The Jordanian port city has a mix of adventure, culture and friendly faces that sees Edward Robertson arriving as an outsider but soon feeling like a local
My favourite thing about diving is the moment you drop below the water’s surface, and find yourself in an alien environment.
The marine world itself is different enough but even the way you move and breathe constantly reaffirms the fact that you are the outsider.
Here in Aqaba, Jordan, on the shore of the Red Sea, I dip below the surface into that unfamiliar world and discover some of the best diving on the planet, both natural and created by design.
The Red Sea has a strong reputation for the quality of its marine life. Around 270 species can be found in Aqaba’s 20-plus dive sites, which include deliberately sunk wrecks designed to provide divers with new attractions and corals, and fish with new habitats.
The most impressive of these is a Hercules C-130 aircraft that looms out of the distance as you swim up to explore it. The fact that it is submerged in only 15 metres of water means it is also accessible to less-experienced divers.
My dive guide, Arab Divers’ operations manager Obada Maaita, says: “The fact that so much of the diving is so close to the shore means you can do a lot of different sites quite quickly, while the amount of variation we have means there is always something new to see.”
Yet the underwater world isn’t the only alien environment worth checking out on a visit to Aqaba, which is becoming more accessible to the UK market thanks to the launch of a weekly easyJet flight from Gatwick this November.
After three dives in a single day, my land-based guide, Zeyad Obeidat, takes me to Wadi Rum the following day.
Less than an hour’s drive away, the valley lies in a protected desert wilderness so alien in look and feel that it was used as the backdrop for 2015 Hollywood film The Martian, featuring Matt Damon as an astronaut stranded on planet Mars.
The landscapes are vast and impressive and while there is plenty of time to sit back and enjoy them it is Obeidat’s love of the film that adds an element of fun to the trip.
He knows the location of many of the film’s scenes, including a rock that a despondent Damon famously sits on in the film. Once we find it, I recreate the pose – rather putting the Hollywood A-lister in the shade.
Like Wadi Rum itself, Obeidat’s knowledge of the area feels limitless as we take in 12,000-year-old rock art, a train station dating back to Lawrence of Arabia’s time complete with vintage train, a camel ride and then watch the sunset with Bedouins who teach me how to make the local bread and coffee.
Only once the sun has set do we visit a local Arab camp in Wadi Rum for a traditional dinner before returning home by 10pm. Those wanting the full experience can sleep overnight in one of the camp’s tents.
My only regret in visiting Aqaba was not having a third day available to visit Petra, the city dating back more than 2,500 years and hewn out of the rocks of south Jordan.
It is around a two-hour drive to reach to ancient city and while this means travellers will find themselves touring the site during the midday hours when the sun is at its zenith, Obeidat assures me there are enough building interiors and shady spots so travellers can avoid the worst of the heat.
And that’s where Aqaba comes into its own as a holiday destination, as three of Jordan’s best attractions can be visited over the course of three days.
Such is the ease of the trips that Nasser Shraideh, the chief commissioner of the Aqaba Special Economic Zone Authority (Aseza), which is driving the city’s destination development, refers to them as the “Golden Triangle”.
He adds: “We are promoting Wadi Rum not only to the adventure tourism market but also as a unique experience. It’s the same for Petra, which has some of the best architecture with more than 10,000 monuments, while we have some very unique diving with both natural and artificial sites.
“Aqaba was the first place in the world where we sank an aircraft into the sea for divers. I did the dive once and it was a million-dollar experience.”
Bouncing back Shraideh asserts that although Aqaba was unfairly impacted by the recent political turmoil and war in the Middle East, the country of Jordan remained unaffected by the Arab Spring and the ensuing troubles, and is as safe as ever to visit.
He adds: “Between 2011 and 2016, we were severely affected by what was going on in the region and we witnessed a significant decrease in tourist flows from different markets.”
In fact, Aqaba saw a 65% drop in international visitors between 2010 and 2015 and is only now beginning to see a recovery following a 68% increase in international visitors in 2017 with a further boost of 55% in the first six months of 2018.
Obeidat argues this makes Aqaba and its attractions a perfect destination to visit now, as fewer travellers mean a less-crowded experience for those who do make the effort.
Nor should your clients have fears about security. The entire time I was there, I had no concerns at all and never felt unsafe.
This was partly due to the fact that any security is unobtrusive, but mostly down to the fact that the local people are so friendly.
Everyone had a smile and was happy to help a Brit abroad, while such was the kindness of my aquatic and land-based guides that they insisted on taking me out for a typical Aqaba Friday night featuring some of the city’s best fruit juices and hookah pipes.
I might have been a stranger in an alien world but thanks to the kindness of everyone I met in the city of Aqaba, I didn’t feel like an outsider for long.
Book it: Abercrombie & Kent offers a seven-night trip from £1,995pp including easyJet flights, transfers, accommodation and some guiding. abercrombiekent.co.uk
While any part of Aqaba is worth having a nose around, the new Ayla development is central to the city’s plans for attracting more tourists.
Work began on the project in 2008 and while it is yet to be fully completed, it is now open with many attractions developed.
Chief among these is the actual layout of the project itself. The development is built around five interconnecting lagoons and a marina, which have added more than 10 miles of waterfront to Aqaba’s 17-mile coastline.
A golf course designed by Greg Norman is already open and is the country’s first with 18 holes.
Meanwhile, the 286-room Hyatt Regency Aqaba Ayla opened at the start of December and will be the first of several high-end properties.
Up to 87 retail shops will also open in the Ayla complex in March, while the first of five beach clubs is also up and running.
But while the development is eye-catching, I would recommend staying in one of the hotels dotted around the port city such as the beachfront Kempinski Hotel Aqaba, with views over the Red Sea and the ships anchored there.
The hotel is conveniently located close to local shops, bars, cafes and restaurants, and gives a sense of the real Aqaba, rather than just being an area for tourists.