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Clare Catford

Shaking, needing the loo, my knuckles the colour of snow I eased myself into the shallows off the coast of Aqaba, Jordan. This was 1998. The year I learned to dive. I nearly didn't make it though. It was only due to the patience of my long suffering dive instructor, Rod that I managed to get into the water at all. Yes, I was that frightened. When the dive gear clunked, I thought I was drowning. When a boat passed by, I assumed I would be chopped up by the prop. Nervous? Not at all. Overwhelmingly terrified, nauseous and anxious? That was more like it.

Fast forward to 2006 and the experience was very different. Rescue diver qualified, I can actually enjoy my diving experience without hyper ventilating. Just as important I enjoyed Jordan, itself, far more the second time around. Why? Strange as it may seem, let's start at Aqaba airport.

For me, the holiday begins here. Once I've got through the crowds at Gatwick, the last thing I need is a rugby scrum at the destination. As you'll know if you are a Sharm regular, leaving or entering Egypt requires a strong deodorant, shoulders of a rugby scrum half, and a love of chaos. The experience is, in short a tourist assault course. Queues that wend their way out of the terminal, officials who don't give a damn, and loos not able to cope with nervous tummies on their way out or into the country. Compared to that, the Aqaba/Jordan experience is, literally, a dream ticket. Throughout October to May you can fly direct from Gatwick, nip through immigration and get yourself into your hotel bedroom within the hour. And if you need the airport loo before you get your hotel bus, you'll find it in great working order. Sadly these direct flights don't operate all year round. During the summer you'll need to change at Amman if you want any different, nag the Jordanians. They have a virtual monopoly on landing slots; their state owned airline is virtually the only way of getting their in high season, and Amman can be as much hassle as Sharm.
Ocean Leisure
Section of Giant Clam by Juliet Savigear That said visiting off peak has a lot going for it. It's cheaper, uncrowded, unless you're there during the Muslim Eid (when Ramadan fasting finishes), and you can dive more or less when you want. This is a huge plus. Those 7.30 am starts, to get to breakfast (it's included so mustn't miss the omelette) get the dive stuff organised, return to the room twice because you've forgotten your sunnies and the trash novel, and then get out in time for the pick up bus have worn me down. Call me lazy, shallow and a fair weather diver if you will. I work my arse off the rest of the year, and a lie in is part of my holiday.

I dived with Sea Star which is attached to the Alcazar hotel. Their dive club, the club Murjan, is based up the coast, and if you miss their early start dive bus, you can get yourself a cab, for around a fiver (English money) and turn up in time for coffee. And then you can dive. The instructors were great, really well trained, fluent English speakers, and very helpful when it came to getting the gear down to the shore line. Shore diving is what's on offer here; if you want the boat option you'll find that too if you shop around Aqaba town. Club Murjan has its own pool, bar, and restaurant, plus showers that are overflowing with solar heated hot water for that post dive clean up. So if your mate is a dive addict, and you simply want to get stuck into a Jackie Collins or Dan Brown, you can top up your tan whilst he/she disappears into the depths.

The shore based dive sites are a delight. If you are a beginner, don't want anything too strenuous, or just want to ease yourself back into your dive routine, you couldn't find a better location. I'm not that great when it comes to describing types of fish, coral or underwater vegetation, but there's plenty of it. Think 'Finding Nemo' and you've got the idea. I am however, a turtle fan, and I've seen more of those shelled critters here, than anywhere else. Brilliant.
Nautilus Lifeline
Petra Back on dry land, when your dive hair has been tamed and you're ready for a night out, think quiet drink rather than clubbing until 4am. Aqaba does not have an endless supply of varied eateries and bars. That doesn't mean it's a lost cause just that you have to lower your sights if you're used to a choice of menu, ambiance and entertainment. Personally, I rather like this. The Rover's Return, for example, complete with Coronation street icons on the wall, is no Sharm Camel Bar, but the service is quick, the drinks are cheap and it was just a short walk from the Intercontinental where I stayed. Jordan is not without reasonable restaurants, but you have to look hard to find them. I had room service, which wasn't over the top expensive some nights, and nipped out to a couple of local places in Aqaba the rest of the time.

A word about the hotels. The Alcazar, where I stayed first time around, is basic and needs some decorating. The showers are a little dodgy, but the rooms are clean, and it is reasonably priced. Other guests off peak tend to be Jordanian, so you do get a real taste of the country and its people. The Intercon and the Movenpick are international chains so are more expensive, but off peak are manageable price wise. You can get a lounger by the pool without fighting off bling clad Russians (a Sharm hazard) and they'll serve you cappuccinos and cocktails whilst you put your feet up. Best to buy bottles of water in the town as the mark up in the hotel is daft. The Jordanians have big plans to develop the resort, so beware of the bedroom that looks out onto the many flourishing building sites; you'll be woken by diggers.
Diving Leisure London
  Away from the beach, snorkels and regulators, you'll find some real gems. Petra for starters. 'Petra' means 'rock' in Greek. One of the wonders of the world it's an Indiana Jones style temple with history oozing out of every nook and crevice. Your 'Rough Guide' or 'Lonely Planet' will give you all the facts, figures and info, but it is worth a trip. All the guide books say it takes 2 days to 'do' properly. I am not a 2 day kind of gal, particularly as I can only afford a week away from my real journalist life. Me bloke and I did Petra in the morning and Wadi Rum, (think desert, Lawrence of Arabia and tear prompting sunsets) in the afternoon. The Alcazar, who are great at organising trips, taxis, guides sorted it for us. We tipped up at Petra in the morning, this WAS an early start, but worth it; a spiritual experience, taking me back to childhood fantasies of caves and dens with the obligatory souvenir and coffee shops thrown in. We made Wadi Rum by late lunchtime. The desert guide and rickety land rover were included; the views, rock formations, dunes and sand lizards came completely free. Off peak means not so hot and not so many other tourists. Petra and Wadi Rum do get crowded later in the year, and in 90 degree heat would be hard to negotiate. We had snow (!) and cool weather on the day, which made all the difference. Weather-wise it was a bit hit and miss on the second time around trip, but this meant wet suit induced heat stroke was avoided, and there were no bright red noses. If cloudy, go shopping. Not much to buy, unless you cab it up to the malls outside the town, however, your basic but incredibly cheap duty free airport shop on your journey home is a must for last minute vodka, perfume, fags and essential camel figurine for your mum.
Surf And Turf Safaris
  Second time around Aqaba, like marriage, was risky but worth it. Older, wiser and a better diver, I loved every minute; AND there wasn't that irritating male harassment you find in Sharm. Maybe it's because my bum is not as pert as it was ten years ago, that I didn't get as much unwanted attention, but I feel I've grown out of Sharm; Aqaba is for the adult, not the adolescent. My next grown up decision? To go back again, for a third time.

Clare stayed at: www.alcazarhotel.com and The Intercontinental Aqaba
Dived with: Sea Star and Club Murjan. Arrange with The Alcazar
Visited Petra and Wadi Rum with: Local guides via reception at The Alcazar
Booked it all with: www.aquatours.com

Nearest recompression facility:
Princess Haya Hospital, Aqaba Tel: + 96 23-2014111
Worldwide Dive and Sail

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