Middle Eastern treasures revealed

Amman, Jordan – Anyone who has grown up in Hawaii knows that you must look beyond the pretty white beaches and crystal blue waters of the travel brochures when selecting a vacation destination.

After calling paradise home for years, not just any simple packaged vacation will do. It will take a place with equally rich history, culture, beauty and astonishing people to send you home with that euphoric “I’m a changed person” post-vacation feeling. The country of Jordan does just that.

Located in the heart of the Middle East, the level of luxury in Jordan is quite surprising to most Americans. After years of watching media reports of violence and unrest from that corner of the world, most Westerners would never imagine vacationing in a country that borders Iraq, Israel and Saudi Arabia. But without having to search very hard, it becomes apparent that Jordan’s desert is filled with unique treasures ready for any global traveler to discover. And if you plan right, your trip can be as opulent as Jordanian royalty, beginning as soon as you get off the plane.

Most of Amman’s high-end luxury hotels provide a customs assistance program where a friendly Jordanian staffer will meet you right at your gate and whisk you through the chaotic customs area and into a fully stocked, air-conditioned Jaguar, complete with water, hand towels and translated newspapers from both Jordan and the U.S. All the drivers from the Four Seasons Hotel Amman speak excellent English, and like all Jordanians are proud and eager to share their country with you.

The 2,000-year-old sandstone city of Petra should be on the top of your “must see” list. Book a driver and take the “long way” stopping along one of the fabulous resorts at the Dead Sea. The Dead Sea is the lowest point on earth, more than 1,400 feet below sea level, and has the highest salt concentration in the world, leaving swimmers simply floating on the water’s surface. If you’re not relaxed enough, rub the sea’s natural mud, found at the shoreline, all over your body for the best mineral-infused luxury mud bath in the world (they actually package and sell this stuff globally.) Finish off your Dead Sea experience with a pool-side lunch at the new designer Kempinski Hotel Ishtar as the distant mountains of Jerusalem remind you that Israel is only a stone’s throw away.

The mountainous climb to Petra takes more than three hours, but between the vast desert expanses and camel farms, there are scenic stops with views back to the Dead Sea and down to the rose-colored city of Petra. Listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1985, Petra was described by the organization as “one of the most precious cultural properties of man’s cultural heritage.” The city, made of more than 800 stone structures carved directly into the desert’s sandstone, dates back to the days before Christ and was an important stop on the original Silk Road. It was used in Steven Spielberg’s setting for Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.

The anticipation builds as you enter the valley through a massive gorge called the Siq. With walls reaching above 500 feet, you can begin your exploration of the city on foot, walking on the perfectly packed clay roads, or hire a camel, donkey or horse-drawn rickshaw to get you through the nearly mile-long mystic passageway. The light at the end of the tunnel leads you to Petra’s first monument, the Khaznah or Treasury, towering several stories above you. The size of this Greco-Roman-style building carved into the rock stops you dead in your tracks. Almost more marvelous than the sight itself is the relative emptiness of the area; there are so few tourists, you feel as if you were among the first to discover this “Disneyland” in the Middle East.

The rest of your day can be spent exploring the 2-square-mile area of Petra. Follow the colonnade (which was once the main street of the city) and explore numerous buildings including tombs, a palace and an amphitheater. After walking for about 20 minutes, jump on a donkey for a steep 30-minute climb to an enormous monastery at the top of what seems like an endless mountain staircase. Gaze at the majesty of the area as you stop for a bottled water or Fanta at the small concession and remind yourself that you are in the middle of one of the world’s most famous tourist attractions.

At the end of your day, settle into the Movenpick Resort Petra, located directly at the entrance of the historic city. The hotel’s exceptional location gives you the flexibility to tour Petra at your leisure and return back to your room for a shower and traditional Arabian dinner before the absolutely astonishing “Petra by night” tour. The perfect excuse to venture out of your room into the pitch-black Arabian desert, the “Petra by night” candlelit walking tour, conducted in absolute silence, leads you back through the Siq to the treasury for a final and unique musical performance, completing your Middle Eastern experience.

Hotel Information:
Four Seasons Hotel Amman
5th Circle, Al-Kindi St.
Jabal Amman, Jordan
Tel. 962 (6) 550-5555

Kempinski Hotel Ishtar
11180 Swaimeh
Dead Sea Road
Amman, Jordan
Tel: 962 (5) 356-8888

Movenpick Resort Petra
P.O. Box 214
Wadi Mousa, Petra, Jordan
Tel: 962 (3) 215-7111