Immerse yourself in Bedouin culture. Where you choose to stay while traveling largely dictates your personal relationship with that country.And while we appreciate the logical necessity and assumed ease of bedding down in a chain hotel, stepping out of the ordinary makes for a life-changing experience. Take Jordan’s Feynan Ecolodge. This 26-room property sits at the southwestern border of Dana Biosphere nature reserve, the country’s largest—boasting 703 plant species, 215 species of birds, and 38 mammal species.
The hotel is largely off the grid, generating most of its energy from solar panels on the roof and lighting its rooms and hallways by a network of candles each night (though “off the grid” doesn’t exclude the Wi-Fi in the main lobby). The hotel employees are all from the local Bedouin community, water comes from a nearby spring, the bread that’s served in the all-vegetarian restaurant is made daily by a local Bedouin woman, and the gift shop sells handicrafts sourced from local artisans and farmers. Despite this near-obsessive locavore focus, you feel fully embraced, whether you’re lying on the expansive roof deck, observing the panoply of stars stretched out across a night sky unblemished by light pollution, or playing soccer with the local Bedouin children as you watch the sun turn the rocky, mountainous landscape stirring shades of orange and gold.
From Feynan you’re within striking distance of a variety of outdoor activities. Go on an exhilarating, full-day hike through the slot canyons of Wadi Ghwayr, spend the day with a Bedouin shepherd, take cooking classes to learn the local cuisine, or find a breezy spot to…do nothing at all. Whatever the choice, you win. And you’ll remember Feynan far more fondly than whatever chain hotel you last stayed.
Standing on the Yasmena dive boat out of the port of Aqaba, Jordan, you can see the coasts of Jordan, Egypt, Israel, and Saudi Arabia.The Red Sea and surrounding landscape is beautiful from this vantage point, with the vast desert extending down to the ocean—and underneath the azure water it is even more magnificent. Yazan Alsaed, the Yasmena’s captain, has been a dive instructor for more than 20 years—he runs the dive and snorkel company Sea Guard, with three boats that operate year-round from the Aqaba port. The boat is immaculate—with first-rate snorkeling and scuba equipment, a top deck for sunning, and a kitchen that serves fresh tuna steaks and deliciously cold and frothy mint lemonade.
The coral reef here is vibrant and healthy. In order to protect the marine environment around Aqaba (including the Israeli town of Eilat, two miles along the coast), the Jordanian government established a marine park in 1997. The reef runs about 11 miles along the eastern arm of the Red Sea to Jordan’s border with Saudi Arabia and is so close to the shoreline that you can snorkel to it from one of the private or public beaches. But further out, the dive boat can deliver you to more than 20 world-class spots—including a sunken ship. The Cedar Pride, a 230-foot-long international cargo vessel, was sunk in 1985 to create a site for divers. It lies across two big coral reefs, so you can swim under the ship. The deepest point of the ship is 88.5 feet, but its highest point is only 30 feet under the surface, so you can see it even if just snorkeling.
More than 200 varieties of coral populate the reefs, in contrast to Hawaii’s more modest 45 species and Bermuda’s paltry 15. With an excess of 1,000 species of tropical fish, few crowds, and an exotic vibe straight out of Arabian Nights, Aqaba is a premier dive and windsurf spot that’s undiscovered by most Westerners.
But there’s more to this part of Jordan than the varied sea life.
The city of Aqaba is ancient, even by Middle East standards. It’s been inhabited since about 4,000 BC. The Nabateans, who carved the giant columns and granaries into the sandstone cliffs in Petra, called this coastal city home, and the Roman Tenth Legion was garrisoned here. In more modern times, it witnessed one of the most pivotal Middle East battles in World War I—the historic Battle of Aqaba.
Aqaba takes the guesswork out of what to wear when you’re visiting Jordan. While most people dress conservatively in the souk (market), the beachfront hotels and dive boats have a more cosmopolitan air—shorts, sleeveless tops, and even bikinis are nearly as prevalent as headscarves and traditional robes.
And Aqaba has arguably the best shopping in Jordan. It is a duty-free zone, so the prices are some of the best in the country. While there are modern boutiques, don’t miss the old souk, where you’ll find a kaleidoscope of shops, with souvenir stands, rug emporiums, and small cafes serving cardamom-spiced coffee and savory lamb kabobs. There are plenty of hotels and guest houses to choose from in Aqaba, where five star luxury properties like the Kempinski Aqaba Hotel or the InterContinental Aqaba line the seashore. The latter has expansive, modern guest rooms as well as a first-class spa, a gorgeous outdoor pool, and 900 feet of private beach. You can eat and drink in one of the hotel’s several restaurants, or head into town to sit at a café with a cold beer and fruit-flavored hookah and revel in your good fortune.
Wadi Rum | The Kingdom of Jordan
Anyone who believes the desert is devoid of beauty has never been to Wadi Rum.Most famously portrayed as the backdrop to the film Lawrence of Arabia, this now-protected area in the south of Jordan covers just less than 250 square miles of dramatic desert wilderness. Within this vast, rust-colored sea of sand punctuated by jutting sandstone peaks are ancient rock carvings, Nabatean temples, and fresh water springs, all waiting to be explored.
In short, visiting Wadi Rum while in Jordan is a no-brainer. Perhaps more challenging is deciding how you want to experience this varied landscape. By jeep, camel or horse? By foot? By bike or by rock climbing the same routes that were once traversed by the ancient Bedouins, whose ancestors still call this region home? Whichever you prefer, the desert’s canyons, rock bridges, sand dunes, and patina-covered sandstone cliffs provide an experience that resonates like a fine symphony or an Old Master‘s painting.
The vast majority of people living in and around Wadi Rum today is of Bedouin origin and, until recently, led nomadic lives, relying on goat and camel herds to make ends meet. Many now split their time between the village and their camps and tents, which fulfills their desire for freedom and the reality of keeping their children in school. Rum Village lies within the borders of the protected area. But Bedouin tents, with spectacular tea and polite conversation, are scattered throughout the region, a friendly refuge from the midday sun.
You won’t find luxury five-star resorts here. There is a guesthouse in Rum Village, you can pitch your own tent at one of the established campsites, or spend the night sleeping beneath the stars at Captain’s Desert camp, arguably the best way to experience the magic of both the people and the landscape. There are many “private” camps in the reserve—Captain’s Desert camp is nestled into a nook of sand surrounded by rocks, an oasis in the wide desert.
Spend the day exploring, then drop your stuff off in one of the tents that encircle the fire pit and scramble up one of the surrounding bulbous jebels, or rock formations, to watch the sun sink below the horizon. Then dine on an elaborate feast cooked in an earthen oven, sip tea, and be prepared to dance around the campfire as the music starts and the stars carpet the sky.
Rise with dawn the next morning. Feel the breeze start to warm the desert air. Marvel at the sunrise as the world turns from dusty rose to orange to bright yellow. And then try to decide whether you’ll be riding a camel or pulling on your climbing harness after breakfast.
Be careful, however, as every visitor to Wadi Rum forever yearns to return. As T.E. Lawrence wrote in the Seven Pillars of Wisdom, “For this cruel land can cast a spell which no temperate clime can match.”
There’s more to the Middle East than turmoil.
Jordan is pure magic. The country, bordered by Palestine, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Syria, and Israel is exotic as all get-out, with men wearing the traditional red-and-white-checked keffiyeh (headscarf) and long white robes and women in the traditional hijab and modest dress. By day, the old markets (there’s one in nearly every town) are a kaleidoscope of scents; cardamom-spiced coffee, za‘tar, and saffron dominate, while at night, the clubs and restaurants are hazy with the smoke of fruit-flavored tobacco, sucked down via hookah pipes by men and women alike.
The Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan, as it is formally known, is an oasis of peace in a region of the world that has become synonymous with political turmoil—a quiet house in a noisy neighborhood. But Jordan is safe—as one adventure tourist was advised by a prominent FBI agent—“safer than visiting Chicago.” The Nebraska-sized country has a constitutional monarchy, with strong civil rights, religious freedom, and close ties with the United States and the European Union. While it’s pure Arabia—the country is primarily Islamic, and Arabic is the main language—English is taught in schools starting in the first grade. The country rates #1 in education in the Arab world, something that’s obvious when you share tea with a local Bedouin family or sit among students in a pub in Amman debating international politics or the war in Syria.
The Kingdom is at the cradle of civilization, with amazing archeological sites dating back to the Paleolithic period (tens of thousands of years B.C.) The best known is Petra, a UNESCO site settled by the ancient Nabateans who carved the giant columns and granaries into the sandstone cliffs. It’s a must-visit, and could dominate several days of your itinerary as you hike around the valley. But don’t let that be the only spot you visit.
The country’s geography is vast desert, punctuated by steep hills, fertile canyons, oases of pink oleander and palm, and miles of coast. The port city of Aqaba boasts world-class diving in the Red Sea, Wadi Rum’s vast desert landscape supports legions of hikers and has given birth to a new breed of Middle Eastern rock climbers, and the historic Dead Sea offers plenty of ways to embrace the recuperative benefits of the waters and mud.
Your likely gateway into Jordan will be Amman, a bustling city of 3 million (Jordan has a population of 7 million), with the ancient souk (market) in the middle of town. But—as tempting as it is to rush out and start exploring—give the city a few days to adjust to the welcoming country. A good measure of when you’re ready to venture out? When you get used to everyone saying “hello hello!” in a warm chorus of greeting from every street corner, car, and bus.
This is the first in a series of articles on all that Jordan has to offer. Our #omniten team is exploring the country April 7-16. Follow their adventures by searching #omniten or #TryingStuffinJordan.
Good things come to those who try. Who is your #TryingStuff buddy? Eric E. & Bret W. have theirs! (Photo: Dave. C)
A snowmobile ride to the archery range put the #Omniten’s accuracy to the test in this next #OmniGames event.