After touching down in Amman, take a morning to explore the city, but then it’s time to hit the road. The Desert Highway is admittedly the least romantic of the three main routes in Jordan, but it is the fastest way to get to the Unesco-protected Wadi Rum by a long stretch (a four-hour drive of desert-scape.)
You’ll know when you’ve made it to Jordan’s otherworldly desert. The colour palette around you will suddenly shift from pale hay punctuated by the occasional inky oil field to Mars-like red sands and clear, sapphire skies. This is Lawrence of Arabia territory, and the backdrop for countless Hollywood blockbusters. It is, however, also home for the country’s legendary Bedouin tribes, many of whom earn a living from tourism in this protected area.
There are many ways to explore Wadi Rum; the best is alongside a local guide, on foot or by camel or Jeep (the latter being the quickest way to get around). Hire a Jeep for around 40 JOD and spend late afternoon hurtling over sand dunes, stopping to scale the remains of what the Bedouin’s claim was once Lawrence of Arabia’s house, for an uninterrupted view towards Saudi Arabia, or to climb one of the various archaeological sites, such as the Burdha Arch, to be transported back through the area’s storied past.
Stay at Wadi Rum Night Luxury Camp for desert glamping with the wow-factor; futuristic bubble domes with en suites, four-poster beds and clear roof covers that peel back to reveal 180-degree views overhead. Set your alarm for 1am and look up for the chance to see shooting stars blaze through the night sky (best when the moon isn’t full).
Opt for a minibus to take you on to Petra – it’s a two-hour drive, although timings can fluctuate depending on the number of people to pick up along the way. Navigating Jordan can be a costly exercise, but there are new government initiatives that can save you time and money. Opt for the Jordan Pass in advance; a unified ticket to a host of sites along the newly created Jordan Trail – including Petra and Wadi Rum – created, in part, as a cushion for Petra’s notoriously costly entrance fees.
Lying undiscovered for more than a millennium, the rose city of Petra is one of the world’s foremost archaeological jewels; even today, new sites are still being uncovered. Make no mistake, you’ll need to navigate the chaos of a thousand elbows, enterprising local Bedouins and a few camels for the peaches-and-cream rock formations, the mile-long gorge of red sandstone at the Siq or the intricate carvings of the iconic Treasury facade, but this becomes infinitely easier alongside a licensed local guide. Book with Abdullah Nawafleh, an enthusiastic Jordanian-American private guide who calls the city home. Don’t forget your hiking boots – there is a trail away from the main fray that’s worth exploring. The 800-step climb (that can also be taken by horseback) takes you through the cliff face and past local villages, up to a temple-like monastery – arguably Petra’s most awe-inspiring monument – with sweeping, deceptively serene views across to Palestine. Do allow time to get back to the gates before sunset however, unless you’re happy to navigate the descent by torchlight.
The place for visitors to pour pink sand from their shoes and bed down for the night is the Mövenpick Resort. Its location is unmatched – right at the gates of Petra – and you’ll be treated to views over the Great Rift Valley, as well as extraordinarily comfortable beds.
If you have the energy to venture back out into the local area, head to Cave Bar. Touted as the oldest bar in the world, it’s a relaxed option for small plates, chilled drinks and squishy armchairs in a repurposed Nabatean tomb.
To enjoy the world’s oldest health resort without the crowds, base yourself 15 minutes’ drive from the Dead Sea, in Ma’in – a mineral-rich hot springs and waterfalls located in a spectacular rocky ravine, 264m below sea level. It’s a three-hour drive from Petra via the scenic King’s Highway – the route Moses tried to take some 3,000 years ago – past Little Petra and through sandstone mountains.
Ma’In Hot Springs is the place to stay; the hotel is charming, but the health benefits of the area’s thermal water are the real draw. The hot springs have been the go-to resort for locals to improve blood circulation, skin diseases and rheumatic pain for hundreds of years. Enjoy a dip in the thermal waters, then spend the rest of the day taking a walk along the rock formations or testing out the spa.
Pack an old swimsuit and don’t swallow the water – this spa is like no other. At 430m below sea level, the Dead Sea is a lifeless hypersaline lake at the lowest point on Earth. It’s impossible to stay upright in, oily to the touch and – due to the density of minerals in the water and high atmospheric pressure – an aquatic ground zero: no boats, no fish and no water sports.
That said, there’s no shortage of life along the Jordanian Dead Sea coast, a strip of hotels each with their own area of the lake ring-fenced and packed to the hilt with guests. Some, such as the Marriott, sell day passes to make the most of the area’s legendary health benefits, an option worth taking for access to the water itself, as well as clay pots of therapeutic mud and showers. Book a driver for the day, and you can come and go from Ma’in at leisure.
If you’re dead set on the Dead Sea, book into the Kempinski Ishtar overnight. The hotel is a hub of healing: hydrotherapy pools, heated sun loungers, a hammam and uninterrupted views across to Jericho. It’s a soothing way to spend your last day in Jordan before heading back to Amman.