We knew the night would be a little different than expected when at check-in Mahmoud cheerfully informed us, “I’ve upgraded you to a cave.” That was our introduction to staying at a Bedouin camp on our visit to Jordan. We had visions of dusty tents covered with Persian rugs and the odd camel lumbering by. This was true enough, but we were directed to our cave, a hole in the wall (literally) that barely had room for a floor mat with enough striped pillows to fill a Martha Stewart home furnishings catalog. After Mahmoud told us he had been raised in this cave we gladly accepted his generous offer.

Petra Bedouin through hole in cave

Bedouin still roam at Petra.

We were staying near Little Petra, only a few miles away from the world-renowned site of Petra. But apparently that short distance is an impassable obstacle to thousands of tourists every year. While Petra is jammed with visitors, many of them day-trippers traveling in huge packs from southern Israel, its former suburb of Little Petra can usually be seen in total silence. Our goal was to see both and compare.

Petra Indiana Jones shadow Although it has been quietly lurking in a remote mountain pass for millennia, Petra’s most recent rediscovery occurred when Steven Spielberg selected it as the site for the climactic scene in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. Picture Harrison Ford and Sean Connery riding their horses through a narrow passageway and encountering the ancient pink-sandstone Treasury Building, with its Corinthian columns and pediment, carved into the rock. Moviegoers around the world were astonished that it wasn’t a movie set but a real place they could visit. Tourism took off, making Petra one of the most popular attractions in the world.

Petra began in the Neolithic Period, but really came into its own as a rich trading post in the 1st century B.C.. By the 6th century, a massive earthquake destroyed much of the city and it was abandoned, though local Bedouin continued to live in the area as they still do today.

To break away from the crowds at Petra it is necessary to take a big step, or in this case about 800 of them, and climb to the Deir, or Monastery. We lost count along the way so we’ll take their word on the number of steps. Figure about a 30-60 minute climb, depending on your fitness level and how often you’ll stop to take pictures of the incredible desert vistas from the cliff-side trail.

Visit to Jordan Petra Monastery view over valley

The climb to the Monastery is over 800 steps but well worth it.

The monastery at Petra

Along with the Treasury, the Monastery is one of the must-see buildings at Petra. (Note: It’s pictured at the top of this story.) Built around the 1st century A.D., it’s believed to be a temple dedicated to King Obodas. Its facade is carved out of the rock in a similar style to the Treasury building, but we only realized its massive scale when someone walked in front of the 30 feet tall doorway. Visitors to the Monastery share a sense of easy camaraderie after making the strenuous climb. Those less inclined to walk can ride a donkey to the top but, quite frankly, watching them scramble over the slippery sandstone with their clunky hooves made us glad we trusted our rubber-soled hiking shoes instead.

At the summit we met a teenaged Bedouin girl named Amup who offered to show us around the Monastery. She helped Larissa scale  the high wall leading into that massive doorway (Michael was content to stay behind and take pictures) and then led her to some hidden caves that offered tremendous views and photo ops.

When we offered to pay Amup for guiding us, she refused, stating proudly that she did this for free. She said, “However, if you are interested perhaps you might like to buy a bracelet?” Such is the way of the Bedouin, theirs is a unique code of honor: they will offer services for free in the hopes that you will consider purchasing some of their goods. Unlike the relentless hounding we’ve seen in other countries, we found this approach refreshing, one that has worked well for them for thousands of years.

Larissa Michael Milne Petra Changes In Longitude

Although Petra is popular, its sheer size makes it easy to break away from the pack. The outline of some of the buildings is visible carved into the rock in the valley behind us.

A side trip to Little Petra

The next day we visited Little Petra, a suburb of its big brother. It’s nestled in a slot canyon with similar structures carved out of the cliff as we saw at Petra, but on a much smaller, and more approachable, scale. We clambered up a set of ancient weather-worn steps to view intricately painted ceilings in a 1st-century A.D. dining hall. The surprisingly intact paintings portray cherubs, vines and birds. While a tour of Petra may take a day, Little Petra can be visited in an hour. Its splendid isolation, sans crowds, enables the visitor to imagine they are two millennia back in time.

Little Petra

The only thing Little Petra lacks is crowds. 

Little Petra stairs

Little Petra sits in a narrow slot canyon leading to these weathered stairs.

Little Petra painted ceiling

The painted ceilings at Little Petra are true survivors. 

Amman, the original Philadelphia

We then drove north to Amman, Jordan’s capital city, to seek more wonders of the ancient world. Although we hail from the City of Brotherly Love, we weren’t aware that the original Philadelphia was located here. During Roman times the city was named Philadelphia after a ruler of Egypt, King Ptolemy II Philadelphus. It was an unexpected sight to be in the Middle East and see the name “Philadelphia” emblazoned on tour buses, signs and postcards.

Philadelphia Amman Jordan Temple of Hercules

Larissa walking down the original streets of Philadelphia.

The streets of Philadelphia are best explored in the Citadel, an area that has been occupied for over 7,000 years. Originally the city’s acropolis, it offers commanding views of modern Amman from its rocky perch. Surviving Corinthian columns from the temple of Hercules, built in the 2nd century A.D., pierce the blue sky. Remains of Roman fortifications and a 6th-century Byzantine Church also dot the hilltop. Next door is the Jordan Archaeological Museum and Gardens. The ancient artifacts on display include a plaster statue from around 6,500 B.C.

Below the Citadel an well-preserved Roman theater lies cradled in a valley. It is still used for open-air concerts. On the day we visited the entertainment was provided by ten-year old boys and girls using the stage as an impromptu soccer pitch. The Theater’s cute cousin next door is the petite Odeum, operated for smaller performances.

Visit to Jordan Roman Theater Philadelphia Amman

The ancient ruins in Jordan are some of the best to be found anywhere, yet crowds are practically nonexistent. Many people only make a day-trip to Petra from Israel, however Jordan has much more to offer. Little Petra and the Roman ruins in Amman make it worth a longer visit. The country’s compact size makes it an easy place to drive around for a week and see everything.

Meanwhile, back at the cave, we dug into a meal of zarb prepared by our Bedouin hosts. Lamb, rice, tomatoes, potatoes and herbs were placed in a pot buried in a hot pit under the sands and cooked for hours, a Middle Eastern version of a clambake. The lamb was so tender we pulled it apart with our fingers and scooped up the rice with pita bread.

Zarb Little Petra Bedouin camp Jordan

Zarb, the original Bedouin BBQ.

Sitting around a campfire, we looked up at the clear night sky and tried to count the constellations, but there were so many we eventually gave up. After a day spent touring one of the most incredible sites in the world we settled in for a chilly desert night. Considering all the roaming we’ve been doing for the past year, a cave in a Bedouin camp felt remarkably like home.

What do you recommend seeing in Jordan?

28581550060_131210d7e7_mLarissa and Michael are your typical middle-aged couple from Philadelphia who’ve been traveling the world full-time since 2011, seeking off-beat, historic and tasty sights. To receive our free quarterly newsletter with updates and valuable travel tips subscribe here.

From a kitschy throwback hotel in North Korea to a nudist B&B in Portugal, we found a few unique places to stay in the world. Here are some of our favorites:

1) Little Petra Bedouin Camp, Jordan


Little Petra Bedouin camp Jordan

The Little Petra Bedouin Camp is so named because of its proximity to Little Petra, a smaller cousin of the world-renowned site of Petra. Just like the name implies, it’s little, but worth visiting as it gets less than 1% of the visitors of Petra. When we visited there were only three other people there. The Bedouin camp offers accommodations in tents. However, we were a little concerned at check-in when the owner cheerfully told us, “I’ve upgraded you to a cave.” So we spent a rather cold night in the cave but it was filled with blankets and pillows and ended up being quite cozy.

Website: Little Petra Bedouin Camp

2) Shichachai Shadow Art Hotel, Beijing, China


Unique places to stay Shichachai Shadow Art Hotel

Keen observers will notice that while Larissa is waiting for the next performance she is engrossed in a game of Solitaire.

Hutongs are traditional neighborhoods of small alleys and courtyard homes in Beijing that are rapidly being bulldozed over for new developments. While the hutongs are becoming a shadow of their former selves, will an art based on shadows help revive them? The Shichachai Shadow Art Hotel is in an old hutong neighborhood and showcases the ancient art of shadow puppetry. Banned by Chairman Mao during the Cultural Revolution, shadow puppetry is being revived by another Mao, this one an artist.

Unique Places to stay Shichachai Hotel Beijing

The man behind the curtain is puppet artist Mao.

Mao makes his own hand painted shadow puppets as he revives the lost art. A theater was built into the hotel lobby to showcase regular performances for guests.. Staying here provides the visitor a unique opportunity to experience life in an old hutong while watching an ancient art.

Book a room at the: Shichachai Shadow Art Hotel

3) Belar Homestead, Dubbo, Australia


Unique places to stay Belars Australia

The Belar Homestead sits in Australia’s bush country on a 3,000 acre ranch owned by 4th-generation cattle farmer Rob Wright and his wife Deb. In fact, the house was built by Rob’s great-grandfather. The setting off a mile-long driveway is perfect for someone seeking solitude with the only neighbors being a few cows, some chickens and the occasional kangaroo. The remote location provides a spectacular night sky for stargazing. It’s so clear that the Parkes Radio Telescope, which received the video of the first Apollo moon landing, is nearby.

4) Ai Aiba, The Rock Painting Lodge, Namibia


Ai Aiba rock painting lodge Namibia

Namibia has become a popular destination in Africa for independent self-drive safaris. Aside from the big game viewing, there are many areas with prehistoric cave art paintings. Ai Aiba sits within a 12,000 acre reserve boasting over 150 of these paintings. On a pre-breakfast hike we spotted some ancient artwork of giraffes while looking over our shoulder at real giraffes munching on the acacia trees. It was a sublime experience.

Ai Aiba rock painting lodge Namibia

Website: Ai Aiba, The Rock Painting Lodge

5) Yanggakdo Hotel, Pyongyang, North Korea


Yanggakdo Hotel Pyongyang North Korea

Okay this may not be everyone’s cup of tea, it certainly wasn’t Larissa’s choice, but the Yanggakdo is the place to go when visiting the monolithic country of North Korea and experience some retro-70s style. There’s even a highlight of that era, a revolving restaurant on top. The rooms were nicer than we expected, although coated somewhat with several decades worth of tar and nicotine. The only way to visit North Korea is via an authorized tour operator. We recommend Koryo Tours. Extra bonus: There’s a two-lane bowling alley in the basement that comes with your own cheerleader.

Website: Koryo Tours

6) Casa Amarela, Algarve Coast, Portugal


Casa Amarela Naturist resort Portugal

If you’re seeking a vacation where you can pack light, really light, the Casa Amarela may be what you’re looking for. The guest house run by Brits Jane and Stewart is clothing optional. The feeling of diving into the pool and then drying off au natural in the warm Portuguese sun is so … well, you’ll just have to experience it for yourself. And while you’re relaxing just think of all the money you saved on baggage fees.

Web site: Casa Amarela

7) Munduk Moding Plantation, Bali


Unique places to stay Munduk Moding Bali

If you’ve dreamed of waking up to a view of a coffee plantation on the island of Bali then this is the place. True coffee addicts can hike the plantation then retire to the lodge for a fresh cup of Kopi Luwak. Made famous as the java of choice for Jack Nicholson in The Bucket List,  it’s brewed from beans that have first been eaten and shat out by the civet cat. Despite that history, Larissa tried it. Fortunately for Michael he’s not a coffee drinker. As an added bonus you can visit the civets in cages and watch them prepare the beans for roasting.

Munduk Moding Plantation Bali

Website: Munduk Moding Plantation

What unique places to stay can you recommend?

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