Jordan in the Wilderness

By David Cogswell

Jordan is about the size of the state of Indiana, so all of its diverse attractions are within close proximity to one another. Everyone knows about Petra and wants to see it. With its selection as one of the New Seven Wonders of the World in 2007, Petra has developed a gigantic mystique that serves as the magnet to draw people to Jordan. Once they are in the country, there are plenty of other things to experience besides Petra. Though the country is best known for its historical, cultural and archeological features, it also has a great deal to offer in the great outdoors.

Only a few miles from Petra is the Feynan Eco Lodge, a property in the Dana Biosphere Reserve in Wadi Feynan, the largest natural reserve in Jordan. The lodge is owned by the Royal Society for the Conservation of Nature, but itís managed by EcoHotels in a rigorously low-impact manner. Opened in 2005, itís an example of real sustainable tourism in action. It was named one of the 50 top ecolodges in the world by National Geographic Adventure magazine.

The Dana Biosphere Reserve covers an area that contains four different bio-geographical zones, including Mediterranean, Irano-Turanian, Saharo-Arabian and Sudanian. Elevations range from about 4,500 feet to 600 feet above sea level. Its diversity of terrain supports a wide range of flora and fauna. More than 800 kinds of plant species and 449 animal species have been seen there, including threatened species such as the sand cat, the Syrian wolf, the lesser kestrel and the spiny-tailed lizard.

The primary purpose of the Dana Biosphere Reserve is to preserve and protect the desert environment for people to enjoy now and in the future. The lodge is designed to provide an entrance point for people to enjoy the area, but without doing any harm to the environment. In addition, the income produced by the lodge helps to support the local communities.

The lodge provides a service to its guests by providing comfortable, hospitable and aesthetically pleasing accommodations in an exotic desert setting, but it has little effect on the environment. It benefits the local community by creating employment for local residents. Locals fill the hosting, housekeeping, grounds keeping and food service positions, but the lodge also employs locals in its own candle workshop, where the candles are made that light the property at night.

The lodgeís restaurant serves vegetarian dishes based on Arab cuisine. The water used by the lodge comes from a spring and is good for drinking. The lodge lights its rooms with candle light. The rooms donít have electricity except for one low-consumption electric light in the bathroom. There are no electrical outlets, but cell phones and other things with rechargeable batteries can be recharged at the front desk. The reception area is set up so guests charging their laptops can also use them while they are charging. There is, however, no Internet at the property at the present time. The lodge is also not set up to take credit cards at present, so bills must be settled with cash. The lodge takes dollars, euros or Jordanian dinars.

What little electricity the property uses for heating water in the rooms is generated by solar panels. Food is composted and turned into fertilizer for the garden. Plastic is recycled, and soon will be eliminated altogether from the operation, according to Nabil Tarazi, the managing director. The food that is not grown on the property is purchased locally as much as possible. The on-site shop sells jams, spices and handicrafts created by local artisans and farmers. Organic construction The architecture, created by local architect Ammar Kamash, is called arabesque, though it is much less ornate than most arabesque design. It has an indigenous feel, giving the impression of being an outgrowth of the natural environment. It was constructed entirely of local materials. The lodge is set near a rocky rim of orange foothills that create a natural enclave for the building and grounds. It is constructed of plain slabs of orange brown concrete with practically no ornamentation except four rows of decorative rocks at the level of the second floor windows. The color of the walls blends into that of the desert sand and rock. The architectural style is minimalistic and cubistic, as a desert expression of the Bauhaus, but also reminiscent of adobe villages of the southwestern US. The lodge is designed to stay cool without having to use air conditioning.

The lodge has 26 rooms accommodating up to 58 people. The rooms continue the theme of sparseness of the exterior. They are plain and simple, uncluttered, creating a feeling of order and simplicity, almost monastery-like. The beds are comfortable and draped with mosquito netting, which creates a romantic impression.

Feynan is open year round. September to May is the best season, according to Tarazi. Guests are encouraged to sleep on the roof under the clear desert sky if they would like. Itís an especially good idea during the months of July and August when the temperature can get very hot. Stargazing on the desert so far from urban air pollution and artificial light is amazing.

There are some Roman ruins not far from the lodge, including a stone wall with an arch still intact. The area is said to have been inhabited for 11,000 years. As long ago as 6,000 years, it was a Roman settlement built around copper mines that thrived during the bronze age. It is still possible to find hunks of copper slag from when the mines were functioning.

Guests can follow hiking trails, watch the sunset, sleep under the stars, explore the Roman ruins and enjoy a healthy menu of locally produced food. The lodge offers guided tours as well self-guided ones. A guided tour of the copper mines takes three to four hours if taken in full, but guests can also get a modified version. Also offered is a six- to eight-hour guided tour of Wadi Ghwayr. A tour of Wadi Dana can be taken guided or self-guided. Itís a five-to-seven-hour trip. A two- to four-hour Archeological Treasures hike is also offered.

Feynan Ecolodge is EcoHotelsí first property in Jordan, but the company has plans to build others along the same sustainable model in Jordan and elsewhere in the Middle East.

The Royal Society for the Conservation of Nature was established in 1966 under the patronage of the late King Hussein and given the responsibility of protecting Jordanís natural resources. In 1994 the agency introduced a people-centered approach to fulfilling its mandate of protecting natural heritage, and began using the beauty of the environment as an attraction on which it could create income-generating projects for people in local villages and Bedouin communities. It set up a handicrafts enterprise and some tourism facilities, including a campsite, a guesthouse and an ecolodge. Jordanís thermal falls Another unique outdoor retreat is Evason MaíIn Hot Springs and Six Senses Spa. Itís only about an hourís drive from Amman, but itís in a remote landscape of arid sand, towering desert mountains and deep valleys. The spa is 400 feet below sea level and is built around the natural thermal springs for which it is named.

At the Evason MaíIn Hot Springs, hot water bursts from a mountainside and plunges down steep cliffs into hot pools and streams below. There are two falls areas available to guests of the resort. There is a publicly accessible falls area the equivalent of two city blocks from the resort. It provides excellent facilities provided for bathers and also offers the opportunity to mix with the local people who come to the falls on a day trip. The public area is the larger of the two. The falls are larger and the facilities are modern, clean and functional. The hotel provides a shuttle to it, which takes minutes. The walk is about 10 minutes. ,

The resort also has its own private falls area, under a smaller set of falls only a short walk down the bank from the resortís restaurant. The private falls are smaller, and the rocks and pools at the bottom are maintained in a more or less natural state, with few human artifacts. Thereís a walkway with a hand rail leading down to stony steps to the waterside. At the bottom thereís a small flat surface with a few lounge chairs next to the water. At night the area is well lit with strong floodlamps. Guests can climb up to a flat rock area and stand right under the place where the hot water pours down or they can bathe in the warm pools of water at the bottom, where the warm water splashes onto the rocks, gathers in pools and flows downstream.

The water is said to be about 100 degrees, but it varies in temperature depending on where you are in relation to the flow. Still pools hold heat. Some are too hot too stay immersed in for very long. In other areas where the brook flows fast, itís cooler, but always warmer than body temperature. The lodgings are charmingly rustic in design, but very high end, with a restaurant, offering large buffets and a spa.

Both resorts offer unique ways to experience Jordan and are worthy of consideration in a well-rounded Jordan itinerary. For information on Evason MaíIn, see www.sixsenses.com/evason_main. For more information on Feynan Ecolodge, see www.feynan.com. -- David Cogswell

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