Petra. The Red Sea. Mount Nebo. Wadi Rum: From ancient “lost cities” and significant Biblical sites to locations made famous in classics like Lawrence of Arabia and Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, you can find them all in Jordan.
Over the last decade, the small kingdom bordering Israel, Lebanon, Syria, Egypt, Iraq and Saudi Arabia has enjoyed a boom in development and a higher profile on the world stage, thanks in large part to its forty-something, U.S.-educated King Abdullah—a forward-thinking ruler who’s been known to head off on incognito motorcycle rides—and his wife, Queen Rania. As a result, the tourists who arrive in Jordan are finding world-class adventure activities, spas, gourmet cuisine and high-end shopping along with rich history.
Ma’in: A Luxury Oasis
A little over an hour’s drive from the capital city Amman, at the bottom of a ravine set 866-feet below sea level, lies the legendary Ma’in hot springs and one of the main attractions, Evason Ma’in Hot Springs Resort & Six Senses Spa. The high-end, eco-conscious hideaway operated by the Six Senses luxury brand has a section of the hot springs that is open to the public, yet the hotel—the only one adjacent to the waters—also offers private access. Simply decorated in muted earth tones accented by splashes of bright orange and pink, and boasting modern touches like iPod docks and flat screens, the 97 rooms and suites overlook waterfalls or a dramatic panorama of red-hued cliffs and Dead Sea waters with the lights of Jerusalem shimmering in the distance.
What to Do:
Despite the remote location, the resort is ideally situated for day trips to sites like the ancient Roman ruins at Jerash and the quaint town of Madaba, known for its mosaic-laden churches. Along with exploring the region, be sure to reserve a day to utilize the resort’s Six Senses Spa, a gorgeous facility where the therapeutic treatments incorporate fragrant indigenous ingredients. The three hour Hammam Ma’in Signature Journey includes a scrub with mineral-rich Dead Sea salts, mud wrap, private bath and a head-to-toe massage with henna flower oil, while the Jasmine Facial gets skin to glow using clay, goat’s milk yogurt, ground olives and jasmine flowers. Post-treatment, guests can swim under the waterfall in a heated thermal pool, or relax on an outdoor day bed with dried fruits and spiced herbal tea.
Where to Eat:
Ranging from a casual all-day eatery to a wine-paired Chef’s Table experience, the resort’s restaurants incorporate regional recipes and fresh natural and organic ingredients. Don’t miss dinner at Senses of Arabia, where the menu takes you on a culinary trip through the Middle East, or Olive, a traditional Bedouin feast served under candlelit tents nestled among the olive trees. Set a short drive from the main hotel, the Panorama Restaurant serves Lebanese-influenced fare from a cliff-top spot overlooking the Dead Sea valley.
Petra: The Rose-Red City
For thousands of years, the ancient city of Petra lay hidden along the slopes of Mount Hor, in a basin valley that stretches from the Dead Sea to the Gulf of Aqaba. In 1812, a Swiss explorer re-introduced the world to the rose-hued marvel, and since then, the vast, carved-rock complex—named one of New Seven Wonders of the World and a UNESCO World Heritage Site—has become Jordan’s most visited attraction.
What to Do:
You can spend anywhere from a few hours to several days exploring the Petra Park, which is accessed by a kilometer-long stroll into a narrow gorge. At the end of the walk, the passageway opens up onto Petra’s most famous site: the elaborate pink-colored façade of the Treasury Building, an archeological marvel you might recognize from the finale of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. A beautiful hike takes you up to a first century monastery, while throughout the park, you’ll find airy cafes and artisan stalls manned by Bedouin tribesmen, who are typically adorned with chunky rings and kohl-rimmed eyes. For a truly unique experience, sign-up for Petra by Night, a candlelit walk to the Treasury and a traditional music performance in front of the monuments.
Where to Eat:
Visitors inevitably rave about the cuisine in Jordan, where fresh herbs and vegetables, succulent meats and fragrant spices are integrated into every meal. At Petra Kitchen, you’ll not only enjoy a multi-course traditional feast, but learn how to prepare it, too. Upon arrival, diners don an apron, grab a glass of wine or beer and— under the direction of the head chef—start chopping, dicing and sautéing. Marinated meats have been prepped in advance, so it’s usually only an hour or so until you’re tucking in to delicacies like parsley-flavored wheat soup, hot and cold Arabic salads, warm breads and stewed lamb in a yogurt-almond-pine nut sauce. Afterwards, sip mint tea on the covered terrace and watch the crowds stroll along Petra’s downtown streets.
Where to Stay:
Established in the late 19th century in the shadows of the Taybet Mountains, the quaint stone village of Taybeh was deserted and deteriorating by the 1960s, when it was turned into a resort. Now called the Taybet Zaman Hotel, this unique property is spread out over the entire authentic village. Rooms and suites are set in former residential bungalows, which feature stone and brick interiors, arched walls and traditional Bedouin decorations. An outdoor pool, Turkish steam bath, arts-and-crafts market, lively bar and restaurant—complete with an Arabic bakery—round out the facilities.
Wadi Rum: A Night in the Desert
Described by WW I-era British Lieutenant Colonel T.E. Lawrence aka Lawrence of Arabia, as “vast, echoing and god-like,” the monolithic rockscapes and echoing canyons of the Wadi Rum desert are like nowhere else in the world. A deep stillness permeates the protected natural park, which is home to miles of sand dune-dotted desert, mountains of orange, yellow and red, and many rare plants, wild flowers and wildlife.
What to Do:
From the main Wadi Rum Visitors Center, travelers can take a guided tour of some of the Wadi’s best known sites, like the Valley of the Moon, Seven Pillars of Wisdom, Burdah Rock Bridge or the 4,000 year-old rock drawings. Thrill-seekers can also set up activities like rock climbing, mountain hikes or settle for a scenic drive through the park that end at a small Bedouin tent set at the base of a sunset-colored cliff. From there, enjoy a leisurely camel ride to one of the overnight tented camps that dot the park. The quiet, meditative ride through the Wadi feels like a trip back in time and is an experience not-to-be missed.
Where to Stay:
Spending at least one night in the Wadi Rum is a must. In addition to gaining insight into the Bedouin way of life and the area’s history, you’ll see more stars in the sky than seem possible. There are several campsites and bed-and-breakfasts in the park, ranging from “wild camps” where travelers supply their own tents and equipments, to Bedouin villages and luxury desert camps boasting facilities like showers, catered meals and nightly entertainment.
Aqaba: Red Sea Resort
Both international and Jordanian tourists are flocking to this booming Red Sea-side town, located at the most southern point of the country near the borders of Israel, Saudi Arabia and Egypt. Home to top-notch snorkeling and diving, Aqaba is a charming town that, historically, held a key spot along the land and sea trade routes. Today, you’ll find it buzzing with markets, artisan boutiques and cafes, as well as lots of leisure activities.
What to Do:
The clear blue waters around Aqaba hold both natural and man-made treasures, from an extensive coral reef to sunken shipwrecks. There are several dive centers and snorkeling outfitters in town that can organize trips, during which you’ll swim with turtles, explore caves and maybe spot a dolphin; night dives can also be arranged. If you prefer to stay above water, many of the high-end hotels have their own yachts and sailboats offering day cruises or sunset sails.
Where to Stay:
At the stunning new Kempinski Hotel Aqaba, guests enjoy water views from most rooms, which come equipped with terraces, deep-soaking tubs and all modern amenities. A sleek contemporary design is found throughout, from the gourmet eateries and wellness facility to the chic, oversized beach beds lining the imported sand. After a day soaking up the sun and sea, let loose at one of the after-dark beach parties frequented by a glam international crowd.
The Dead Sea: Saltwater Spas
Set 410 meters below sea level, at the lowest point on Earth, Jordan’s Dead Sea coast has become a world-renowned health and wellness center, thanks to its legendary healing waters, restorative mud treatments and 350 days a year of UVB-filtered sunshine. Five-star properties now line the Dead Sea’s shores, yet they are far enough apart and tastefully done that the area retains its natural beauty and peaceful atmosphere.
Where to Stay:
Most guests who come to this area rarely leave their sprawling resorts—everything you need, from stores and nightlife to recreational facilities, are all on-site. Our two favorites, the Movenpick Resort & Spa Dead Sea and the Kempinski Hotel Ishtar Dead Sea are each stylish, comfortable and accommodating. The Movenpick has been designed to resemble a traditional village, with 346 rooms separated into “neighborhoods” and restaurants, lounges and shops set around a “town square.” There are several pools, tennis courts and a beach volleyball court on site, but the main attraction is the 6,000 square-foot Zara Spa, where you can indulge in over 70 therapeutic services, including traditional Dead Sea mud wraps and scented steams. There is also a separate Therapy Center manned by doctors and dermatologists which treats chronic health and skin conditions.
Modern in design, the stunning Kempinski is spread out over several cliff-side tiers that lead all the way down to the sea. Cuisine runs the gamut from Imperial Thai to home-made pastas and pizzas, while a Babylonian theme (and cigars) can be found in the bars. The real highlight is the hydrotherapy facility, which boasts several therapeutic Dead Sea water pools of varying temperatures and salt levels, indoor and outdoor hydro-massage pools, an oversized steam hammam, and plenty of day beds for blissful lounging.
STORY: SANDRA RAMANI
PHOTOGRAPHY: SANDRA RAMANI and KEMPENSKI HOTEL ISHTAR