel in the crown of West Asia. Marrying a beautiful stretch of untouched Red Sea coastline with inland gems of ancient historical treasures, a deeply developed and welcoming culture, and breathtakingly beautiful landscapes, Saudi promises to deliver a new super destination as part of its Vision 2030.
From an expedition and discovery vessel such as Scenic Eclipse, you can navigate the pristine archipelagos of the Red Sea and meander between historic ports, making forays inland to discover the opportunities for intrepid adventure.
We begin our journey at the Port of Jeddah, transferring through the brand-new cruise terminal and pulling up alongside Scenic Eclipse. Her hull is sleek and proud; the ship’s lines are contemporary with timeless elegance, bridging the gap between private superyacht charter and expedition cruise. Onboard, she delivers an experience that can compete on luxury with any ultra-luxe hotel brands that keep many clients onshore. Echoes of Aman and Mandarin Oriental underpin the expedition focused nuances of this spectacular discovery vessel. She’s truly unique, but not for long as nine others like her in the design-and-build pipeline.
On a quick zip around the hull via Zodiac with the expedition leader, we learned that Eclipse could slice through both ice and 5-meter swells like a knife through butter. Perfect for smooth transitions of the Drake Passage to position expedition discoverers into Antarctica, which is where the ship was built to inhabit. Sailing through such pristine environments also rightly bares the voyager with great responsibility, which Eclipse’s designers have taken into full consideration by implementing a suite of state-of-the-art technologies. With a GPS dynamic positioning system and custom-built stabilisers allowing her to maintain position without dropping anchor onto the sensitive seabed, highly efficient engines which run on the highest-class low-sulphur fuel; an advanced wastewater treatment system, and the lowest noise and vibration levels of any available procedure, passengers can rest assured, in comfort and safety, that their vessel is leaving as small a footprint as possible.
Aboard Scenic Eclipse, ten superb dining options accompanied genuinely faultless service across various styles and settings. Whether you’re hungry for an 8-course haute cuisine tasting menu (with a thoughtfully considered plant-based option), an express power lunch at the sushi bar, or nibbles and poetic discourse with a fine pairing in the wine bar. There is a culinary backdrop for every occasion.
Each luxurious suite and has a private verandah for gazing out across new vistas—those in the Spa-suites can also look out at the view from their Phillipe Stark-designed jacuzzi tub—and are equipped with Leica binoculars, daily stocked full-mini bar, luxury amenities, and king-size Scenic slumber beds which can’t help but induce the most restful dream state; even the label in the extremely cosy, hooded bathrobes urges you to “never lose your sense of wonder”.
As well as in-suite dining, each suite is serviced by a dedicated personal butler, and throughout the ship, an attentive staff and enthusiastic, well-trained team are on hand to cater to your every need. The exceptionally high standard of service and excellent attention to detail help accentuate the magic of your overall onboard experience.
We spend our first evening exploring the maze-like streets of the Al-Balad district, Jeddah’s oldest neighbourhood. Designated as a UNESCO heritage site, Al-Balad’s centuries-old coral stone buildings have benefitted from rigorous preservation and restoration effort. Walking between the traditional latticed-windowed houses almost transports you to a by-gone era. Except, Al-Balad is still a bustling residential neighbourhood where locals flash welcoming smiles to the visitors appreciating their beautiful town.
We grab a quick drink at a quirky antique-packed café, absorb the sights, smells and tastes of the medina, and embrace a surreally peaceful moment as the evening call to prayer echoes out from Jeddah’s oldest mosque across the rooftops that glow in the golden light photographers call magic hour.
After a refreshing first night drenched in the comforts of our spa suite, having dined on exquisite Indian market cuisine, we awoke the following morning to the sight of an idyllic deserted island (one of over 1300 in Saudi waters), its white sands emerging gently from the glistening turquoise waters.
We were invited to submerge below sea level and observe a spectacular virgin coral reef in the Scenic Neptune, the ship’s custom-built submarine.
The submersible craft can descend up to 6 passengers to a depth of 300 meters, which in the Arctic is often undertaken. Here in the Red Sea, we crept down to about 30 meters, following the reef as it dropped below the sunny top layer of turquoise water amongst a host of colourful fish and abundant coral just off a small island in the Jaba Al Lith archipelago.
The expedition equipment, including an onboard submarine, two helicopters and a fleet of zodiacs, make Scenic Eclipse a market leader and category classifier, simply the original and best in class that, naturally, many others are now aiming to imitate.
Moving up the coast to Yanbu, we visited the port city’s old town, which has undergone a recent revival due to a hefty cash injection from the country’s tourism development fund. The town largely developed as an industrial shipping terminal for the petrochemical industry. Yet, its history spans thousands of years as a trade crossroads for the Egyptians and then as a residence for TE Lawrence (of Arabia). Yanbu, in particular its cultural centre and its well-preserved ancient stone walls, is now firmly positioned as a tourist hotspot.
Travelling an hour by private charter flight, we were also lucky enough to experience the wonders of Al’ Ula. The ancient walled city that holds its roots in the 6th century BC is a quintessential desert oasis with fertile soils, groves of date palms and a stable water supply.
Within the breath-taking desert landscapes lies the archaeological site of Hegra (also called Mada’in Saleh). Over 110 precision-carved burial tombs of the Nabatean civilisation were perfectly preserved into the sandstone outcrops.
Closed-off even to nationals for many years due to local superstitions, this is a truly undiscovered area. Discoveries of early Arabic inscriptions and artworks are being unearthed here regularly.
The government has not overlooked the precious nature of such a unique wonder and has taken careful planning to ensure its preservation while it opens the region for tourism. Several luxury hotels are already present in the area, and some big architectural projects are in the pipeline. Though with all the projects greenlit within the country’s development plans, these are being undertaken with a highly strategic approach to ensure that the tourism they bring will be carefully managed and minimise the disruption to the natural settings.
This foundational philosophy of sustainable development is also being applied to the nearby ultra-luxury mega-project of Amaala on the Red Sea and the futuristic smart city of Neom, which is expected to see its first phase of completion by 2025.
Coming to the end of our five-day cruise on Scenic Eclipse, we returned to Jeddah. With just one night left to enjoy the ship, we took full advantage of the ship’s spa facilities and dined with some like-minded guests, agreeing that Saudi Arabia was too strong a destination to report on over a 5-night Red Sea sojourn.
With a few free days, we decided to stay on and flew to Riyadh to find what else further awaited. What we found was an exceptionally warm welcome, exotic Arabian Nights and the start of the vibrant Riyadh Season beginning just in time for our arrival.
Riyadh itself is ultra-modern and tech-savvy, a city driven by apps and funded by the country’s vast oil revenue. It’s designed to please an educated, well-travelled and very young demographic (around 65% of the population is under the age of 30).
Indeed intrepid explorers might use Riyadh as a base to venture into the Empty Quarter, where the vastness of the East of the Arabian Peninsula spans through an epic desert that is shrouded in myth and legend. A city lost to the dunes known as the Atlantis of the sands and whispers of the Queen of Sheba can be heard here.
But for those looking for an adventure with a little less intensity, a short drive out of the city will take you to Jebel Fihrayn, or ‘The Edge of The World’, a rocky escarpment where the astonishing view appears to disappear into the unknown.
During our time here, gazing over the uninterrupted views of the horizon, we learned of local legends and were treated to a tented demonstration of the traditional rituals involved with the preparation of Arabica beans by our nomadic guide, who taught us the ceremony, etiquette, and social importance of coffee in Saudi Arabia.
There is much more than meets the eye with the coffee culture here, as there is with everything else you would consider you knew about Saudi Arabian culture. In fact, as outsiders, we hardly know anything at all. As discovered by many worldly travellers, there is always a large gap between the media portrayals and the truths of a country – but only you can find that for yourself.
What we found fascinated us, so we decided it best to stay on, to learn and understand more. For our next stop, we head south to the mountainous region of Asir and the city of Abha, where farmers grow crops and tend to bees on terraced hillsides, and baboons roam freely amongst the juniper trees. In the meantime, if you wish to visit this fantastic destination yourself, the best months to visit Saudi are right now, between November and March, and visas are readily available for tourists online.
For more information regarding Scenic Eclipse or cruises to the Red Sea and Saudi Arabia, please call us on 0800 008 6677.