By Bobbie Leigh
It began badly, a kidney-crashing, five-mile drive in a rusty pickup truck along unpaved paths carved out between huge sandstone boulders. (Vans and private cars remain at the Visitors Center to protect the environment.) But gradually, 15 minutes into the ride, we (a small group of journalist guests of the Jordan Tourism Board) forgot about the ride and were mesmerized by the landscape—desert sands and pristine, primordial rocky outcrops in amazing burnt-orange, yellow, and tan hues. We were driving to one of Jordan’s most admired eco-lodges along rocky pathways in the mountainous Dana Biosphere Reserve. It is Jordan’s largest nature reserve, about three hours south of the capital, Amman.
When we arrived at Feynan Ecolodge we were warmly greeted by Nabil Tarazi, Managing Director of Eco-Hotels, a private company that operates the ecolodge in partnership with the Royal Society for the Conservation of Nature. Its mission is to protect and manage the Kingdom’s natural resources and landscapes while Eco-Hotels’ goal is to develop “environmentally sustainable escapes that give back to local communities and invest in pivotal conservation projects.” In other words, escapes that sustain the cultural integrity of the local people, respect their habitat, and traditions.
Tarazi explained that Feynan was entirely off the grid. What electricity existed—in guest bathrooms, the kitchen, and an office — was powered by rooftop solar/photovoltaic panels. Water came from a nearby local stream and, as you might expect, plastic water bottles were eliminated. Instead, each of the charming, romantic guest rooms had locally made clay jars with surprisingly cool spring water. The lodge is totally sustainable: laundry is air-dried, candles and stars light the lodge at night, waste is recycled, food scraps are composted, and non-recycled waste is trucked to Amman.
As we sat in the patio, sipping an exotic welcome fruit drink, Tarazi gave us some background. The Dana Reserve is about 116 square miles and the hotel is located in Wadi Feynan (wadi is the Arabic word for valley.) Our driver and all the people who lead hikes and workshops, prepare meals in the kitchen, and provide staff support for the 26-room lodge are local Bedouin, whose families have lived in the region for generations.
Constructed in 2005 by artist, designer, and architect Ammar Khammash, everything about Feynan is totally unexpected. The design of the hotel doesn’t even appear to be manmade. Instead, it matches in color and texture the caramel-colored surrounding rocks. Flat-roofed and with stone slabs perpendicular to the outer walls to deflect the desert heat, you are in an oasis with courtyards and terraces, surrounded by green trees and local plants.
After settling in, we began a two-hour sunset hike with Ali Hassasin , a well-trained eco-guide, perhaps 25, who invited us to his father’s tent after dinner. Ali talked a lot about his life, his bride of seven months who taught school in a local village. Hiking and mountain biking are the main activities. The best hikes, according to Ali, are the morning sunrise hike, and others to the remains of a Neolithic village, a Byzantine church, a defunct copper mine and abandoned monasteries. There’s also a strenuous all day canyoning hike to Wadi Ghayr.
Guests who would like to be immersed in Bedouin life, can learn to bake Arabic bread, weave goat-hair rugs, attend cooking classes, and join candle-making and leather workshops. Some local Bedouin women also teach guests how to make up their eyes with kohl, straight from the fire. With all these activities, training the staff, and assistance to the village schools, Feynan directly benefits more than 80 families from the local community.
No bathtub after the strenuous hike, but the shower worked fine and the bed with a comfy duvet, inviting. (The solar panels provided ample hot water.) Dinner was on the patio where we met a few German guests and an English couple who had been touring Jordan on their own— describing Jerash in the north which they had just visited as “ruins upon ruins.” Dinner, as all meals at Feynan, are vegetarian- but not tricky. Everything- beans, rice, veggies, salted white cheese, spicy and plain yoghurts —is easy to recognize and delicious, especially the baba ganoush (charred eggplant) and a flat bread with hummus. A local Bedouin woman, Um Khalid, works from her tent and provides all the bread served daily.
The European guests seemed to accept that traveling without a private guide in their own cars was totally safe while the first question Americans ask when they learn you have been to Jordan is: “Is it safe?” No incidents with tourists have been reported since the Israel-Jordan peace treaty was signed in 1994.
After a leisurely dinner, Ali escorted us to his father’s tent. We could only listen to the chatter of the women separated from us by a curtain. On our (male and guest side) Ali and his brothers served us mint tea, so sweet that it’s likely the entire Bedouin population may suffer from some form of diabetes. Star gazing on the rooftop terrace with state of the art telescopes is the prime evening activity. Nothing can compare you for the desert at night where as some said, God has his best chance to show off.
Clearly Feynan’s builders and owners believed that when you have a beautiful site, the most important thing is to protect everything about it — the families who live there as well as the natural surroundings. Being there provides one of the most exhilarating and fascinating experiences in the Hashemite Kingdom —even more so than Petra and Jerash, the two best known Jordanian destinations.
Lodging information at www.feynan.com.