“Is it safe?”
That’s the first question I asked when I was invited on a press trip to Jordan to explore the country as a destination for family holidays.
This middle Eastern country borders Iraq, Syria AND Israel so you can see why I wondered – but a quick check of the FCO website reassured me that Jordan is considered safe for tourists, providing you steer clear of political demonstrations, and the Syrian border.
It turns out Jordan is a beautiful country with lots to offer families – from the ancient cities of Jerash and Petra, to the luxurious hotels alongside the Dead Sea, and the Med-style attractions of Aqaba, on the shores of the Red Sea. And everywhere you look there’s desert and mountain landscapes that take your breath away. So what did we get up to?
Our trip started out with a brief stop in the city of Amman, where we stayed at the Meridien Hotel. From here, it was an hour’s drive to Jerash, one of the best-preserved Roman towns in the world. We spent a fascinating afternoon exploring the ruins, which include wide paved streets, hilltop temples, theatres and plazas. A guide is essential to point out the many features of the ancient city – including the old butcher’s shop, where you can still see knife marks on the counter.
A word of warning – if you do ever make it to Jerash, my advice is to try and visit early or late in the day – the site is very large with relatively little shade, and gets blisteringly hot during the middle of the day. In high season, Jerash is one of the few places in the world where you can watch chariot races in an original Roman arena – but during low season, there isn’t funding to run the spectacle, and the arena is home to horses instead.
The following day, we made the long drive to Jordan’s most popular visitor attraction and one of the Seven New Wonders of the World – Petra.
The word awesome is horribly over-used these days, but Petra is truly awesome. As you enter Petra through the main gate, there’s a long walk downhill through the city’s entrance. The rose-coloured cliffs climb up to 80 metres high on each side, rugged except for where the most intricate tombs, temples and buildings have been carved out of the rock face. Petra was originally a city of the dead, and at various points on the trail, you can climb up steep steps and explore the tombs. After an hour’s walk, you round a corner to see the famous Treasury building and it’s one of the most breathtaking things you’ll ever see. For Flea, the whole site was an irresistible combination of history and adventure playground.
At the bottom of the main trail, after a 90 minute or so walk, there are cafes, restaurants and restrooms where you can take a much-needed break before attempting the walk back uphill to the city’s entrance gates. If the walk is too much for the little ones (and the adults) then you can pay 5 dinars (around £5) to ride a donkey halfway up the trail, and then you can take a horse for the second half of the journey for around 30 dinars. It’s expensive, but in the midday heat, it’ll feel like the best £35 you ever spend, trust me. Petra is undeniably hot – although there’s more shade here than Jerash, temperatures can easily average 35 degrees in summer, so make sure you have hats, sunglasses, sunscreen and more water than you think you’ll possibly need.
There are plenty of hotels around Petra to suit all budgets – we stayed at the Movenpick Petra which was great and located literally opposite the gates into Petra. It was also just a 5-minute walk from Petra Kitchen, a famous cooking school which runs evening classes demonstrating how to cook traditional Jordanian foods and mezza. Flea adored learning to make tabblouleh and cucumber in yoghurt, and after an hour or two’s cooking, the entire group sat down together for a fabulous Arabian feast. Our favourite dish was spiced, minced lamb mixed with tomato paste and spread inside split pitta, which was then coated in olive oil and roasted in the oven for 20 minutes. Utterly delicious.
It took a lot of effort to heave ourselves out of our comfy beds the next morning, but the thought of a day at sea was enough to make us forget our tired legs. A two-hour drive from Petra is the resort of Aqaba on the Red Sea – and it felt like an oasis after two days of dry, dusty desert. We set out on the Laila One for a snorkelling site not far off shore where we could explore the red coral that gives the Red Sea its name, and catch a glimpse of a shipwreck.
Aqaba is a world-famous diving destination, and there are countless fish to be seen just off-shore – although the kids were equal parts excited and terrified at the chance of seeing a shark (although our guides reassured them any sharks they saw would be very small indeed!). The diving company provided kid-sized flippers, snorkel masks and tubes, and even a lifejacket for Flea to give her a bit of extra confidence in the water – even with the jacket, I was incredibly impressed that she was happy to be lowered into open sea and have a go at snorkelling. A real highlight of the trip.
After a barbecue lunch on board, we headed back to Aqaba for a few hours relaxing by the pool at the Radisson Blu Aqaba, a gorgeous luxury resort with three swimming pools and a private beach – which has a long pier that’s great for diving if you don’t want to take little ones out on a boat.
All too soon, it was time to leave the swimming pool, and the swim-up bar (sob) to head for the beautiful and remote Wadi Rum. This deep, desert valley is edged with tall mountains and is home to the Captain’s Desert Camp – a traditional Bedouin camp that provides overnight accommodation to visitors from all over the world. We just had time to dump our bags in our traditional Bedouin tents – made from heavy goat-hair blankets – before it was time to head out for a sunset camel ride through the desert.
On the one hand, yes, it’s very tranquil and magical to be somewhere so beautiful and far away from everything you know. It’s undeniably beautiful, and an experience I will remember for many, many years to come. On the other hand, I will simply say that your inner thighs will know that you’ve ridden a camel, and will remind you of this fact, regularly, for days to come. Also, camels are REALLY very tall, more than a little bit scary, and they fart, incessantly. I hope that doesn’t spoil the magic for you, too much.
Returning to the camp, we had a wonderful meal followed by music, and dancing, and a campfire, before retiring to our tent. I’ll be honest and say it wasn’t the most comfortable night of my life – Flea had a nightmare and thought her bed was a camel (or something) and so we slept together, in a single camp-bed, in one of the hottest places in the world, in a tent made of blankets. I’ve never been so glad to see daylight, let me tell you.
While I recovered from the night before, Flea went off with the camp guides on a 4×4 tour of the desert, doing something called ‘dune bashing’. I’m not sure of the details but apparently it was SUPER fast, and SUPER exciting.
After our desert experience, it was a long drive South to the Dead Sea. As we descended down towards the sea, our ears popped (the Dead Sea is the lowest point on earth, several hundred metres below sea level) and we could see the mist that hangs over the Dead Sea much of the time, because of the speed with which the water evaporates.
We were staying at the Marriott Dead Sea Spa and Resort which is
possibly definitely one of the nicest hotels I have ever stayed in. But we went straight through the hotel down to the private beach on the shores of the Dead Sea.
What’s it like? Well, the sea was wonderfully warm, and it’s definitely worth experiencing – although I’ll say it’s harder than you might imagine to float serenely in a body of water that’s 30% salt, and if you have dry skin you’ll experience a rather prickly sensation. If you have scrapes or cuts, do cover them first with a waterproof plaster or the water really can sting – although there are showers on the beach to rinse off if that does happen. There are also giant buckets of Dead Sea mud, which you can slather on your body and immediately look 20 years younger. Probably.
Word to the wise – don’t put the Dead Sea mud in your hair no matter WHO tells you it will work wonders – it might well work wonders but it also smells like Satan’s feet and it will take WEEKS to get rid of the stench. A lesson I learned the hard way in Israel on my first Dead Sea visit…
After a quick dip and a mud bath, we showered off and returned to the hotel, which has not one, but four gorgeous swimming pools, with slides and – best of all – waiters in roller skates who bring you ice-cold drinks. It was the perfect end to a really fun week.
Our top tips for family trips to Jordan:
- Expect hot weather. It is reliably warm from May to October, and extremely hot in July and August.
- Definitely, definitely hire a guide. If you book through a tour operator, you can organise an official guide and driver – otherwise you can do this via most hotels.
- Visit hot attractions such as Petra and Jerash early or late in the day – the midday heat really is too much for kids
- Get used to haggling. People in Jordan are offended if you don’t do it – or if you don’t add enough enthusiasm to the process.
- Jordanians love children – especially blonde children. Everywhere we went Flea had her hair ruffled, or was given presents.
- You can see all our photos over on our Facebook page
And what did Flea think of it?
Don’t miss Flea’s essential three-minute-guide to doing Jordan with kids.