In the evening we sat by the fire and sipped sweet cardamom tea while Attayak, the camp owner, sang and played instruments well into the night.
Known as the “Switzerland of the Middle East”, the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan is many of the things that its neighbours are not – politically stable, developing economically, and safe for travellers. Two women on a self-drive holiday through a country that borders Iraq, Syria, Saudi Arabia and Israel seems like a disaster in the making. However, whether it was in the capital city of Amman, the Wadi Rum desert, or literally the middle of nowhere in a Natural Biosphere Reserve, I have never felt safer. Jordanians are hugely welcoming, tremendously hospitable and have a sense of calm and peacefulness that I haven’t really witnessed elsewhere.
The first stop on our week-long drive through Jordan was the capital city of Amman. With less than a day to explore, we first headed to the Citadel, located on an L-shaped hill and appearing to hold watch over the city. Most of the structures still standing are from the Roman, Byzantine and Umayyad periods, and it’s fun to wander amongst the ruins looking out over the city and down to the Roman Amphitheatre below. The Amphitheatre itself is quite large, seating up to 6,000 people, and is worth a visit. After a few hours we headed down to Rainbow Street, lined with shops, restaurants and several historic sites, for a few happy hour drinks and a bite to eat. Unlike the rest of the Middle East, Amman is fairly lax when it comes to alcohol, and drinks can be bought in non-hotel bars throughout the city.
Leaving early the next morning, we programmed our GPS (a necessity) and headed off to the Dead Sea area, approximately an hour’s drive from Amman. Instead of staying at one of the resorts that line the sea, we chose the Evason Ma’In Hot Springs, located about 30 minutes away. Being a fan of Six Senses Resorts and Spas, I was eager to try their world-famous spa in the crème de la crème of spa sites, and it did not disappoint! The hotel itself is rustic and lovely – classic Six Senses – set in a valley overlooking the natural hot springs.
That evening we drove to the Dead Sea Panoramic Complex for dinner, just 30 minutes from the hotel. Arriving at the complex just before sunset, the whole experience was quite magical. The outdoor dining area and viewing platform look right out to Israel and the Palestinian territories, and as the sun sets, the lights from Bethlehem, Jerusalem and Hebron all start to flicker in the distance. Ibrahim, the restaurant manager, gave us a detailed description of all the cities we could make out in the distance, and filled us up with cold and hot mezze plus kebabs. The babaghanoush was one of the best I’ve had, using incredible smoked eggplant.
The next morning we drove down to O Beach Club for a dip into the Dead Sea itself. Stepping into the waters I was slightly giddy with excitement, and I have to say it was pretty much as amazing as I thought it would be. As the sea envelopes you it feels silkier than normal sea water, and the floating sensation really is indescribable. We covered ourselves in Dead Sea mud that most beaches keep in a bucket on the shore, let it dry in the sun, took the standard mud-caked photo, and then washed it off in the sea – Voilà! Baby soft skin!
Next stop was probably what I was most excited about, the mysterious and moon-like Wadi Rum desert. This was the longest drive of the trip, approximately 4.5 hours from the Dead Sea, down to the Red Sea, and then into the Wadi Rum. We opted to spend the night in Bedouin tents in the Wadi Rum itself rather than visit as a day trip, and looking back it was the right decision by a milestone. In the evening we sat by the fire and sipped sweet cardamom tea while Attayak, the camp owner, sang and played instruments well into the night. Dinner was cooked in a pot underground for two hours, and consisted of cauliflower, carrots, chicken, onion and garlic in a stew, served atop rice. Listening to the music, watching the stars and chatting to the Bedouins, who have a rather wicked sense of humour, made for a highly memorable evening.
The next morning we drove deeper into the wadi and hiked up one of the many rock structures to sit above a dizzyingly high arch, for spectacular views across the valley. Lunch was spent sheltered from the wind in a little cave, where our guide chopped up fresh tomatoes, cucumbers and olives to make the freshest of salads.
From Wadi Rum we took the back roads to Petra, driving through green fields and villages that looked more like Tuscany than the Middle East. Stopping to reprogram our GPS, a man stopped his car alongside to ask if we were lost and needed help – testament to Jordanian friendliness! It was hard to imagine Petra appearing anywhere in this lush, green area, and strange to think that just an hour ago we had been in the dry and dusty Wadi Rum.
Though you’ve seen it countless times in photographs, Petra is no less spectacular in person. The walk through the narrow, winding Siq before coming face to face with the Treasury is quite a humbling experience. We chose to go early in the morning, and when we arrived at the Treasury there was hardly anyone there, making for some amazing photographs. Next we hiked to the High Palace, and again, were very surprised by the emptiness about the place – we saw almost no one for over an hour. Unfortunately, though free of unrest itself, Jordan suffers from the troubles in surrounding countries and has seen tourism to the country dwindle in the past few years. The Monastery was my personal favourite monument, and perhaps the most taxing to reach, located on a hill over 200 metres high and requiring over 800 steps to reach. Hiking around Petra is not for the faint hearted (especially during the hotter months), and I recommend staying for two days if you want to avoid exhausting yourself – we tried to see it all in seven hours, and my legs haven’t been the same since! The Movenpick Petra is the best choice of accommodation in the city, located right next to the main entrance, with a pool that is necessary after a day of sightseeing, and a very good breakfast – serving up the best coffee I had all week with fresh egg and waffle stations.
Dana Nature Reserve & Feynan Eco Lodge
Dana Nature Reserve is arguably the most beautiful reserve in the country, and should be given a day to explore and hike. Unfortunately due to time constraints we had to bypass the main reserve and were only able to spend a night at an ecolodge on its periphery. However, this one night was my highlight of the trip as Feynan Eco Lodge is a truly special place.
Wholly devoted to sustainability, water is served in clay jars only; all food is vegetarian as there is no cold storage for meat; the soap is made from olive oil in the village; the bread made from a local woman and carried to Feynan by her children daily; all power is solar powered and the only lights in the whole lodge are in the bathrooms and kitchen – candles light the way in the evenings. That evening we took our mattresses up to the roof and lay looking up at the stars. Our guide pointed out more constellations that I had ever seen in my life, all visible with the naked eye. The lodge also has a high powered telescope and using this I saw the first planets I have ever seen – Jupiter with all its moons and Saturn with its rings.
Cats roam free and a herd of goats wandered onto the terrace during breakfast – this place is all about nature. We went on a guided hike into the surrounding valley, where our guide pointed out milkweed and oleander; rare blue headed lizards; and mating dragon flies. We stopped by a small stream for sweet cardamom tea, boiled with spring water over a fire that the guide made on the river bed. All staff at Feynan are local Bedouins from the area, and it was great getting to know them over the two days. Our guide explained that one staff member would soon be picked to go to Costa Rica later this year in an exchange program hosted by a sister eco-lodge there. When I asked who was going and if he himself wanted to go, he just said “Inshallah. Who will go – me, the chef, the front desk man – no one knows. All are ok.” There was absolutely no competition amongst this group, none of whom had ever travelled further than the next village, for something that would certainly be a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
From Feynan we made the 2.5-hour drive back to Amman for one more evening in the city, before flying home the next morning. Roads in Jordan are good and run the length of the country, allowing you to easily take in the major sites with minimal backtracking. A week was slightly too rushed to see all that we did – nine nights would have been perfect for this particular itinerary – but you could easily cut out one stop, which would make the trip more relaxing. There are also several historic sites near Amman – Jerash and the desert castles – that we didn’t have time for, but with an extra day in the city these can be visited in a day trip.
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