The Farasan Islands, located off the southwest coast of Saudi Arabia, is one of the must see places in the middle east. Weighing in with a population of only 20,000, this lightweight travel destination most definitely holds its own. The area is rich with untouched corals, marine wildlife, varies species of birds, and of course- Farasan's iconic mangrove trees. Farasan consists of over 170 islands, and any environment lover will be glad to know that some areas are protected under UNESCO (see Farasan Islands Protected Area).
The best time to travel to the Farasan Islands is in winter (November- February). If you go in summer (like us) be ready to wake up at dawn to make the most of your sunrise, then pencil in a nap during midday when the sun is absolutely unbearable. Plan to stay on the island about two nights. Everything worth seeing is pretty close together and it would be easy to get everything done in a day or two. That being said, if you're a big snorkeler or diver it might be worth staying a bit longer and going out on the boat a few times.
When planning our trip to Farasan, we found it a bit difficult to book reservations online, so we ended up going into our trip a bit underprepared. If the idea of not having everything planned ahead of time stresses you out, book a tour (Ghazi tours). This is a great consideration if you are traveling solo, or do not feel comfortable with the language barrier.
The feeling of roughing it a bit and struggling to get around I live for. Word of mouth marketing is well and alive in all of Saudi Arabia, and this definitely holds true for Farasan. Learn some (basic arabic phrases) for your travels, get to the island, and start asking around. In my experience, everyone was very friendly and hospitable on Farasan Islands, it felt like everyone wants to help you enjoy your time there!
Getting to the Farasan Islands
Rent a car when you arrive at Jazan airport. If you are unable to rent a car in Saudi, there is uber, careem and taxi's readily available. After checking into your hotel (we stayed at Radisson Hotel and found it very clean and modern), go straight to MACNA The Maritime Company for Navigation to get your ferry ticket for the next day. You can bring your car over on the ferry, so ask about this. As of right now, booking the ferry is not something you can do online. While you've gone all the way to MACNA, hit up Happy Times Fish Restaurant after for a nice seafood meal in Jazan.
If there are no ferries (this is what happened to us, we tried to book our tickets but we were too late) there is another port called Tourist Edge Marina with smaller boats that can take you over without a car. The timings of these boats are variable and basically just leave when they are full so it is impossible to plan the timing ahead of time.
Once arriving on Farasan Island, if you did not bring your car over, you can rent a car on the island at the port on arrival- note that these rental agencies close at around 4pm. Otherwise, there are taxis that can take you to your hotel (not sure if they are really taxis or just guys with cars). If you did not book your hotel before arriving (like us), your taxi driver might be able to help you out. Our taxi driver was actually the one who took us to Farasan Park Hotel and helped us get a room. He also took us to the fish market, hooked us up with the man who took us on the boat trip and showed us the historical places within the city. Most of the locals do not speak english, but they are such a good resource to help you have a good time on the island.
Below there is a list of words/phrases that might be of use.
How are you: kaif halek
Bathroom :toilet or Hammam
Ferry: Abbarah or ferry as well
Snorkel: same or you can say ghus
Mangrove trees: shajraht alghandal
Where is a good place to eat? Fin ahssan mata’am
How do we buy tickets for the ferry? Kif ashtary tickets Ashan aroh Farasan?
Fish Market: souq alsamak
Radisson Blu hotel in Jazan: 562 riyals (~150 USD) per night
Farasan Park on Farasan Island: 450-550 riyals (~120-147 USD) per night (you can stay in the main hotel or stay in a sort of glamping style large tent). This includes a breakfast buffet!
Boat trip: We paid 400 riyals (~106 USD) for the two of us to go privately with a guy on his boat. If this seems expensive, there might be other options of going with more people to split the price.
Rent a car on the island: 135 riyals (~36USD) to rent for overnight.
Fresh fish at fish market- 90 riyals (~24 USD) BBQ was 20 riyals (~5 USD)
The rest of the sight-seeing is free, the only other things you might want to account for is buying your other meals, water, taxis if you are not renting your own car.
6 things to do on Farasan Islands
1. Boat trip to the mangrove trees and snorkel
By far my favorite part of the trip. Wake up and 5 am and do this at sunrise. We went during the summer which is not recommended because it is dead hot, but the area is much less traveled. We were the only boat up and about at this time, making it feel like we were really one with the birds and wildlife. The boat owner took us snorkeling with as much planning as "let me know where you guys want to jump out". In snorkel trips I've taken in the past, they often take you to a hot spot they know will be good for snorkeling. I like this because he didn't put much thought into it, we just found a reef and jumped in!
2. Al Qassar Heritage village
Al Qassar is a small village that is supposed to be one of the oldest inhabited areas of the islands. Its craftsmanship is unique because the homes are made from coral and mud. It is very small, you will probably spend about 30 minutes- 1 hour there. It is located about 5-10 minutes from Farasan city. FYI: the village has a coffee shop for tourists
3. Al Rifai house
Built by a wealthy pearl merchant and also made of coral rocks. The stunning detail of the structure is what makes this worth seeing. This is walking distance from the center of the city and again, you will probably only spend about 30 minutes there.
4. Ottoman Fort: this is something we kind of missed, we tried to go in the evening and it was already closed. It is close to the main city and supposed to have a nice view of the island.
5. Get fresh fish at the fish market. There fish market is easy to find as the entrance is marked with a giant fish. After buying a fresh fish, there are shops nearby that will cook/BBQ it for you.
6. Beaches. Find a nice beach for sunrise and sunset. Some beaches are not suitable for swimming, and some areas are protected. The best swimming in my opinion is while snorkeling off the boat as you are a bit further out from the rocks of the coast. Farasan Park Hotel has beach access that is suitable for swimming, just remember to bring your Saudi appropriate swimwear. Some of the beaches are are not suitable for swimming are still so beautiful that I would recommend them for a place to mediate or enjoy a quiet coffee/tea.