Jordan’s beach resort of AQABA (say it “acka-buh”) glories in an idyllic, sunny setting on the shores of the Red Sea, at the country’s southernmost tip. From something of a dowdy backwater, in the last decade or so Aqaba has transformed itself into a pleasant, if still under-resourced, leisure destination. Hotels at all grades are springing up in the town as well as at luxury waterfront developments up and down the coast; investment is coming in to improve the city’s infrastructure and facilities; and charter flights direct into Aqaba’s international airport are enabling holidaymakers to bypass Amman and the north of the country altogether. Some of the best diving and snorkelling in the world is centred on the unspoiled coral reefs that hug the coast just south of the town – an engaging contrast with the nearby desert attractions of Petra and Wadi Rum.
The city centre forms a dense network of streets and alleys clustered just behind the beach road (called the “Corniche”). Aside from shopping and promenading after dark, sights are limited to a Mamluke fort and some scanty archeological remains. You’re likely to have more fun in the water – hotel pool, Red Sea or both.
What to expect
Despite package tourists (many from Scandinavia and Eastern Europe) flip-flopping through the streets in shorts or bikinis, Aqaba’s proximity to – and cultural links with – Saudi Arabia make this actually one of the more socially conservative urban centres in Jordan. Historically neither a trading port nor a commercial hub, Aqaba was only ever significant as a stopping-off point for pilgrims travelling to and from Mecca: if you’ve come expecting a pacy, cosmopolitan mini-Dubai, you’ll be disappointed. The contradictions between deep-set tradition, big business and mass tourism are giving Aqaba plenty to chew on.
There’s now a year-round high season. Jordan’s standard peaks (March–May & Sept–Nov) are supplemented by European tourists seeking Aqaba’s winter sun (Dec–Feb). Summer (June–Aug) is the main Saudi and Gulf holiday season, and also when Europeans come to sizzle on the beaches. The hajj pilgrimage – currently in September and/or October – is an added complication, with thousands of Egyptian and North African pilgrims stopping off in Aqaba on their way home. And holiday weekends can see Aqaba booked solid with domestic tourists, as Ammanis and others head for a short break by the seaside.
Another factor to reckon with is the extreme heat and humidity. During the four mild months around Christmas, a few days in Aqaba can pleasantly warm the chill of Amman from your bones (not for nothing does King Abdullah keep a winter residence here), but for the rest of the year, daytime temperatures damply soar. The four months of summer can be stifling, with July and August’s fifty-degree days and thirty-degree nights too much to bear.
The presence of freshwater springs rising just below Aqaba’s beaches has ensured almost continuous habitation of this bit of shore for thousands of years, though names have changed many times – from Biblical Elot to Aela, Ailana or Aila during the Roman and Islamic periods. The Arabic word aqaba means “alley”, and is a shortening of “Aqabat Aila”, referring to the narrow Wadi Yitm pass that was formerly the only route into the town through the mountains to the north.
The Biblical era
One of the earliest references to a settlement here comes in the Old Testament (I Kings): King Solomon built a large port at Ezion Geber “beside Elot on the shore of the Red Sea” both for trade and also to house his new navy. During the 1930s, excavations at Tell al-Khaleifeh, a little west of Aqaba, seemed to indicate occupation around the time of Solomon, but archeologists – hampered by construction of the modern Jordanian–Israeli border fence – later pinpointed occupation to have begun during the eighth century BC, much later than Solomon. Ongoing investigation is suspended while the tell lies in a militarily restricted zone, but nonetheless the real Ezion Geber must have been close by.
The Nabateans controlled a series of ports from Aqaba all down the eastern Gulf coast. Aqaba’s fresh water also ensured that the town became a caravan stop for merchants arriving from Arabia, with routes leading north to Petra and Syria, northwest to the Mediterranean coast at Gaza and west across the Sinai desert into Egypt. A highway constructed by the Roman Emperor Trajan in 111–14 AD led to Aqaba from his provincial capital at Bosra (Syria). Recent excavations beneath the beach revealed the world’s oldest purpose-built church, dated to around 300 AD.
The Crusaders and after
During the Byzantine period Aqaba was the seat of a bishopric, and the town was the first prize to fall to the Muslims on their military advance northwards out of Arabia in 630. It flourished throughout the early Islamic period, hosting a theological seminary. By the tenth century, Aqaba was an important stop on the pilgrimage route to Mecca.
On their push into Transjordan after 1115, the Crusaders – led by Baldwin of Jerusalem – seized the town and built a castle, although no trace of it survives. In response, the Muslim resistance fortified a small offshore island, known to the Crusaders as the Île de Graye (today dubbed Pharaoh’s Island), and within a century Salah ad-Din had retaken Aqaba on a campaign which eventually led to Jerusalem.
A small Mamluke fort on the shore was rebuilt in the early sixteenth century, just before the Ottoman seizure of power. For three hundred years, Aqaba became again an important caravan stop, but the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869 dealt a death blow. For the first time, seaborne trade around the region, and between Europe and Asia, became an economically viable alternative to the camel caravans. Equally, making the pilgrimage to the Holy Places by sea through Suez was infinitely preferable to the arduous journey through the desert via Aqaba. The town’s fortunes rapidly declined, and during the 1917 Arab Revolt, the forces of Faisal and Lawrence were able to surprise the small Ottoman garrison by approaching through the desert from the north. With all defensive artillery directed towards the sea, Aqaba fell with barely a skirmish.
Ironically, when David Lean arrived in 1962 to stage the same incident for Lawrence of Arabia, he thought Aqaba looked wrong – and so departed to film the sequence in southern Spain instead.
Into the 21st century
The sleepy fishing village was only dragged into modernity following a 1965 readjustment of the international border: Saudi Arabia got a patch of interior desert in exchange for Jordan’s gaining an extra few kilometres of coastline and coral reef south of Aqaba. This made room for construction of full-size port facilities, and since then Aqaba has seen a resurgence in overland trade, although the camel caravans of antiquity have been replaced by a continuous stream of juggernauts: Aqaba port is the sole outlet for Jordan’s principal export, phosphates, as well as the transit point for goods trucked to and from Iraq.
For years Aqaba was overshadowed by its huge Israeli neighbour Eilat, founded in 1949 and clearly visible sprawling around the opposite shore of the Gulf of Aqaba. With the recent shift in priorities away from industry towards beach tourism, the endearingly run-down Aqaba of old is being unceremoniously shouldered aside – and its long-standing fishing industry has been reduced to just a hundred individuals. In tourism terms, what levelled the playing field was the establishment in 2000 of the Aqaba Special Economic Zone (ASEZ; w aqabazone.com), which covers the city and its surrounds. Set up with tax breaks for business and lowered customs duties, it has had a good deal of success, driving growth and spurring innovation, not least with the founding in 2008 of the Spielberg-backed Red Sea Institute of Cinematic Arts (w rsica.edu.jo), training students from across the region in acting, cinematography and direction. Aqaba is thinking big.Read More
Wadi Rum tours from Aqaba
Wadi Rum tours from Aqaba
Tours to Wadi Rum are advertised at one-man-band tour “companies” and budget hotels all over Aqaba – if you express interest, they’ll dig out a photo album of their adventures, plus glowing testimonials from happy customers, to try to convince you to book. If all you want is to be driven out to a campsite somewhere in the desert near Rum, have dinner and be brought back to Aqaba in the morning – often in the company of “guides” who may not be Jordanian and/or speak little or no English – then these jaunts are great value, at JD20–25 per person. But in truth they’re nothing like the real McCoy. And horror stories abound; one favourite ploy (apart from money upfront and tips, of course) is to demand more cash once you’re at the campsite. Refuse, and your “guide” may threaten to abandon you in the desert unless you cough up.
On the whole, you’re better off talking to a proper tour company (see Adventure tours and trekking). In Aqaba, reliable firms include Above and Below (t 03 201 3735, w aboveandbelow.info), located on As-Saada Street, and Captains (t 03 206 0710, w captains.jo), at the Captain’s Hotel.
With tax breaks stimulating international investment into Aqaba, the range of development projects in and around the city is dizzying. In recent years, the entire city centre has been revamped, with new street furniture, public art and extensive replanting of palm trees (after the palm groves that used to line Aqaba’s shore had all sadly been uprooted by previous, less visionary city authorities). New shopping malls have gone up, large numbers of hotels have opened or are due to open and extensive residential suburbs are being built to cater for the city’s ballooning population.
Tala Bay (w talabay.jo), a wedge of luxury apartments, hotels and restaurants around a marina and sandy beach 15km south of Aqaba city centre, is already open. However, the global economic crisis has hit hard: at the time of writing work was stop-start on the Saraya development (w sarayaaqaba.com), taking in villas, apartments, hotels, water parks and beach facilities, and the adjacent Ayla Oasis (w aylaoasis.com), featuring a leisure complex around a large inland lagoon. Meanwhile, work continues on Marsa Zayed (w marsazayed.org), a $12 billion Abu Dhabi-funded ten-year scheme to rebuild an entire chunk of the city centre by moving the industrial port 20km south to the Saudi border, replacing it with skyscrapers and marinas stretching along 2km of what will become prime urban waterfront.
One scheme takes the biscuit: the Red Sea Astrarium (w rubiconholding.com), a $1.5 billion themed entertainment resort, is planned for the mountains above Aqaba, offering luxury hotels, shows, shopping and dining alongside an immersive space-flight entertainment adventure in the headlining Star Trek zone. King Abdullah is known to be a Trekkie, and in 1995 appeared as an extra in the Star Trek: Voyager TV show (searchable on YouTube). All very bold, but the worry is that Aqaba is trying to run before it can walk.
Beaches, watersports and excursions
Beaches, watersports and excursions
If you’re staying at a hotel that does not have its own beach, ask at reception whether any deals are in place to allow guests beach access. Otherwise, all the five-star beach hotels will admit non-guests – though for a hefty fee (anything from JD20 to JD50) and at busy times they may turn you away.
South beach area
Other than at big hotels, the best and cleanest beaches are at the South Beach zone, beginning around 8km south of town. As this book went to press, Berenice Beach (w sindbadjo.com) was about to open – a family-friendly mini-resort complex of pools, café-restaurants and beach access. Admission is likely to be around JD10. Nearby are the more specifically tourist-focused beach resorts Club Murjan (w aqabadivingseastar.com) – priced similarly – and Royal Diving Club (w coralbay.jo), priced a little higher. All these operate shuttle buses to and from the town centre, generally free, though the RDC charges JD2. There is also a broad stretch of poorly maintained public beach here – but facilities are few and women may be the focus of unwanted attention.
All the big hotels, beach clubs and dive centres offer a range of watersports. Prices and options vary, but expect speedboat trips, waterskiing, banana/inner-tube rides, jetskiing, canoeing, windsurfing, parasailing and more. Many of the hotels work with the local Sindbad company (t 03 205 0077 or t 079 555 6076, w sindbadjo.com), so you could check prices and offers with them directly.
A number of operators (including Sindbad) feature cruises – many run only for groups, but there are also regular scheduled trips each week that are bookable by individuals. Prices are around JD25–30/person for a four-hour lunchtime cruise, including a meal on the yacht plus snorkelling, or JD15/person for a ninety-minute sunset cruise. Many firms also rent out sailing yachts and motor yachts for private excursions or fishing trips. Check online or with the tourist office for full details.
A popular budget option is a quick trip in a glass-bottomed boat, which has a viewing window to see below the surface. Dozens chug around the public beaches sharking for customers, though many are rather dilapidated: plans are in train to clean them up and organize the business. A trip in one of these simple craft should cost around JD10–15/hr for a full boat. (Note that some disreputable boat captains will dive down and snap off bits of coral to hand to their oohing-and-aahing clients. This is not only illegal but also kills the reef. If it happens, refuse to pay for the trip and report the incident to the tourist office.) A more upmarket alternative is to go with a glass-bottomed boat trip through a big hotel (or Sindbad again): a comfortable four-hour trip, including snorkelling kit and refreshments on board, costs about JD30/person – or you could splash out on a submarine adventure on the Neptune (w aqababoat.com), which operates out of Tala Bay.
Perhaps the best day-voyage is to Pharaoh’s Island, a rocky islet in Egyptian waters about 17km southwest of Aqaba (and 250m off the Egyptian coast). In the twelfth century, to counter a castle at Aqaba built by the Crusaders (now lost), Salah ad-Din’s Muslim resistance fortified this barren islet, dubbed by the Crusaders the Île de Graye. The castle’s towers and passageways have been restored, but the main reason for coming is to dive or snorkel in the maze of reefs off the northeastern tip of the island.
The only way to reach Pharaoh’s Island is on one of the organized tours that run whenever there’s sufficient demand. Just about any hotel or dive centre can take a booking; expect to pay JD40–45/person, which includes everything, including lunch on board. Departure is around 8.30am, and you’re back in Aqaba by 4.30pm. You must book at least one day ahead, and leave your passport: the operator has to organize a temporary Egyptian visa. It’s not possible to cross from the island to the Egyptian mainland.
Diving and snorkelling at Aqaba
Diving and snorkelling at Aqaba
Some of the world’s best diving and snorkelling is packed along the 20km or so of coastline between Aqaba and the Saudi border. If you’ve never been snorkelling before Aqaba is an easier, and more instantly attractive, place to start than nearby Eilat (Israel) or Sharm el-Sheikh (Egypt), with the reef shelving gently directly from the beach, cutting out the need for boat entries. Diving beginners can go down accompanied by an instructor at any of more than a dozen dive sites.
The major advantages of diving here are the condition of the coral, especially below the 6m line, and the excellent biodiversity. Aqaba was a relatively slow and careful starter in dive tourism, and so has managed to avoid severe deterioration of the reefs. It’s also quiet: compared to the Sinai’s two million annual dives, and Eilat’s 750,000, Aqaba sees fewer than 20,000 dives a year. Work by local environmental NGOs – principally the Royal Marine Conservation Society (w jreds.org) – is raising awareness of conservation issues. Almost 9km of Aqaba’s south coast is protected as the Aqaba Marine Park, which extends 350m offshore and 50m inland.
With the impending demolition of the town-centre port, and construction of a new industrial port complex beside the Saudi border, expect major changes to dive sites and access in years to come.
What to expect
Wherever you choose to dive or snorkel, wide fields of near-perfect soft corals stretch off into the startlingly clear blue water, huge heads of stony corals growing literally as big as a house. Fish life is also thrillingly diverse, with endless species of small and large multicoloured swimmers goggling back at you from all sides. Butterflyfish, angelfish, parrotfish and groupers are all common, as are shoals of damselfish, jewelfish and even moray eels. Experienced divers should not miss the chance to go down at night. All the dive centres listed below offer one-off dives, boat dives, PADI courses and more. Small groups could book ahead for a trip in a fancier craft, such as the submarine boat Neptune (w aqababoat.com) or the wooden Phoenician-style vessel Alissar (w c-guard.net).
It can be dangerous to fly, or climb to altitude, soon after diving. If you’re driving from Aqaba (at sea level) up to Wadi Rum (at 950m), Petra (1100m) or Amman (800m), allow eight hours on land in Aqaba after diving to let your body adjust. The sea-level drive to the Dead Sea is fine. If you’re flying out of Aqaba, give yourself at least eighteen hours on land before departure.
Aqaba’s South Coast hosts more than a dozen dive sites, although, confusingly, different dive centres use different names, and sometimes divide one site into two or more areas (Dive Aqaba, for instance, lists more than thirty sites, including several technical dives in deep water). Always consult a dive centre in advance about the latest conditions; the account below – which runs from north to south – is not meant to be exhaustive.
Just south of the Marine Science Station’s fenced-off area is First Bay, with the popular Cazar Reef directly offshore from Club Murjan beach beside the gently sloping Eel Garden. South is the King Abdullah Reef, which extends for several hundred metres offshore and is good for snorkelling as well as diving; close by is the steeply sloping Black Rock, with a wide variety of massive hard corals and the added attraction of occasional turtle sightings.
About 4km north of the Royal Diving Club and barely 50m from the shore lies the wreck of the Cedar Pride, a Lebanese cargo ship sunk here in 1986 as an artificial reef. Lying in 30m of water, it’s now covered in soft corals. Very close by is the gently undulating Japanese Gardens, colourful and good for snorkellers.
A little further south are the unmissable Gorgonion I and II, the reef gently inclining down to 30m or so with spectacular fish life and perfectly preserved coral growth of all kinds stretching off to all sides. The Canyon has a shallow slope leading off for several hundred metres to a drop-off plunging over 45m, the whole slope split from the shallows outwards by a steep-sided ravine; its neighbour, the New Canyon, hosts an old field tank, sunk here to create a barrier to encourage reef growth. Blue Coral, named for a bluish lacework coral found here, is a little south.
Just north of a fenced-off nature reserve, Moon Valley offers an undulating reef framed by sandy beds, and is also the entry point for the Long Swim, taking divers or experienced snorkellers 700m south beyond the reserve fence to the Royal Diving Club jetty, past patches of dense coral interspersed with sandy valleys. From the jetty itself, the Aquarium (to the north) and the Garden (to the south) are both superb for divers and novice snorkellers alike.
Coral reefs are formed of millions of individual creatures called polyps, which come together to create a single, compound organism. The various species of polyp produce hard external skeletons, which remain intact after the polyp dies; sand and other detritus fills up holes and cracks, and the reef is built up little by little, with new corals growing on the surface of the stony mass. Some coral colonies are several centuries old. To avoid damaging the reefs:
- Never stand on the coral – any kind of pressure can damage or kill the outermost polyps. If you opt for a boat dive, make certain that the captain ties up to one of the mooring buoys already in place all round Aqaba, and doesn’t just drop anchor onto the reef. If he claims that his selected site has no buoy, then insist that you be taken instead to a site that does have one.
- Don’t enter the sea from the beach – the reef begins directly from the shallows. Instead, use jetties or boat entries.
- Never break the coral – snapping off a particularly colourful bit of coral not only kills that section of the reef, it’s also pointless: after a few days out of water, all coral turns grey.
- Avoid kicking up sand – clouds of grit settling on the reef can smother the outermost polyps.
- Don’t litter, feed the fish or buy marine souvenirs, such as corals, shells or starfish.
Independent dive centres
Aqaba has at least a dozen dive centres – more, if you include the dive operations attached to the big hotels. The tourist office can supply a full list and contact information; this is a selection of the better-known ones.
Aqaba Adventure Divers
12km south of town t 03 201 9060 or t 079 584 3724, w aqaba-diving.com. Small, flexible team with a great reputation, also with its own beachside accommodation.
Barracuda Diving Club
15km south of town, by Tala Bay t 03 206 0501 or t 079 588 1170, w goaqabadive.com. A professional approach and long-standing local experience.
Town centre, Al-Saada Street opposite Captain’s restaurant t 03 201 8883 or t 079 660 0701, w diveaqaba.com. Leading centre that is known for its outstanding service and expertise from a knowledgeable Jordanian–British team.
International Arab Divers Village
12km south of town t 03 203 1808 or t 079 558 6277, w aqaba-divevillage.com. Friendly, well-respected operation, also with its own little hotel in the South Beach area.
Jordan Diving Center
Town centre, Rashid Street t 03 206 4005 or t 079 580 1100, w jordandivingcenter.com. A slick and innovative company, part of the local Sindbad group.
Red Sea Dive Center
12km south of town t 03 202 2323 or t 079 559 1310, w aqabascubadiving.com. Well-regarded family-run operation on South Beach, with onsite hotel to boot.
Royal Diving Club
17km south of town t 03 201 7035, w rdc.jo. Pioneer dive centre, revamped and still a market leader, located beside the reefs for snorkelling directly from their jetty.
Operating out of Royal Yacht Club t 079 502 7853, w c-guard.net. Welcoming, accomplished and well regarded operation with the personal touch.
Club Murjan, 10km south of town t 03 201 8335, w aqabadivingseastar.com. Long-established dive centre with professional local and British staff, which works closely with local tour company Above And Below (no longer linked with the Alcazar hotel).