The Middle East is a paradox. Located at the cultural crossroads between east and west, the region served as one of the major cradles of human civilization and birthplace, yet is misunderstood by many travellers. Louie Chan looks beyond the veil at the Middle East’s most exciting destinations for the year ahead.
Iran is truly enjoying its moment in the sun. More travellers than ever are flocking to this truly unique destination, home to breathtaking Islamic architecture and UNESCO sites that have rocketed the country to the top of ‘must-visit’ lists for 2018. On Country Holidays’ 16-day A Complete Journey of the Legendary Persia, travellers can venture from modern Iran to ancient pre-Islamic Persia, visiting countless UNESCO World Heritage Sites, including the beautiful Eram Garden and Shazdeh Garden; and the Shah Nimatullah Vali Shrine; to Iran's tallest wind tower; the acclaimed Persepolis ruins; and Naqsh-e-Jahan Square, with its most historical and pilgrimage architecture.
Visiting the National Jewellery Museum in Tehran is a highlight of the journey, where you’ll gaze upon the largest pink diamond in the world. You can also delve into Iran’s rich local culture with a visit to a traditional zurkhaneh, where today’s Iranians perform timeless exercises first developed to train warriors. Don’t miss the opportunity to explore the art of carpet weaving in Esfahan, the centre of Persian Carpets; pay a visit to the Chehel Sotoun Palace, now a museum dedicated to the art of calligraphy; and enjoy the stunning landscapes of Kandovan, the Cappadocia of Iran, a charming village famed for its timeless cliff dwellings.
If you’re thrilled by desert landscapes, incredible mountain ranges, historic forts and warm beaches throughout the year, then make Oman the next destination on your travel bucket list. You can begin your adventure with a visit to Old Muscat and the city’s stunning Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque, before driving southwest to the fortress town of Nizwa. Enjoy an invigorating off-road drive to Juniper Village, famed for its gnarled juniper and olive trees, as well as its incredible panoramic views of Wadi Bani Kharus. Here, the luxurious Alila Jabal Akhdar offers visitors a gateway to the area’s rich history and culture and its unique wildlife. All rooms have views across the Al Hajar mountain range and offers the perfect base from which to explore some of Oman’s most compelling tourist destinations, including Jebel Shams, Oman’s highest mountain, and Jebel Akhdar, considered the fruit bowl of the Sultanate.
In the deep south of the country is Salalah, a less travelled but increasingly popular corner of Oman famed for its orchards and exotic souk, as well as the verdant Wadi Darbat and the ruins of Sumhuram, once one of the major ports of Southern Arabia and an important conduit for the international frankincense trade network. From here you’ll delve into the Empty Quarter, the largest sand desert in the world, for the ultimate glamping experience at the Hud Hud Luxury Private Camp. Here, guests sleep in authentic, handmade Bedouin tents, complete with large beds, cotton bedding, Arabian rugs and throws, and elegant furnishings. It’s a blissful mix of an authentic Arabian caravan and an African safari, enjoyed in one of the last untouched corners of the world. If your appetite for this extraordinary country is yet to be sated, extend your trip with a visit to the seaside retreat of Six Senses Zighy Bay, which was inspired by a traditional Omani village.
A gateway between worlds, Morocco has a touch of the Mediterranean as well as the exoticism of Africa. If you’re an old Moroccan hand, how about beginning your journey at Chefchaouen, one of Morocco’s most beautiful cities, located in the foothills of the Rif Mountains? Enjoy a guided walking tour that explores the white-and-blue washed medina, the unique native handicraft markets, and the eye-catching laundry district of Rif Sebbanin.
Founded in 807, Fez is the most ancient of Morocco’s Imperial cities and is the most complete medieval city of the Arab world. It is a unique and remarkable place that stimulates all the senses. Located in the heart of the ancient city, Riad Fes provides guests with the splendour and authenticity of life as a Fassi noble, complete with sublime Spanish Moorish architecture and crisp New World service.
In Merzouga, your eight-hour drive through the desert will be rewarded with a chance to try your hand at glamping among the towering dunes of the Erg Chebbi Desert, where you’ll ride camels at sunset and listen to folklore around the communal dining table of the main tent. From the dunes journey to Skoura, one of Morocco's beautiful oases, which offers weary travellers a chance to explore the Atlas Mountains’ Todgha Gorge, with lunch served on the edges of the limestone canyon’s clifftops.
No trip to Morocco is complete without tackling Marrakech, which contains the modern soul of Morocco. For a chance to live like royalty, check in at the opulent Royal Mansour, built and owned by the King of Morocco. Centred on a main courtyard with flowing fountains and captivating mosaics, this truly special hotel combines timeless design with world-class service and dining.
From the city it’s an easy journey to the nearby rocky Agafay desert, which can be explored by quad bike or guided horse trek, and Imlil village, set amidst the Atlas Mountains. En-route, visit the Women’s Co-operative Argan Oil Workshop in Tahanaout, and upon arrival trek into the Toubkal National Park to discover spectacular mountain vistas. Rest your weary feet at Sir Richard Branson’s Kasbah Tamadot, a luxurious mountain retreat enjoyed by a few luxury travellers before venturing to the village of Mzik, where you’ll enjoy a traditional tea service with a local Berber family.
Jordan’s past is rich and captivating, with many of the sites mentioned in the Bible falling within its borders. Upon arrival in the capital Amman, get your bearings with a city tour that includes a visit to Jerash, one of the Middle East’s last remaining examples of a Roman provincial city. From the capital you’ll venture into Wadi Rum, Jordan’s wild desert landscape, which fascinated the British liaison officer Lawrence of Arabia. There are a host of activities on offer in Wadi Rum, including jeep safaris, hiking, and a chance to camp under the stars at the Full of Stars Camp.
The next morning set out for Beidha, a major Neolithic archaeological site a few kilometres north of Petra near Siq al-Barid. This ancient archaeological site is included in the more famous Petra's UNESCO inscription, giving it the nickname ‘Little Petra’. Of course, you’ll visit Petra too, with a full day concluding with a unique night walking tour of the Nabataeans capital, which dated from 1BC and which is today listed among the new Seven Wonders of The World.
Pamper yourself with the healing and revitalising waters of the Dead Sea, the lowest point on earth (418m below sea level) over two nights, with time for visits to Madaba, famed for the mosaic floors of its St George's Greek Orthodox Church; and Mount Nebo, where Moses viewed the holy land, between dips in the salt-rich waters.
For activity lovers, Jordan is a brilliant hiking destination; the Ajloun Soap Trail Walk, winds for two hours through woodlands filled with oaks, pistachio and oriental strawberry trees as the trail climbs to 1,100m above sea level at Eagle's View Point, before descending to the Soap House, where local women follow the traditional process of making Orjan soap from pure olive oil. Alternatively, follow the river through the lush landscapes of Wadi Bani Hamad, or follow an ancient Nabatean path from Little Petra to the monastery of Al-Deir.
Begin an insightful journey through the Promised Land, which is often combined with a visit to Jordan, with an in-depth walking tour of Jerusalem. Start at the Citadel, known as the “Tower of David”, and its museum, which beautifully brings to life Jerusalem’s rich and often turbulent history. To follow the story of Jesus, start from the Jewish Quarter of the Old City, where you’ll see the famous Wailing Wall and the iconic Dome of the Rock before discovering the Western Wall Tunnel beneath. Continue to the Tomb of the Virgin Mary, and the adjacent Garden of Gethsemane, at the foot of the Mount of Olives, most famous as the place where Jesus prayed, and his disciples slept the night before his crucifixion. Walk along the Way of the Cross (Via Dolorosa) that marks the 14 stations of the Cross on the day of Jesus’ crucifixion, a route which ends at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, built on the site of the execution. There will also be time to visit Mount Zion, the Tomb of King David, and The Room of the Last Supper.
From Jerusalem you can make an excursion to Bethlehem, the birthplace of Jesus Christ, where you’ll visit the Church of Nativity, before returning to Jerusalem and spending the afternoon at the Israeli Museum, or explore the Mahane Yehuda Market, one of the most famous traditional market places in the Middle East. Country Holidays’ itinerary also covers the biblical Sea of Galilee, the Hellenistic, Roman and Crusader's Mediterranean Coast, and ends in what is perhaps the Middle East’s hippest city, Tel Aviv.
The River Nile is the cradle of Egyptian civilisation and should be the first stop on any visit to this ancient land. After exploring the towering pyramids and Sphinx of Giza at sunset, cruise this famous waterway to admire the many wonderful sites of Egyptian antiquity, including the east bank’s Karnak and Luxor temples, and the west bank’s Colossi of Memnon, Temple of Queen Hatshepsut and the countless tombs of the Valley of the Kings.
Beyond the river’s ancient sites, explore the untouched oasis villages of Qaroun Lake and the Qatrani Mountains before camping under the stars in Wadi Hitan. Delve among the ancient fossils of Wadi El-Hitan, the Valley of the Whales before tracing your way around the lakes of Wadi El-Rayyan, a stunning conservation area where the blue waters of the lakes juxtapose the golden sands of the desert.
Back to Cairo you’ll enjoy VIP access at the soon-to-open Grand Egyptian Museum, which houses the world's most extensive collection of pharaonic antiquities, before diving into the vibrant Khan-el-Khalili, the capital’s oldest bazaar and the perfect place for souvenir hunting.
For something rather unique, hop on a 45 minutes flight to Kharga Oasis and the lodge at the Dakhla Oasis, one of the seven oases of Egypt's Western Desert. Along the way you’ll drop in at the Islamic village of Balat, built during the Mamaluke and Turkish eras; and Al-Qasr village, which sits at the foot of towering limestone cliffs and is little changed from medieval times. As the sun hangs low in the sky, join your Bedouin guide to explore the dunes wreathing the oasis by camel.
Two other hotspots in the Middle East will appeal to regular visitors to the region.
This is North Africa wrapped up in one bite-sized package, with vast Sahara dunes, mammoth ancient ruins, and exotic cities that are home to a sprawling tangle of eclectic and fascinating souks. Tunisia was Rome's breadbasket, and the cultural riches the empire left behind are more than enough reason to visit. In addition, the history of Arab occupiers has left a mesmerising legacy of Islamic architecture. You do not have to search far to unearth Tunisia's trademark - a plethora of historical sites dating back almost 3,000 years dotting the landscape of this tiny nation. Kairouan, the former capital of Ifriqiya, which flourished in the 9th century, is the holiest Islamic city after Mecca and Medina.
Despite recent tumultuous times, Turkey’s allure is not lost, especially to travellers intent on experiencing one of the most fascinating and beautiful destinations on earth. This is a huge country scattered with stunning ancient sites and populated by some of the friendliest people on earth. Experience Istanbul's blend of East and West, from Istanbul’s colourful Grand Bazaar and elegant Topkapi Palace, with its gilded harem, to the wind-swept beauty of Cappadocia, the regal ruins at Ephesus, and the postcard perfect coastal resort of Bodrum.
A widely published journalist and lifestyle, golf writer who has spent most of the last decade living in Hong Kong, Louie Chan’s work has appeared in Esquire Hong Kong, CUP Magazine, Golf Digest Hong Kong and more. He is the Managing Editor of HK Golfer, the official publication of the Hong Kong Golf Association.