There are reports that Saudi Arabia will be rolling out tourist visas in 2018. Reina has shared with our group the screenshots of Facebook comments that ridicule this venture with some people calling it a lame idea and a nightmare. As people who have lived in Saudi Arabia for years (I for 9 nine years and Reina for 27 years!), we both understand and don’t understand those sentiments. We understand that Saudi Arabia and its customs and traditions is different from the rest of the world and the Kingdom is painted as this ultra conservative and closed country. Meanwhile, we do not see it as how some described it as the “home of nutcase terrorists” (wow) and the jail for not wearing abayas (huh). All we can think of is, they are rolling out TOURIST visas, meaning you go and see their touristy places. People are not required to stay for a long, long time and work here. Haha! Tourist visas, you guys. There is no need to be negative until you see the place. While Saudi Arabia may be new to this tourism endeavor, the highlights to their tourism places are not new: they’re steep with history and culture.
Reina and I felt a bit ashamed because when we say “vacation”, we always wanted to explore other countries outside Saudi Arabia. “Anywhere but here” is what we used to say. But deep in our consciousness, we actually want to discover more of Saudi Arabia. At least, no other visas needed since we’re already here. Abha has always been a dream of ours but that required a flight or a long drive, which we’re not prepared to go through as of this time. And then came Al Ahsa.
The Al Ahsa InterContinental Hotel invited The Pink Tarha to visit Al Ahsa, stay in their hotel and explore what the place has to offer. Honestly, we’ve been hearing about Al Ahsa way back but we’re not so keen to visit the place because it’s near Al Khobar and Dammam, places which we’ve frequented a few years back. We didn’t know what’s out there. We don’t know what to see and what to do. Thankfully, the Al Ahsa InterContinental Hotel showed us the way.
The trip to Al Ahsa also gave us another opportunity to ride the train again to the Eastern Province. It’s been years since we did it for the first time. Back in 2009, we rode the train to Dammam and has never rode it again. It’s not that we didn’t like it; we just found it easier to go to the Eastern Province riding cars with our families so we have a vehicle to use touring those places. This time, however, the allure of a train ride spurred our traveling hearts and we booked our SR 200 round-trip tickets to Al Ahsa. Booking our train seats was easy. We just had to go to the Saudi Railways website (goo.gl/M3qCGL), pick the schedule we want, the station we’re going (which is Hofuf) and the train class (picked First Class). We paid our tickets with credit card and done! We were sent our tickets in PDF and all we needed to do is print it to show at the station.
Al Ahsa is a quick getaway from Riyadh. It’s the perfect weekend vacation for those who are just thinking of getting away from it all for a few days to relax and unwind. We picked the 3:30 PM train schedule from Riyadh to the Eastern Province. We arrived in the train station an hour or so ahead of schedule (I hate to be late especially when it’s related to traveling) and we went to the First Class Lounge which was changed and improved! I like the high ceilings and the minimalist and modern look now. Mini pastries and drinks were available in the table at the lounge. There were eletronic plugs (yay). The only thing that we didn’t like with the change is we had to go through the same check-in course as the other passengers. I mean, we paid for first class services right? Before, there used to be a different door for first class passengers and we were the first ones to get in the train. Their x-ray machine even broke down for a few minutes. Oh well…
The train travel is pretty much comfortable and convenient. The seats have wide leg rooms. There are seats that have tables in between them which are great for groups. There’s also a bistro in the car where passengers can buy food and drinks. If too lazy to stand up, there’s an attendant that rolls out his snack tray and offers qahwa, dates, and then sandwiches and juices later on. These are not included in the fare so every item needs to be bought. There’s a comfort room in between carriages. There’s also electronic boards that announces the stations, both in Arabic and English. After two hours, around 5:30 PM in our schedule, we arrived in Hofuf station.
We were met by Mr. Henry Abellar, marketing executive of the Al Ahsa InterContinental Hotel. We thought the hotel was far from the station but it’s only just a mere 5 minutes away! It’s just 1 kilometer from the train station! The hotel’s location is perfect because it’s in heart of Al Ahsa’s business and shopping district. Just a few meters away their gate is a shopping mall which has interesting concept restaurants. They’re even near SACO and Centrepoint (I mean, if you feel like shopping at stores also available in Riyadh, haha). It’s the most convenient accommodation in the area, and the most luxe too.
The Al Ahsa InterContinental Hotel has 166 guest rooms including 8 business rooms. Each room has a traditional feel to it: with its thick carpets, portraits of Al Ahsa scenes, and furniture with gold touches, but modern amenities like modem connections, satellite televisions, mini fridge and business desks are combined to make the room what you’ll ever need in your stay. The hotel also offers six duplex villas complete with living room, dining room, kitchen, 3 bedrooms, a private garden and a private parking. Wow! Rates start at SR 670.
Upon arriving at the hotel, we were greeted by Mr. Luca de Stefano, General Manager, and Mr. Charbel Jarjour, Director of Sales of the Al Ahsa InterContinental Hotel. It’s a privilege meeting the hotel’s management. We were at awe with the wide, high ceiling lobby that has several sets of sofas perfect for just lounging around. In the middle was a grand staircase that leads to their function rooms and halls. It does look like a princess (or a debutante) is about to go down the stairs any minute! Haha! The elegant lobby displays a fine design without appearing too flashy and intimidating. Despite its huge chandeliers and coffered ceiling with intricate details, the hotel has a ‘warm welcome’ feel to it. It’s like being embraced by the warm Arabic hospitality. The smell of oud is wafting through the area is pertinent. Its rich, dark and musky feel enfolds guests into a traditional yet luxurious embrace. Check-in was fast and efficient!
My husband and I were led to our King Club Room while Reina was led to her Twin Bed Room. Both are in the seventh floor. Like all InterContinental Hotels, the Al Ahsa InterContinental Hotel has Club InterContinental Rooms and Suites. These are rooms that give guests access to their Club Lounge that serves complimentary refreshments, business magazines, satellite tvs, and internet access. Stepping in our room was like being transported to a historical time. The maroon carpet, velvet chairs with rolled arm rests, lush bed, and gold touches make an opulent retreat. The layers of colors and textures crafts a magical time warp in our minds.
Do we wish a more modern feel for the room? We’ve thought about that and we concluded that the hotel blends in nicely with what Al Ahsa has to offer: a rich history and a proud tradition. So no, modern interiors can go elsewhere.
We were surprised to find this in our bedroom:
Such a nice gesture from the management and staff of Al Ahsa InterContinetal Hotel! We appreciated the customized cake. Also, this is no joke: the chocolate cake underneath that fondant logo was amazing! It was soft and velvety and it’s not too sweet! Even by husband who is not into sweet food approves of this. Unfortunately for him, I liked this so much that I ate most of our portion! Haha!
The Al Ahsa InterContinental Hotel has four dining places. After we arrived and settled in our rooms, we had dinner at The Med, their Meditteranean Restaurant that serves international food. Apart from the warm and inviting indoor set-up, the Med has an outside terrace. We like the variety of food that are served in their buffet. I especially like their seafood that are grilled on the spot (try the prawns!) and DIY salads. Desserts were filled with delicious mini cakes but I ended up liking their sweet watermelon cubes the most.
Al Bustan is their Lebanese restaurant which is frequented more by the locals. It’s a dining space that sits in the hotel’s grounds and garden. There’s a choice of eating inside or outside and since the weather nowadays is cool and calm, the open space is a nice choice. There’s also a playground for kids. We had most of their grilled dishes when we ate at Al Bustan for dinner. The hummus and baba ghanoush are our fave appetizers when it comes to Lebanese (or Arabic) food. We enjoyed the Crispy Wings. The Grilled Prawns and Grilled Lamb Chops were tender and has that aromatic smoky flavors. The only downside is that they ran out of garlic mayo sauce that night! Without it, we couldn’t thoroughly enjoy our meals. Maybe they’ll have it next time.
The Al Maha Lounge is one of our favorites. It’s their lobby cafe and we enjoyed ordering drinks here. I couldn’t get enough of their iced tea! The brand Dammann that they were using was amazing. I’m not a tea person but they have fruity teas that’s refreshing when made into iced teas. My husband enjoyed their Mocha Frappe and Reina enjoyed her Sangria. This is the ideal place to chill. Also, this is the ideal place when you want to challenge yourself and your friends to a 1 kilogram burger! Yes, ONE KILOGRAM BURGER! We tried it and we lost to its hefty patties and buns. We only managed to eat 2/3 of the whole burger. Boo us but a great win for Al Maha Lounge! Haha.
On our last night at the hotel, we had dinner in their Asian Restaurant called Silk Road. It serves Chinese and Indian cuisines with some Japanese and Filipino dishes thrown in the mix. We were excited about this because hello, we’re Asians, haha. We had an array of appetizers! We love their Xiu Mai which was hot and tasty. Their sushi and maki needed improvement on the rice used; it was mushy and doesn’t lend enough flavor to the ingredients folded into it. Their food has very nice presentations though. Our main courses were Chopsuey with Rice and Butter Chicken with Naan. The first dish had a different taste than the chopsuey we knew. It’s more like chicken and vegetables with oyster sauce. The Butter Chicken we like! Paired with the freshly-baked naan, it’s what made me really full. The dessert was a chocolate cake with ice cream on top. It was a simple yet sweet ending to our stay in the Al Ahsa InterContinental Hotel.
Reina and I also enjoyed the hotel’s InterFit Health Spa. We spent an entire day enjoying their indoor swimming pool and wet area that has a sauna, jacuzzi, and steam room. We also enjoyed 30 minutes of mud treatment were we were soaked with mud from the Dead Sea to purify and smoothen our skin. The treatment starts at their mud room where an attendant slathered us with mud (the good stuff) and we were wrapped in a thick durable blanket. It was a bit warm but nothing uncomfortable. We stayed there for 20 minutes until we rinsed off the mud. It was rejuvenating. We then proceeded to the Hydrotherapy room where we soaked in a tub filled with bubbles and petals! This was so satisfying! The force of the water massaged us. It’s a great technology and really worth trying!
The Al Ahsa InterContinental Hotel also prepared a tour for us. This made our trip to Al Ahsa so easy and convenient. We just had to hop on the waiting tour coaster and we were treated to a historical and oasis trip. I will write about this on the next entry. But if I were you, avail of the hotel’s package because you’ll be assured a truly informative and convenient tour around Al Ahsa. It’s affordable too! Imagien at just SR 990, you get to enjoy an overnight stay in Al Ahsa InterContinental Hotel, an Al Ahsa tour for 2 and free breakfast! C’mon, go and experience the finest hospitality and warmth of Al Ahsa!
There’s nothing like discovering a new place for The Pink Tarha. We’re glad that we went to Al Ahsa and saw what it has to offer for both locals and expats. It’s worth the 2-hour journey to the East. Riyadhizens, let’s go!!! And for those who are outside Saudi Arabia who are interested of that tourist visa, you better make Al Ahsa one of your stops, and Al Ahsa InterContinental Hotel as your home to this part of the Kingdom.
Al Ahsa InterContinental Hotel
Al Malik Khalid Street,
P.O. Box 5399, Al Hofuf
Al Ahsa 31982, Saudi Arabia
Disclaimer: The Pink Tarha was invited by the management of Al Ahsa Intercontinental Hotel. All opinions and feedback in this entry are all ours.