by Sunny Fitzgerald, The Telegraph, March 1, 2019
If you like your beach holiday with a splash of adventure and Middle Eastern culture, head to Aqaba — Jordan’s sunkissed city on the Red Sea with easy access to the lunar-like landscapes of Wadi Rum and the ancient architectural wonders of Petra.
Spring is the perfect season to visit Jordan, with daytime temperatures in the 20s, while easyJet’s recently launched weekly direct flights from Gatwick make getting to Aqaba a breeze. The service stops at the end of March, however, so you’ll need to act fast. Flights depart from Gatwick every Saturday morning and return the following Saturday evening. Return fares are currently available from £250.
Mövenpick Resort & Residences puts you at the centre of it all. It is within walking distance of the key sites, shops, bars and restaurants, and has a private beach. Doubles from JOD110/£117 per night.
A new option is the Al Manara Hotel, offering a blend of modern amenities, elegant Arabic charm, Jordanian hospitality, and five-star service. Rates start at around JOD135/£143 per night.
For a more budget-friendly stay in the heart of the city, book a room at four-star Lacosta Hotel. From JOD45/£48 per night.
Engage your senses on a stroll through old town Aqaba’s colourful souqs (markets). Begin with the fruit and vegetable market at the southern end of Raghadan Street. Sample seasonal produce like loz – green almonds best enjoyed with a dash of salt – before moving north to the savoury scents of the spice souq near Zahran Street. Chat with shopkeepers and peruse souvenirs en route. Then walk west on one of the alleyways leading you back to Raghadan Street, where you’ll find the stunning Sharif Al Hussein Bin Ali Mosque and, a few steps further north, Abu Gharbiya Sweets – the perfect place to nibble on kunafeh (a popular Palestinian pastry dessert made of fried cheese, drenched in syrup, and sprinkled with pistachios).
Aqaba’s Friday night market, Souk by the Sea, is a must. Support local artisans with your purchase of handcrafted gifts, clothing, and jewellery at this lively outdoor affair, located next to Captain’s Hotel and open from 6pm until 11. If your stay in Aqaba doesn’t include a Friday night, you can still scout some locally-made souvenirs at Souk Ayyadi, the Noor Al Hussein Foundation showroom located near the Aqaba Fort in the Great Arab Revolt Plaza.
With its stark white exterior, distinct Islamic architecture, and prominent location, the Sharif Al Hussein Bin Ali Mosque is easy to spot. Entrance is free but be mindful: this is an active place of worship, Muslim dress code is enforced, and Muslim holidays and prayer times may impact access.
Tourists aren’t the only ones flocking to Aqaba in the springtime. The Aqaba Bird Observatory welcomes a variety of migratory birds from Africa, Asia, and Europe – 150 different species were spotted last spring. Visitors can wander a one-mile walking trail or simply sit and observe.
Spend a sunny day at sea with the aqua enthusiasts of Sea Guard. Book a full day boat trip including diving equipment, one dive, unlimited snorkelling and a barbecue lunch on board (JOD75/£80 with diving; JOD40/£43 for the full day snorkeling and barbecue boat trip, minus the diving).
Land lovers can immerse themselves in cultural activities instead – such as sayadia and bokhari (seasoned rice dishes, popular in Aqaba) cooking lessons (JOD35/£37) – with Aqabawi, a newly launched cultural heritage initiative.
Sip a local Saint George or Jordan River wine while watching the sunset at the The Royal Yacht Club Bar, a recently opened lounge located on the rooftop terrace of the Royal Yacht Club.
Al Shami Restaurant serves up Jordanian hospitality and affordable, local specialities like grilled fish with tahini (JOD8/£8.5) in a no-frills, family-friendly setting. Indulge in Afro-Arab flavours and fresh seafood – such as Nigerian-style fish stuffed with spinach, ginger, and chilies (JOD16/£17) – at Red Sea Grill’s chic seaside terrace (open 7pm until midnight, mid-March through mid-November).
Off the map
Wadi Rum (JOD5/£5.35 entrance fee) is just an hour’s drive from Aqaba, but when you reach the rust-coloured sands and towering rocks of this Unesco World Heritage Site, you might feel as if you’ve arrived on another planet. Take a guided tour – by foot or jeep – to explore the dunes and majestic rock formations that starred in Lawrence of Arabia, The Martian, and Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (guided tours costs between JOD50/£53 and JOD100/£107).
The stunning rock-hewn city of Petra (JOD50/£54 for one day entrance ticket) is also within reach from the beach – only a two-hour drive from Aqaba.