For years, Aqaba, Jordan’s only beach resort, languished in the shadow of its better-known neighbours: Eliat, in Israel, and Egypt’s Sharm al-Sheikh, across the Gulf of Aqaba, both of whose coral-lined shores have lured divers and other vacations for decades. Now this ancient, sunny port, which has some of the region’s most pristine dive sites, is being developed and groomed as serious competition to those more established beach towns, with brand-new, upscale resorts to tempt potential visitors. For the moment, at least, Aqaba still delivers authentic small town Arabian culture, while the best of southern Jordan, including Petra and Wadi Rum, are an easy day trip away.
So important is Aqaba’s new incarnation that its development is being overseen by King Abdullah himself. Economic incentives have resulted in a flurry of luxe new hotels, like the curvy, Miami-esqueKempinski, set on its own sandy beach and featuring 200 rooms with sea views. But the real reason to come is for Aqaba’s snorkelling and diving options: Along 15 miles of coastline are wide fields of Technicolor coral reefs (with more than 300 varieties of coral), considered among the most dazzling and least damaged in all of the Red Sea.
Aqaba is the gateway to the nearby Wadi Rum, a majestic desert moonscape and the largest valley in Jordan. It is mentioned in the Koran for its beauty and is full of massive canyons, nature-sculpted rock formations, granite ridges, and Sandstone Mountains that reach 2,625 feet above the desert floor, plus the villages of the seminomadic Bedouin. Those who choose to camp uot with local outfitters can enjoy the spectacle of light and color on display at dawn and dusk.
Lawrence of Arabic used Wadi Rum, which he described as “vast, echoing and godlike,” as a base camp during the Arab Revolt of 1917-18. Almost 50 years later, David Lean chose the area as the real-life location for his 1962 Oscar-winning film Lawrence of Arabia. Today, you can enjoy an early morning trek (or explore by camel, horse, jeep, or hot-air balloons) and be back in Aqaba by lunch-time at a cafe overlooking the sea.
WHERE : Aqaba is 200 miles/365 km south of Amman.
BEST TIME : Feb – May and Sep – Dec for mild weather.