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.