Whenever “wellness” and the “Middle East” are mentioned together, it’s almost always related to the salutary effects of the Dead Sea’s mineral-rich water. Aside from that, the region is usually perceived as hot, dusty, and harsh.
That impression is quite far from the truth. It’s easy to combine adventure and relaxation in this area of the world. Take Jordan — the country has a number of attractions that make it an ideal destination not just to engage in physical activity but also to recharge. From north to south, here are the best locations for pampering yourself after a full day of sightseeing, hiking, or swimming.
1. Umm Qais Rest House in Irbid
By virtue of its northerly location and the nourishing waters of the Yarmouk River and the Sea of Galilee (a bit of a misnomer as it’s actually a freshwater lake), much of Irbid is greener than the rest of the country. This part of Jordan is perhaps most famous for being home to the ruins of Umm Qais, one of the Roman Empire’s Decapolis cities.
Just after the entrance to Umm Qais, visitors will come upon the Rest House, which is a perfect place to relax after exploring the site’s temples, churches, cardo, amphitheater, and other archaeological sites. The Rest House includes a lovely Lebanese cafe with an unrivaled view of the Golan Heights and the Sea of Galilee, calm in the distance beyond the hills.
Ask for a seat on the tree-shaded stone patio. Pair a glass of local Jordanian wine with some light Mediterranean fare. Elevated well above Irbid’s downtown, far away from pollution and the cacophony of cars and construction, Umm Qais and its environs are permeated by tranquility. It’s an ideal spot to decompress after scampering about the ruins.
2. Ma’in Hot Springs in Madaba
After a strenuous (but worthwhile) excursion through one of Madaba Governate’s stunning water canyons, your muscles and skin will likely need some attention. Luckily, Ma’in Hot Springs, located a short drive from most of these hikes, is a wonderful place to recuperate.
As you descend from the heights of barren mountains toward the hot springs, bright green pierces the rocky monotony below: lush palm trees, waterfalls, a small creek, several pools, and a series of adjacent stone buildings. In total, there are 16 natural springs gushing hot water into a series of pools in which locals and visitors soak and splash.
The water, which is known as “fossil groundwater,” is heated by underground lava fissures and saturated with potassium and magnesium, among other minerals. In conjunction with the high temperature of the water, these minerals promote skin health and alleviate muscle pain.
For those who want to fully indulge in a more private setting, the Ma’in Hot Springs Resort & Spa is the perfect place to do so. Guests can recline in a secluded cove behind the hotel, enjoy some fresh juice or wine, and watch as a waterfall splashes into the pool below. Far from any city or town, it’s a relaxing retreat from the hustle and bustle of urban life, and a reinvigorating break for sore hikers.
3. The Dead Sea
If you’ve made it to Ma’in Hot Springs, there’s no excuse to skip the 30-minute drive to the healing waters of the Dead Sea. A unique combination of salts and minerals make for a naturally occurring skin balm that even the world’s leading beauty brands cannot match. Allergies, eczema, acne, psoriasis — the water and mud of the Dead Sea can work wonders for a whole battery of skin maladies. Some people even claim that a good soak temporarily relieves symptoms of arthritis.
Since the Dead Sea is the lowest point on land, its water is warm for almost eight months of the year. Soak in it for 10-30 minutes to open up your pores, slather the rich mud on your skin, let it dry, and then rinse back off in the sea. You’ll emerge with silky skin and relaxed limbs. As long as you’re careful to avoid getting it in your eyes, it’s worth dipping your hair in the water and then rinsing it out at the shower stations on the beach. The seemingly miraculous elixir will make your locks feel softer and fuller.
Numerous hotels dot the shoreline, but the Marriott and Hilton are by far the best options. The Marriott has spotless facilities and several excellent restaurants with international chefs, and the Hilton offers the perfect location from which to watch the sunset on the beach. Order a glass of arak (an anise-flavored drink popular in the region) or tea full of fresh mint leaves and observe the beautiful celestial spectacle.
4. Dana Village, Biosphere, and ecolodges
Dana Village has it all: Unbeatable hiking, otherworldly landscapes, comfortable accommodations, and home-cooked food with the largest nature reserve in Jordan as the background.
Dana Biosphere Reserve is a treasure trove of fauna and flora, home to at least 894 plant, 190 bird, 37 mammal, and 36 reptile species. Natural springs combine with melted winter snow to form seasonal streams of water that infuse the rocky land with vegetation, including colorful flowers. The biosphere covers a section of the Jordan Rift Valley known as Wadi Dana, which is in turn part of the Great Rift Valley.
To reap all of the benefits that accompany being in such an unspoiled setting, plan a hike and a relaxing dinner. You’ll get in some good exercise, connect intimately with nature (maybe even catch a glimpse of the shy sand cat), and then have the chance to relax. A number of businesses have sprung up in the renovated Dana Village, which was constructed in the late 1800s on a hill above the wadi, abandoned for a larger settlement in the mid-late 1900s, and recently revived as a collection of lodges and restaurants.
Dana Tower Hotel and Dana Moon Hotel are two such ecolodges that offer both excellent access to hiking trails and spectacular vantage points from which to take in the valley below. Lounge on the Bedouin-style cushions on the roof with a cup of cardamom-ladened coffee and experience the ultimate post-hike relaxation.
5. Wadi Rum
Appreciation for Wadi Rum’s ochre expanses of sand and alien rock formations is no longer confined to locals. Its stark beauty has caught the eye of Hollywood, and scenes from a growing list of movies — including The Martian, Aladdin, and installments in the Star Wars saga — have been filmed there.
With the increasing attention has come an influx of tourists and a corresponding explosion of camping and guided tour options. It’s worth splurging a little on accommodation in Wadi Rum because you’ll want to unwind in comfort after a day of traversing the desert. Bubble rooms are quite popular at the moment, but if you’re looking for something a little roomier and more private, Captain’s Desert Camp is a great option. Spend the night in one of the large rooms (complete with a shower) modeled after a Bedouin tent, or opt for a cave room, which is built into the side of a massive rock protrusion and includes a skylight.
If you want to squeeze in some cardio before you relax, Wadi Rum is full of hiking and rock climbing opportunities. Just make sure that you are accompanied by a professional guide during forays into the rocky labyrinths. If less strenuous activities are more your speed, opt for a camel or Jeep tour — many camp hotels offer them. Either way, you’ll get a good dose of vitamin D under the cloudless skies.
Conclude the day by watching the blazing sun give way to a star-strewn cosmos while drinking Bedouin fire tea. Sweetened by cinnamon sticks, spiced with sage and cardamom, and earthy from the essence of campfire, it’s the perfect beverage to sip while unplugging and absorbing the natural beauty of a sky free from any trace of light pollution.
6. Berenice Beach in Aqaba
Jordan’s small access point to the Red Sea is home to some of the world’s most accessible coral reefs and calm, warm water that is perfect for anyone seeking a beach vacation.
Aqaba is without question an essential stop on any tour of Jordan, but it’s worth doing right. Public beaches tend to be overcrowded and don’t offer easy access to the corals, but the private beaches attached to specific luxury hotels often charge an exorbitant amount for entry. Avoid both and opt instead for Berenice Beach, the ideal spot for Jacques Cousteaus and beach bums alike.
For a reasonable entrance fee, you can use the beach all day. The sand is pristine, the water is teeming with fish flitting in and out of colorful coral, and the premises are well-kept. You can rent scuba or snorkeling gear and hire an instructor on site. Once you’ve had your fill of underwater fun and have worked up an appetite, recline on the comfortable chairs to refuel and rehydrate with your choice of food and an array of freshly squeezed juices.