Photo: Author

Wine and whitewater were just the beginning.
1. An organic winery

Drop the “organic” and I still would’ve been surprised. I’ve tried wines from Israel and Lebanon, but Jordan was new to me as a grape- and wine-producing region. After returning home, I checked in with the buyer at my local Austin wine store (who helped me write 15 epic wine regions to visit before you die earlier this year) and he said the same.

But as with most everything else, Jordan’s connection to wine goes back thousands of years. Multiple sources in-country conveyed the anecdote that the wine served at the Last Supper was Jordanian.

My introduction came at Zumot Winery, which bottles under the label “Saint George.” Their property in Amman, a modern-decored two-floor loft hiding behind just another limestone facade in Wadi Saqra, isn’t where the wine is made, but their current vintages are available for tasting here.

Alcohol seems to hit a little harder in a country where you can’t always get it.

Our host was Zumot’s wine trainer, Ernest Liniger, who talked about how Zumot was the first to reintroduce viticulture to Jordan in the mid-90s. The young vines are still maturing, each year producing higher quality grapes; currently, their best vineyard is up by the northern border with Syria.

Zumot’s decision to go organic was driven by the need to hit a niche in an otherwise crowded market. They take it seriously, ensuring that in addition to the grape growing (pesticide-free and sheep-fertilized), the pressing and fermentation processes are carried out organically as well.

Alcohol seems to hit a little harder in a country where you can’t always get it. By the third taster, things were pretty jovial. The volume of glass clinks, vocalized flavor revelations, and lecture points from Liniger steadily increased through pours of Chardonnay (which I actually liked since it tasted nothing like a Chard to me), a shy Rosé Shiraz, and a surprisingly chalky Sangiovese. The Pinot we selected to accompany our catered dinner was amazing as well.

The evening finished up with shots of arak. I bought bottles of Sangiovese and Rosé and happily carted them around in my suitcase for the next ten days. All press trips should start this way.

Find it yourself: The tasting room is at 129 Arar Street, near the 3rd roundabout and close to the Four Seasons, Grand Hyatt, Hisham, and Intercontinental hotels are (should give you a sense of the neighborhood).

Visits are by appointment only and can be made by calling +962 6 461 4125 (email: contact@zumot-wines.com, thewinemaker.jo@gmail.com). You can also arrange a visit to their prize Sama Vineyard in the north of the country near Irbid (~1hr from Amman by car).

2. Wet canyoning

Jordan’s western border traces the middle of Wadi Araba, a wide valley that holds the Jordan River and Dead Sea and is part of the larger Great Rift Valley.

To the east, the land rises sharply into the Jordan Rift Mountains. On its way down to Wadi Araba, the flow of spring water and runoff has cut a series of narrow east-west canyons in these mountains, dozens of which are hikeable with a range of length and difficulty.

Our group trekked into Wadi Mujib, focal point of the nature reserve of the same name. The entrance to the canyon is a 10-minute drive south from the Dead Sea resorts, and there’s a small visitors center with info and gear (life jackets, climbing ropes/harnesses).

The mouth of the canyon is wide, the water running through it shallow and riffled. But the sandstone walls quickly close in, and the stream deepens. About 10 minutes in, you can hear the roar of the first of three little falls. Each requires some effort to traverse by way of preset ropes and/or metal rungs bolted to the rock.

Expect to get drenched — cameras need to be either fully waterproof or dry-bagged.

After 30-45 minutes, the route ends at the base of a 30ft waterfall with a nice little cave pocket behind it to rest in. Yes, those are minnows nipping at your legs. Bonus on the return is that you get to slide down the three little falls.

This is the Siq Trail, the shortest way to explore Wadi Mujib and the only trail not to require a guide. Other routes (like the Mujib Canyon Trail) are much longer (4-9 hours), involve abseiling, and lead up into the mountains to enter the canyon from its back side.

Find it yourself: These hikes can be arranged through and reached from one of the Dead Sea resorts. Guides can also be booked directly through Wild Jordan (they ask that reservations be made a minimum of one week in advance).

Across the highway from the visitors center are the Mujib Chalets if you’re not feeling the resorts.

Other recommended trekking canyons are the lush and family-friendly Wadi ibn Hammad and, farther south, Wadi Hasa, a more challenging option that takes two or three days to get through.

3. A legit ecolodge

Photo: Feynan.com

At dusk the candles are lit, and Feynan Ecolodge starts to feel more like an 18th-century country estate than one of National Geographic Adventure’s top 50 eco properties.

That’s how we approached it, in the dark, rows of locally crafted candle lanterns lining the path to the front door.

Feynan is fully off the grid — all electricity and hot water is solar generated. To cope with the limits of photovoltaic, electricity use is confined to one bulb in the bathroom of each of the 26 en suite rooms, plus in the administrative offices and the kitchen.

Water, sourced from a nearby free-flowing spring, is also strictly conserved. Heat during the winter comes from burning jift, a byproduct of olive oil production. Food and other waste is composted into fertilizer, trash is recycled whenever possible (the lodge had some of the only recycle bins I saw in Jordan), and all of the food served is vegetarian (and delicious).

Community development is another mission at Feynan. Its staff, from housekeepers to mountain bike guides, are all from the area, making it one of very few local employers. Candles and leather crafts are produced onsite by community members, the bread (shrak) served with every meal comes from a Bedouin tent down the road, and Feynan runs an environmental awareness program at the local school.

Reaching Feynan requires transport over a bumpy dirt road in a Bedouin truck.

This ethos jives with the lodge’s location on the western border of the Dana Biosphere Reserve, Jordan’s largest protected natural area. Within the mountains to the east live hundreds of plant and animals species, many endangered.

The staff can arrange anything you’d like to do — sunrise and sunset hikes, treks up-valley to the 500-year-old stone town of Dana, mountain bike rides, canyoning, visits with the valley’s Bedouins, cooking classes, and even long-term ESL teaching assignments.

And on any night when the moon isn’t full, stargazing from the rooftop terrace is pretty much mandatory.

Find it yourself: Reaching Feynan requires transport over a bumpy dirt road in a Bedouin truck — another way the lodge provides economic opportunities for the local community. The ride from the reception center (in the village just west of the lodge) costs 11JD (~$15USD) and can be arranged on reservation. Transport from Petra, Wadi Rum, Amman, and other places is also available.

Room rates range from $95USD for a single in low season to $160 for a high-season deluxe double. Breakfast is included.

Note that, due to farming practices elsewhere in the valley, there are a couple weeks beginning in mid-September when the valley and lodge are overwhelmed with flies during the day.

4. The three fingers of Hercules

Photo: Author

I’ve read books on Middle Eastern history but, even narrowing it down to a single country like Jordan, it’s difficult to keep straight the millennial dance of civilization, conquest, and cultural hegemony that has shaped the region.

A good place for a refresher is in Old Amman, at the gates of the Citadel that tops one of the ancient city’s original seven hills. This spot has probably been occupied continuously since the Neolithic period, so…yeah, ancient.

Among the artifacts uncovered from the layers of hilltop dirt are three massive marble fingers, assumed to be the remains of a statue of Hercules, installed as part of the Temple of Hercules under the Romans (circa 166 AD), back when Amman still went by the Greek name of Philadelphia (yep — it’s the original city of brotherly love).

Many other finds, from within the Citadel and around the country, are displayed in the drab Archaeological Museum (bring a fan in summer) that now sits at the center of the site. Highlights include the oldest known examples of human form rendered in statuary.

You don’t just learn Jordanian history traveling to Jordan — the main chapters in the story of human civilization are traceable here, as major players crossed and recrossed this arid landscape over the last 5,000+ years. Other historic sites of interest include (among many, many more):

  • Jerash – Huge site that contains the remains of the Greco-Roman city of Gerasa.
  • Karak – The largest of Jordan’s Crusader castles, located in the city of the same name.
  • Madaba – The city’s Greek Orthodox basilica of St. George houses the Byzantine-era Map of Madaba, a mosaic depicting the oldest known guide to the sites of the Holy Land.
  • Petra – Needs no introduction.

Find it yourself: Citadel Hill, or Jabal al-Qal’a, is just north of Amman’s main souq, Hussein Mosque, and the Roman Theatre. It’s a quick uphill walk if you’re staying downtown; hail a cab if not. Admission is 2JD (~$3USD); entry to the museum costs another 1JD. Open till 4pm Oct-Mar and 7pm Apr-Sept.

5. Holy flies

Jordan’s portfolio of biblical sites adds a whole other dimension to the “human history tour.” There’s Mt. Nebo, where Moses glimpsed the Holy Land after 40 years in the desert, then died (and is said to be buried); Lot’s cave; Lot’s salt-pillar wife; likely remains of Sodom and Gomorrah; Herod the Great’s castle at Mukawir, where John the Baptist’s head was served up platter-style.

And the site of Jesus’ baptism by John (pre-beheading) at Bethany Beyond the Jordan.

Just east of the River Jordan, at the end of a manmade channel now dry except during floods, stone steps lead down into the old baptismal pool. A small structure on the embankment above marks the spot where Jesus disrobed.

It’s a strange site — a path winds through dense growths of tamarisk caked in flood mud, passing the pool and ending at the river itself, which is nothing more than a dirty ribbon of green water 12ft across. On the other shore is an ostentatious Israeli-built visitor complex — it’s a weird feeling to emerge from the trees and suddenly be face to face with Palestine (and the gun barrels of its “stewards”).

And then there are the flies.

Like the flies at Feynan, these appear seasonally around the Dead Sea and Jordan Valley, but they hang out much longer (all summer, and in smaller numbers during winter). I like to think they’re gravity-pulled from all over the world to this lowest point on Earth.

So the tableau is groups of sunburned tourists, sweating under oppressive humidity, attempting with diligence to listen to the tracks of the “EasyGuide” audio tour device hanging around their necks, swatting at the dozens of flies circling their heads.

It’s annoying until you think — maybe it’s all a test. Should it really be easy and comfortable to pay homage to the birthplace of Western spirituality?

Find it yourself: The Baptismal Site is well-signed from the Dead Sea Highway and Highway 40 out of Amman (just ~30min from the city).

Admission is 12JD and includes shuttle bus service and the audio guide (available in 7 languages). Open till 4pm Nov-Mar and Ramadan, till 6pm Apr-Oct.

6. A hot springs waterfall

There are springs all over Jordan, a product of consistent tectonic activity and one of the reasons human history goes back so far here.

They tie everything together — springs water the vineyards of Zumot, feed the river of Wadi Mujib, fill the photovoltaic water heaters at Feynan Lodge, and aid in the uphill battle of keeping the Jordan River and Dead Sea from drying up.

And where the spring water is naturally hot, it gives birth to the ever-popular tourist spa.

Our guide told us how his father and uncles would come to the falls as recently as 30 years ago, when there was no resort or structure of any kind, and not even a road into the canyon.

Ma’in Hot Springs is one such place, home now to the recently renovated Evason Ma’in five-star hotel, which sits at the center of a huge landscaped property in the canyon of Wadi Zarqa.

There are three hot spring falls here. The smaller two are located at the Six Senses Spa and adjacent to the hotel pool and are for guests only. The largest, up near the entrance to the property, is public. Three terraced pools collect the water, and a cave behind the falls acts as a natural sauna (take care — some of the water back there is scalding).

Our guide told us how his father and uncles would come to the falls as recently as 30 years ago, when there was no resort or structure of any kind, and not even a road into the canyon. They would arrive up on the rim and hike the three hours down to enjoy a day or more at the springs.

Find it yourself: The hot springs at Ma’in are a 30min steep and winding drive east off the Dead Sea Highway (the exit is well-signed), or west down from Madaba. Admission is 15JD and hours are 9am-9pm. (Outside of winter, best to plan your soak for early morning or at night.)

If you want to post up at the falls, rack rates at Evason start high, with even basic rooms going for $250+ USD. Definitely a splurge.

7. A second Petra

Petra was as I expected — awesome, and crowded. And then the next morning we drove ten minutes down the road to Little Petra (Al Beidha) — which was unexpectedly awesome, and unexpectedly uncrowded.

It’s easy to think of Petra as nothing more than the Treasury — that monumental carved facade everyone knows from Indiana Jones. Actually, though, the site is enormous, spread out along a 4km path and extending into the surrounding hills. And this was just where the Nabateans buried their dead and performed religious rites, not where they lived or entertained the trade caravans whose business kept them thriving.

The residential and commercials sectors were spread outside of what we now call Petra…in places like Little Petra.

The walls of the sandstone canyon of Al Beidha are covered with switchback staircases, water channels and cisterns, and chillout rooms carved in the rock. Unless you happen to show up at the same time as a tour bus, you’ll probably have the whole thing to yourself to explore.

At the back, where the canyon narrows, you can climb up to a lookout ledge and give some business to the one Bedouin lady who sets up shop there. Note that her scarves are foreign-made and the offered cup of tea will cost you.

Find it yourself: Follow the signs from Wadi Musa (“Petra town”) or the Bedouin village of Umm Sayhoun. Admission is free — officials figure no one’s going to come just to tour Little Petra and skip “big” Petra (where tickets run 50JD for one-day entry, 55 for two, and 60 for three — note that if you’re on a day trip from Israel the fee bumps up to 90JD). Open dawn to dusk.

[Editor’s note: My tour and most of my travel expenses were arranged and paid for by the Jordan Tourism Board.]

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