It’s not every day that you attend an event for an airline’s new holiday product and leave with an offer to attend a press trip to some of the best places to visit in Jordan.
Last Wednesday evening I was invited to the easyJet Holidays launch party to celebrate the company’s new travel offerings. After a night of costumes, cocktails, canapes, and mechanical camels, I was introduced to the communications director of the airline, who subsequently offered me a spot on easyJet’s inaugural flight to Jordan on Sunday. Not bad for a party favor.
Before I went on the trip, a lot of people asked me if it was safe to visit Jordan. Given the political upheaval in some areas of the Middle East, they thought I should proceed with caution. I’ve never been one to worry about that kind of thing, though, and I was certain that if the airline was going ahead with the trip, I didn’t have a reason to worry.
On Sunday morning I made my way to London’s Gatwick Airport and was greeted at the gate with a glass of Champagne and a chocolate cupcake with orange frosting in honor of the airline’s signature color. I met the team from the airline, then listened as easyJet CEO Carolyn McCall made a speech to welcome passengers and press trip attendees to the first easyJet flight from London to Amman.
A few minutes later we were all settling into our seats on the plane. I was sitting behind Carolyn and in front of a Jordanian man that eagerly told her how excited he was about the new route. Before now, he could only afford to take his family back to Jordan once a year, but with the low-cost carrier in the mix, he had already booked three round-trip flights for them between now and December.
The journey itself was a smooth five-hour ride on a flight that was scheduled to operate every Sunday, Tuesday, and Thursday. The Champagne was flowing in honor of the occasion, and the food, which was normally for purchase, was free for those of us on the press trip.
When we arrived at Queen Alia International Airport in Amman, we were given a warm welcome before we even got off the plane. Two fire trucks on the side of the tarmac sprayed a ceremonial arc of water over the aircraft as we taxied to our gate. When we alighted there was a crowd of media and dignitaries to welcome Carolyn and the team.
Once the photo op was done, we proceeded to a conference room in the airport for speeches and the cutting of a large orange-and-white cake. Everyone from the Minister of Tourism to the Head of Civil Aviation and a representative from the British Embassy shared remarks to commemorate the occasion.
Their words emphasized the safety and stability of the country in a time of turmoil in the surrounding region, as well as Jordan’s links with the UK and the fact that easyJet’s new route would make tourism and travel more accessible and affordable for people living in both countries.
After the speeches there was a reception with copious amounts of canapes and Jordanian sweets. At that point I had a chance to meet some of the others on the press trip, including journalists from The Times, City A.M., the Daily Express, and other publications. I was the only blogger on the trip, which made me somewhat of an anomaly (hopefully in a good way!).
When the reception wrapped up we cleared customs and took a bus to our hotel, the Marriott Amman. On the way, I looked out the windows for signs of any political protests. The closest I came to seeing one was a number of cars blocking a traffic roundabout. Only two people were out of their vehicles, and the sole inconvenience it caused was to make us a few minutes late getting to our hotel. I wasn’t worried.
After checking in, we had a huge buffet dinner, complete with all kinds of good Jordanian lamb, rice, hummus, tabouleh, and other local dishes. During the meal I was able to talk to some of the easyJet people that were on the trip with us. Among other things, I was happy to learn that the airline had added extra planes to reduce flight delays during the busy summer season.
Dinner went pleasantly late, and the next morning we met for breakfast with Carolyn. She told us about easyJet’s recent partnership with VisitBritain to attract more visitors to the country over the next four years. We also heard about a look-a-like contest for Prince William and Kate Middleton. Ten couples would win the chance to fly to London for the royal wedding festivities and compete for a year’s worth of easyJet flights.
After breakfast I went into Amman with one of the other journalists and a member of the Jordan Tourism Board. Having been to Amman twice before without ever actually seeing it during the day, I was excited to finally see the Jordanian capital in the sunshine.
We started out by a beautiful mosque that was next to a great vegetable market. Everything from hot pink pickled cauliflower to fresh green almonds was on sale. If I hadn’t just eaten breakfast, I would have wanted to try it all.
From the market we passed a Roman nymphaeum, which, like the city of Jerash that I saw on my previous trip to the country, was one of many Roman ruins in Jordan. From there we made our way down the street to another of the city’s ancient landmarks, the amphitheater. Dating back almost two thousand years, it was breathtaking.
A group of schoolchildren sat on the large stone seats singing songs as we climbed the steps for views of the city and the ancient citadel on the opposite hill.
After visiting the amphitheater we stopped for a quick bite of falafel at a hole-in-the-wall shop. As we ate, I couldn’t help but think about how peaceful the streets of Amman were. While there had been reports of protests the previous Friday, there was no sign of them now. I felt completely safe.
Back at the hotel, we boarded the bus and drove the 40-minute distance to Madaba. I had been there on my first trip to Jordan a year and a half ago, but the famous mosaic map of the Holy Land on the floor of the Greek Orthodox church still impressed me.
From the mosaic, we walked down souvenir-lined streets to a restaurant called Haret Jdoudna. I had high expectations for the food, what with being told by several people that it was one of the best restaurants in Jordan. As we settled into heaping plates of mezze and meat, I couldn’t help but agree that everything was excellent. Despite being a bit on the touristy side, it was definitely a winner.
During lunch I sat next to the easyJet pilot that had flown us from London to Amman. He was full of great stories about the aviation world. I learned from him that Innsbruck, Gibraltar, and Funchal are three of the most difficult airports at which one can land in Europe, and that pilots have to qualify to fly to and from them.
After finishing lunch we boarded the bus again and traveled to Wadi Musa on the King’s Highway. As we pulled into the parking lot of the Movenpick Petra, I had a sense of deja vu from my first trip to Jordan. But it didn’t last long. Rather than see the famous lost city of Petra during the day like I had done on my previous visit, the plan was to do the famous Petra by Night tour.
We first had a quick drink in what we were told was the oldest bar in the world. It was set in a rock cave that had been hand-chiseled into the side of a hill.
Refreshed, we started down the path that led to the narrow Siq that kept Petra hidden from the world for so many years. All along the trail were candles lighting the way to the famous treasury. They were beautiful under the starry sky, and provided just enough light to guide us in the total darkness.
When we reached the treasury, we saw a stunning sight. It wasn’t the treasury itself. It was the hundreds of candles dotting the foreground in front of it. As we sat down and sipped tea, we were serenaded by musicians playing music in the darkness. It was surreal.
When the music ended, we walked from the treasury into the heart of Petra. Again the way was lit by candles, but apart from the dim light they threw onto the path, the rest of the area was immersed in the night. Having been to Petra before, I knew to try to make out the forms of the amphitheater, the tombs, and other highlights, but part of me wished the area had been floodlit.
Then a journalist from The Times pointed out to me that my floodlights would be a sign that mass tourism had engulfed Jordan, and I accepted that maybe it was indeed better to have a less Disney-fied experience.
After stopping to watch a short performance by a group of singers, we sat down for an outdoor feast at one of the restaurants in Petra. Having dinner in the ancient city was a very unique experience, and as the many small plates made their way around the table, we watched dancers and musicians performing for us.
After a late night in the lost city, we boarded the bus the next morning for our final place to visit in Jordan: the Dead Sea. En route to the salty body of water, our bus broke down. We were told that another one would be there to pick us up in 30 minutes. Skeptical, I braced myself for the inevitable announcement after 30 minutes that it would take another 30, and so on.
In the meantime, we enjoyed the gorgeous views over a green valley nestled between two arid hills. To the west we could just make out the contours of the Dead Sea as if it were a desert mirage. Closer in, I met a friendly caterpillar that tried to hide under my shoe.
Then 30 minutes later a bus arrived and proved me wrong. Off we went to the Movenpick at the Dead Sea. We arrived slightly late, but not so late as to miss lunch.
During the meal I got to sit next to Carolyn, who in conjunction with Lawrence Hunt from the airline’s partner, Lowcosttravelgroup, told us about easyJet Holidays. Independent travelers would be able to mix-and-match flights and hotels to create a trip that offered them all of the protection of a package holiday without the rigidity of set dates and group travel.
Lunch was followed by several hours of free time. Many of us made our way down to the hotel spa, which had several swimming pools. These included a few with water from the Dead Sea. Having forgotten a bathing suit, I settled into a lounge chair by one of the pools and took a nap under a large umbrella.
When it was time to leave, I walked down to the beach to get a better view of the sea, and then wandered back through the gardens, pools, and expansive hotel grounds until I reached the lobby. There I met up with the rest of the group and boarded the bus for the airport.
The return flight wasn’t very full, as easyJet hadn’t started marketing the route in Jordan yet. As such, I had a whole row to myself. After a quick sandwich, I stretched out across the seats and took a five hour nap as the plane cruised smoothly over Europe.
It was almost midnight when we landed at Gatwick Airport. We all congregated by the baggage claim area and said our good-byes before heading off in the direction of home. As my train to Victoria Station chugged along towards central London, I couldn’t help but be happy to have had the chance to return to Jordan.
While the trip covered areas that I had been to before, each of the places to visit was done in a different way than my previous experiences. I was able to fly a low-cost airline. I was able to see Amman during the day and Petra during the night. I was able to enjoy a great meal in Madaba instead of just stopping to see the mosaic map. And I was able to visit a hotel right on the Dead Sea instead of a short drive away in Ma’in.
Above all, I was able to experience Jordan in a time of regional turmoil after visiting twice during a period of relative peace. I came away from the trip feeling like the country was still safe to visit, and being glad that I got to discover that firsthand. easyJet also flies to Cairo, so I might just have to test out their new holidays product and see how Egypt is faring.