Who hasn't watched Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade or Lawrence of Arabia and dreamed of following in the adventurers' wake – crossing vast desert canyons on camel-back or discovering ancient temples carved into sheer rock?
For such a small country, Jordan is jammed full of the mysterious places that time forgot. You can choose from exploring the Valley of the Moon on safari, desert camping under the stars, exploring ancient rock-hewn temples, visiting sacred religious sites, floating in the Dead Sea or diving among the Red Sea's reefs.
Jordan's must-see spots are so close together that it's easy to string together an adventurous itinerary travelling north to south or vice versa. Here's my pick of the best places to visit between the Red Sea resort of Aqaba, in the south, and the capital of Amman, in the north, to help you create your own adventure in Jordan.
The emerald city
Sheltered beneath the mountains of the Red Sea rift, I first caught site of the little Jordanian town of Aqaba at sunset. From across the valley, as the colour of the mountains shifted from yellow to red, pink and purple, the green lights of Aqaba's mosques blinked on one-by-one in the fading light. It felt as if I had come upon a magical emerald city dwarfed by the soaring, shadowy mountains and flanked by the biblical Red Sea.
But the stark beauty of Aqaba's setting is contrasted by the rich and dazzling display that awaited me below its azure shores. One of the main reasons to come here is to experience the northern Red Sea's underwater "Garden of Eden". Colourful coral reefs rim Aqaba's southern coastline and the 7km-long Aqaba Marine Park is accessible from the shore, where you can easily hire snorkelling gear or arrange a dive trip.
A multi-coloured sub-aquatic playground, the Japanese Garden dive site is a spectacular place to appreciate the beauty of the Red Sea's reefs. Its location close to the surface of the water means enough sunlight filters through to show off the reef's stunning spectrum of colours and it can be just as readily appreciated with a mask and snorkel as it can with scuba gear.
The Valley of the Moon
From Aqaba, the road climbs between crumbling sandstone escarpments before levelling out into sandy shrub-strewn plains. Around an hour's drive along the desert highway that links Aqaba to Amman, and 20km along a well-marked turn-off, Lawrence of Arabia's lunar-like landscape stretches out to the horizon. This area, known as Wadi Rum or "The Valley of the Moon", features the most stunning scenery in Jordan and was used as the backdrop for the Lawrence of Arabia biopic. Here you can trek across natural rock bridges, climb towering sand dunes, take a safari to see other-worldly rock formations and marvel at the ancient inscriptions carved into the rocks.
There are a variety of ways to explore the desert – by jeep, pick-up truck, camel or on foot – but the most authentic method is to join a camel caravan. You can simply pick up a guide on arrival at the visitor centre, but if you plan to stay overnight in the desert, then some of the camps offer different excursions too. Rum Stars is one good option offering a variety of ways to see the desert, as well as decent tents and wash facilities. The camp serves up tasty Bedouin food, often tender chicken fired beneath the sand, and wherever you go, you'll almost certainly be offering the ubiquitous sweet and minty Bedouin tea. As darkness falls, the desert reveals its hidden attraction as a velvety blanket of stars fills the sky. After exchanging stories and listening to a little local music around the camp fire, you can choose to sleep under canvas, or, like me, simply snuggle into a sleeping bag and drift off beneath the stars.
From Wadi Rum to one of the New Seven Wonders of the World, the next logical leg of my adventure was a tour of the improbable ancient city of Petra. I was beyond excited to finally make it to this UNESCO-listed archaeological site cut into the cliffs by the mysterious ancient Nabateans. Hidden within mountain passages and gorges, the "rose-red city" was once the Nabatean's illustrious capital but was lost to the world for a millennium before being rediscovered by Swiss explorer JL Burckhardt in 1812.
When I first visited Petra, I stayed in a nearby camp where they were showing Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. In the film, Petra features as the secret hiding place of the Holy Grail and watching it only heightened my sense of elation at visiting such a wondrous place. As the sun set, a crowd assembled at Petra's main entrance preparing for the candlelit vigil – my first eerie glimpse of the city would be by candlelight. As the light danced across the walls of the narrow Siq canyon, I was entirely bewitched by the experience, feeling the allure of the city calling me to it. But nothing could prepare me for the vision of Petra's much-photographed Treasury set into the towering cliffs and illuminated by thousands of candles. It was easily one of the most awe-inspiring moments in my Middle East travels and I couldn't wait to go back the next morning and explore the entire site in daylight.
The deepest point on earth
Following two days exploring the astonishing remains of the Nabatean's 6th-century BC capital, it was time for a little rest and relaxation. Fortunately, the next natural stop on my tour was a world-renowned natural spa destination – the Dead Sea – located in the deep rift valley between Jordan and Israel. At 400 metres below sea level, this inland sea is one of the lowest points on earth. Its shores are encrusted with crystals from the sea's high salt concentration that makes the water so buoyant you can literally bob around on the surface.
The curative properties of its mineral-rich waters and natural mud pools have been recognised for thousands of years and legend has it that King Herod used the area as a health resort. Visiting the Dead Sea is all about relaxation and rejuvenation, and after a few days luxuriating in mud baths, gently bobbing about in the water, and gazing out at the other-worldly scenery, I was fully recharged and ready for more life-affirming adventures.
The King's Highway
Winding along the side of the rift valley, the King's Highway has been a trade route between Egypt and Syria for an astonishing 5,000 years. The Nabateans of Petra, ancient Romans, Christian crusaders and Muslim pilgrims have all trodden this path over the centuries. Unsurprisingly for a road with so much history, following it takes you on a trip through time with plenty of majestic sites to see along the way. Joining the King's Highway from the Dead Sea, one of the first stop-offs is the crusader castle at Kerak. This imposing 12th-century fortification towers over the modern town and has an impressive history putting it at the frontline of battles between legendary Saladin and the knights of the crusades.
In fact, this whole region is heavily steeped in religious legend and has tight links to early Christianity. A short jaunt north from Kerak is Mount Nebo, where Moses is said to have viewed the "Promised Land" for the first time. Moses obviously had the right idea because from here the vistas stretch across the bare mountains, Dead Sea and rift valley as far as Jerusalem on a clear day. Aside from the immense biblical significance of the place, it's worthwhile coming here just to appreciate the breathtaking vistas and to take a peek at the 1,500-year-old Byzantine mosaics housed in the site's church, originally built in the 4th century.
The Mosaic Map
If you like mosaics, Madaba is a veritable "city of mosaics" further north along the King's Highway. As a big fan of maps, for me the prospect of seeing the legendary giant Madaba Mosaic Map was too good to miss. This extraordinary 6th-century chart of the Middle East is made up of more than two million pieces of vividly-coloured local stone depicting geographical features and places as far away as the Nile Delta. It's set into an area of floor the same size as a small swimming pool at the Greek Orthodox Church of St George, built over the original Byzantine church that contained the mosaic. Though parts of it are missing, it is richly illustrated with fortified cities, rivers, bridges, boats, animals and even palm trees and the closer you look, the more you will see.
From Madaba, it's just 30km along the highway to Amman, where most travellers leave the country via the city's international airport. But a short detour north to Jerash and you can discover yet another dimension to this time-capsule country. It's difficult to imagine that Europe's classical civilizations roamed this far east, but the impressive remains of the Graeco-Roman city of Jerash are clear evidence that they settled here too. It is sometimes called the "Pompeii of the East" because its countless columns and triumphal arches have remained largely upright and it's thought to be one of the best preserved Roman towns in the world. The vast oval forum is enclosed by an almost-intact colonnade, there are temples dedicated to the ancient Roman gods, baths, theatres, squares, fountains and paved colonnaded streets where you can walk in the footsteps of the ancients.
Want help choosing your own adventure? Tell the experts at The Holiday Place where you want to go and they will create an amazing itinerary for you. Alternatively, pick from a range of ready-made tours such as the excellent Jewels of Jordan tour that covers many of the places mentioned in this post.