Four by four! Good!" my teenage driver shouts, laughing, as he floors the truck and cranks the Arabic electronica. Thanks to a missed connection in New York, it's totally dark as we lurch over craggy desert terrain towards a remote Jordanian ecolodge somewhere south of the Dead Sea. We arrive to find a pathway of luminarios lighting our way to the accommodations of my dreams: a candlelit, vegetarian ecolodge with resident cats and the best stargazing I've ever experienced.
Feynan Ecolodge has garnered acclaim since opening in 2005, including making National Geographic Traveler Magazine's list of top 25 ecolodges in the world. The 26-room lodge is constructed to resemble a caravanserai, a roadside inn with a central courtyard popular with camel caravans travelling the Asian and African deserts. It's located in the Dana Biosphere Reserve, home to lots of wildlife, including the Nubian ibex and three plant species found nowhere else in the world.
The Royal Society for the Conservation of Nature, an NGO devoted to preserving Jordan's natural resources, built the lodge to give the local Bedouin community an economic alternative to copper mining. Archeology is rich here; this area is one of the world's oldest continuously inhabited regions, dating back to 10,000 BC.
Despite very limited electricity, the lodge feels modern and comfortable. Votive candles in nooks light the rooms at night. Fortunately, I didn't need the mosquito netting provided. The vegetarian breakfast buffet included yogurt, falafel, tomatoes, halvah and hardboiled eggs. We ate at tables outside overlooking desert and mountains, accompanied by three small, striped orange cats.
Feynan offers a whole menu of hikes. Visitors can book a guide to take them to the best sunrise spot, to explain medicinal uses of local plants, or teach them about copper mining or archeology. Cultural activities are also available, such as learning to weave goat hair tents or spending an entire day with a shepherd.
Local guide Suleiman Al-Hasaseen walked my group down the road to visit a local Bedouin family. The patriarch, a weather-beaten man in the traditional red and white checked headscarf, roasted green coffee beans over a fire in the sand. The big tent was divided into a women's area and a men's area. We sat on the men's side, swatting ravenous flies, to drink our coffee. The tent was sewn from a patchwork of materials, with animal feed bags stitched together to make the ceiling.
Al-Hasaseen explained the place of coffee in Bedouin life. It's a special occasion drink, used to celebrate wedding engagements, births, to welcome guests or to discuss serious matters between tribes. Men usually make the coffee, but women can if the men aren't around. Usually if there's coffee, there will also be meat, another rare item. Traditionally, the host drinks the first cup of coffee, proving it's not poisoned. Then everybody drinks one to three tiny cups of the strong, sweet coffee.
However, if a guest puts his coffee down on the ground without drinking, that signifies a serious discussion. That little cup of coffee will not be drank until the parties reach an agreement.
This herding family rises with the sun every morning, lights a fire and milks its 100 goats. They boil the milk, mixing it with thyme or wormwood to keep away bugs. Then they start making arbood, a bread composed of flour, salt and water, and baked in ash. Breakfast is usually bread and olive oil or goat ghee. "People in Bedouin don't eat much at all," Al-Hasaseen told us.
We met some of the students from the nearby modern-looking school when they came to check us out. There's no shortage of kids among the Bedouins. One mother here can have 10 children, Al-Hasaseen told me. "There's nothing to do at night. Just make children."
If You Go
I only got to spend one night at Feynan. I wish it had been longer. If you decide to visit this remote and fascinating place, give yourself at least two nights so you have time to hike, stargaze, relax, and take in some cultural experiences. Check out the Feynan website for special upcoming activities, like a writers' retreat in February 2018. Visitors flying into Amman can rent a car and drive to Feynan, or the lodge can book a driver for you. Unless you rent a high-clearance vehicle, you'll need to arrange for a local driver to take you the last eight kilometres.