My first desert travel experience came while driving the entire length of Jordan — from Jerash in far north to the port town of Aqaba on the county’s very southern tip. My travel mates, a group of Jordanian friends, had us meet in the pre-dawn gloom, saying that when it came to desert travel, the extreme heat makes an early start necessary.
I gazed out the window during our four-hour journey, taking in the barren landscape, the distant golden sand dunes against the blue sky and the occasional gaggle of Bedouin tents.
A small town at the midpoint of our drive provided the only opportunity to stop for drinks, then it was back on the endless ribbon of smooth shimmering asphalt, speeding south.
Aqaba is Jordan’s only port city, sitting on the Gulf of Aqaba. Historically it has been a strategic junction for trade between Asia, Africa and Europe and it was an important port for Romans in 106 AD.
History buffs come from all over the world to visit the ruins of 12th-century Mamluk forts that can be found throughout the city.
But amongst Jordanians, Aqaba is best known as a haven for bargain hunters. “The prices in Aqaba are cheaper than those in other cities,” said Basil, my Jordanian friend.
This is due to its status as a port city where large shipments of every type of good imaginable come and go like the tides.
When entering and exiting Aqaba, travelers have to pass through a customs checkpoint.
This is because the city is a designated governorate due to its status as a hopping off spot to neighboring countries such as Israel, Egypt and Saudi Arabia.
Arriving in Aqaba, I was shocked to find a bustling metropolis with wide, clean streets lined with date palms and glittering office buildings, testaments to the city’s status as a hub of international business and trade.
The city’s market, however, doesn’t stray far from the traditional. Lines of two-story, brown, concrete buildings, each housing a bustling shop on the first floor and a residence above.
Even here, I couldn’t help but notice the cleaning crews patroling the streets, making sure that every piece of trash was whisked away almost before it could settle on the ground.
Perhaps Aqaba’s obsession with hygiene stems from the fact that it also plays host to a steady stream of international visitors that come to town to soak up the hot sun and recline on white sandy beaches while relaxing at one of the many diving and beach resorts that dot the coastline.
It’s one of the few areas in Jordan that boast perfect sand beaches. They also come for Aqaba’s plethora of renowned fresh seafood restaurants that provide amazing meals out of the day’s catch.
Aqaba really comes alive at night when the relentless sun goes down and the air cools — if only by a few degrees.
It is then that the markets, beaches and parks become crowded with people who can be seen chatting, playing games and having night picnics on the grass.
Just don’t let things get overly romantic. Misconduct in public places is a serious crime in Jordan and plainclothes police are always on duty, keeping an eye out for wayward young lovers who would dare sully the city’s squares with a forbidden kiss.
Aqaba is worth visiting for those who want to visit the Middle East, but also want a slightly more laid-back atmosphere.
In Aqaba, you get a nice blend of traditional Middle Eastern culture with all the comforts and amenities of any modern beach resort town.
This provides the unique chance for visitors to soak in thousands of years of culture and a little sun all in the same day.
Jordan’s Port City a Laid-Back Haven for Sun Lovers
NOVEMBER 30, 2010