Amid a dusty desert landscape, Jordan’s gems shine, reports Tom Irwin
At first glance this small, dry nation might not seem an obvious holiday choice, but take a closer look and you’ll discover there’s more than meets the eye to Jordan.
Culturally exotic, with unique treasures and guaranteed sunshine more than 300 days a year, it seems to be the rising star of the Middle East as many operators report a surge in interest.
It’s hardly surprising, as Jordan has a lot to shout about this year with two big anniversaries: it’s 200 years since the rediscovery of Petra by the western world, and 50 years since the premiere of the film Lawrence of Arabia, much of which was filmed in the desert valley of Wadi Rum.
So if your clients are after something that’s different yet easily accessible, Jordan could be just what they’re looking for.
SEE: A RICH TAPESTRY
Jordan boasts a glut of cultural treasures, from the sublime in Petra to the religious on Mount Nebo.
Petra: No words could do this ancient city justice – suffice to say, if you go to Jordan, you go here. One of the New Seven Wonders of the World and a Unesco World Heritage Site, Petra is mind blowing and best enjoyed with a guide to inform you of its rich history.
Encourage clients to spend at least a full day there – it’s big. The fairly strenuous climb to Al Deir, the Monastery, is absolutely worth the effort, so if clients are mobile enough for the climb, they must not miss it.
The candlelit Petra by Night tour gets mixed reviews, but I loved it – the traditional music show in front of Al Khazneh, the Treasury, is charming, but it’s the walk to get there through the mile-long Siq (the long narrow passage leading into the ancient city) that is truly stunning. Hang back a little to allow larger groups to get ahead: once you’re alone and the chatter fades away, the candlelight playing on the near-100m-high walls is awe-inspiring.
Wadi Rum: Situated in Jordan’s south, a stay at one of this desert’s camps is a must to get a feeling for the Bedouin way of life. Guests can take sunrise or sunset camel rides, plus you can arrange a guide to take clients into the desert during the day or at night by jeep, where they can lie back on a rug in the pin-drop quiet and stare up at the glorious Milky Way.
The Dead Sea: Famed for the high salt content that allows you to float freely without effort, and with shores that are the lowest point on land, there’s nowhere else quite like the Dead Sea. Advise clients to take care while swimming if they have cuts or scratches, and avoid getting water in their mouth or eyes – I can confirm from experience that it tastes terrible and stings!
Jerash: To the north of Amman is Jerash, the site of a well-preserved ancient Roman city. It’s surprisingly open, with visitors able to wander through the columns, temples and streets to marvel close-up at the architecture.
Aqaba: Jordan’s only coastal city, Aqaba, lies about 140 miles north of the Egyptian resort of Sharm el Sheikh and is also a watersports and diving hub, replete with luxury hotels and resorts.
Madaba: Home to numerous important mosaics including the 6th-century Map of Madaba, the oldest original depiction of the Holy Land.
Mount Nebo: The summit of this mountain is where the Bible says Moses was shown the Promised Land, but whatever your religious beliefs, there’s quite a view from the top.
Karak: This is the site of an impressive 12th-century castle built by the crusaders, which only fell out of use in 1917.
STAY: FROM GOURMET TO GOAT HAIR
In Amman, the five-star Landmark Hotel & Conference Centre is a well-appointed choice, perfect for a stopover before visitors explore the country’s many sights.
High-end options at the Dead Sea include the five-star Mövenpick Resort & Spa, a sumptuous sprawling complex set out in village style beside the salty shore, featuring nine restaurants and one of the Middle East’s most advanced spa facilities.
The recently-opened Crowne Plaza is the latest and largest luxury offering, while Hilton also has plans for a resort to open at the end of 2013 – proof if it were needed that the Dead Sea is attracting attention from the hotel industry’s big hitters.
Options for budget travellers are fairly limited, but if guests are going to splash out anywhere then the Dead Sea is the place to do it.
Over in Petra, there’s a wider choice. A short ride from the historic site is the Taybet Zaman Hotel & Resort, a welcome sanctuary from the bustle of the town and a great alternative to pricier options near the attraction’s entrance.
It has a relaxed vibe and homely rooms that feel more like individual dwellings thanks to another village-like layout. This one is authentic, though: the resort is a former town that has been converted.
Wadi Rum offers several camp options. None are opulent, but that’s not really the point when you’re visiting a Bedouin-style camp, so if your clients are devoted to five-star luxury, swap an overnight stay for a day trip from Aqaba or Petra. I bunked at the Captain’s Desert Camp, sleeping in a traditional goat hair tent.
It can be quite hot at night and there may be mosquitoes to keep you company (there are nets to cover you while you sleep), but tell clients to take the necessary precautions and they’ll be telling their friends about it for some time.
SELL: AN OASIS IN THE DESERT
By Middle Eastern standards it’s a progressive and liberal country. Make sure clients are aware of local customs on dress and behaviour – clothing in particular should not be too revealing – but the country’s exposure to tourism means western travellers won’t feel out of place.
EasyJet has been flying into the capital, Amman, three times a week since February, with a flight time of about five hours, with Royal Jordanian and British Airways also serving the route.
When it comes to food, Jordan offers simple but tasty options. A must-try is Mansaf, a delicious lamb dish cooked with yoghurt sauce and served with rice and flatbread. Other meals are most commonly served mezze-style, with plenty of hummus, falafel, bread and minced meat.
Customers may want to think twice about visiting during Ramadan – smaller establishments will be closed during daylight hours, meaning it can be difficult to find lunch, plus it is considered offensive to eat or drink in front of those that are fasting.
New attractions include the Royal Botanic Garden of Jordan, scheduled for March 2013 and covering 180 hectares near Amman, and the Jordan Museum in Amman, which is expected to open this year and has cost $25 million to build.
Perhaps the most unusual is a Star Trek-inspired theme park, planned for 2014; Jordan’s King Abdullah is a big fan and even featured in an episode of the series.
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