Jordan’s real beauty lies in the hospitable people and the great outdoors. Matthew Teller uncovers some of the Kingdom’s most authentic experiences
My companion tugs on my elbow. “This doesn’t even happen in dreams,” she says. “Walking up to your knees in wildflowers? Go on – we’re in a Flake advert, right?”
Not quite; we’re on holiday in the Middle East. Granted, it’s not a usual bit of it, but this sunny, green valley, watered by a clear brook, shaded by olive and fruit trees and carpeted in yellows and purples is northern Jordan to a tee.
So far, Jordan has successfully persuaded most visitors to head south. With Petra, Dana, Wadi Rum and the Dead Sea on the menu, this is hardly a surprise. Yet the north is like another country. Instead of desert and mountains, expect fertile, rolling hills.
I’ve joined a small group walking the new Al-Ayoun Trail, the first community-owned, community-run tourism initiative in Jordan – and, probably, the entire Middle East. A one-day route of about 12km, it links three highland villages in the rural Al-Ayoun region. It’s been designed to focus on social engagement and developing the guest/host relationship that lies deep down in Arab culture. Though much of it passes through open country you are also routed quite deliberately into the villages.
The idea is to walk with a guide, learn about the area, to engage with individuals in each village (someone will prepare lunch in their home, someone else may invite you for tea, others may want to show you a particular site), to see and be seen, to stop and be stopped.
The trail begins on the edge of the Ajloun Forest nature reserve. Past the Soap House, a community initiative employing local women to manufacture olive-oil soap by hand, the trail follows shepherd tracks through valleys lush with fig, pomegranate, carob and cherry trees, climbing past olive groves to end at the ruined Byzantine church of St Elijah, gazing out over the River Jordan. To walk it, contact specialist Jordanian operator Sarha (www.sarha.jo).
This is where Jordan really excels – the great outdoors. It’s a small country, so distances are manageable, but the terrain is amazingly diverse. Don’t miss the magnificent Dana Biosphere Reserve, in the south. A picturesque cluster of stone cottages huddled together on a cliffside outcrop, Dana village has rightly become celebrated as one of Jordan’s loveliest hideaways. Long settled as a farming community, it has become the focus for sustained projects of renovation and redevelopment.
Dana’s Guesthouse is a charming place to stay, perched overlooking the Dana valley – but even more alluring is the Feynan Ecolodge, hidden away at the lower end of the reserve. No roads come close: you either hike in or are driven across country by the local Bedouin. Out in the rocky desert, the lodge manages to evoke luxury chic without Dubai-style bling. Walk, laze or stargaze on the roof with a clear conscience; guides are drawn from Bedouin communities, food is sourced locally and the lodge runs on solar power. Find more information at www.feynan.com.
Even the classic destinations are breaking the mould. For an entirely new approach to Petra, contact local firm Engaging Cultures (www.engagingcultures.com). As part of their grassroots approach to responsible tourism, they offer the chance to stay with the Ammarin Bedouin at their camp on the north side of Petra. Then you ride camels on a little-used back route across open country to approach the famed World Heritage Site from an unusual angle, emerging through the mountains at the monumental Monastery.
Further south, Jordan’s vast deserts have long entranced outsiders. Last November marked the 50th anniversary of David Lean’s classic Lawrence of Arabia, filmed amid the sweeping grandeur of Wadi Rum, where Lawrence based his operations during the Arab Revolt of 1917. A jagged mountain there is popularly known as the Seven Pillars of Wisdom, after Lawrence’s published account of his desert battles, and four-wheel-drive tours criss-cross the sands. For more romance, you could opt for genuine horsepower.
Wild Frontiers (020 7736 3968; wildfrontiers.co.uk) offers the chance to see Wadi Rum on horseback, working with local Bedouin owners and handlers to build an epic itinerary exploring the deep desert over five days in the saddle.
But if all the Lawrenciana has caught your imagination, you could pursue the man himself. Cox and Kings (0845 527 8294; coxandkings.co.uk) features a welter of Jordan itineraries, including a unique country-wide tour led by First World War historian Neil Faulkner which makes a point of visiting hard-to-reach desert sites associated with Lawrence – fortifications along the old Hejaz Railway, tented encampments and newly excavated buildings that were key to Lawrence’s desert campaigns.
Jordan may dwell on its image of desert desolation, but in truth if you’re dreaming of golden dunes, moody bazaars and fading romance, you should go elsewhere. If, instead, you’d like a handle on how a young, cheerful Arab country is starting to tell some new stories about itself, Jordan merits a second look – particularly the lively capital, Amman, famed for its top-notch dining scene. Eating local is all very well, but how about learning how to cook local? At Beit Sitti, a tasteful 1920s townhouse in one of historic Amman’s most elegant residential neighbourhoods, you can book ahead for an evening (or an afternoon) learning about Arabic cuisine, then don an apron and prepare a full four-course meal of salads, appetisers, meat and vegetarian dishes and sweet desserts under expert local guidance. It’s a great way to get an unusual one-to-one take on Ammani culture – and, of course, you get to eat your handiwork as well (www.beitsittijo.com).
Continuing the gustatory theme, make contact with Omar Zumot, Jordan’s leading winemaker, who has single-handedly brought his country’s wine industry global recognition. Among a host of prizewinners in Zumot’s Saint George range, the 2009 Pinot Noir Winemaker’s Selection recently won gold at the prestigious Mundus Vini wine awards in Germany. Sample it and a wealth of others at Zumot’s gorgeous Winemaker premises in central Amman, where you can also arrange a tour of the vineyards (www.zumot-wines.com).