With its balmy winter climate and idyllic setting, Aqaba is Jordan’s year-round aquatic playground. The thriving underwater marine life and the crystal clear waters of the Gulf of Aqaba make diving conditions there among the acknowledged best in the world. As the Gulf of Aqaba is an inland sea with few strong currents, its waters remain warm and clear throughout most of the year. Conditions are ideal for underwater photography and a lavish array of exotic fish and plant life makes for excellent snorkelling and diving. Over 140 species of coral have been identified in Aqaba’s waters. Sun bathing, water skiing, windsurfing, fishing, paddleboats, and other water sports are also popular. One small word of advice – have lots of fun, but don’t forget your sunscreen!
Things to do in Aqaba
There’s no denying that Aqaba’s greatest asset is the Red Sea, not least because it offers something for every type of visitor. Chill out and get pampered on the beach (try one of the five-star resort hotels or the highly recommended Berenice Beach Club), go wild with a waterskiing lesson or a parasailing flight or keep your feet dry with any number of glass bottom boat tours. Neptune Boat trips actually take you under the water in a submarine for spectacular views of the natural aquarium beneath the surface.
For most visitors to Aqaba, it’s all about the diving. Choose from 23 dive sites, most of which are within the boundaries of the Aqaba Marine Park, an organisation that is responsible for protecting the coral reefs and maintaining safety standards. Recommended dive centres include Ahlan Aqaba Scuba Diving Centre and Sea Guard Tours — both of which have been awarded TripAdvisor’s Certificate of Excellence 2014. Beginners should start out at Ras al Yamanya, a site that drops from standing depth to 5m to 30m and offers a great diversity of species including lionfish, pipefish and crazy-looking nudibranches. More experienced divers can try the Power Station for sharks and moray eels, or the famous wreck, the Cedar Pride, while those on the lookout for the gorgeous hawksbill turtle should try Black Rock or the King Abdullah Reef. Almost all the sites are accessible from the shore, which means they are ideal for snorkellers too. Try the First Bay area for its beautiful shallow fringing reef or take a boat and visit the Japanese Gardens, where a depth of up to 6m yields a large area of coral, some of which reaches up to the surface.
Savvy shoppers will know that Aqaba is a duty-free zone so shopping here is cheaper than in the rest of Jordan (you’ll even get the best prices on Dead Sea skincare ranges). Shops and stalls all over town offer handcrafted pottery and glass, textiles and traditional Bedouin jewellery made by local craftspeople, but some of the best souvenirs of Aqaba are found at the spice stalls and nut shops. Cashews, almonds and pistachios are abundant and irresistibly cheap, or follow your nose to find cardamom, saffron and the classic Jordanian spice mix zaatár.
Get the mall experience at Aqaba Gateway, with its modern boutiques and cinema. Or to meet the locals visit the Shweikh Mall, which is especially popular at weekends. And for a fabulous Friday evening institution, head to the Souk by the Sea — behind the Movenpick Resort & Residences — where you can fill your shopping basket with goodies from over 50 local artisans or just chill out with a mint tea and get yourself a henna tattoo.
A recent visitor to the astonishing Arts of Sham Countries gallery described it as a place with ‘no pretentious artists; real people with real hearts’. Indeed, Aboud — the cheerful and passionate Syrian owner — is always a big hit with visitors, taking the time to show you around and never giving the hard sell. The gallery is stacked full of great pieces, from classic landscapes to more quirky works by regional artists. Get a sense of Aqaba’s history with a visit to the fort, also known as Aqaba Castle or Mamluk Castle. This was the scene of a great Arab victory in 1917, when the Arab Revolt, along with Lawrence of Arabia, overcame the Turkish occupation. Alongside the fort is Aqaba’s Archeological Museum, housed in the former palace of Sharif Hussein bin Ali (founder of the Hashemite dynasty). Displays include artefacts dating back to the Bronze Age that were excavated in and around Aqaba.