The Way to Aqaba
Initial Draft - Not for distribution
All content Copyright © John Little 2005
You traveled all over Israel. You walked through the Bahai
gardens in Haifa. You picked your way through the Roman ruins of Caesaria. You
tromped up the snake path to Massada. You fed the pigeons in manger square, and
you've been captivated by Israel's capital city, Jerusalem.
Throughout your journey, the Mountains of Moab were a wall of limestone and granite that loomed larger than life on the horizon. You must have wondered about life on the other side of those mountains - in one of the last kingdoms on earth.
You have a few days to spend doing something different, and your curiosity wont leave you alone. You want to see how the other side lives. And, maybe you've heard about the fantastic diving in the gulf of Aqaba. Maybe you want a good jumping off point to that fabled city of Petra. And, then there's Wadi Rum, the home of T.E. Lawrence's seven pillars of wisdom.
Whatever the case, you want to see what's on the other side of those mountains, and a great starting point is Aqaba. It's a quiet little town that will give you a feel for Jordan and its people without the hustle and bustle of urban areas like Amman. And, if this is your first visit to an Arab country, Aqaba is a great first step.
You are visiting Aqaba because you want a nice tranquil visit to an Arab country. You want a quiet taste of Arab culture, but you also want to do something. You want more than a sunny beach and a shopping excursion.
So, we have extra reasons why you would want to visit Aqaba.
Scuba, Snorkeling and Sailing
If you love the sea, there is a good chance that you will like Aqaba. The warm, clear waters of the Gulf of Aqaba have made the area a top spot for Scuba divers from all over the world. And, wherever there is great scuba diving, there is always great snorkeling for those who don't feel like strapping on a tank.
Three operators offer five-star PADI diving facilities with as many as 24 fully mapped diving sites, and unlimited shore diving within the marine reserve. For those without certification, each operator provides opportunities to earn certifications at every level, and introductory dives for those who want a taste of what diving is like.
In the event of an emergency, the Hyperbaric department at the Princess Haya Hospital is only twenty minutes away from the furthest dive sites, and offers a six person recompression chamber.
The water clarity is exceptional, the yearly water temperature average is 23 degrees Celsius, and wave action is minimal. This environment has been combined with an effective marine protection regime, under which the coral reef and marine wild life have prospered. There are more than 200 species of soft and hard corals and over a thousand species of fish.
For those who are enthusiastic about sailing, or want to learn, the gentle winds offer a great opportunity for those wishing to take out a catamaran, single hull sailboat, or a sailboard. Each of the dive centers provides sailing rental and instruction for those who need it.
Wadi Rum exemplifies the timeless, raw beauty of the desert. It lies in the center of a vast plain between Jebel Rum, one of Jordan's highest mountains, and Jebel Um Ishrin (Mountain of the Mother of Twenty).
T.E. Lawrence immortalized Wadi Rum in his book, Seven Pillars of Wisdom - named after a rock formation found there. He called Wadi Rum, "Rum the magnificent … vast echoing and Godlike … a processional way greater than imagination … the crimson sunset burned on its stupendous cliffs and slanted ladders of hazy fire down its walled avenue…"
Go to the Rum for the impressive scenery, but stay for Bedouin hospitality. The Huweitat and Mzanah tribes run the hospitality center and provide an open and friendly atmosphere for anyone venturing out into their wilderness. They love sharing cups of sweet tea or cardamom flavored coffee.
As much as it is recommended that you visit Wadi Rum at least once, it is even more strongly recommended that you visit in the company of a guide. Wadi Rum is rugged terrain and not suitable as a solo excursion for those who do not know the desert.
Luckily, a number of experienced and reliable Bedouin guides are available. For more information, check out:
For hardier souls consider camping out. The rest house offers all the camping equipment that you might need at reasonable prices. In addition, they have Arabic style meals and bathrooms with shower facilities.
As in any desert, please keep an eye out for scorpions and the occasional snake.
For those who wish to stay in Aqaba, Wadi Rum is to the north east and in easy reach. You should be able to make the 68 kilometer journey in less than two hours. The wilderness area is serviced by two busses and numerous taxi services.
It is hard to imagine how anyone could resist the urge to visit one of the jewels of the Middle East. The ancient Nabateans carved out a magnificent rose-red city that controlled an important caravan route in the spice trade with India. And the profits from trade allowed them to establish a kingdom that stretched from Damascus to the interior of the Sinai.
The Semitic Nabateans exist no longer, but have left behind a stunning monument of greatness and beauty. They carved their city out of the sides of cliffs and built temples on the top of small mountains. Greco-Roman influence can be felt everywhere, in almost every corner of their city.
Anyone who has seen Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, has at least one memorable image of Petra. Do you remember when Harrison Ford rides the horse out of the temple in the last scene?
That was Petra.
That scene will also come to mind when you enter Petra, because you will walk through a magnificent and exceptionally narrow canyon that opens out to the Al-Khazneh (Treasury). You'll recognize it immediately, and it's the signature façade for the Nabatean city.
One full day will be enough time to sample the highlights of the ancient city, but those of you with the time should plan on two days. It is impossible to truly grasp the magnificence of the city in less time than that.
However, the ride to Petra will take you about three hours. That's why you should only consider Aqaba to be a 'jumping off point' on the road to Petra. There is a regular bus service from Aqaba to Petra and numerous minibus taxis make the trip on a routine basis. The fare for the minibus should set you back about 3 JD.
Golden Tulip has a hotel in Petra called the Kings Way Inn. They offer excellent four star accommodations at a reasonable price. You can find their website here:
Rooms at the Kings Way will set you back $55 for a single and $70 for a double. A suite will cost $85. All charges do not include 13% government tax and 10% service charge. Having said that, call them and try to work out a cheaper price. Almost everything in Jordan is negotiable.
The other cost that you will need to expect is the entrance fee. One day entrance to Petra will cost you 21JD. A two day pass will cost you 26 JD, and three days for 31JD. Students and children under ten are half price.
Okay, you are ready to go. You have your scuba gear packed. You have your sun screen where you can get to it. You have maps and passport in hand. Now you need to find a way to get there.
When planning a trip like this, you are faced with two means of travel: air or land. Going by air means taking a direct flight from Ben Gurion Airport to the Queen Alia Airport south of Jordan's capital, Amman. You can also fly from Ben Gurion to Eilat and take a taxi to the Arava crossing.
The land route requires you to cross into Jordan via the crossing points at the northern Sheik Hussein Bridge, or the Arava crossing in the South, near Eilat.
For those coming from either the Tel Aviv or Jerusalem area, the only sensible route is the land route. By the time you made it through airport security, you'd have been halfway there if you had taken the land route.
The easiest and quickest route to Aqaba lies through the Arava checkpoint just north of Eilat. From Jerusalem, you can take the No. 444 bus, and from Tel Aviv, the No. 390/394. There's also the No. 990 bus from Haifa, and several buses from Be'er Sheva. You could drive, but it's a long drive. The Egged website can give you prices and bus departure times: www.egged.co.il (in Hebrew).
From Jerusalem, a bus ticket will set you back 65 shekels, one way. A round trip ticket will cost you around 116 shekels, a savings of 14 shekels. Remember that you cannot buy tickets on the bus, so you must purchase a ticket at one of the Egged ticket windows. Note that there is reserved seating only, so reserve a seat a day or two before. On the day of your journey, arrive at the bus station early and sit in the seat indicated on your ticket. If you aren't sure, ask the driver for help.
From the moment the bus pulls out of the station, expect a trip of four or five hours, depending on road conditions. That's a lengthy journey, so Egged provides you with a 15 minute break at the Dead Sea, midway through the trip. A word of warning: the 15 minute break is 15 minutes. Since they often don't check to make sure that you made it back to the bus, they'll leave without you - even if you are a minute late. So, get back to the bus a little early, just to be sure.
When the bus nears Eilat, you will have a decision to make. If you are young, vigorous, and light on luggage, ask the bus driver to drop you off at the Kibbutz Eilot bus stop, which is the last bus stop before Eilat. From the Kibbutz Eilot bus stop, it's a 15 minute walk to the Arava crossing (just follow the signs). For the rest of us, you'll need to get to the Eilat bus station and take a cab. It's only 20 shekels and, in 40+ degree summer heat, worth it.
The Arava Crossing
Passing through Israeli security is straightforward, and proceeds quite rapidly - especially since there is a good chance that you are the only traveler making the crossing to Jordan. You will pay an exit tax of 69 shekels. Make sure that you keep the stamped receipt with you. They will ask you to show it when you reach the final gate to the Jordanian side. (The exit tax may be cheaper for those holding Israeli passports.)
Once all the formalities are out of the way, you will be shown the exit gate, and instructed to walk to the Jordanian side of the border - less than 200 meters away. Hand carts may be available, if you need them.
The Jordanian Side
The Jordanian side of the border is a study in contrast. At first glance, you will wonder if anyone is there. A guard will appear at the gate and ask to see your passport, but outside of that, you get the feeling that you've walked into a ghost town - and could walk straight though without having to pass security.
Please don't try that. Jordanians take security seriously, and a security guard will pop up from seemingly nowhere and point you to the right window, where you'll get your passport stamped. The entry permit they stamp into your passport should allow you to stay for three months. However, you should check with visa control before assuming that this is the case.
An exchange bank is available at the checkpoint, and will be happy to trade Euros, British Pounds, and US Dollars into JD. They will charge you a commission of two to three JD. We recommend that you obtain Jordanian Dinars at a money changer in Israel or elsewhere before leaving for Jordan.
The exchange rate stays generally constant in relation to the US dollar. One JD will cost you $1.41, or 6.40 shekels. For a more up-to-date figure, go to the Universal Currency Converter: www.xe.com/ucc/
If you think that you might run out of money while staying in Aqaba, bank machines allow you to withdraw money using your credit card, and they offer some of the best rates in Jordan.
Once you've observed all the formalities, you'll be ready to make your journey to Aqaba. There should be taxis parked outside the gate of the Jordanian border crossing, and if not, they'll call one for you. The twenty minute taxi ride should cost you no more than 5 JD (Jordanian Dinar). As with almost anything in Jordan, please confirm the price of the taxi before entering the car.
Now, you are probably wondering about selecting a hotel that meets your needs, so we should stop a moment and discuss recommended hotels.
The Golden Tulip
Taking a look around the web, you'll notice that a Dutch hotel chain, The Golden Tulip, has a four star hotel in Aqaba. It's available for online reservations, at reasonable rates: $60/night for a single, and $80/night for a double (not including tax and service charge). These rates are for booking a room through the international site. You'll get a discount if booking through the local site: www.goldenaqaba.com
For most of the year, walking into the hotel from the dry heat outside will be like walking into paradise, and it is obvious that paradise was on their mind, when they designed the hotel. Built with an enclosed interior, there are five stories of rooms surrounding a glass-roofed atrium filled with hanging greenery - and air conditioned to a refreshingly cool temperature. The rooms are comfortable, with soft-but-firm beds, pleasant bathrooms, satellite TV, and a mini-bar refrigerator. Each room boasts a magnificent view of either the Red Sea, or the mountains that back the sea. And, the room comes with European and British power sockets. As an added bonus, my Israeli cellular phone worked just fine from my fifth floor room, and the TV was programmed to receive Channel Two from Israel, for those times when CNN is having an off day.
In keeping with its four star status, there is also a small pool on the roof of the hotel, and a bar on the ground floor - complete with Bedouin tents and a cranky parrot.
A more upscale location would be the five star Radisson SAS, an elegant alternative that includes a private beach.
The Radisson SAS is just a stone's throw from the Jordanian king's winter palace and offers beautiful views of the gulf. And it is a pleasure to sit on the beach, or the viewing deck, as the sun sets over hills of the Sinai.
Every room comes with one of the best breakfasts in town, comfortable beds, well appointed rooms, and satellite TV. The staff is courteous, and the hotel offers a pool and indoor and outdoor restaurants.
The breakfast and beach are well-worth the extra cost of the Radisson - usually about $40 a night more than the Golden Tulip.
Special deals are routinely offered on the Radisson SAS website.
The Moevenpick Resort
If you are willing to shell out twice what you are paying at the Golden Tulip, you can't go wrong when choosing Moevenpick. The hotel, part of the Swiss Moevenpick chain, is a sprawling resort of air conditioned elegance - a combination of Swiss quality and Middle Eastern character.
Beautiful swimming pools, elegant rooms, and a private beach… It's a magnificent place. You get more elegance for the buck there than almost anywhere else.
The Al-Zaitouna and Dweik 2
But, the best deal in town will be with either the Al-Zaitouna and the Dweik 2. Both are two star hotels, but have rooms that are almost up to four star standards. Both hotels are just a few doors down from each other. The Al-Zaitouna will cost you 20 JD per night for a single room, and 25 JD for a double. The Dweik 2 will cost you 15 JD per night for a single and 20 JD for a double. A third person in your room will normally cost you an extra 5 JD. Both hotels offer CNN, BBC, Jordanian TV, and Israel Channel 2. Prices include all taxes and service charges.
Looking out over the town, you'll notice that no one goes out after noon in the summer - at least no one on foot, unless they're nuts like yours truly. Not content to huddle in the blessed coolness of your well-appointed hotel room, your curiosity might convince you to venture forth into the oven-like heat to see what there is to see.
This is not for the faint of heart, but survivable if fortified with a large bottle of water (available at a nearby shop) and a little determination. Plan to travel like the Bedouins of the desert, from (air conditioned) oasis to (air conditioned) oasis. So, hopping from shop to shop, make your way around Aqaba.
If I have whetted your appetite for the undersea experience your first stop should be Dive Aqaba, and it's just across the street from the Golden Tulip. As a scuba diver with a lapsed PADI license, I'm always on the lookout for a cheap, quick refresher course, and low-cost (but high quality) diving. With this in mind, Dive Aqaba is the place to be. Their shop is chock full of the latest gear, in a modern, clean setting. They provide PADI five-star service at half of what you would pay in Eilat. For those of you interested in diving, Dive Aqaba is a deal that should not be missed.
The owner and general manager, Roderick Abbotson, comes from Liverpool, England, and has decades of experience all over the world as a diver, dive master, and diving instructor. The school he runs at Dive Aqaba can take you to advanced open water certification and all the way to diving instructor.
For more information, take a look at their site: www.diveaqaba.com.
Also, as you make your way around Aqaba, don't hesitate to talk to any non-Jordanians that you meet. You will find Brits who hate London, but love Beirut; Hispanic Texans married to Jordanians, who work in the UAE; Hungarians on package tours; in short, an interesting cross-section of humanity.
During the summer, get back to your hotel to cool off until after 6 p.m. when the more subdued temperatures will convince you to make another stab at seeing what there is to see. It is interesting to note that Aqaba doesn't really come alive until sundown, and is hopping until midnight. Everyone is out in the cafes and restaurants, or just walking around with friends and family. For those who want a more energetic nightlife you will need to go to one of the larger hotels that have a disco.
For the less adventuresome, you'll find a Pizza Hut next to the Golden Tulip and a McDonalds downtown at a shopping area called The Gateway. A Quiznos submarine sandwich shop is next door to McDonalds and offers a tasty alternative to standard fast-food fare.
A more upscale choice would be The Captain Restaurant across from the Golden Tulip. The Captain offers a choice of seafood and continental cuisine at reasonable prices.
In the center of town, near the market area (suk), a number of restaurants like Ali Baba, offer excellent Middle Eastern meals at good prices.
Near the Ali Baba is Hanni Ali, a great place for sweets and pastries.
For Chinese food with a Taiwanese accent, you will want to walk a few minutes north from the suk. The Chinese restaurant there provides a good menu and a nighttime view of Aqaba.
The Jordan Experience Show
The Gateway shopping center offers a number of great little shops, but one interesting opportunity is The Jordan Experience Show. It offers an interesting overview of the culture and history of Jordan. If this is your first experience with Jordan, The Jordan Experience Show might be worth a visit.
Security for the Solo Woman Traveler
The experienced woman traveler will probably find Aqaba to be a safer location than most. The crime rate in Aqaba is low, and men are generally polite towards women.
Just the same, it's always a good idea to 'play it safe' while you are getting your bearings in any Middle Eastern country - and frankly nowhere in the world is 100% safe. Here are a few general guidelines to follow:
Dress conservatively. This means something that covers the shoulders and skirts, dresses or baggy pants that extend below the knee. Lose T-shirts are fine.
Be intelligent and look confident. That dark alley might look interesting, but smart people don't walk through narrow alleys at night in foreign cities. And don't forget that few things are better for you in a sticky situation than a look of supreme confidence. They'll wonder what you know that they don't - in fact, use it on all the guys. Make's 'em nervous.
Do not allow touching - even 'accidental'. In Arabic society it is considered offensive for a man to touch a woman if they aren't married. If you let it go once, they might consider it an invitation to try again. Simply say "stop that!" and move on. If offensive behavior is repeated, solicit help from passerby. Such rude behavior is not tolerated in Jordanian society, and you will not lack for help in such situations.
Try not to make eye contact with men. Arabic women don't, so men might get the wrong idea if you do. Sunglasses can help you here.
Headscarves aren't necessary, but… It's always good to pack one. Jordan is a country that tries to be modern, and the average citizen reflects that. However, there might be a time when you feel like you need a scarf in certain situations, like when visiting a mosque. Look at the women around you, to see what is most appropriate.
Consider wearing a wedding ring. You aren't married, that's true. But, a ring that looks like a wedding band will let Mr. 'Hotstuff' know that you are 'hands off'. It can be a good idea when traveling anywhere - except when Mr. Right walks by (then, just cover your hand).
Blend in a bit. Look at how other Arabic women act and emulate them. When in Aqaba, do as the Aqabans do. No one will mistake you for a local, but they will respect you for adapting to their ways.
Also, if you have a flair for languages, pick up a few Arabic words like Shukran (thank you), or Marchaba (good morning).
Sit with other women. When traveling via public transport, or in public gatherings women sit with women, and men with men - unless you are married or otherwise related to the man you are sitting with.
Do not ride in the front seat of a taxi. Women don't ride in the front seat of taxis anywhere in the Middle East (except Israel), so you shouldn't either. There's no sense in giving the driver the wrong idea.
Look, you are safe in Aqaba, but it's always good to be careful until you learn how things are done. For a good discussion on solo women travelers in the Middle East, one of the best on the web is here:
And, look at the rest of the site. It's chock full of good stuff on Jordan.
On the Way Back Home
I said goodbye to my hotel on the morning of the third day and hailed a passing cab for a ride back to the Arava border. My stay in Aqaba was relaxing and refreshing, at a cost that anyone could afford.
Try it sometime.
A Few More Details
Politeness is a way of life. Jordanians are friendly, even to those of us from Israel. However, they are proud of their country and their culture. Always respect that.
A pharmacy near the suk in downtown Aqaba operates twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week.
Most shop owners speak English and are quite friendly. However, please be careful to count your change.
Smoking is allowed EVERYWHERE. Do not be surprised when the guy next to you lights up.
In the summer, try to stay indoors between noon and 6 p.m. After 6, it'll still be hot, but bearable. Failing that, get in the water and stay there.
Temperatures in the summer average around 35-36 degrees Celsius and can rise to a high of more than 40 degrees. In January and February expect temperatures around 20 to 24 degrees Celsius.
Water temperature ranges from 20 degrees Celsius in the winter to 27 degrees Celsius in the summer.
A Moderate Budget for Travelers from Israel
More Information on Jordan
Hotels in Aqaba
Golden Tulip Hotel
The Golden Tulip Hotel is a four star hotel, and seems to live up to its rating. All rooms have air conditioning, bath, satellite television (CNN, Arabic TV stations, and Israeli Channel Two). Everything is clean, comfortable, and spacious.
The Hotel's local website indicates that you'll get a discount if you reserve through their local site. (As always, the best deals are in person.)
Single - 30 JD
Service Charge: 20%
Golden Tulip Hotel
Description from their website:
The Radisson SAS Hotel Aqaba enjoys a superb location on the beach front, overlooking the Gulf of Aqaba. A starkly white, modern building, the Radisson SAS Hotel Aqaba perfectly combines the traditional elements of Jordan's rich and vibrant cultures with the latest in hotel accommodation facilities. The Radisson SAS Hotel Aqaba's spacious lobby with its large windows creates a relaxed, summer atmosphere and opens up on to the restaurant and pool area. The Radisson SAS Hotel Aqaba offers guests a choice of snack, international and traditional cuisine which can be enjoyed in the restaurant room or on the terrace.
Single or Double: 50JD
(reserved via website)
Prices do not include taxes or service charges
Tel: +962 3 2012426
P.O. Box 215, King's Boulevard
Moevenpick Resort Aqaba
Description from their website:
Majestically located in the centre of Aqaba, overlooking the Red Sea and with direct access to its own private beach, the 5-star resort is an architectural gem. With 235 rooms and suites, 9 restaurants, 4 pools, Snoopy Club for children and meeting facilities for up to 550 persons, the Moevenpick Resort Aqaba is the ideal choice for business or pleasure.
Rates for a single or double: $165-175.
Rates do not include taxes or service charges
Phone +962 3 2034020
Moevenpick Resort Aqaba
Al Zaituna Hotel
The Al Zaitouna is an excellent two star hotel. Every room has good air conditioning and Satellite TV. The rooms are well appointed with attention paid to comfort and convenience. You should bring a British three-pronged plug for any electrical appliances that you bring with you.
Single - 20 JD
Tax and Service Charges Included
Dweik Hotel 2
The Dweik 2 is a very good two star hotel, like the Al Zaitouna. However, the accommodations are slightly less comfortable. Having said that, it's 25% cheaper than the Al Zaitouna.
All rooms have air conditioning.
Single - 15 JD
Tax and Service Charges Included
Dweik Hotel 2
Al Shula Hotel
The Al Shula is a good hotel. Clean and Air conditioned. The owner refused to put a bar in the hotel, so it lost some of its official rating. With the Al Shula, my own observations coincide with others: You get three star service, at two star prices.
Please make sure to confirm that the price includes air conditioning. Not all rooms do.
Single - 14 JD
All prices include tax
Telephone: +962-3-2015153 (54/55/56)
Al Shula Hotel
Discount Hotel Reservations
For the nicer hotels listed here, I have used the online travel agent Precision Reservations, and have found their service to be excellent.
Just remember that quoted prices do not reflect local taxes or service charge. However, those fees will appear when you complete your transaction with Precision Reservations.
Dive Aqaba - 5 Star PADI dive center
The manager of Dive Aqaba is Roderick Abbotson who hails from Liverpool and has many years of experience as a diving instructor via Sardinia and elsewhere
Standard dives: 18 JD/dive (full equipment)
Recertification Dive: 25 JD (full equipment)
Sea Star - 5 Star PADI Instructor Development Center
Operated and run out of the Al Cazar hotel
Standard Dive: 15 JD/dive
Royal Dive Club - 5 Star PADI dive center
Royal Dive Club
Aqaba Southern Coastal Road
All content Copyright © John Little 2005