Seeking peace in Jordan
Petra, Jordan. Picture: Scenic

A jewel in the heart of the arid Middle East, Jordan is rich in sites of Biblical significance and monuments of antiquity.

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Given its position - bordering Saudi Arabia, Israel, Syria, Iraq and Egypt - it's also surrounded by conflict and political unease, causing visitor numbers to drop off in recent months.

But when I arrive in capital city Amman, with fellow passengers clutching Versace bags and prayer mats, this land of contrasts feels remarkably peaceful and safe.

There's not a hint of the unrest in Syria, and despite some westerners' concerns, in reality this is a good time to visit: many of the key sights are less crowded than usual, and this year also marks the 200th anniversary of the rediscovery of that archaeological gem, Petra.

Private drivers and coach tours are popular ways to explore the country, but my boyfriend and I take the more independent option of hiring a car.

After leaving the city, we travel through desert to our first stop, the Dead Sea. Famous for being the Earth's lowest land elevation - it's 400 metres below sea level - this region is home to a number of chic beach resorts, capitalising on the health-benefiting properties of this salt lake whose shores are shared with Israel.

We spend the night at the Moevenpick Resort and Spa Dead Sea, located in Sweimeh on the northeast shore.

The architect's brief was to create a hotel based on the old city of Jerusalem - the Holy City is just 40km away - in a traditional Arabic style, with houses made of baked clay.

He's done a good job. Organised like a small town, the resort reminds me of houses pictured in the Bible stories I read as a child.

Due to the high salt content, no life forms can survive in the Dead Sea. But the mineral-rich mud at the bottom of the lake has been used in health and beauty treatments for thousands of years.

I'm itching to experience it first-hand, so don my swimsuit (although this is a Muslim country, it's very liberal) and make my way down to the rocky beach.

I smear myself with mud and allow it to bake in the sun for 10 minutes until it begins to harden and crack. My boyfriend and I then wade back into the saline soup, bobbing weightlessly on the water's surface.

The high salt content makes it impossible to sink, and it feels as if we're wearing life jackets.

Guests are recommended to stay no longer than 20 minutes in the water, but we continue our pampering at the hotel's award-winning Zara Spa. After a signature salt scrub and mud wrap treatment, we relax with cocktails by the infinity pool, watching the sun set over the Israeli border.

From a sterile sea to one brimming with life, we travel three hours along the desert highway to the Red Sea. Aside from a few tricky road signs and minor sandstorm, the journey is relatively stress-free.

A seven-minute drive from the border with Saudi Arabia, Moevenpick Tala Bay is set on a marina peppered with super yachts. Contemporary in style with chill-out bars and glossy furnishings, the resort also features lagoon-style pools and family-friendly waterslides.

Taking advantage of the clear, unspoilt waters of this protected coastline, we visit the hotel's Sinai Dive Centre.

Much of the marine life here is unique to the Red Sea, and while exploring this aquatic treasure trove we spot a turtle, beautiful coral and an array of multi-coloured tropical fish.

Back on land, Mars-like desert plain Wadi Rum, where scenes from Star Wars were filmed, is only a 70-minute drive away. The sunset over the 'valley of the moon' is spectacular, with stars glistening like an open jewellery box.

But the most precious moments of our trip are yet to come.

The ancient Kingdom of Petra, hidden from the West until 1812, is an awe-inspiring testament to nature and human ingenuity.

This year marks the 200th anniversary of its rediscovery by Swiss adventurer and scholar Johann Ludwig Burckhardt. It's now one of the world's most popular ancient sites. Even if the number of visitors to Jordan has fallen recently, tourists are still flocking to Petra.

Our hotel, Moevenpick Resort Petra, is a stone's throw from the main entrance to the site, in the town of Wadi Musa. The location is perfect for early morning visits to the rose-pink city - the gates open at 7am.

One of the settings for iconic Eighties cinema hit Indiana Jones And The Last Crusade, Petra is now listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site and ranked by some archaeologists as the Eighth Wonder of the World.

Built by Nabataean people, an ancient Arab tribe who made it their capital city, Petra was first established around the 6th century BC. A warren of temples, tombs and living spaces were carved into the red sandstone, with many occupied by local tribes until as recently as 30 years ago.

Most are now permanently settled in a village on the edge of the main site but they still trade jewellery and souvenirs and offer horse, camel and donkey rides to tourists.

As we prepare for the 800-step climb up the mountain of Ad-Deir to the monastery, one of the key sights in Petra, we politely decline the Bedouin's offers of a lift up from Shakira, Michael Jackson or 'a Lamborghini', aka Petra's hardy donkeys.

We walk quickly and make it to the top in a gruelling 45 minutes. Our reward is having the place almost to ourselves.

A handful of locals are still milling about the site. Having finished work for the day, daring Bedouin lads, wearing thick black kohl eyeliner and long headscarves, are playfully leaping between rocks.

On our way down, we catch a breathtaking sunset over Wadi Araba, where the Israeli-Jordanian peace treaty was signed in 1994.

It's a fitting end to our trip.

The intriguing city of Petra, hidden from the outside world for so many years, is a reassuring haven of peace and calm.

Sadly, wars may be raging elsewhere in the Middle East, but in Jordan life goes on as normal. For many years, the sandstone caves of Petra provided safe shelter for so many people, and two centuries later it doesn't feel much different.


FACT FILE

BEST FOR
Ancient wonders, geological spectacles and Jordanian hospitality.

TIME TO GO
It's hot all year round but nights in the desert can be cold during winter.

DON'T MISS
Petra at sunrise or sunset.

NEED TO KNOW
To avoid being caught out, agree a price or tip before taking part in any activities.

DON'T FORGET
Flat sturdy shoes and sunblock.

The West Australian

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