June 16, 2014 Jordan Middle East

Discovering The Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan

This month, I was invited alongside a group of media to discover Jordan. The trip was scheduled to take place in mid May but was immediately rescheduled to fall at the same time as the Pope's visit to the Jordanian capital. A long and interesting schedule would take us to all of Jordan’s sites; Al Akaba, Petra, Amman, the Dead Sea and the Mai’in waterfalls among others.
 
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I was so excited about this trip, the first of a kind for me, I was invited by the Ministry of Tourism to see Jordan from different angle. Sitting on the plane, Jordanian Airlines leaving to Amman, I was impressed by the cleanliness and technology onboard the plane. Red and grey colors, large screens and a USB socket for every passenger. I had enough legroom to relax and enjoy my time. iPad in hand, I started preparing for the week to come. Attending the Pope's mass would be our first stop.
  • DAY1:
Ten minutes after departure, we were offered a wet napkin and earphones. I was impressed to see such a varied entertainment system for a short flight. A wide choice of movies, music, television series and games; As for the food, two sandwiches and a cookie with orange juice and a water bottle and some very well wrapped and beautifully presented sandwiches. Halloumi with rocket leaves and tomatoes wrapped in Lebanese bread and another of beef salami in brown bread. The halloumi was good as for the salami, it started with a strong odor that filled the plane when you open the bag, followed by a chewy bread covered with five slices of salami. Mmm. I liked the ginger cookie: that's a good one.
 
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A new plane, interesting technology, beautiful colors, a nice meal... The only thing I didn't like were the unattractive hostesses who were super unwelcoming. They didn't even share a smile...
 
PS: Be prepared to spend one hour and 50 minutes reaching Amman. Jordanian Airlines does not pass over Syria; What takes Middle East Airlines 40 minutes, is multiplied by two if you choose Jordanian Airlines
  • Welcome to Amman.

I've already mentioned it before and I say it again, I'm impressed by the new airport. To understand what I mean, you had to experience the old one; old, dirty, torn apart, broken and dark. Today's airport follows the international standards of hospitality and is very welcoming. A high ceiling, well lit corridors, a clean space and an enjoyable duty free. The first thing I did was to get a 3G line. I'm sure it's a marketing issue, but everyone was running for Zein. A waiting line at the competitor and no one at Umniah, so I chose it the latter. A very affordable plan, 3.5G with prices that start at $5 up to $25. I got the 12gb package for only $20. An open Internet plan with enabled hotspots; the journey just began. We were accompanied by a guide and a driver who took us to the small mini bus that would be taking us around the country. And he started talking... And talking... Amman, the capital of Jordan, is a fascinating city of contrasts – a unique blend of old and new, ideally situated on a hilly area between the desert and the fertile Jordan Valley. In the commercial heart of the city, ultra-modern buildings, hotels, smart restaurants, art galleries and boutiques rub shoulders comfortably with traditional coffee shops and tiny artisans' workshops. Everywhere there is evidence of the city’s much older past.

Due to the city’s modern-day prosperity and temperate climate, almost half of Jordan’s population is concentrated in the Amman area. The residential suburbs consist of mainly tree-lined streets and avenues flanked by elegant, almost uniformly white houses in accordance with a municipal law, which states that all buildings must be faced with local stone. The downtown area is much older and more traditional with smaller businesses producing and selling everything from fabulous jewelry to everyday household items.
 
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The people of Amman are multi-cultural, multi-denominational, well-educated and extremely hospitable. They welcome visitors and take pride in showing them around their fascinating and vibrant city.
 
Fist stop was the Regency Palace Hotel, a place I stayed at two years ago, back then nothing impressed me much. I was disappointed by the service and experience, it wasn’t up to the standard of a five star hotel. This time, things had changed, improving to the minimum standard a five star should offer. We were scheduled to spend one night here before moving to the Dead Sea; everyone was excited about the Pope's visit. Before going up the room, I toured around the lobby. The hotel boasts a large cafe/restaurant that welcomes guests all day long and a piano lounge that serves international cocktails, light snacks and à la carte selection, a comprehensive collection of classic and new world vantages are available to accompany your meal along with live-performed piano melodies. The first impression is nice, a waterfall and an aquarium next to it added touches of luxury. I got the chance to discover a beautiful room this time. An old ottoman style space with catchy designs on the walls and ceiling, as well as relaxing sofas. From there you’ll reach the terrace area where argile, or shisha, are offered. Celebrating our arrival to Amman, we were invited to have dinner at Sufra, a fine restaurant I previously visited back in 2012. My memories were revived when I reached Sufra. My mouth started watering as I remembered the foukhara, the hummus and the fresh hot bread. Inside this old house, which is divided into many sections, the ambiance is always festive. Everyone seems to be enjoying their time with style. Wooden tables, old tiles covering the floor, stones decorating the walls and chandeliers hanging from the ceiling. We enjoyed a sumptuous dinner while discovering new dishes of regional cuisine.
 
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  • DAY2:
Rise and shine Amman, the Pope was in the city. What a day! We had to be ready at 09:30am, prepare for the event and wait for him at the stadium until 3pm. The anticipation was rising. Before that, breakfast, a part of day I love to discover. I wished that it was better. Nothing was up to the standards of a five star hotel. While touring around the buffet I couldn't but notice two major issues. The first was the lack of organization; bowls were mixed together, fruits next to pastries, croissants next to muffins. The other thing was the lack of reasonable choices; what I mean by that is that there were dozens of bread-based products, but only one fruit bowl and one single vegetable bowl.
 
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We all gathered at the Amman stadium, a place that can gather up to 20,000 people, all coming from the four corners of Jordan and the Middle East. I was happy to see a handful of Lebanese flags there for the occasion. An unofficial source told me that they are expecting 4,000 visitors from the land of the cedar. There we were, welcoming the Pope, finishing our official dues in the capital before moving on to discover Jordan... A really old civilization. Despite traffic, we managed to reach the Dead Sea on time. It was already late, a long day where we couldn't have lunch, so we decided to meet up together for a buffet dinner at the Al Saraya restaurant.
 
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Al Saraya is the main dining area at the Movenpick resort, Dead Sea. Located in the main resort building, Al Saraya offers a Mediterranean kitchen ambiance with garden terrace, warm stonework, arched windows and tiled floors. The restaurant offers all-day à la carte or buffet dining. Enjoy their sumptuous dinner buffet, with Oriental carved market carts and live cooking stations. Both indoor and outdoor seating are available.
The wide choices that satisfied every craving were fantastic, the meat was so juicy and tender, the homemade fish fingers were exquisite, the rice was well cooked, the salad was fresh and crunchy, the steamed vegetables were well seasoned and tender… Everyone was amazed by the quality of the food. The only thing I’d really work on improving were the desserts. I have never been a fan of their desserts: creamy, heavy, lacking body and taste and surely unappealing. I’m not sure if the chef is the problem or is it the fact it’s all mass produced that leads to the low quality.

This was my third time here, and the second time in less than two months. The last time I was at the Movenpick it was during low season. The pools were empty and the ambiance was calm, but not this time round. The resort was fully booked, the ambiance was truly happening, while people seemed to be having a blast… swimming, eating, relaxing and having fun. An amazing 400 meters below sea level on the shores of the world’s deepest salt lake in a land of history, Mövenpick Resort and Spa Dead Sea blends ingeniously into its astonishing surroundings and offers guests a luxurious vacation destination. Rooms and suites are located in a two-story village traditionally designed and built with local stone, set in expansive tropical gardens. The resort also features the award-winning Zara Spa and the healing traditions and therapies that have made the Dead Sea renowned worldwide.

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  • DAY3:
Breakfast at Movenpick is as good as you’d expect for a five star. A wide choice of tasty bites offered in a fresh ambiance. I’ve tried it all before and enjoy it more every time. After all, as they say, Movenpick Amman serves the best food of all the five Movenpick hotels in the country and I think this reputation is well earned. The main breakfast was fully booked, and so we were invited to the ground floor to Al-Mashrabiya restaurant. Almost the same choices were offered in a calmer and better-looking atmosphere – it felt less ‘resortish’. The sumptuous breakfast buffet offered a wide range of tasty dishes and specialties divided into more than 10 different serving stations: from oven-fresh bread, pastries to yoghurts, refined cheeses and their famous Swiss Birchermuesli, as well as a whole section of traditional Arabic dishes. Egg dishes and pancakes were prepared exactly to your liking at no additional charge. I enjoyed the choice of cereals, the organic corner and the healthy tower, as well as the choice of beans and variety of hot dishes. The eggs were well done, well cooked, well seasoned and oil-free. The croissant was enjoyable to eat, not chewy and nor fatty. The most important thing was that it didn’t give me heartburn. The labneh was really good; its consistency was great, close to the ones we have in Lebanon. The bread was crunchy and fresh, produced the same day and the fruits were freshly cut and served.
 
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We were scheduled to visit Jesus’ Baptism site that day, followed by the Mai'in hot springs, all in the same region as the Dead Sea. The Pope was there the day before, so everything was looking good and organized.
 
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On the way to the hot springs of Mai’in, we stopped by Vis a Vis, located on the first floor of a building. We entered an empty space that was not lit, while Arabic music played in the background. Although they were expecting us, our table was not ready. We had to endure the excruciating sounds of moving tables, chairs and clinking plates and cutlery…The first impression was not good, to say the least. In brief, lunch was a disaster.
 
Evason is the only hotel at the springs of Ma’in, welcoming guests seeking relaxation calm and serenity. We arrived in the early hours of the afternoon, checked-in and went straight to the pool. Evason Ma'in Hot Springs was the third hotel we tried. A large lobby, dimmed lights and wood, lots of wood, taking over the space which reminded me in an island tree house setup. Thick wooden doors, wooden structures and signs carved in wood as well. Walk around the lobby to discover the cozy bar, the wide restaurant, the cellar private dining space as well as the library, my favorite space in the resort..
 
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A few meters from the resort are the waterfalls: Hammamat Ma’een have been enjoyed for therapeutic and leisure pursuits for thousands of years. The main public attraction is a large spring-fed waterfall, while a number of smaller ones spurt forth within the private resort and spa. The water, ranging from 45°C to a blistering 60°C, tumbles off the hillside in a series of waterfalls and less assuming trickles, and is collected in a variety of pools for public bathing. The water contains potassium, magnesium and calcium. Make sure to spend sometime under the falls and feel the strength of the water, its pressure and heat.
We had some drinks on the balcony before moving along for dinner. We chose between Corona, Budweiser, Amstel and Heineken. Beers cost between $7 and $14 depending on the brand.
 
That night was dinner at the resort’s main restaurant where a buffet is served from 8 until 10pm; A nice ambiance and some tasty food, exactly what you need after a busy day running around the premises. Dinner, then drinks on the terrace. Evason Ma’In Hot Springs has a reputation for serving some of the best food in the region and I believe it’s true. Offering Jordanian specialties, Middle Eastern bites as well as a variety of international choices, the restaurant is situated on top of a cliff at the edge of the Dead Sea, facing the waterfalls. Guests can enjoy a selection of dining options while catching a glimpse of nature.
At 6am in Ma’in, struggling to sleep after a long time fighting with my pillows and bed sheets, I grabbed the iPad and remembered my first day at the resort.
 
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  • DAY4:
Day four was one of the most exciting days of the trip: Visiting the majestic city of Petra. Not only that, but visiting Petra at night as well. Petra is a historical and archaeological city in the southern Jordanian governorate of Ma'an that is famous for its rock-cut architecture and water conduit system. Another name for Petra is the Rose City due to the color of the stone out of which it is carved.
 
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The sun was just coming up and the soothing sound of the waterfalls was just what I need to start a day positively. The weather was beautiful, the sun was relaxing and the sofas on the terrace were comfortable… Breakfast was enchanting in the company of a family of birds that full all around us. The food was simply excellent. I was positively shocked, as I was not expecting to eat something that good. Appetizing live cooking stations, a wide selection of cheese and labneh among other dairy products, fine crunchy croissants, rich and tasty donuts, excellent crepes with caramel sauce, tasty omelets, really fluffy pancakes, as well as some Danish pastry choices that were not to be missed.
 
Staying at the Ma’in Evason Six Senses Hotel was fun and enjoyable. I’d recommend you come here to flush life’s stress away and cure your body’s illnesses with their water. Three days are enough to fulfill your needs. Before doing the site's night visit, we stopped at Al Qantarah to do some cooking. Al Qantarah restaurant, located a few minutes away from the site of Petra, offers open kitchen gatherings on its first floor. It hosts big groups of 10 to 20 people, who gather to cook and eat. We were welcomed at 7pm for an early dinner. Chef Abdel Hafez Al Qaissy, known as Abou Shady, was eagerly awaiting us. We were handed some aprons, gloves and head covers as we each took a cooking spot.
 
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It was already 08:30pm when we gathered to eat. I went straight for the maklouba. I love rice-based dishes with chicken or meat. The food was excellent. I enjoyed the seasoning of the rice, the richness of the chicken and the tenderness of the vegetables. After all the hassle, many used casserole dishes and a lot of time it was worth the wait. I enjoyed every bite. It reminded me a bit of the “riz 3a djej”, one of my favorite Lebanese dishes.
 
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To visit Petra during daylight is awe-inspiring; to experience it at night by the light of 1,800 candles is truly out-of-this-world! We walked through the Siq to the Khazneh following a candle-lit path and enjoyed the haunting music of the Bedouins at the Treasury. The tour starts at 8.30pm and finishes at 10.00pm every Monday, Wednesday and Thursday. It is simply breathtaking! I've personally taken the most beautiful photos of the event. I’ve been to Taybet Zamen before. We came in for some lunch back then… I still remember entering a place that looks like a haunted city. Too many stones, long alleys, closed shops… And nobody around. This time we came to spend the night before continuing to Madaba and Wadi Rum, and let me tell you, I had the same feeling I had the first time round. True to the style of the village homes in which Taybeh’s original inhabitants once lived, each of the 102 guest rooms offers minimal comforts, and I rated it “three stars” and surely not five. An old TV monitor, a broken shower, old furniture, thick wool bed covers and no Internet in the rooms.
 
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We arrived at Taybet at 11pm and headed straight to the room. There was nothing else to do since the restaurant had already closed, no entertainment was on, nor was there anything else to discover. I went down to my room, an old style room with two beds stuck together and some old furniture around… To make a long story short, a three star hotel and not close to a five star. The most disturbing thing was the dust. The rooms look they haven’t been visited in over a decade.
  • DAY5:
The next morning we woke up and had breakfast before doing anything else. Anyway, there was nothing to do there, eat and sleep is the best you can do. The shops were closed, the pool was unappealing and the billiard room was dark and scary. The breakfast was so bad that I won’t even write about it. I had to start the day with an empty stomach. All the plates were covered with nylon wrap and it was all not appetizing at all. The bread was dry, the eggs were super oily, the choices were mediocre… In any case, I couldn’t stay inside this dark space under the arcades any longer; and the staff. What can I say? They looked unhappy to be there, staring at their watch every second. I eventually ran away to grab another hour of sleep before the bus departed.
 
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I’m not sure why anyone would want to come here. A scary place, too dangerous for kids with all its stones and hidden spots, no entertainment is offered, the food wasn’t tasty, the Internet doesn’t cover the whole camp… I personally prefer to stay close to civilization or far from it, somewhere with scheduled entertainment like the camps of Wadi Rum. The giant red mountains and vast mausoleums of a departed race have nothing in common with modern civilization, and ask nothing of it except to be appreciated at their true value - as one of the greatest wonders ever wrought by Nature and Man. Although much has been written about Petra, nothing really prepares you for this amazing place. It has to be seen to be believed.
Petra, the world wonder, is without a doubt Jordan’s most valuable treasure and greatest tourist attraction. It is a vast, unique city, carved into the sheer rock face by the Nabataeans, an industrious Arab people who settled here more than 2,000 years ago, turning it into an important junction for the silk, spice and other trade routes that linked China, India and southern Arabia with Egypt, Syria, Greece and Rome. The entrance to the city is through the Siq, a narrow gorge, over 1km in length, which is flanked on either side by soaring, 80m high cliffs. Just walking through the Siq is an experience in itself. The colors and formations of the rocks are dazzling. As you reach the end of the Siq you will catch your first glimpse of Al-Khazneh (the treasury).
 
This is an awe-inspiring experience. A massive façade, 30m wide and 43m high, carved out of the sheer, dusky pink rock-face and dwarfing everything around it. It was carved in the early 1st century as the tomb of an important Nabataean king and represents the engineering genius of these ancient people. It was 6pm when we reached the Captain’s Camp, a desert camp located in Wadi Rum, Jordan. “Yalla Antonn,” the man called out for me, as we arrived just as they were preparing a feast and the highlight was what they call Zarb – one of Jordan’s culinary wonders prepared in a very original and authentic manner. Attending the process from start to finish was crucial and definitely worth seeing.
 
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The Captain’s Camp is one of 17 different others located in Wadi Rum sites and offers guests the real Bedouin experience with all its little details. Located in the heart of the dessert known for its beautiful sandy mountains each having a unique shape. In 2011 this part of the world was accredited by UNESCO as a protected site. Wadi Rum is a protected area covering 720 square kilometers of dramatic desert wilderness, huge mountains of sandstone and granite emerge, sheer-sided, from wide sandy valleys to reach heights of 1700 meters and more. Narrow canyons and fissures cut deep into the mountains and many conceal ancient rock drawings etched by the peoples of the desert over millennia. Bedouin tribes still live among the mountains of Rum and their large goat-hair tents are a special feature of the landscape.
 
Preparing the Zarb is a tradition of its own. Zarb is the Bedouin way of cooking meat, rice and chicken. In a prepared hole a fire is lit until it’s red hot. After that, a multistory large metallic tray is filled with all the food. The mix of rice is positioned at the bottom to collect all the fat from the meat and chicken. The meat goes on the second level and the chicken with vegetables is put on the third. Put below ground, the hermetically closed hole is left to cook for three long hours. We had a long trip back to Al Aqaba that night so we had to leave the camp at 10pm. The ambiance was so enchanting that I promised Oussama that I will surely be coming back with my family soon. If you are the outdoorsy type and enjoy the adventure of camping then this is a place you should not miss. Combining an interesting experience, good food in the company of real, authentic people, you will spend a memorable 48 hours with the Bedouins.
 
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On our way from Wadi Rum to Jordan a miracle happened. Our driver, Hatem, decided to show us an interesting DVD shot few years back with the king himself. Seeing Jordan from the eyes of a king made me change my view about the Arabs and my opinion about Jordan. It made me fall in love with a country that hides one of the world's greatest wonders... And it's close to home. On this DVD shot with the king as a guide, you cover Jordan in five days, this country offers the adventure of the Grand Canyon, the water falls of Biafra, the relaxation of Mykonos and the history of Rome all in one place. What a country!

I've been here four times already and I've seen Amman and the Dead Sea. This trip was magical offering great food, superb sightseeing and making me rediscover people who love life.

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From the minute we arrived to the minute we left, every detail at the Radisson Blu was mastered to perfection. Professionalism and style at it’s best. The stay was one I would recommend. I loved the welcoming, the room, the staff and the pools.  A long day, we had to go to sleep. We arrived at 11pm, even though late, were greeted and everything was prepared. After handing over the luggage, the receptionist gave us the room keys and with that a press pack. Not only that, she approached us and welcomed us with a smile and some cocktails and ice tea. What a great impression! We went to the rooms and the amazement continued. The rooms were ready, lit, the air conditioning was on and music was playing in the background. The mini bar had five complementary soft drinks as well as a Nespresso coffee machine that’s free of charge and two water bottles.
  • DAY6:
You couldn’t be more pleased with this Aqaba hotel’s location, which offers premium views of the shining Red Sea. Located a few minutes from the city center, this oasis with its five pools and three restaurants is ideal for families on vacation or just spending a weekend away from home. The Radisson Blu Hotel is a place I recommend and I expected breakfast to be just as good, well it was on the first day, but not on the second… In the main hotel restaurant, breakfast is served every morning from 06:30am till 10:30am. A large buffet awaits, filled with lots of choices, along with live stations offering waffles and eggs.
 
What happened at the Radisson Blu was strange. I had two different experiences at breakfast on two consecutive days. The first morning was great, handled by professionals who prepared a delicious waffle with chocolate and some exquisite eggs. But on the second morning, a kid was frying the eggs and it was obvious that it was his first time doing so… and another man, who looked like a grumpy pharmacist, didn’t know anything about waffles. He served me some inedible and uncooked waffles that don’t even look good. With its wealth of other attractions, Jordan’s splendid Red Sea resort is often overlooked by modern-day visitors. But apart from being a delightful place for discerning holidaymakers, this is actually a great base from which to explore various places of interest in southern Jordan.
 
Aqaba is a fun place. It is a microcosm of all the good things Jordan has to offer, including a fascinating history with some outstanding sites, excellent hotels and activities, superb visitor facilities, good shopping, and welcoming, friendly people, who enjoy nothing more than making sure their visitors have a good time.
 
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The last day was snorkeling day: The Red Sea has a legendary reputation among underwater enthusiasts, and deserves its status as one of the world’s premier marine destinations. For such a journey we chose to explore the underwater wonders of the Jordanian sea, a country known for its rich natural beauty, cultural history and warm hospitality. At Aqaba, Jordan’s relatively short coastline unfolds, featuring clear water and some of the healthiest reef in the Red Sea, including shallow patch reef located in calm water easily accessible from shore. Waters along this stretch of coastline are home to the majority of flora and fauna that inhabit Egyptian waters, but the relatively small number of visitors Jordan receives each year ensures that the pristine nature of its reef is preserved. The long day at sea was magnificent. Organized by Sea Guard, we went to discover Al Aqaba's coral reef while having a BBQ lunch at sea. Two hours underwater exploring a colorful and rich treasure. I was so lucky to have my GoPro with me. The pictures say a thousand words.
 
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I’ve always been a fan of buffets at hotels. It helps in rating the stay from its culinary side, which I think is the most important aspect. A good buffet reflects professional staff, an organized kitchen and a dedicated team working with love and passion. I mentioned that the Radisson Hotel is perfect on many fronts, but unfortunately I can’t say the same about the food. Unfortunately, the food was not as good as breakfast this morning. I was expecting to be amazed or at least eat something with some consistency. Good looking, yes, but the taste was not up to the standard of my stay until now. The chef needs to work more on the details. The food needs more body and more flavor. If you’re staying at the Radisson, plan to eat somewhere else. Back to Lebanon, we took the road back to Amman's airport. The adventure continued when we had to push a car that stopped in the middle of the road. Five hours later, we were at the airport, a coffee at Starbucks, some shopping for the family and back to Lebanon remembering an unforgettable week.
 
A memorable week, where I rediscovered Jordan, a heaven close to home.
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