The subject of the annual Parker family holiday has become one of grim fascination for friends, intrigued by my fevered attempts to devise adventures to keep our teenage offspring coming away with us. “Where are you going this year?” asked a friend, glancing up from a coffee. “Helmand province?”
“It’s a tour of the Levant,” I protested, lapsing into defensive travel-speak. “Well, to be more precise, it’s a tour of the Middle East, starting in Beirut, heading down to Jordan then across into Israel by the Red Sea and finishing up in Jerusalem.”
After heading off early domestic resistance — namely reassuring the family that Foreign Office travel advice makes even a visit to Belgium sound scary — planning began for a two-week tour taking in some of the world’s most remarkable travel destinations.
We would spurn the cosseting assistance of a full-service tour operator and instead rely on Skyscanner for the flights (via Cyprus to save a bit of money), Airbnb and Booking.com for accommodation, and a hire car for our journey across Jordan.
The appeal of the region was obvious, although a quick glance at the map gives an immediate insight into why the region has fallen off the tourist agenda. Beirut, for example, is little more than 50 miles as the crow flies from Damascus, while the city’s southern suburbs contain the refugees from multiple conflicts in the region; Jordan’s neighbours include Syria and Iraq; our bus journey to Jersualem would take us through the West Bank.
For anyone growing up in the 1970s and 1980s a holiday in Beirut was always one of the great travel oxymorons, and the bombed-out Holiday Inn serves as a grim reminder of what happened here. But for our kids the Lebanese capital was a spectacularly beautiful and chilled city, as hot money pours in and fills former bomb sites along the Corniche with towering real estate.
Whether relaxing on the campus of the American University or having breakfast amid the rock pools at the Manara Palace Cafe, Beirut offered a surprisingly laid-back start to the holiday. Then after a short flight over Syrian airspace to the Jordanian capital, Amman, we picked up a Europcar rental and began the interminable descent to the Dead Sea, at 1,400ft below sea level, the world’s lowest point.
I reckon one night on the Dead Sea is about right: once you have smeared some noxious smelling mud on your body and sat in the warm soup of the fast-disappearing lake reading an old copy of the FT, you will have enjoyed most of what it has to offer, although the hazy views across to the West Bank are mournfully evocative.
The jewel in Jordan’s crown is, of course, Petra, whose status as one of the world’s great ancient cities has stirred imagination for centuries due largely to the fact that it lay forgotten (by Europeans at any rate) until it was discovered in 1812 by the Swiss explorer Johann Ludwig Burckhardt.
Built by the wealthy Nabataeans — suppliers of Arabian spices and treasures to the Roman empire — it suffered from the shifting of trade routes and was dealt a knockout blow by an earthquake in 363. But the city’s strange “disappearance” can only be truly understood as one drives towards the site from the hills above: the sprawling monuments and tombs are seemingly encased in a shell of burning red rock; a narrow chasm is the main route in.
Nothing quite prepares you for the first sight of the city’s most famous monument, the Treasury. We first saw it on a candlelit tour, an atmospheric walk through the gorge leading into the city. Just as it seems the slit in the towering rock cannot get any smaller, suddenly the creamy classical facade carved into the rock face comes into view.
Tourists are advised to switch off their camera phones to maintain the half-lit atmosphere (inevitably they don’t) and some profess themselves to be disappointed by the crowds, but the kids thought the candlelight experience worthwhile. You could, alternatively, save money and visit Petra in the daytime, when the contrast between the dark canyon and the sun-drenched city is at its most extreme.
Go early to avoid the crowds (and the heat), but Petra does not feel overwhelmed by tourists. Visitor numbers collapsed over the past decade because of regional instability but have been recovering recently, reaching 827,000 in 2018 — up by a third on the previous year (by comparison, Britain’s much smaller Stonehenge site receives about 1.5m visitors a year).
With the Syrian civil war and Isis featuring less prominently in western news bulletins in recent months, numerous publications have decided that this will be Jordan’s year, deeming it to be a travel hotspot of 2019. In November EasyJet launched the first direct scheduled flights from the UK to Aqaba in the south, putting Petra within easy reach for a winter short break from London.
By the time we reached Wadi Rum, the crowds had disappeared, leaving just vast skies and a remarkable landscape. It shows up as a deep red splodge in satellite pictures; on the ground huge rocks rise up like islands from a sea of sand. Filmmakers have been mesmerised by the place, movies shot here range from David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia (1962) to Ridley Scott’s The Martian (2015).
There are no hotels in Wadi Rum; tourists stay in camps dotted around the desert and run by local Bedouin.
Ahmed Oglah Al Zalabeyh, who runs the excellent Rum Stars Camp where we stayed, turned out to have studied Shakespeare at university in Amman before returning to his desert home. Sitting under the stars we ate zarb, a Bedouin barbecue cooked in earth ovens under the sand, while he recited lines from the Bard and discussed Brexit — proving there truly is no escape from the B word.
Ahmed told how a big western hotel chain had tried to buy his company, but he had refused; for now rejoice in the fact that these are local enterprises. Wadi Rum visitor numbers may have been hit in recent years because of the regional turmoil, but now it is firmly back on track as part of what Jordan’s tourism minister calls the “golden triangle” of Aqaba, Petra and the Wadi.
The kids enjoyed sandboarding down one of the immense dunes and watching their mother trying to control her frisky camel as we set off on a trek across the Wadi. You can explore by balloon or by jeep too, but the common feature is that you keep coming across sites that might have been visited by TE Lawrence as he helped lead the Arab revolt.
At this point you might be wondering, is Jordan safe? The obvious point is to consult up-to-date travel advice but, apart from the occasional low-key military checkpoints, driving across Jordan was entirely hassle-free, the roads well-made and the signposting good.
You might also be wondering, is it hot? The answer to that is “yes”, certainly if you are foolish enough to travel as we did (for boring logistical reasons) in the middle of August, when the temperatures peaked at 45C. Spring and autumn would be much more sensible.
Heading out of Wadi Rum, we crossed the former Ottoman railway line blown up by Lawrence and then followed in his steps to Aqaba, now a diving centre on the Red Sea. We left the car there and crossed by taxi into Israel at the neighbouring resort of Eilat. A reminder: Israeli passport stamps pose travel problems in the region, so making this the last stop on your Levantine mission makes sense.
From Eilat, we completed our journey by bus to Jerusalem, skirting the Dead Sea on the opposite shore and looking back across to Jordan. We had seen how history and people had been squeezed into the small spaces of Lebanon and Jordan, but the walled city of Jerusalem distilled the Middle East story into even more concentrated form.
It was a dramatic finale, leaving the kids still talking about joining for another adventure next year: provided we pay, of course.
George Parker is the FT’s political editor