THE afternoon sun is browning our sweaty pink skin as we lie by the pool at Evason Ma’in, nudged between a massive yellowstone fortress-style hotel and a water-spewing rock face. Well, it may be all lemonade, glossy magazines, dramatic scenery and sun-tanning poolside, but just a few kilometres away on the Dead Sea’s south-east coast (the Valley of Salt as it was known in the Bible), David slew 18,000 Edomites (2 Samuel 7:29) and Abraham and Lot divided their herds and people after the journey from Egypt.
We’re in the cradle of civilisation – “the fertile crescent” – the former stomping ground of the Macedonian, Roman, Byzantine, and Ottoman Turkish empires; the Canaanites, the Edomites, and the Moabites. The Akkadian, Assyrian, Judean, Babylonian, and Persian empires also had a foothold here – and let’s not forget Pharaonic Egypt, the Hasmonean Dynasty of the Maccabees, and the wondrous Nabatean civilization, which gave rise to the glorious stone city of Petra.
Since the key events of the bible took place (Jesus was baptized in the Jordan River), anyone with an empire or civilisation worth its salt has wanted in on Jordan’s combination of verdant plains, stark mountains, rich soil and vast desert.
Now empires have ceased to rove covetously through Arabia, and Jordan has become a state like numerous others. It comes with a difference, though: it’s a kingdom – a constitutional monarchy with a representative government – and it’s got ties with Israel and good relations with the US, unlike almost every other one of its neighbours. (It’s also got more free-trade agreements than any other Arab country).
It shares little of the roiling political activity and danger associated with Lebanon, Syria, Iran and even Israel. Indeed, since both my companion and I have been to Israel numerous times, Jordan is the only country in the region we could have got into with our stamps.
Most of the population – of which a good many are Bedouins – are devoutly Muslim and the trappings of Islam and the Arab world pleasantly imbue the land, from mosques and minarets to extreme hospitality, hooka pipes and delicious flatbread.
Which is why, several millenia after David slew his Edomites and Lot’s Wife was turned into a pillar of salt, people like me are returning to Jordan for a taste of touristic heaven. It’s become the next hot thing: a mystical, sunny land only five hours’ flight away.
We were invited to Jordan to visit Evason Ma’In, the latest property from luxury spa company Six Senses. The property, an hour’s drive from Amman, is divided into the hotel and a spa, which is ruggedly integrated into the startling terrain.
It’s a very special resort, not just because of its airy elegance and generous proportions, but because of its completely amazing setting. Located 264 metres below sea level (the nearby Dead Sea is 422m below), it lies in a valley renowned for its therapeutic hot waterfalls, which gush at numerous points along the cliffs outlining the hotel and beyond. When we visited, its private waterfall was closed due to risk of avalanche, so we went a few minutes up the road to a public one where I stood – like the locals – under a thunderous deluge that massaged my neck and back as it pummelled and assaulted them.
Everything about Evason Ma’In embraces its magical environment, so for those who like to drink in dramatic natural scenery while they relax (not just sand and sea), it is a delicious treat. Our room’s enormous terrace had multiple vistas, with views towards the Dead Sea on one side (where the sun set between a ravine), mountain slopes near and far and a close-up waterfall. The constantly-changing colours of the rocks, sky and slopes was a continual source of pleasure which could be pursued throughout the property: the main restaurant’s outdoor seating shares the triple vista; the pool faces you with two stark slope views; and the spa is a dramatic, rocky paradise with its own rough beauty.
Six Senses is renowned for its superlative spas – particularly in Thailand. This one is no different: my massage was deep and focussed, leaving me completely relaxed. Afterwards, we jumped into the thermal pool, fed with its very own hot waterfall. The hot rocks make for an algae-lined natural cave sauna whose water scorched me as I foolishly dipped my leg in (unused to the powers of natural rock heat). Clambering out into the sun – which feels cool after the water – you sit on deckchairs hemmed in by the streaky rocks before making your way past shocks of pink and purple flowers and the hotel’s vegetable and herb gardens on the road back to the hotel.
The resort is a kind of multi-purpose holiday nexus. It arranges numerous excursions and activities for guests, from trips to a Bedouin camp in the sweeping dunes of the Wadi Rum desert, to Petra (a three hour drive away), to Amman for shopping, to Bedouin dinners on site. There are also daily shuttles to the Dead Sea – and the resort owns a restaurant perched above the sea that offers mouth-watering views at sunset.
We sampled a Petra trip, with a lovely English-speaking driver who whisked us there and back in a Mercedes. Petra, one of the Seven Wonders of the World, is just as gobsmacking as its reputation would have you believe. Yes, the smell of horse dung and the incessant clatter of horse-drawn carts and donkeys carrying awkward looking tourists through its narrow passages is irksome; and the slightly depressing mercenary tactics of the Bedouins that essentially run the place can mar the landscape. But beyond this, those pink palaces of stone, the temples and the archaeological richness left by the Nabateans and Romans makes it an absolute must-see. As an added bonus, the drive to and from the hotel takes in terrific Dead Sea views, dramatic mountains, arid landscapes and rich green farmland.
We also sampled the Bedouin dinner, a high point of the trip and a must for anyone who likes the delicious flavours of well-cooked Middle Eastern cuisine. Local Bedouins – who work with the hotel – were in situ to make us their honey-sweet tea, fire-blasted, gluey bread (we had a go at making this over a flame) and meat that is cooked underground in multi-tiered trays. The meat – chicken and lamb – is cooked in hatches that are opened after several hours; people (and camels) walk over them in the meantime. The result is a truly melting heap of animal that we tore at with our hands, shovelling great moist hunks in our mouths with the salty plain rice and bread.
One of the great culinary discoveries of the trip was Jordanian wine: the hotel’s house white – from Machaerus – was knockout, incredibly drinkable and elegant, and reasonably priced. We also tried some great voluptuous reds.
The hotel’s food options are satisfying but not really a reason to go there – the main buffet is laden with a good selection of veggies, hummous and other local dips, Indian food, meat and some European-style bits and bobs. We enjoyed our club sandwiches, pizza, salads and hummous offered at the poolside restaurant. It was nothing fancy, but it was all nice and fresh.
For a break that feels a million miles away but that is only a thousand, Jordan is a great choice. For a paradise therein, Evason Ma’In is the obvious choice.
Six Senses Evason Ma’in Hot Springs and Six Senses Spa offers a Superior Room from $270 (£184) per room per night based on two people sharing on a B+B basis: www.sixsenses.com, tel: 020 8780 3519. Zoe flew with bmi, the better for business airline. bmi offers daily flights from London Heathrow (LHR) to Amman, Jordan (AMM). Return flights are from £464 in Economy and £1,539 in Business, including taxes.