Feynan Ecolodge: Do yourself a favour and stay here in Jordan
It would be an understatement to say that I was a little bit excited to be staying at Feynan Ecolodge. Nestled in Jordan’s stunning Dana Biosphere Reserve in the nation's central-west, this idyllic, ultra-sustainable (and completely off-grid!) luxury ecolodge has earned international renown for its pioneering ecotourism model.
Just getting to Feynan, first opened in 2005 by the Royal Society for the Conservation of Nature and managed by EcoHotels, a privately owned Jordanian company, since 2009, is an adventure. Unless you're travelling in a 4WD or plan to hike in, you'll need to book a 'Bedouin taxi' for the final 8km (30min) haul into Wadi Feynan (Feynan Valley) along a diabolically bumpy track. Just when I feel that my teeth might clatter out of my skull, the lodge comes into view: its golden facade almost glowing in the fading afternoon light.
We’re greeted at the front door by Suleiman, one of the lodge’s local Bedouin guides (all lodge staff, in fact, are locals), who will be looking after our group during our stay. First up is a short hike to watch the sun set over the magnificent sandstone mountains that surround the lodge. En route, Suleiman points out his mother milking a goat at his family’s encampment, just a few hundred metres from the lodge.“We’ll be moving soon,” he tells us. “This ravine protected us in the winter but we need to find a new spot where we will catch more breeze during the summer.”We return to find the lodge illuminated by a sea of flickering candles. It’s beautiful, but it's not just for show: the entire lodge is solar-powered, with the use of electricity kept to an absolute minimum. Even the 26 tastefully designed guest rooms have candles instead of lights, all carefully positioned to prevent potential accidents. The only actual light can be found in the bathrooms, but the power is shut off overnight (hint: bring a headtorch). Lacking electrical outlets in the rooms, a communal power-board, along with glacially slow wi-fi, is available in reception.
Dinner, like all meals at Feynan, is a vegetarian buffet. The typical dishes – from decadent mezze to fresh falafel, fragrantly spiced rice to stuffed zucchinis – are full of flavour, with delicious juices to wash it all down. Feynan is a ‘dry’ lodge, which adds to its clean-living vibe. After dinner, we retire to the rooftop for a ‘guided tour’ of the night sky with Suleiman, taking turns to get a closer look at the moon, Saturn and beyond through the lodge's telescope.It's inching towards summer during my visit, and I struggle to sleep that night, even with the windows open. I'm grateful for the traditional clay jug beside my bed (no plastic bottles here, folks) containing naturally-cooled drinking water sourced from a local spring, but it's no match for a fan.
The following morning, I tuck into a delicious breakfast on the lodge's shaded outdoor terrace, keeping one eye on a bold young goat which has both of its eyes on my freshly-baked pitta. I could easily spend an entire morning relaxing here over an Arabic coffee or five, but our schedule for the day is packed with Feynan 'experiences'. First up is a hike through the stunning wadi with Suleiman, who points out several neon-blue Sinai agama lizards along the way: we're here at just the right time of year to see the male lizards, who usually blend in with the earthy landscape, in mating mode. On the return leg, we take shelter under the goat hair tent of a Bedouin elder who makes our group Arabic coffee from scratch as Suleiman tells us a bit about Bedouin coffee culture and etiquette.“Bedouin can solve the biggest problems with the smallest cup of coffee,” he says.“It's not just about the drinking, but the whole ritual. If there is no cardamon, for example, there is no coffee.”
Our lunch is the culmination of a cooking class back at Feynan, where we learn the secrets to making the perfect felafel. Afterwards, we hike to another Bedouin camp to observe the tradition of cooking bread in ashes underground.While most travellers to Jordan will spot Bedouin camps along roadsides, and maybe even stay in a Bedouin-run tourist camp in Wadi Rum, Feynan experiences offer a unique opportunity to interact with the Bedouin responsibly. Eighty local families benefit directly from participation in the lodge's activities, with guides like Suleiman also receiving top training in luxury ecotourism. Suleiman tells me he loves his job, and I don't doubt it for a second.
I would have loved to have spent more time at Feynan to enjoy the other experiences on offer (which will soon include mountain biking), but one night was just enough to get a feel for what a special place this is. The fact that Feynan has been operating for over a decade, yet more developed countries are only just beginning to launch ecotourism initiatives of this calibre, is a credit to Jordan's reputation as one of the world's sustainable tourism leaders. Nabil Tarazi, Managing Director of EcoHotels, tells me he's been working with the Petra Development and Tourism Region Authority on a new ecolodge project near Little Petra, and I can't wait to see the result.
The verdict: Feynan is absolutely wonderful. But while it's easily Jordan's best ecolodge, don't come here expecting a typical five-star experience. Due to the lodge's very admirable commitment to sustainability, guest rooms are not equipped with electrical outlets, fans, or lights. There is a communal powerboard in the reception area, but it was not large enough to accommodate our group of 10, let alone a full house, so it's worth bringing a portable battery pack if you need to keep your devices juiced. Due to the candlelight situation at night, it can be quite difficult to see your way around the lodge, and I imagine some guests may find it uncomfortable, if not impossible, to sleep here from about May until the end of September due to the heat. And do not bank on the wi-fi working.
As it's not particularly cheap to stay at Feynan (especially when you factor in transfers from Amman; see the Feynan website for more info), I feel that a few extra touches could really take the lodge to the next level: more power outlets in reception, portable solar lights and fans available for those who really need them (such as guests with poor eyesight or respiratory problems), and some eco-friendly bathroom amenities beyond the (albeit lovely) locally produced olive oil soap. The gift shop also has more potential – I would have dropped some serious Jordanian dinar in there had a more extensive range of locally made products been available.
As long as you come prepared, however (all the necessary info can be found on the Feynan website), it's impossible not to love Feynan. Staying here wasn't just a highlight of my trip to Jordan, but one of the most memorable ecolodge experiences of my life. For those on a budget who are worried about the cost, I promise it's worth it.One night in a double room at Feynan Ecolodge, including all meals and activities for two people, starts at JD180 (about US$254).