BismIllah wa as salaamu alaykum.
For some reason, when people think of Saudi Arabia, the concept of women in black niqabs not allowed to drive comes up. There is no association with freedom or fun. Well, let me burst those stereotypical bubbles with some realities about life in Saudi Arabia.
Just about every mall I've been in has an indoor amusement park, arcade, and food court inside. No, I don't mean a couple of rides you put a coin in, I mean full fledged carousels, bumper cars, monorails, rollercoasters, and the like. The one opposite us has an ice-skating rink as well. For SAR 20 (that's about $5.25) children can skate to their heart's content...and that includes the skate rental. Some have rock-climbing walls, others roller skating. There are also arcade games aplenty. Within that area are stands selling popcorn in a variety of flavours, nachos, and an assortment of other typical snack foods. Just next to the amusement area is the full food court. Of course, there are plenty of bathrooms, plenty of wudhu stations, and a beautiful prayer area - one for men and one for women. Family fun an every convenience at your fingertips.
Outdoor amusement parks are easily found and scattered around Madinah and all cities. They are usually open in the evenings, after Asr, and have all manner of rides and attractions. Some have parks with grassy areas, etc. beside them. There are water-themed parks and ones with just regular rides.
Istarahas are rentable villas/facilities that come with or without pools. The most common have two large, separate sitting rooms, a full kitchen including stove and refrigerator, and three or four bathrooms with showers. They will have at least one pool, and often a smaller one for young children. Some have grassy areas, swings, a trampoline, or similar. They vary in price, but we have rented one for SAR 500, which is around $125 for 12 hours. It had the standard two sitting rooms with big TVs, a large adult pool, a nice sized children's pool, a fully equipped kitchen with dishes, pots, pans, and a water cooler with a complimentary bottle of water for it, and nice grassy areas with trees so we could sit and eat outside. Another that was more expensive (SAR 800/US$ 200) had two separate sides, joinable by opening the gates between them. It was new, with very fancy sitting rooms, large screen tv's, a full-sized trampoline, a nice two-sided bench swing, a kiddie pool, a 5 foot deep adult pool, and plenty of outdoor patio area. There was a supply of clean, large area rugs to put down wherever we chose, as well as patio furniture.
We split the cost between four families and go every two or three weeks, which works out at just SAR 100-150 per family (US$ 25-40). It could be taken just for a family, but we prefer that the women take it during the day and the men take it for the evening. That way, everyone has a break and fun with friends. Of course, as families we rent istarahas whenever we like.
Then there is the beach. Well, there is no beach in Madinah, but there is Yanbu just 2.5 hours down the road, or Jeddah 4 hours away. Yanbu has a public beach with beautiful sand and a long, shallow area for wading in the Red Sea. The beach has playground areas every 200 yards, free shaded cabanas, masaajid every 500 yards, and amusement parks at one end. There are restaurants nearby, with a particularly good on selling fish freshly caught. One chooses the fish they want and then it is cleaned, seasoned, and fried to crispy perfection in a huge vat of hot oil. A variety of rices can be selected to accompany it, with condiments coming along as part of the package. A large fish to feed a family of 6, along with rice and condiments, comes to around SAR 85 (US$ 20). Ice cream trucks drive along the beach every 5 minutes, along with coffee vendors, popcorn and other snacks. Around asr time, pony rides and carriage rides are available and four wheelers can be seen riding up and down the beach. There is also King Malik Fahad Park in Yanbu Sinaya, which has a man-made beach, a pond, boats, a beautiful green park and grassy areas, and a selection of fast food and restaurants nearby. There is a selection of resorts, lovely luxury hotels with their own private facilities and some with beach access, that can be stayed in for a vacation/weekend away.
The drive from Madina to Yanbu is stunning, with mountains of every color along the way, turning into smooth sand dunes about three quarter's along the way. One can see the foot prints of the people who climbed the dunes...something free for anyone who wants to take up the challenge and enjoy the view from up high. Others have climbed some of the lower mountains.
Jeddah beach/corniche has similar features, including a four wheeler/jet ski rental service, small kiosks selling beach related items, and some beach-side cafes.
Of course, everywhere is a potential eating out experience with family sections to accommodate niqaabis. These are private compartments or rooms with curtains, screens, or doors, so that the family can eat in privacy and we can lift our niqabs and eat comfortably.
These are just a few things we do for fun in Saudi Arabia. As we discover more, I will describe the experiences, inshaa'Allah. Truly we have the best of both worlds: recreation and Islam! Al hamdu l'Illahi Rabb il aal ameen!