How to take the ultimate whirlwind trip to Jordan

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It is when we find ourselves squashed into a narrow rocky crevice with 200 other tourists in the middle of Jordan’s Wadi Rum dessert that I realise the research I’ve read about the country’s dramatic fall in visitor numbers must be out of date. As two lines of traffic going in opposite directions cause a human roadblock, a French tour guide volunteers himself to help direct people in and out, holding one queue while another is freed up. Helpfully, we’ve become stuck right next to a stagnant pool of water with hundreds of dead beetles floating on the surface. “It’s a bit like the snake pit in Indiana Jones!” I suggest to my wife, who is not amused. Much like Indy, she hates snakes. 

Later, I find out that my information was indeed way off – after taking a big dip a decade ago amid general safety fears in the Middle East, tourists, particularly Brits, have been flocking back to Jordan in the last couple of years and the numbers are now at record levels. Still, with a new easyJet flight to Aqaba plus the enduring allure of Petra, the Dead Sea and Wadi Rum, now is an excellent time to visit Jordan and, given the country’s relatively small size you can pack a lot into a short space of time. In fact, this is the challenge we’ve set ourselves: Jordan in four days. Easy – if we ever get out of this bloody dessert. 

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Free from the crowds, we are back in the punishing afternoon sun of Wadi Rum and despite crevice-gate it’s impossible not to be completely blown away by the landscape: endless stretches of red sand, marked only by sheer cliff faces of rugged granite that rise out of nowhere. The amount of rubbish is shocking though, with everything from plastic bottles to old bits of lunch thrown against the rocks. Wadi Rum is supposed to be like Mars – but perhaps in 2150, after humans have arrived and spoilt it a bit. Still, we happily spend the afternoon whizzing around in a pick up truck, jumping off rocks, rolling down sand dunes and hanging out with thirsty camels.  

Although many tourists spend the night in Wadi Rum, a few hours is more than enough, especially if you’re tight for time. We drive north to spend the night at The Movenpick Nabatean Hotel just outside Petra and the next morning we’re up early to explore the ancient city. From one jaw dropping bucket list site to another, Petra is everything it’s cracked up to be: beautiful, thrilling and mind-boggling all at once. Even if you’re on a quick trip this is the one place in Jordan where you really want to take your time, exploring all the little paths and sites that run off the main drag, especially if you want to escape the crowds for a moment (those record visitor numbers strike again). While the headline sites such as The Treasury (this time definitely recognisable from Indiana) and The Monastery come complete with cafes and free WiFi sponsored by Hyundai, we found we had some of the smaller tombs and temples blissfully all to ourselves. 

After a full day at Petra, you’re going to need a good dinner (it’s exhausting), and there’s no better place than Petra Kitchen, a cooking school and restaurant that teams up tourists and local chefs to create a huge Jordanian feast. Fortunately, the cooking is not too taxing even with our non-existent culinary skills and after each group has made their dishes, we sit down to enjoy fattoush salad, tabbouleh, flat breads dusted with zaatar and lots more. Not that I’m taking any credit for it, but it’s the best meal we end up having in Jordan.

Even before I discovered that the country was very firmly back on the tourist trail, I’d already planned our next stop to be slightly off the beaten path, with a night at the Feynan Eco Lodge, located in the Dana Biosphere Reserve. Being 8km from the nearest road, it’s incredibly peaceful with the only signs of life outside the lodge being the camps and goat herds of the local Bedouin families that live in the area, many of whom now work for the hotel as guides. With only 25 rooms, limited electricity (the place is lit entirely by candles at night) and patchy WiFi, it maintains a definite off-grid feel, which comes as a relief after the noise and the crowds of Petra.

A stay at Feynan includes all meals plus several daily activities, such as guided hikes around the Dana Reserve. We set off on an afternoon walk along a dried up river bed, passing nothing more than goats and the odd tree – oh and a huge hyena, one of the many that can be found in the reserve, along with wolves and other rare creatures. As the sun begins to go down our guide takes us to watch the sunset from a high vantage point before we return for dinner, a big buffet of fresh salads and vegetables that are all grown locally. Later, we clamber onto the hotel’s roof to gaze at the stars, which are out in full force.

Our final stop is the capital, Amman, but on the way there we stop at the Dead Sea, aka the lowest point on earth, for a quick dip in the famous salty lake. If you’re doing a short trip to Jordan, you don’t need to spend the night at the Dead Sea. It’s still a lot of fun, but once you’ve done the floating on water thing and got your pictures, chances are you’ll be happy to move on after an hour. 

In the early afternoon we roll into Amman, at first glance a fairly ordinary-looking, hectic city, but one that has plenty of charm once you scratch the surface. We check into one of the city’s newest hotels, the W, which opened in April 2018 in the more affluent West Amman, rubbing shoulders with luxury malls and new apartments. Compared to the budget and more traditional luxury options available elsewhere, the W offers something different for the city, with bold, modern design, high-tech rooms, and a fun party vibe. 

After a quick swim in the hotel’s glam seventh-floor outdoor pool we walk into East Amman, the older, more traditional part of the city where most of the action is. On the way, we notice locals crowding around a hole-in-the-wall shawarma stand called Reem (Al Kulliyah Al Elmiyah Al Eslamiyah St 54) and, as we know this is the international sign for a culinary jackpot, we waste no time in ordering an excellent lamb shawarma stuffed into flat bread.

Over the course of the night, we discover that Amman has loads of great food in fact, from the famous falafel at Hasheem (King Faisal Street) in the heart of downtown to the incredible Lamb Mansaf, the national dish of Jordan, at Al Quds Restaurant (Complex No 8, King Al Hussein Street 8). The lamb is cooked in yoghurt and served with rice and a gravy made from the yoghurt and meat juices that is so good you could honestly drink it. The resulting food coma is enough to draw both our evening and our slightly manic, but definitely doable, tour of Jordan’s greatest hits to a very happy conclusion. 

Travel essentials

Getting there

British Airways flies direct to Amman from London Heathrow daily and easyJet offers seasonal flights from London Gatwick to Aqaba, from October to March.

Staying there

Movenpick Nabatean Hotel has doubles from £208, B&B; Feynan Eco Lodge has rooms from £228, full board, including all activities; the W has doubles from £183, room only.

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