Aqaba resorts offer pristine seaside retreat

Ayla marina village 2 _ Zane Wolfang
Aqaba is the type of place I love my friends back home to see because it totally upends their stereotypical image of the Middle East. (Photo: Zane Wolfang/Jordan News)
AMMAN — Stately yachts sit nestled in an azure lagoon, a gentle breeze blowing overhead as tropical fish flit in and out of vision in the crystal clear water. To our right, gleaming white stucco buildings with deep blue trim rise out of the brick promenade, with a few patrons soaking up the sun outside trendy restaurants and bars, quiet luxury residences with breathtaking balconies built over them. I take a quick video panorama to send to some friends back in the US and ask them to guess where we are: the Greek isles, the Italian coast? اضافة اعلان

We are actually in Aqaba, Jordan, staying at the Cloud 7 residences in the Ayla Oasis marina village. Aqaba is the type of place I love my friends back home to see because it totally upends their stereotypical image of the Middle East. Even after almost a decade travelling through Lebanon, Palestine, Iraq, Egypt, the most similar place I have seen to Ayla in all my years of traveling is a resort in Providenciales, the capital of the Turks and Caicos Islands in eastern Caribbean.

(Photo: Zane Wolfang/Jordan News) 

We stayed two nights in Ayla, in an absolutely gorgeous one-bedroom apartment with a sweeping view of the marina, the bay beyond and the rugged coastline of Eilat across the way. After two years of living in the West Bank, it was strange to somehow be just as close to the border of Israel here in Aqaba as I was when I lived in Bethlehem.

One taxi driver told me that many of Ayla’s guests are 1948 Palestinians – Palestinians who retained their property after the Nakba, and now hold a passport which allows them to cross into Jordan at the southernmost border crossing between Eilat and Aqaba.

(Photo: Zane Wolfang/Jordan News) 

The two cities are startlingly close geographically, and it makes sense that in antiquity they were one larger city, a major port encircling the bay throughout the time of the Edomites, Assyrians, Babylonians, Achaemenids, Nabateans, later the Greeks and Romans, and still later the Ummayads, the Abbasids, and the Fatimids.

The city changed names throughout those times – Elath, Ayla, Berenice, Aqaba. Many of those ancient names can still be seen incorporated into modern businesses and streets around Aqaba today; Ayla Oasis and Berenice Beach club are two good examples of popular tourist spots which have stronger etymological ties to the city’s ancient history than their guests might realize at first glance.

(Photo: Zane Wolfang/Jordan News) 

Our apartment in Ayla was stunning, fully equipped with a kitchen, living room, one and a half bathrooms and one of the best balconies I have ever had the privilege of lounging on. Both the living room and the bedroom had glass sliding doors out onto the balcony, which was large enough to entertain guests for a dinner and featured two cushioned sofas along either side, two swing chairs hanging from the ceiling, which were perfect for reading, lounging, or taking photos for social media, and a nice set of wicker furniture for watching the sunset.

The activities in Ayla were a bit disappointing – the infrastructure is there, but the attention to detail is not, and with the exception of the beach pass for entry to the Hyatt beach and the discount for B12 Beach, the attitude seems to be more about taking as much money from guests as possible than about providing a quality experience to guests who are already paying quite a bit to stay at the resort.

(Photo: Zane Wolfang/Jordan News) 

There is a birdwatching tour advertised on the brochure, a project in partnership with the Royal Society for the Conservation of Nature. The brochure was vague, and when we called for more information, they wanted to charge us JD50 per person to get picked up by a shuttle and walk through the golf course.

We worked around that by renting bicycles for JD5 an hour, and rode them on a path which also came quite close to the pond where most of the birds congregate. The bikes were not adjusted or tested for us and the tires were a bit flat, but the ride was still enjoyable, particularly since the birds do not know which side of the pond the people are overpaying for and are distributed quite evenly throughout the area. We also got to see a herd of camels being grazed on an undeveloped section of the resort property.

(Photo: Zane Wolfang/Jordan News) 

We spent our third night in Aqaba at Tala Bay. After my first experience with Ayla’s attempt to charge so much for the birdwatching, I decided to ask how much a taxi would cost to bring us from Ayla, which is quite close to downtown Aqaba, to Tala Bay, which is about 15 km down the coast past the container port. I happen to know from previous trips to Aqaba that the taxi ride to Tala Bay should cost between JD7 and JD10, so I was disappointed but not entirely surprised when the employee at the front desk offered to call us a taxi for JD25. We negotiated with a taxi driver on the Ayla grounds to take us for JD10, and called the guy who had originally picked us up at the Jett bus station to arrange our ride back from Tala Bay in the morning. He only charged us JD8.

Tala Bay was quite charming. It is a bit older than Ayla, but it is actually on the coast of the Red Sea, rather than on a manmade lagoon, and its marina is a bit more active, including ferry service to Egypt, so it is a bit more interesting for guests who are interested in boats and yachting culture.

Tala Bay also offers overnight stays at residences, but we went for a more affordable hotel room at Marine Plaza, which was still nice and offered a view overlooking the pool.

 Our conclusion was that the best value at Ayla was the apartment itself – the Cloud 7 residences are beautiful and well-designed, offering an amazing space to relax and unwind, and Ayla is clearly the best choice for vacationers who want a luxury resort experience while still being close enough to downtown to easily venture out into the actual city of Aqaba.

However, if your intention is to go to a resort and stay there for the whole weekend, with no interest in venturing into the city, Tala Bay might be a better option, as the sea view is spectacular, the resort is more secluded, and the customer service culture is more developed, friendlier, and geared less toward tacking on activities with additional fees than toward facilitating a comfortable and pleasant experience.

Read more Where to Go