Egypt’s Red Sea resorts have been the traditional choice for divers in search of a short-haul break. A five-hour flight and it’s just you, crystal-clear waters, teeming reefs… and dozens of other wetsuits and their crocodile of dive boats. All it needs is a floating burger stand to complete this version of tourist heaven turned hell.
Not that the Egyptian coast’s allure is based solely on its world-class marine life; the weather’s great year-round, too. So that’s sun, sea – but, sadly, very little else. There isn’t a lot of charm to places such as Hurghada or Sharm … which has allowed Jordan to make a bid to attract the more discerning holidaymaker.
Most of Jordan is landlocked by Israel, Syria, Iraq and Saudi Arabia, but its southernmost sliver, Aqaba, shares those Red Sea treasures with its Egyptian counterparts. Crucially, however, Aqaba’s underwater world comes minus the crowds.
Even more importantly, Jordan has mega dinner-party bragging potential. Within day-tripping distance of Aqaba’s palm-fringed beaches, you can dip in the Dead Sea, climb dunes in the extraordinary Wadi Rum or see the ancient stone city of Petra, one of the new seven wonders of the world.
Aqaba’s appeal is its lack of commercialisation. There are more locals than tourists; souks sell spices rather than souvenirs; and although there is a McDonald’s and an English pub, walk five minutes from the promenade, and restaurants in the warren of narrow streets sell delicious mezze.
It’s not dripping in attractions, but that’s part of the charm. There’s not much to see beyond the 14th-century Mameluke fort, whose crumbling walls and twin towers provide a full stop to the Al-Hafayer public beach, a place crammed full of Jordanians, some swimming fully clothed, others chatting in tumbledown cafes or sucking on hubble-bubble pipes.
People are astoundingly friendly. One stallholder didn’t have change for my five-dinar note but insisted I take the bottle of water anyway and pay him on my return.
Although it already has a couple of five-star hotels, Aqaba gets its first truly chic retreat tomorrow, with the opening of Hotel Aqaba. It is tipped to rival Sharm el Sheikh’s revered Four Seasons resort, but while the latter has B&B rates from £205 per night, Hotel Aqaba has a launch deal of three nights, B&B and complimentary minibar, for £400. The property is a striking stone-and-glass structure, shaped like a teardrop.
Its 201 rooms are minimalist havens, and there’ll be a cabana-ed private beach, six sophisticated restaurants, and a glamorous ambience (already present when I visited, despite the builders).
Out of town, there are plenty more posh options. Another newcomer, the Tala Bay Resort, has been making waves. Again, it ticks the usual high-spec boxes: trendy modern decor and a buzzing alfresco scene, with five pools, including one with a swim-up bar. And a raft of other upmarket developments, which include the $1 billion Saraya Aqaba, are under construction, adding further glitz – and quite a lot of noise and dust, too.
Beyond the resort, Wadi Rum is a 40-minute drive away. The wind has worked its desert rocks into shapes that resemble melting fairy-tale castles, skulls and ice-cream swirls, and its sands range from shimmering gold to a seductively dusky pink. It somehow manages to look even more glorious than it did in David Lean’s Oscar-winning epic Lawrence of Arabia.
Double the drive time (roads are empty and signposted in English) and you reach the country’s real prize: the spectacular city of Petra. The first glimpse of the Treasury’s intricately chiselled pink facade, through a towering gorge, is one of the few tourist experiences to surpass my expectations. To think that, 2,000 years ago, more than 35,000 people lived in its elaborate caves is simply mind-blowing.
The Dead Sea – at 1,300ft below sea level the lowest point on earth – is three hours away. Strangely, it was probably the lowest point of my trip, too. The novelty of covering myself in Dead Sea mud, so that I looked like something left over from the Exxon Valdez oil spill, and bobbing about in salt-sodden waters soon wore off, and I was left staring at a succession of half-built hotels on what isn’t quite worth calling the Dead Sea riviera yet.
There’s a tourist attraction of a different sort a short drive further on: the secluded Evason Ma’In Hot Springs & Six Senses Spa, which is another of Jordan’s sexy new establishments.
It nestles dramatically into a rocky ravine, with rustic-chic rooms, spa treatments that make use of yoghurt, honey and dates, and a pool with deliciously warm, mineral-rich waters in which King Herod reputedly once splashed. Now that beats a camel ride in Sharm any day.