I hadn’t planned to write about our recent trip to Jordan – what I did on my holiday being a topic best left behind in junior school – but the amazing trip we had over the Eid break convinced me otherwise
We found a beautiful, friendly country, albeit one which has seen its tourist industry – which contributes more than 20% of its GDP – take a hammering in recent years.
It’s not even as if it’s their fault. The country is peaceful, stable, visibly protected and yet because of where it physically sits in the region, people take one look at the atlas and think: nope.
Proof of this came before we left, when Kid A expressed a previously-unhinted-at interest in geopolitics.
“Dad,” she asked me, “why exactly are we going on holiday somewhere that’s in between Israel and Syria?” You have to admit, it’s a good question.
Top tips for travellers
There are many reasons, not least of which is that, if not now, when?
Last year, the number of Brits who visited Jordan wouldn’t even fill Wembley Stadium. Here in the GCC, it’s a different picture. People in the region love visiting; so much so that Family Little City seems to be very much the late adopters, so we were not short of tips and advice for our trip.
The top four gems I’d gleaned ahead of departure were:
- The friendliness of the Jordanians
- Potholes, tyre-shredding omnipresence thereof
- The importance of cash – and the smaller the denomination Dinar note the better
- The friendliness of the Jordanians again, because everyone mentions it so often your suspicions are instantly raised. Surely an entire people can’t all be that nice?
Turns out they can, as I found out before our flight had even landed in Amman.
The man sitting next to me leaned over and asked what I was watching, because it was making me laugh out loud.
“It’s a sitcom,” I replied. “American.” (It was Modern Family, which being very much the late adopter, I’m just now getting into.)
“I like seeing your reaction,” he said, smiling. (Lucky he wasn’t sitting next to me when I was a blubbering mess at the end of The Lunchbox on my previous flight. He would have probably just told me to get a grip.)
We then got talking about our plans. He was from Jerash in the north of the country. Were we going that way? Sadly not, I replied.
Bear in mind I am not a hail-fellow-well-met type. I’m the guy who tips the barber and the taxi driver inversely depending on how much they talk, and yet here I am, merrily chatting away. The country was already affecting me.
Coming from Doha where we enjoy, overall, a cheaper standard of living than we left behind in the UK, this was not an especially cheap trip, given that we were travelling at peak holiday season here.
Tourist visas for non-GCC residents aren’t cheap (40JD/QR205/£35/$56 each) but like Qatar can be bought on arrival.
We had a lot we wanted to cram into three days. We started by cramming ourselves into a tiny Ford Figo that was – bar the CD player and driver’s airbag – identical to the first car I ever bought back in 1871. Fuel costs four times what we pay in Doha, but that’s still only half what the same would cost in the UK.
The Figo was perfect for the job: you don’t need a 4×4 to drive on Jordan’s roads (most of the cars are a bit older and lot smaller than in Qatar). They weren’t joking about those potholes, though. The road surfaces are, for the most part, appalling. It makes for tiring driving when you can’t drop your concentration for a second.
We clocked up 1,000kms in three days as we headed south from Amman to the Dead Sea, Karak, Petra, down to Aqaba and back.
The roads are very different to Qatar’s. Less traffic and more considerate drivers – the only flashing lights you’ll see are those of the roadside juice stalls trying to tempt you to stop.
Host with the most
We may not have seen much of Amman itself, but we saw its best side. As we were checking out of our first night hotel, I fell into conversation with Taleb, the hotel’s new owner. Having been a tour guide for 24 years, he knew his stuff. So when we told him about our onward plans, he politely told us that we were doing it all wrong.
A few phone calls later and he had reorganised the same elements of our trip into an order that made much more logistical, geographical and practical sense. He even got us a day pass for a Dead Sea beach resort for something close to half price, which was another unexpected kindness.
Yes, the Dead Sea. A bucket list item from before I ever knew what a bucket list was.
So blue. So alien. So breathtaking. I was actually having a hard time believing I was really there.
We first opted for a full body mud pack on the beach (good for the skin, apparently), and once we had dried in the sun, it was into the Dead Sea itself. I’ve been looking forward to this for over 30 years, ever since I saw it on the TV as a kid in a rural corner of England.
Back then it looked so strange I could barely believe it was on the same planet that I lived on. And as the lowest point on earth – 400m (1320 ft) – only adds to its surreal beauty.
For me at least however it more than lived up to my anticipation. You can’t actually swim in the water (there’s too much resistance, it’s nine times saltier than the ocean) so all you can do is float…
Go full starfish and stretch out like you’ve got the bed to yourself – and you stay supported. It makes you feel like your bones are made of air. It’s extraordinary.
I could have spent all day there, all week probably, but we had to make Petra by nightfall and we wanted to go via Karak, where Amnesiac became an unlikely celebrity for the afternoon.
When in Rome…
A trip to Jordan for a Brit, with all our cultural and emotional defences built up over thousands of years, is quite an experience. Everyone is instantly friendly in complete contravention of my entire East Anglian upbringing.
On our late afternoon walk around the spectacular remains of Karak Castle (sadly, no karak was to be found anywhere in town) Amnesiac was approached by a group of local lads, older teens, who were all fascinated by him. I honestly don’t think they’d ever seen anyone that pale before.
Afterwards, as we sat having coffee on the edge of the town square, Amnesiac saw some local kids playing football over the road and asked if he could join in. Twenty minutes of running around later and he came back with a message.
“Those old ladies want to talk to you, Mum.”
Those old ladies were a group of mothers and grandmothers who had been watching Amnesiac play with their grandchildren and just wanted to tell Mrs LC what a lovely boy he was; news that went ever-so-slightly to his junior head.
“I’m a tourist extraction!” he exclaimed.
Our buoyant mood as we left town lasted about an hour until we realised we were slavishly following the sat nav and heading in completely the wrong direction. My sense of direction is my super power; this felt like a personal insult.
Due to the sat nav fail, the drive to Petra turned into an epic trek for hours in total darkness. Avoiding potholes and navigating steep curves on mountain roads in the pitch black was made more unnerving due to our knowledge that we had almost sailed off the edge of a mountain earlier in the day on completely unmarked tight bend.
Just good friends
If you’re thinking of visiting Petra, stay in town the night before, set the alarm and go early in the morning. There’s better light, less heat and smaller crowds.
It’s good value, considering the awe-inducing attractions on display. An adult day pass costs 50JD (QR257/£45/$70) with kids under 15 going free. It’s a small price to pay for what is, rightly, one of the seven modern wonders of the world.
Some more tips we picked up:
- Hire a guide (50JD) just for your group; that way you can go at your pace, not theirs.
- At the risk of sounding like your mother, wear sensible shoes (we did 13,500 steps in a morning, which is the only time I’ve ever been interested in any data from Mrs LC’s FitBit)
- Ask your hotel to prepare a boxed lunch for you
- and don’t forget your sunscreen and a hat.
By the time we were heading back after four hours exploring, there were people just starting their trek, in the blazing midday heat. Lunacy.
Amnesiac was in his element: taking his first ever rides on a horse, and a camel, running around everywhere, climbing trails, a blizzard of dust and footprints… That left us to gaze slack-jawed at the splendour.
Built by the nomadic Nabateans, Petra (or ‘the Rose City’) is a fortress carved out of pale pink rock dating back to around 300BC. It is a giant site, once home to 30,000 people and an architectural and engineering marvel.
We followed the advice we’d been given and hired a guide, Zaid. He was keen to impress on us that you need three full days to explore Petra; and having spent half a day just seeing the highlights, he’s probably right. But we have jobs and school to return to, and small children in tow that might balk at that much walking in the desert.
As we left the guide’s hut, a voice asked me “Which guide have you got?” An old man was sat outside. I pointed at our guide. “He is good,” replied the old man. “Maybe…number four guide.”
“Who is number one?” I asked, as if I didn’t already know. “Me,” he replied, only half joking. Whilst we waited for Zaid to get ready, the older guard asked me about where we were from.
“England,” he said, rubbing two fingers together, “very good friends of Jordan.”
And that sentiment was repeated wherever we went. Given our imperial past, it was a pleasant change to visit somewhere where your nationality was greeted so warmly.
Generous acts of hospitality dotted our trip. Unasked for plates of baklava appeared at cafes, and when we stopped by the roadside to take yet more pictures of the yet another amazing view; next thing you know, the man who owns the nearby house perched atop the hillside has appeared and is inviting us in for coffee.
Being Eid in a predominantly Islamic country, it was high season with tourists everywhere. The Jordanians themselves go to play in Aqaba, which adds another dimension to the country’s attractions. If you want pools, beaches, diving, snorkelling and hummus (possibly the best I’ve ever eaten, at Rakwet Kanaan) then you’ve come to the right place.
We bought a day pass to a beach resort and took the kids snorkelling for the first time, which brought the magical world of Nemo alive in front of their eyes. And all those hours watching Steve Backshall paid off when Kid A spotted a lionfish blocking our way and warned us of the danger they posed.
It was a whistle-stop budget holiday, staying in basic, but clean and functional, B&B-style hotels which we only used as a sleeping stop. That left plenty in the wallet for the odd 5* experience like sundowners at the poolside Infinity bar at the Aqaba Hilton.
There was so much more to see, I can’t wait to go back. Petra’s number one guide put it a little more bluntly: “Jordan is beautiful, Jordan is safe,” he said. “Tell the world.”
Consider yourself told.