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Just Jor dropping; Great Escape.

Byline: Chris Henwood

THE Milky Way looked just like any old cloud - except the deep blue night sky had never appeared clearer, without another blemish in sight.

All we could see was the bright pinhole lights of hundreds of stars above us, and, of course, the distant cloud of the Milky Way.

Our eyes remained fixed skyward as we lay on the cool white sands of the desert, and yet all around us was the magnificent landscape of the Wadi Rum desert, a Unesco World Heritage site.

If you focussed hard enough, it was still possible to make out the huge sandstone and granite mountains against the quickly fading light.

For our guide, Basel, this silent contemplation of the heavens above was clearly his favourite part of our tour of Jordan.

An hour passed seemingly in seconds before we headed back to our Bedouin camp, sheltered at the foot of one of the massive rock formations that give Wadi Rum its alternative name - Valley of the Moon.

We took our seats around the camp fire and there was a sweet smell of fruit in the air as our Bedouin hosts passed around their Shisha pipe and poured cup after cup of tea, or 'Bedouin whisky' as it's sometimes fondly called.

Our arrival at camp hours earlier had been on the back of a 4x4 jeep chasing the final moments of the sunset as we snaked through the desert, all the time trying to take in the mind-blowing scale and ancient grandeur of Wadi Rum, with its mountains up to 1,800 metres above sea level and petroglyph markings dating back to the 4th century BC.

Of course, there were also the romantic ties to Lawrence of Arabia whose First World War operations were based there during the Arab Revolt of 1917-18. And for him, the area was "vast, echoing and God-like".

We were to spend just the one night in the camp, but expectations of plummeting temperatures after sundown on this June day proved frustratingly incorrect with continued heat making sleep difficult.

My fellow travellers, a group of UK journalists, and I had picked one of the hottest months of the year to visit the Middle East, with temperatures dropping only marginally at night.

The sleep situation had been even worse the previous night as we stayed at an idyllic, candle-lit Feynan Ecolodge in the boulderstrewn Wadi Feynan desert. The heat was simply too much to get any meaningful rest and the lack of air conditioning - in line with the lodge's commendable eco credentials - allowed for no respite.

But in cooler months, the lodge would surely be a must on the 'to-do' list. Its 26 rooms have minimalistic charm. There's no electricity, for example, and candles light the outdoor corridors and the rooms themselves, where simple water-filled terracotta jugs - rather than mini-fridges - house the inroom refreshment. More importantly, though, the complex provides a base for exploring local archaeological sites, hiking or simply relaxing in its serene courtyards and terraces.

And as far as archaeological sites are concerned, Jordan enjoys an embarrassment of riches.

There's the ancient city of Jerash, which boasts an unbroken chain of human occupation dating back more than 6,500 years.

It features Roman paved and colonnaded streets, soaring hilltop temples and handsome theatres - all of which have been excavated from their sandy graves and restored over the last 70 years.

And the capital itself, Amman, is crowned by the Citadel - a hill with ruins of the Temple of Hercules, an Ummayyad Palace and a Byzantine Church. And at the foot of the Citadel lies the 6,000-seat Roman Theatre.

The city enjoys modernday prosperity and a temperate climate that means almost half of Jordan's six million population lives in the area, and it's no more than a four-hour drive from anywhere in the country.

It's situated in the northwest of Jordan, which has not seen the popular uprisings that have occurred in the wider region, although it did not go unaffected.

King Abdallah launched a programme of reforms to strengthen democracy last year in response to the events of the Arab Spring, and as such the phrase "an oasis of calm" is one that seems fitting.

This has allowed it to make the most of its incredibly rich heritage, chief among which must rank Petra, 235km south of Amman.

It's been a UNSECO World Heritage Site since 1985, was chosen among a BBC list of 40 must-visit-before-you-die places and is also one of the New Seven Wonders of the World.

The 'Rose Red City' built into sheer rock by Nabataeans around the 6th century was also made famous in the Hollywood blockbuster Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.

But nothing that anybody could write would prepare you for the grandeur, scale and colours of this once-lost treasure. Spare at least a day for any visit. And if Petra is one of two places you could only afford the time to visit, then the Dead Sea must surely be the other destination.

We've all seen the pictures of people seemingly miraculously perched on the surface of the 'water' and to experience floating in the liquid is like nothing else.

It's a strange, almost oily substance that is essentially super-concentrated saltwater, lying more than 400m below sea level.

Famously, it has healthboosting qualities and provides a brilliant way to recharge after a trip to a country so rich in historic interest.

GettingThere Royal Jordanian (RJ) offers daily flights, which take around five hours, from London Heathrow to Amman.

Royal Jordanian also offers two daily flights between Amman and Aqaba one-way if booked with the London-Amman-London RJ flights.

For further information, the latest price details and to book online,

visit www.rj.com or phone 08719 112 112.

The cost of one entry visa for all nationalities is 20 Jordanian Dinar (1 JD = 87p) obtained upon arrival at the airport.

Chris stayed at the Movenpick Resort and Spa Dead Sea (www.moevenpickhotels.

com), Feynan Ecolodge (www.

feynan.com) and the Captain's Desert Camp (www.captains-jo.com).

A number of tour operators offer tailor-made holidays to Jordan. These include Abercrombie and Kent (www.abercrombiekent.co.uk), Cox and Kings (www.coxandkings.co.uk), Bales Worldwide (www.balesworldwide.com), Mosaic Holidays (www.mosaicholidays.co.uk), Travel the Unknown (www.traveltheunknown.com) and Audley Travel (www.audleytravel.com).

CAPTION(S):

World wonder: The ancient rock-cut city of Petra (above and far left) and a Roamn city in Jerash (middle).
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Publication:Birmingham Mail (England)
Date:Jan 11, 2012
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