"But you haven’t tried everything,” said Omar, the Four Seasons’ foyer lounge manager. “I have,” I protest. “I’ve tried every dish. They were all delicious, I just can’t eat anymore!” It was 9am in Amman, Jordan, and I had just inhaled a large round of morning mezze, three freshly baked flatbreads and two rounds of Turkish coffee.
If you ever embark on a trip to Jordan—and you most definitely should—get used to repeating these words (“I just can’t eat anymore!”), as Jordanians like to feed their guests. By the time I’d uttered these words the umpteenth time I had stuck my fork into dozens of mezze dishes, Jordan’s national dish, mansaf, and many main courses.
There is much more to Jordan than its culinary offerings, of course. Start your trip in the capital of Amman, where one day allows sufficient time to see the sights. I spent the morning exploring the ruins of Amman Citadel, where the Temple of Hercules gazes over this sandstone urban sprawl. A vast open-air museum, extending 7,000 years in time, the Amman Citadel is also the site of the Jordan Archaeological Museum and one of the oldest continually inhabited places in the world.
Once you’ve taken in the view from the Citadel, wander through Downtown Amman’s local market. Loud, boisterous and with a tempting scent of coffee and cardamom in the air, it is where locals come to stock up on their fruit, vegetables, herbs and spices. This is a good spot to pick up a selection of spices, such as cardamom, sumac and cumin to take home.
For a more peaceful side of Amman, head to leafy Rainbow Street. First stop is Sufra Restaurant for lunch, favoured by the Jordanian Royal family. This was my first experience of the popular mint lemon drink, served over crushed ice. Incredibly refreshing, I drank it at least once a day while in Jordan. After a mix of hot and cold mezze, including the incredible hummus dish topped with chunky pieces of lamb and the eggplant with tahini sauce, I rounded my lunch off with a delicious main course of kufta; lamb with tahini sauce topped with potato.
After a lengthy lunch I strolled down Rainbow Street. Enticed by the lemon trees surrounding the courtyard, I stumbled upon the Jordan River Foundation, a non-profit, non-governmental organisation established to empower local communities by selling their wares in the gift and craft shop. From colourful embroidered pillows and rugs to coasters and candles, none of which would look out of place in The Conran Shop, I was swept away in shopping heaven and left with a candle, an artisan soap and a good price for a rug—definitely worth stopping by for souvenirs and keepsakes.
That afternoon I made it my mission to stop by Zumot Winery’s Amman tasting room, where I met owner and winemaker Omar Zumot. Jordan produces some brilliant wines, notably, Zumot’s Saint George selection, which has vineyards in the north of Jordan. “The most well-protected vineyards in the world,” Omar jokes, as he tells me how the vineyards are patrolled by the Jordanian Army because of their position on the border with Syria. With a unique approach to winemaking, Omar is a true pioneer. From its blending process to pest control, which is 100 per cent organic—not that he casually tosses the word ‘organic’ around, using it as some kind of marketing tool. The Pinot Noir is the one to take home with you, although with an excellent selection of red and white, you’ll be spoilt for choice.
When it comes to lodgings, there is a cluster of five star hotels in Amman, however my recommendation is the reliably luxurious Four Seasons. I stayed in a Deluxe Suite, which has floor to ceiling city views and won extra brownie points thanks to the fresh selection of baklava waiting for me upon arrival. The hotel is one of the most well-appointed in the city for its dining options, with executive chef Chuck Kazmer overseeing Olea, Asia, Vivace, The Square Bar, The Foyer Lounge and FIVE Grill & Lounge.
As well as sampling Jordanian specialties in Olea, I tried the traditional Arabic breakfast in The Foyer Lounge, which is well worth it—just make sure you’re prepared by
wearing an expandable waistband for this one. After a hearty breakfast in Amman, make the three-hour drive south to Petra.
Dodge the donkeys and camels and walk off the mezze by exploring this wondrous place on foot. It’s possible to put in 10km if you do the entire stretch. And no matter how many times you’ve watched Indiana Jones And The Last Crusade, the approach to Petra’s most admired ruin, The Treasury, is no less spectacular. Reaching The
Treasury via the Siq—the gorge-like passage leading to that most iconic rock face—renders one almost breathless as it comes into view. The other sites of this UNESCO World Heritage Site include the Theater, Obelisks Tomb, The Urn Tomb (The Court) and The Garden Temple. It is worth hiring a guide to walk and talk you through
the ruins, to reveal the history behind each nook and cranny of this 3,000-year-old city.
I spent the night at the gates of Petra at the conveniently placed five star Mövenpick Resort Petra, which is just yards from the entrance and, appetite regained, I ate at a beautiful local restaurant, Al Qantarah, that evening. After the usual round of mezze, we were presented with a dish known as ‘zarb’. An edible Bedouin treasure, zarb is a cooking technique with dramatic results. Lamb or chicken is slowcooked for several hours in a pot in the oven. Traditionally, the meat is buried in a clay oven with hot coals beneath the sand of the desert. Meat, onions and garlic are wrapped in foil and, several hours later, when it’s time to unearth them, the pot is smashed open. The result is incredibly tender fall-off-the-bone meat.
To visit Petra by day is magical, however, at night, lit by 1,800 candles, it’s out-of-this-world! Time permitting, take the trip back to see this historical site once more before bedtime. Before leaving Petra and moving on to the Wadi Rum desert, the owner of Al Qantarah restaurant invited us into his home to experience mansaf. A dish made of rice, lamb and rehydrated yoghurt, with a scattering of cashew nuts, mansaf symbolises the deeprooted hospitality culture of Jordan like no other. Served on a large platter, with flatbread, guests sit around the food and tuck in. It gets messy, but then that’s part of the fun.
After lunch we headed further south to Captain’s Desert Camp, a Bedouin-style base in the Wadi Rum desert. Take a jeep safari followed by a camel ride for a real Lawrence of Arabia experience and savour the red landscape as you trek through the desert.
The desert can be exceptionally cold during the winter months, so I stayed in the Red Sea resort of Aqaba that evening, in the five star Kempinski hotel, just a 30-minute drive South of the desert. Arriving in my room—I first assumed it was a suite due to its large and luxurious feel—I instantly dropped my bag and headed for the balcony to
take in that view. It’s possible to see the glistening lights of Taba, Egypt and Eilat, Israel, as they all share the shores of the Red Sea.
Aqaba provides an opportunity to take a break from lamb and tuck into some of the region’s fresh seafood and shellfish, such as red snapper, calamari and shrimp at Captain’s Camp, the Aqaba outpost of Captain’s Desert Camp. The next morning, taking the desert road north, we headed to our final stop—the Dead Sea. If you can only squeeze in one of Jordan’s sea resorts during your trip, I’d recommend the Dead Sea. From the hilarity of watching tourists trying to float on their backs while reading a
book in the sea to the therapeutic benefits of the water and mud, the Dead Sea offers a relaxing counterbalance to Petra and the desert’s activities.
At 400m below sea level—the lowest place on earth—the Dead Sea is also the saltiest, which means there’s no chance of you sinking here. Just remember to keep your eyes out of the water—they’ll sting like crazy if you don’t. Do, however, cover yourself in mud and wallow like a hippopotamus in the salty water. It’s a lot of fun and a memorable experience. Stay at the Kempinski Hotel Ishtar Dead Sea, where the resort is so big it’s essential to take a golf buggy to get around! The neighbouring Crowne Plaza Dead Sea Resort & Spa has a fabulous Lebanese restaurant, Burj Al Hamam, while Kempinski Hotel Ishtar has the choice of four international restaurants and is blissfully relaxing thanks to its luxurious spa by Anantara, infinity, plunge, ‘Lazy River’ and sunken pools.
On my return flight home, as the Royal Jordanian air steward wheeled the drinks trolley down the aisle, I caught a glimpse of Zumot Winery’s Saint George Sauvignon Blanc. A smile grew over my face as I remembered the two bottles—a Pinot Noir and a Cabernet Sauvignon—stowed in my suitcase, ready to be savoured back in Blightly.
Four Seasons Amman | fourseasons.com
Jordan River Foundation | jordanriver.jo
Saint George Winery | zumot-wines.com
Visit Petra | visitpetra.jo
Mövenpick Petra | moevenpick-hotels.com
Al Qantarah restaurant | al-qantarah.com
Captain’s Desert Camp | captains-jo.com
Kempinski Hotels & Resorts | kempinski.com
Burj Al Hamam, Crowne Plaza Dead Sea Resort & Spa | ihg.com/crowneplaza
Royal Jordanian | rj.com
Jordan Tourism Board | visitjordan.com