With its warm waters, clear visibility and technicolour coral gardens, Aqaba has all the things that diving in the Red Sea is famous for, but without the crowds that can be an issue in Eilat and Egyptian resorts. Sure, its coastline is relatively short but it packs quite the punch – 25 sites, most inside a protected marine park and offering shallow coral gardens, pinnacles, deep canyons and shipwrecks.
The wreck diving is arguably the best on offer in the Red Sea. The sea bed is home to unusual wrecks, including tanks, the most famous being the 75-metre Cedar Pride, a cargo ship scuttled in the 1980s, that you can snorkel above in the company of dolphins and colourful tropical fish.
For a real treat, check out the dive sites around Pharaoh’s Island, home to outstanding coral blooms and a famously incandescent underwater mountain nicknamed Picasso Reef.
In Aqaba you have the unique opportunity to be diving in colourful coral gardens in the morning and then wandering through centuries-old Nabatean wonders in the afternoon. Just 90 minutes to the north is one of the world's most iconic wonders, the ancient pink stone ruins of Petra, Jordan’s most precious treasure.
If never ending desert landscapes and windswept rock formations are more your thing, Jordan’s famous Wadi Rum is even closer. The ethereal landscapes here provided the stunning backdrop to the Oscar-winning movie, Lawrence of Arabia. In real life, T.E. Lawrence was an important adviser to the leaders of Arab Revolt during the Battle of Aqaba in 1917.
A short walk from Aqaba’s busy waterfront, with its dive shops and dive boats and bustling restaurants, the city’s old town offers an intoxicating dose of old Arabia. At its heart is the souq, a warren of covered stalls, handicraft stores and traditional cafes.
It is here you will also find the crumbling remains of the atmospheric Mamluk fort, built in the 14th century and the excellent Aqaba Archeological Museum. After you sightseeing is done, take the time to enjoy a local brew at the Al Firdous Café. As you sit amongst men in kaffiyehs smoking, sipping and gossiping, it is very easy to imagine what Aqaba was like hundreds of years ago.
Jordan sits at the crossroads of the Levant and the ebb and flow of cultures that is seen in its architecture and heritage is also reflected in its fabulous cuisine. It is delicious and diverse, a vibrant mix of Bedouin flavours and local takes on the region's most iconic dishes.
Again, it is in the old town that you will find the best examples of Jordan’s culinary treasures. Locals head to the area around Raghadan and Zahran streets, where old school restaurants serve mouthwatering mansaf, zarb and the best hommous you’ve ever tasted. Syrian Palace on Raghadan Street is famous for its finely minced kebab. Nearby Al Tarboosh is the place to go for the local sugar-hit of baklava.
Make sure you try the local specialty, sayadieh. Made of freshly caught grouper, cooked in a special sauce of caramelised onions, spices, nuts and herbs. There is much debate on who makes the best sayadieh in Aqaba, of course, but Captain’s on An-Nahdah Street gets the nod from most locals.
It hasn’t just been conquering civilisations that have enjoyed a stopover in Aqaba. Its shores are an important layover for the great bird migrations between Africa, Asia and Europe as well. Indeed, it is here that you will find the greatest concentration of white-eyed gulls in the world.
The best place to watch birds on your visit is the bird sanctuary, in Al-Salam forest, out towards the border with Israel. Run by the Royal Society for the Conservation of Nature, this artificially created wetland has a 1.5km walking trail leading around a cluster of lakes that is thick with ducks and waders, particularly in winter.