AQABA, WHERE PINK MOUNTAINS MEET INDIGO SEA, IS THE NEW DESTINATION FOR SEA AND DIVING ADDICTS. WHAT’S MORE, THIS CITY PROMISES ITS VISITORS AN EXCITING TOUR OF THE ANCIENT CITY OF PETRA AS WELL AS A NIGHT IN THE DESERT UNDER THE STARS.
Aqaba should be viewed from the Red Sea when the sun is slowly melting into the sea and even the outlines of the cargo ships look romantic in the distance. Indigo sea, a pencil-thin coastal strip and, behind them, a range of near-rose-pink mountains. If the sea is teeming with life, the mountains are conversely pale and barren. Not a stitch of vegetation clings to their slopes. But the attraction lies precisely in this contrast between indigo and pink, sea and sahara. This is Aqaba, one of Jordan’s surprises. The only resort town in a country eighty percent covered by desert and soothing like all cities by the sea. The white stone houses of capital Amman may dazzle, but Aqaba seems to sway like a hammock with its friendly, laid-back people, its vaulted bazaars and its palm-lined boulevards, all far removed from the routines of everyday life.
THE CORAL SHIP
Life in Aqaba, as you might surmise, flows along the seashore and the busy avenues running parallel to the coast. And the Red Sea that everyone who goes to the city is dying to see is rife with activities to please visitors. A popular destination with diving buffs, the point where the coral reef is located flaunts not only its red corals for all to see but also displays a rich underwater life. There’s also something down there that isn’t a living thing, but you don’t need to dive to see it: a ship sunk on orders from King Abdullah. You can view this ship, which was sunk to make a nest for new corals, from small, glass-bottomed boats.
EXTREME SPEED ON THE SEA
You can either rent a paddle boat on the coast or venture out in a speedboat at Aqaba. If you crave quiet, the four-people paddle boats are recommended. Be careful of course of the waves created by speedboats and similar craft. Best of all, don a life jacket and, if you have it on your music player, listen to Umm Kulthum’s “Enta Omri” (You are My Life). As you leave the shore behind, you’ll see the heat and humidity give way to a pleasant breeze, and the hour you first thought would be interminable will suddenly seem just right. On your return, order an Arab coffee from an itinerant vendor or try a milky mint tea in a tea garden.
FROM AQABA TO PETRA
Two important sites are easily accessible from Aqaba: Petra and Wadi Rum. Considered one of the seven wonders of the world, Petra is just an hour and a half from Aqaba. This ancient city, known as the “rose red city” for the color of its sandstone rock formations, appears to have recovered its fame of the 2nd and 3rd centuries B.C. This extensive complex, which you can tour on horse or camel, boasts a hidden canyon, the Treasury building familiar from the Indiana Jones film, and an 8,000-seat amphitheater, as well as columns, monasteries, rock dwellings and monumental tombs of all sizes. The original founders of the city, the Nabataeans were a semi-nomadic tribe, but the water canals, vestiges of which are still in evidence today, point to a knowledge of engineering quite astonishing for the time. The city’s fall from favor and abandonment in the 12th century is explained by major earthquakes and a shift in the trade routes. We owe its rediscovery to a Swiss traveler who lived in the 1800’s. There is a fee of course for touring this city that was hidden in a valley for hundreds of years: 50 dinars (approximately 70 dollars) at the entrance. Slightly annoying when locals pay only one dinar, but definitely worth it.
A NIGHT IN WADI RUM
On returning to Petra the plan is as follows: Get to Wadi Rum by sunset and watch night descend over the desert and the sky become a dome of stars. Night in the desert will be spent around a campfire. All eyes will be on the sky. Questions like “What will we do if a bear comes?” will not disturb the peace. Instead, you are free to revisit childhood memories conjured up by the night, the stars and the crackling wood fire. Towards morning all eyes will open wide so as not to miss the sunrise. Yes, you spent the night on the pink desert sands with only a blanket so now you deserve to tour the valley by car. You have a whole day ahead of you until the return to Aqaba just an hour away. Run and jump to your heart’s content on the desert sands. At evening you’re will bathe in the crystal clear waters of the Red Sea…
Jordan’s national dish, ‘Mensef”, may be a little heavy in summer, but it’s extremely tasty and filling with its lamb cooked in sour yoghurt and served on a bed of pilaff lined with paper-thin lavash bread. Meat and rice are the centerpiece of the local cuisine. Another traditional dish is “Kepseh”, a chicken and rice dish flavored with turmeric.
GIFTS AND SOUVENIRS
The glass bottles of colored desert sand will probably be your favorite buys among the souvenirs at Aqaba and Petra. Intricate figures, usually of camels and palm trees, are worked in the sand, but you can also have your own name inscribed.
One of the city’s most prominent must-see monuments is Aqaba Fortress, built by the Mamluk Sultan Kansu Gavri and used in the Ottoman period as well. Still very impressive today with its entrance gate and high walls, this fortress stands on a hill overlooking the public beach.
BELLE DE NUIT
Those who call Aqaba “the bride of the Red Sea” must have in mind the fetchingly white Sharif Hussain Mosque, which gleams like a pearl by night. Stepping into in a cool, clean courtyard dotted with date palms not far from the shore is, frankly, quite pleasant.
Two seasons are suitable for a trip to Aqaba: spring and fall. The evening hours when a pleasant breeze blows up are preferable for a city tour and shopping, because Aqaba is one of those cities that come alive after dark.
TEA IN THE DESERT
Wadi Rum is a place that will take you back to your childhood. You can tumble down the pink sand dunes, hear your voice echo off the rocks, even view the oasis from a slowly rising hot-air balloon. And there’s no better pick-me-up than the tea served in a Bedouin tent at the end of the tour!