Port of Aqaba
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Aqaba may be on the precipice of rediscovery, but the city itself has long held intrigue. Located at the northern tip of the Red Sea and blessed with location, location, location, Aqaba was a prime port even in ancient times; its history dates back some 5,500 years.
It's history that makes Aqaba a much-anticipated stop on any Middle East cruise itinerary. The region's major attraction, Petra, is a 2,200-year-old city carved out of the surrounding cliffs. Despite its age, it was recently voted one of the New Seven Wonders of the World. The other key site is Wadi Rum, an extraordinary desert and mountain region made famous by T.E. Lawrence, who helped plan the Arab Revolt among the area's red rocks. The "Lawrence of Arabia" movie was also partly filmed here.
The one- to two-hour drives to Petra and Wadi Rum will take you past looming mountains and dusty expanses of desert -- the country is 85 percent desert, after all -- yet in Aqaba proper, it's all about the sea. In addition to its beaches, the city is blessed with clear waters and is a world-acclaimed destination for diving and snorkeling enthusiasts with some 30 dive sites -- one even created by a sunken Lebanese freighter. Many of the sites are located in Aqaba Marine Park, created as a joint venture with Israel to preserve this important marine environment.
Aqaba is very close to becoming an Arab version of Miami Beach -- the climate is similar (hot in summer and warm in winter), the tourists are coming and celebrities are moving in (Jordan's King Abdullah II has a vacation palace in Aqaba). And it's got the same international vibe -- from the center of town, the borders of Israel, Egypt's Sinai and Saudi Arabia are all within a half-hour drive -- on a very clear day you can catch glimpses of them all.
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Where You're Docked
You'll dock in the main port area about three miles south of the city center. The port is mixed use -- there will be tankers docked near your cruise ship.
It's a 10-minute walk or a quick shuttle ride to actually get out of the port area, which is a maze of ships, industrial building and railroad tracks. At the gate, cabs are waiting to take you into town, or you can walk another 15 - 20 minutes to reach Aqaba Castle. The tourist office is located just behind the castle on Prince Mohammed St. (open daily from 8 a.m. - 2 p.m.).
Good to Know
A popular scam at bars and pubs is the undisclosed cover charge, so ask up front about extra costs. We have friends who didn't and were charged $64 for four drinks (way above the going rates here).
Cab fare to the city center should be about $5, but drivers will try to get $10. Likewise, the two-hour ride to Petra should cost about $60 one-way and the hour-long drive to Wadi Rum about $40, but drivers will try to wangle a higher rate. Regardless of destination, always negotiate a price before you get into a cab.
Since Petra is best explored with a guide, we recommend you go the private driver/guide route if you're not taking a ship tour. Your cruise line will likely have suggestions. One firm offering such a service is Travel in Style, which will send a driver to meet you at the pier. Rates are $370 per person for two to three guests and $250 per person for four to six guests, for travel in a mini-coach. If you prefer to ride in style in a Mercedes, the price is $490 per person for two to three guests and $350 per person for four to six guests. The tour includes guide services and lunch.
If you go to Wadi Rum on your own, be aware that the best way to explore the area is on a 4 x 4 or camel tour. See more below.
Aqaba has been designated a Special Economic Zone, created for free trade. So although you're required to have a visa to travel in Jordan, it's free for those who arrive by sea. Your ship will take care of visa arrangements for you.
Currency & Best Way to Get Money
The Jordanian dinar is worth about $1.41 U.S. (check XE.com for the most accurate exchange rate before your trip.) Money can be exchanged at banks, hotels and currency exchange offices, and you will find ATM's at banks around town. Most shops and restaurants accept credit cards, but fewer take traveler's checks -- better to change your traveler's checks into dinar. U.S. dollars are also accepted at markets and some shops
Arabic is the official language, but most people involved in the tourist trade speak English.
Food and Drink
Our favorite thing to eat here is mezze, which can consist of up to a dozen plates including humus, mutabbel (eggplant with sesame paste), labaneh (strained thick yogurt) and tabbuleh. For a traditional Jordanian meal, try mansaf, a hearty mix of lamb, rice and pine nuts. Tips of 10 percent are expected at the better restaurants, but some may add it automatically as a service charge.
If the heat leaves you parched, approach the nearest juice stall for fresh-squeezed juice from oranges or a mix of tropical fruits, or order one of the popular herbal teas at a cafe. Coffee drinking is part of Arab hospitality, and the coffee is of the Turkish variety, which is black and thick and can be ordered sweetened or unsweetened.
Editor's note: There is not much in the way of eating options in Wadi Rum other than a few shops in the village selling drinks and snacks. Best for local eats: For some Arabic fast food, Al-Mohandes (3rd Commercial Area, open daily) serves falafel sandwiches and shawarma (slices of lamb or chicken cooked on a vertical spit) and is a cheerful cafe popular with locals -- look for men in the corner playing backgammon. If there are no seats downstairs, leave your order at the counter and head upstairs. A meal here is cheap -- under $5.
Best for outdoor dining: For views of the main city square, dine on the outdoor terrace at Ali Baba Restaurant, a nice restaurant serving mezze, grilled seafood and kebabs (downtown at Princess Haya Circle, open daily 8 a.m. - 11 p.m.). The grilled garlic chicken is especially good. Entrees are $5 to $15. Wine and beer are available.
Best for seafood: In the hotel area near the Golden Tulip hotel, the ship-shaped, nautical-themed Captain's Restaurant (Al Nahda Street, open daily 9 a.m. - 11 p.m.) serves fish, BBQ and steak. Sit outside under a canopy of colorful cloth. Main courses are $4 - $11, set dinners under $15. No alcohol is served.
Best for waterfront views: The Royal Yacht Club (on the waterfront near the yacht marina, open noon to 11:30 p.m., www.romero-jordan.com) has a restaurant offering Italian cuisine and views of the marina (you can even see Eilat across the Gulf). The menu includes pizza from a wood-burning oven, seafood, Arab specialties and big dinner salads. Stop by the terrace for daily live music or head to the Skippers Bar Lounge, located above the restaurant, for a drink. Main courses are $8.50 - $17.
Best at Petra: Right at the entrance to Ancient Petra, the Movenpick Resort Petra (lunch served from noon to 4 p.m.) is your best lunch bet. The Al Saraya Restaurant offers international cuisine with both buffet and a la carte selections (light meals are served at the Pool Terrace, too). Keep in mind it's a considerable walk (about a half hour) from the ancient ruins. If you're at the ruins and your stomach is growling, you'll have to go with light snacks and drinks served at the souvenir stands.
For a personalized souvenir, purchase a bottle of colorful sand art with your name incorporated into the intricate design. Bedouin jewelry is also a popular buy.