Saturday, September 1, 2012

The best tour guides in Jordan

Yesterday, Wael Amira, my guide and travel companion for my short stay in Jordan, picked me up at the Four Seasons Amman for a tour of the intriguing and interesting city of Amman.

He said to me: "You're lucky. The weather is beautiful today. Or maybe we're lucky, and you brought the good weather with you. It was very hot until a few days ago."

From there we went to the Citadel of Amman, which provides a most panoramic view of the city. It was unusually hot for me as I usually never walk in the sun at this hour, but the walk was worth it for the 360-degree view of Amman.


From there we walked through the old town, and then the hipper section with all the cool and quaint cafes sprouting up all over the city. Perhaps it has something to do with the fact that everyone here is crazy over the shisha, but Amman is now host to a burgeoning cafe culture.  Read about these in an upcoming issue of Travelife Magazine.

Some of the cafes look very determinedly old-fashioned, while others are cool and uber-trendy, and still  others take on the more natural atmosphere -- taking advantage of the views from the hills.


Let me post just one photo of myself in one of these cool cafes, albeit the natural atmosphere one, which doesn't need much decor as the views themselves are the decor. I just have to show you how nice it is here at the cocktail hour.

Wael and I were sitting here enjoying the view, when he said to me: "Give me your camera. Let me take your picture as the background is so beautiful."

I wasn't very enthusiastic about this. Yes, the background was gorgeous but I certainly wasn't after one long hot afternoon. We had just walked about five hours up and down hills in the heat, and I was literally trying to catch my breath after wilting for the last two hours.

But he was insistent. "I'm good at this," he said.

So reluctantly I gave him my camera and tried to smile. I actually don't like taking photos of myself on trips, and I was so not feeling like photo material, in clothes I had walked around in all afternoon sans makeup and even a hair brush and all. But the photo turned out pretty nicely, with the beautiful background, the large Jordanian flag and the Amman Citadel in the back. So here it is...

Anyway, my new friend Wael is really professional and a mine field of information. He really knows everything about his country, he loves history and he can talk about it with a passion because he loves Jordan with a fierce intensity -- which is something rare for tour guides.

Lots of tour guides know their stuff but the real love for the place really makes a big difference in making you see things from an entirely different angle. You certainly don't want to go around Jordan with some jaded guide who makes you feel like he's seen everything for the 1000th time -- even if he has.

It made me feel like I was discovering Jordan with a friend, instead of walking around with a private tour guide -- and this was absolutely perfect for my short solo trip. Besides, I'm really relishing the bit of alone time during the very few instances when I'm not sightseeing or at the spa.


I'm actually headed for Tel Aviv tomorrow to meet up with a group of people, but I decided to drop by Jordan as it's next-door, and spend a couple of days here on my own. Frankly, I haven't been on a real solo trip for a while and it's rather nice.

And I have great company when I need it anyway, with these new Jordanian friends from Ashtar Tours, one of Jordan's best travel agencies, specializing in packages and personalized itineraries for the discerning traveler.


I decided to go with Ashtar Tours for my Jordan stay because I wanted a seamless Travelife trip in terms of sightseeing, that would enable me to maximize my short stay and really learn more about Jordan and its way of life. 

I didn't want a commercial tour, and I wasn't interested in just seeing the sights to collect photo opportunities. As always, I'm really interested in how people in different countries live -- and that's a real TRAVELIFE for you, by the way. Real content, great stories, passionate about traveling. That's why we're #1.


So far, so good. The Ashtar Tour guides know their stuff, they have really good guides and drivers who speak perfect English, and I have a very large van for the duration of my stay.

The itineraries are flexible as well, as I asked for a tailor-made itinerary that would take into account my personal interests: the must-sees in Jordan, some high-end retail shops and restaurants, and of course the most amazing things to see outside of Amman as well.

Because it's a private and personal tour, I'm able to decide the time and make changes in the itinerary depending on how I feel. I really can't stand cookie cutter tours. Or cookie cutter tour guides.


Anyway, after the citadel and the museum, we walked up one of Amman's most fashionable streets, called Rainbow Street, where we had a taste of Jordan's best ice cream.

Then as we were eating ice cream and walking through some fancy neighborhoods, we stumbled upon a Friday open-air flea market selling all kinds of home-made wares. How lucky for me, as this was exactly what I was looking for -- a place where I could see stuff that you can only buy in Jordan and they didn't have to be expensive.

I found a beautiful handmade necklace that cost 30 Jordanian dinars, and when I tried it on my black shirt, it looked simply beautiful and stunning. Wael said to me: "You have to get that. But don't rely on me to help you bargain. I'm good at guiding people but I'm lousy at negotiations. You're on your own."

Yes, he was no use at all, as the lady refused to budge from the price in spite of his enthusiastic entreaties. Anyway, I had to have it -- so out came the money and the necklace was in my bag in five minutes.

In the evening, Mr. Ayyad Ayyad, head of Ashtar Travel, very kindly invited me to a lovely local restaurant when he found out that I was in Jordan on my own for two days. This restaurant -- his favorite -- had a great atmosphere, good food and most importantly, it was very popular with the locals. The rest of my short stay here is all about eating in the finest restaurants, so I was glad Mr. Ayyad chose a local restaurant for dinner.


We sat at a large table with a brass tray in the middle that kept getting refilled with food: first a medley of hot and cold appetizers, followed by a very large platter of grilled meats, and then by a beautiful tray of luscious fruits.

I had a wonderful time trying all the food while the guys smoked endlessly on the shisha pipes. They encouraged me to try the shisha pipe as I still haven't done so, in spite of so much traveling through Arabic countries; but I decided to postpone it for another trip.


But perhaps the most interesting aspect of the evening was the conversation. Mr Ayyad is a storehouse of learned information on Jordanian life and culture -- which is what makes his company one of the best travel agencies in the business here -- and his specialty is really tailor-making truly special and authentic Jordanian experiences for the discerning traveler.

He told me: "If you had more days, we could have arranged a stay at Wadi Rum, which is probably the most amazing place in Jordan. Petra is amazing but Wadi Rum will blow your mind away."


He continued: "Then we could have done a cooking class together. A friend of mine runs a short and very enjoyable cooking class in one of the oldest and most beautiful houses in Amman. You learn how to make a couple of mezze dishes and a main course, and then you get to eat what you have made, in this house with a wonderful atmosphere."

We also had a very stimulating conversation about the Islamic religion -- and this is a topic I constantly discuss with willing locals whenever I find myself in an Islamic country, as I find this endlessly fascinating.

I'm so going back to Jordan, especially with the painless flights on Gulf Air and the fact that I want to do a health and wellness stay at one of the luxury resorts in the Jordan side of the Dead Sea as well. And the overnight stay in Wadi Rum, which every Jordanian I've met has told me is the best experience in their country.


Jordan isn't the kind of country to do alone or on your own if you're not the backpacking type. So I suggest you work with Ashtar Travels either for a pre-planned tour or for a tailor-made trip just for you.

I've road-tested it for you and can recommend them as one of the best to deal with, if not the #1 agency for discerning travelers. And mention Travelife Magazine when you do contact Mr. Ayyad, so he can offer you special service.

If you're lucky, you'll get Wael as a guide. He's really fun and knowledgeable about Jordan, so you'll learn all about Jordan's historical highlights and he can also show you the coolest cafes and the best ice cream as well.


Mr. Ayyad Ayyad
Tel +962-6-586-5454


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