By Rob L. Wagner
15 May 2015
Taif – The adage “stop and smell the roses” takes on new meaning when visitors climb to the highlands of Taif to find a temperate climate and plenty of water that defy the image of Saudi Arabia as a vast inhospitable desert.
It is here that the intense fragrance of oil-rich roses from the nearly 700 farms startles even the most experienced traveller. Where in the Gulf region can one literally take a break from the hubbub of life and smell the flowers even if none were to be seen?
Taif is the city of roses. It is an oasis that traces its roots of cultivating the damask rose to time of the Ottoman Empire. Taif combines old world history dating to the sixth century with its present-day emphasis on natural beauty, Arabian horses and luxury tourism. Its inhabitants repelled assaults from the Banu Daws in 630. It fell to the Ottomans in 1517 and remained part of the Ottoman Empire for nearly 300 years before the Sauds reclaimed the city in 1802.
Today, Taif is a domestic and international tourist destination for connoisseurs of the 30-petal rose – also known as the Rosa x damascena — who seek only the best quality rose oil and rose water. Taif’s annual Rose Festival, now in its 11th year, draws tens of thousands of visitors each spring. While roses are the principal draw for tourists, over the past decade Taif has become a destination city thanks largely to its relatively mild climate, excellent access to water and wide range of historic sites and agricultural richness.
“In Al-Hada you can find plenty of resorts and villas as well as rooms which can be rent by hour,” said Muhammed Murad, 46, a native of Taif who speaks of his city with obvious pride. “There are also many parks and gardens, public and private.”
In the suburbs, Al-Hada celebrates its environment with gardens and parks that produce grapes, pomegranates, figs and apricots. Visitors clamber onto cable cars at the Al-Kurr village and take a 30-minute aerial journey to the top of Al-Hada mountain to take in the stunning views. Al-Shifa to the south earned is reputation as a centre for honey production. These two districts also offer a vast network of trails for ambitious hikers.
“There are no scheduled programmes for hikers by recognised parties but tourists can hike without any supervision,” Murad said. “Some Europeans working in the same company where I work often say my country has plenty of places to go and enjoy and one of them are the mountain regions.”
Given visitors’ tendency to focus on the region’s floral heritage and natural environment, perhaps the most underappreciated feature is the Al-Massara International Equestrian Centre, which serves as an auction house for selectively bred Arabian horses, including the Seglawi, Keheilan, Hamdani, Hadban and Abeyan breeds. The centre is one of the largest horseback riding facilities in the Gulf and offers lessons even for novices. A mainstay of the centre is its horse beauty pageants.
How to get there:
Direct flights from London to Jeddah aboard Saudi Arabia Airlines start at about $700. Saudi Arabia Airlines also has direct flights from Dubai to Taif Regional Airport starting at about $325. Non-Saudi citizens must have a visa to enter the country. Many visitors make the 186-kilometre 2.5-hour drive via routes 40 and 15 east from Jeddah, which can be a challenge with narrow twisting roads rising to nearly 1,900 metres on the slopes of the Al-Sarawat mountains. The scenic drive is worth the cost of a tank of petrol. Murad said the first stop for motorists as they enter the city is “King Fahd Park, which was considered the biggest in the Middle East for many years”
Where to stay:
There are at least two dozen hotels in Taif with an average rating of three stars with the InterContinental Taif and Ramada Al-Hada among the top ranked. The Ramada atop Al-Hada mountain offers spectacular views of the valleys and mountain range.
When to go:
The rose harvest is during April with the festival usually starting around the same time. Then tours of local rose farms can be arranged through a domestic tour company. Temperatures in the spring range from a balmy 26 Celsius to a manageable 35.
What to know:
Although Taif has a population of more than 500,000 people, it is rural and conservative. Be sure to take a camera but ask permission when taking photos of people, especially of female sellers in souks and markets. Modest clothing is required.