Heart of the Levant

13 Sep 2017
5 min read
Jordan is well known for its historical landmarks, natural wonders and a population who take hospitality to a whole new level, writes Kerry Spencer in FOUR’s Travel supplement…

“But you haven’t tried everything,” said Omar, the Four Seasons’ foyerlounge manager.“I have,” I protest. “I’ve tried every dish. They were all delicious, I justcan’t eat anymore!” It was 9am in Amman, Jordan, and I had just inhaleda large round of morning mezze, three freshly baked flatbreads and tworounds of Turkish coffee.

If you ever embark on a trip to Jordan—and you most definitely should—get used torepeating 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 ofmezze 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 inthe capital of Amman, where one day allows sufficient time to see the sights. I spent themorning exploring the ruins of Amman Citadel, where the Temple of Hercules gazes overthis 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 theoldest continually inhabited places in the world.

Once you’ve taken in the view from the Citadel, wander through Downtown Amman’slocal market. Loud, boisterous and with a tempting scent of coffee and cardamom in theair, it is where locals come to stock up on their fruit, vegetables, herbs and spices. Thisis a good spot to pick up a selection of spices, such as cardamom, sumac and cuminto take home.

For a more peaceful side of Amman, head to leafy Rainbow Street. First stop is SufraRestaurant for lunch, favoured by the Jordanian Royal family. This was my first experienceof the popular mint lemon drink, served over crushed ice. Incredibly refreshing, I drankit at least once a day while in Jordan. After a mix of hot and cold mezze, including theincredible hummus dish topped with chunky pieces of lamb and the eggplant with tahinisauce, I rounded my lunch off with a delicious main course of kufta; lamb with tahini saucetopped with potato.

After a lengthy lunch I strolled down Rainbow Street. Enticed by the lemon treessurrounding the courtyard, I stumbled upon the Jordan River Foundation, a non-profit,non-governmental organisation established to empower local communities by selling theirwares in the gift and craft shop. From colourful embroidered pillows and rugs to coastersand candles, none of which would look out of place in The Conran Shop, I was sweptaway in shopping heaven and left with a candle, an artisan soap and a good price for arug—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. “Themost well-protected vineyards in the world,” Omar jokes, as he tells me how the vineyardsare 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 blendingprocess to pest control, which is 100 per cent organic—not that he casually tosses theword ‘organic’ around, using it as some kind of marketing tool. The Pinot Noir is the oneto take home with you, although with an excellent selection of red and white, you’ll bespoilt for choice.

When it comes to lodgings, there is a cluster of five star hotels in Amman, however myrecommendation is the reliably luxurious Four Seasons. I stayed in a Deluxe Suite, whichhas floor to ceiling city views and won extra brownie points thanks to the fresh selection ofbaklava waiting for me upon arrival. The hotel is one of the most well-appointed in the cityfor its dining options, with executive chef Chuck Kazmer overseeing Olea, Asia, Vivace, TheSquare Bar, The Foyer Lounge and FIVE Grill & Lounge.

As well as sampling Jordanianspecialties in Olea, I tried the traditional Arabicbreakfast in The Foyer Lounge, which is wellworth it—just make sure you’re prepared by
wearing an expandable waistband for this one.After a hearty breakfast in Amman, make thethree-hour drive south to Petra.

Dodge the donkeys and camels and walk offthe mezze by exploring this wondrous place onfoot. It’s possible to put in 10km if you do the entirestretch. And no matter how many times you’vewatched Indiana Jones And The Last Crusade,the approach to Petra’s most admired ruin, TheTreasury, is no less spectacular. Reaching The
Treasury via the Siq—the gorge-like passageleading to that most iconic rock face—rendersone almost breathless as it comes into view. Theother sites of this UNESCO World Heritage Siteinclude the Theater, Obelisks Tomb, The UrnTomb (The Court) and The Garden Temple. It isworth hiring a guide to walk and talk you through
the ruins, to reveal the history behind each nookand cranny of this 3,000-year-old city.

I spent the night at the gates of Petra at theconveniently placed five star Mövenpick ResortPetra, which is just yards from the entranceand, appetite regained, I ate at a beautiful localrestaurant, Al Qantarah, that evening. Afterthe usual round of mezze, we were presentedwith a dish known as ‘zarb’. An edible Bedouintreasure, zarb is a cooking technique withdramatic results. Lamb or chicken is slowcookedfor several hours in a pot in the oven.Traditionally, the meat is buried in a clay ovenwith 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 unearththem, the pot is smashed open. The result isincredibly tender fall-off-the-bone meat.

To visit Petra by day is magical, however, atnight, lit by 1,800 candles, it’s out-of-this-world!Time permitting, take the trip back to see thishistorical site once more before bedtime.Before leaving Petra and moving on to theWadi Rum desert, the owner of Al Qantarahrestaurant invited us into his home toexperience mansaf. A dish made of rice, lamband rehydrated yoghurt, with a scattering ofcashew nuts, mansaf symbolises the deeprootedhospitality culture of Jordan like no other.Served on a large platter, with flatbread, guestssit around the food and tuck in. It gets messy,but then that’s part of the fun.

After lunch we headed further south toCaptain’s Desert Camp, a Bedouin-style basein the Wadi Rum desert. Take a jeep safarifollowed by a camel ride for a real Lawrenceof Arabia experience and savour the redlandscape as you trek through the desert.

The desert can be exceptionally cold during thewinter months, so I stayed in the Red Sea resortof Aqaba that evening, in the five star Kempinskihotel, just a 30-minute drive South of the desert.Arriving in my room—I first assumed it was asuite due to its large and luxurious feel—I instantlydropped my bag and headed for the balcony to
take in that view. It’s possible to see the glisteninglights of Taba, Egypt and Eilat, Israel, as they allshare the shores of the Red Sea.

Aqaba provides an opportunity to take a breakfrom lamb and tuck into some of the region’sfresh seafood and shellfish, such as red snapper,calamari and shrimp at Captain’s Camp, theAqaba outpost of Captain’s Desert Camp.The next morning, taking the desert roadnorth, we headed to our final stop—the DeadSea. If you can only squeeze in one of Jordan’ssea resorts during your trip, I’d recommend theDead Sea. From the hilarity of watching touriststrying to float on their backs while reading a
book in the sea to the therapeutic benefitsof the water and mud, the Dead Sea offersa relaxing counterbalance to Petra and thedesert’s activities.

At 400m below sea level—the lowest placeon earth—the Dead Sea is also the saltiest,which means there’s no chance of you sinkinghere. Just remember to keep your eyes out ofthe water—they’ll sting like crazy if you don’t.Do, however, cover yourself in mud and wallowlike a hippopotamus in the salty water. It’s a lotof fun and a memorable experience. Stay atthe Kempinski Hotel Ishtar Dead Sea, wherethe resort is so big it’s essential to take a golfbuggy to get around! The neighbouring CrownePlaza Dead Sea Resort & Spa has a fabulousLebanese restaurant, Burj Al Hamam, whileKempinski Hotel Ishtar has the choice of fourinternational restaurants and is blissfully relaxingthanks to its luxurious spa by Anantara, infinity,plunge, ‘Lazy River’ and sunken pools.

On my return flight home, as the RoyalJordanian air steward wheeled the drinks trolleydown the aisle, I caught a glimpse of ZumotWinery’s Saint George Sauvignon Blanc. Asmile grew over my face as I rememberedthe two bottles—a Pinot Noir and a CabernetSauvignon—stowed in my suitcase, ready to besavoured back in Blightly.


Little Black Book

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, CrownePlaza Dead Sea Resort & Spa |ihg.com/crowneplaza

Royal Jordanian |rj.com

Jordan Tourism Board |visitjordan.com