Unexpected delights on Exodus Travels Jordan tour

The domed accommodations of the UFO Luxotel in Wadi Rum. Photo Credit: Bart Beeson
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There's a reason why Jordan's Petra, a World Heritage Site and one of the New Seven Wonders of the World, is on the travel bucket lists of so many people. Entering the ancient city through the narrow, winding gorge with towering rock walls, visitors emerge to see the iconic temple known as the Treasury, the most recognizable of hundreds of intricate facades carved into the rock cliffs of Petra.

The temple known as the Treasury in Petra on an Exodus Travels trip through Jordan.
The temple known as the Treasury in Petra on an Exodus Travels trip through Jordan. Photo Credit: Bart Beeson

And while the Treasury is truly awe-inspiring and well worth the price of admission, visitors to Petra may be surprised at how much more the city has to offer. 

In addition to the numerous facades, the site is home to an amphitheater, sandstone rock formations featuring an astonishing array of colors and steep hikes up to amazing views of the city below and the surrounding mountains and canyons. Petra also holds an air of mystery: It feels as if around every turn and in each rocky crevasse there is something unexpected to be found. 

I recently experienced the wonders of Petra on a Kingdoms of Jordan trip with Exodus Travels, one of a new line of premium trips the U.K.-based adventure travel company launched this year. They currently offer 20 premium trips in 16 different countries, including Annapurna Trails and Chitwan in Nepal, Cape Town and the Garden Route in South Africa and Amazon Rainforest Cruise in Peru.

The trips were based on existing Exodus itineraries but upgraded to premium status with higher-end lodging, expert guides whose names are provided before the trip, more inclusions and certain special experiences.

Those experiences may include a stay at the UFO Luxotel in the Wadi Rum desert, which I enjoyed on my Jordan trip, or an extraordinary adventure such as a balloon ride over Turkey's Cappadocia region.

Marketing and public relations director Robin Brooks said that in designing the premium tours, Exodus wanted to provide an elevated experience while staying true to its roots.

"We crafted this collection of more premium, small-group trips with named local leaders for adventure travelers looking for a little more pampering and special experiences typically only found on much higher-priced tours, but at a price point that doesn't shock our valued repeat travelers."

Exploring Amman

A Greco-Roman amphitheater in Jerash.
A Greco-Roman amphitheater in Jerash. Photo Credit: Bart Beeson

My Exodus trip to Jordan started in the country's capital of Amman, where we spent the day exploring the fascinating Greco-Roman ruins of the city of Jerash and the Amman Citadel, an archaeological site that dates back nearly 10,000 years. 

Muayad Mismar, our guide for the weeklong excursion, was extremely knowledgeable, talking us through the history of each site and pointing out details we otherwise would have missed, such as the knife marks in the stone table of an ancient butcher shop. 

From Amman we made the drive to Petra, traveling along the historical trading route now known as the King's Highway, affording us fantastic views of the Great Rift Valley, with stops at the religious site of Mount Nebo and the medieval castle of Al-Karak. We then spent a full two days in Petra, the first day with our guide and the second day on our own, with the freedom to just take it easy or continue exploring.

Leaving Petra, we made our way to the resort town of Aqaba on the Red Sea, with a stop on the way at Little Petra, an archaeological site once home to shops and lodging for travelers entering or leaving the main city.

After a relaxing day enjoying cocktails on the beaches of the Red Sea, the following morning we headed to the Wadi Rum desert. Here we embarked on a four-hour ride in four-wheel-drive vehicles through the otherworldly landscape of vast sand plains punctuated by dramatic stone outcroppings.

Our lodging for the evening was the UFO Luxotel; our rooms -- actually individual domes -- looked as if they were straight out of a science fiction movie (only appropriate, given the many sci-fi/adventure movies that have been filmed in Wadi Rum, including the recent films "Dune" and "The Martian").

Our final stop of the tour was a night at the Dead Sea, where we experienced the curious sensation of floating in its ultrabuoyant, highly saline and reputedly therapeutic waters.

The view from the Old Village Hotel and Resort in Petra.
The view from the Old Village Hotel and Resort in Petra. Photo Credit: Bart Beeson

An elevated hotel experience

As mentioned, the main difference with Exodus' premium trips is the elevated accommodations, and each five-star hotel on our tour lived up to the billing. 

In the beachside locations, the InterContinental in Aqaba and the Hilton Dead Sea Resort and Spa both featured several outdoor pools, swim-up bars and private beaches.

The upscale Old Village Hotel and Resort in Petra, our home for three nights, is a collection of one-story sandstone buildings that blend in with the landscape and truly do give it the feel of a small village.

And the aforementioned UFO camp in Wadi Rum gave us the chance to experience the rugged environment of the desert in comfort, with each domed room equipped with running water, air conditioning, WiFi and an outdoor patio with a hammock that was perfect for stargazing.

Exodus managed to pack an extraordinary amount of adventure into the weeklong tour, while still allowing for time to relax on the beach, stargaze in the desert or sip a hot coffee while taking in the splendor of Petra.

The tour also allowed our guide to include some optional events not listed in the itinerary, such as a cooking class led by local housewives, a traditional Jordanian dinner held in a Petra family's home or a visit to the Unesco World Heritage site where Jesus is believed to have been baptized.

And while the historical and natural sites we visited throughout Jordan were truly remarkable, the surprise additions made the trip that much more special. As Mismar, our guide, pointed out, "When we travel, what always sticks in our memories are the unexpected, beautiful experiences, so we try to allow those to happen."

Much like Petra itself, it was the unexpected, as much as the expected, that made Jordan such a memorable trip. 

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