Travel

Sustainable Travel Meets Bedouin Tradition at This Remote Hotel in Jordan

Conservation and cultural exchange in the Jordanian wilderness

Photo courtesy of Feynan Ecolodge
Photo courtesy of Feynan Ecolodge
Photo courtesy of Feynan Ecolodge

When you think of Jordan, you probably think of Petra, the red-hued ruins of an ancient city so breathtaking they’re considered one of the Seven Wonders of the World. But Feynan Ecolodge, located about two hours from Petra in eastern Jordan’s Wadi Feynan, is another wonder worthy of a visit.

The quiet hits you on arrival. After you check in at reception, you’re still a bouncy half-hour drive away from the main building, trading out your own transportation to hop into a 4×4 trunk that’s better equipped to handle the rough roads through the Dana Biosphere Reserve. While you’ve surely passed a few small communities (and a few intense games of youth football) on your way to Feynan, the area directly surrounding the lodge is populated by only a handful of Bedouin communities. It’s a place where you can watch the rugged hills of the Great Rift Valley turn pink in the evening light, with only an occasional local and their herds of goats for company.In short, as I realized upon stumbling out of the 4×4 after the bumpy ride, you’re really out there.

Photo courtesy of Feynan Ecolodge
Photo courtesy of Feynan Ecolodge
Photo courtesy of Feynan Ecolodge

The Dana Biosphere Reserve covers 320 square kilometres of land, and is home to some of Jordan’s most diverse nature, including around 700 different plant species and over 250 animal species. Perhaps this is why it’s hard to shake the feeling that Feynan’s setting isn’t meant to be disturbed. But this feeling is what inspired the ecolodge in the first place.

Built in 2005 by the Royal Society for the Conservation of Nature (now under the management of EcoHotels), Feynan is Jordan’s first ecolodge, created with the hopes of opening up the region to outside visitors while providing locals with an alternative source of income. Every element of the hotel is designed in accordance with those twin ideas of cultural exchange and environmental care.

Photo courtesy of Feynan Ecolodge
Photo courtesy of Feynan Ecolodge
Photo courtesy of Feynan Ecolodge

Inspired by caravan culture, each of Feynan’s 26 guest rooms is arranged around a large open courtyard, where instead of camels (as it would have been back in the era of trading posts), guests congregate into the evening. The building’s design (including the stone slabs near the entrance) allows for naturally controlled heating and cooling. And while elements like drinking water delivered in oversized clay pots point to reducing the lodge’s environmental footprint, almost everything you give up in the name of ecology simply adds to the experience and ambiance.

Photo by Brian Scannell, courtesy of Feynan Ecolodge
Photo by Brian Scannell, courtesy of Feynan Ecolodge
Photo by Brian Scannell, courtesy of Feynan Ecolodge

No electricity after dark other than solar-power overhead lamps in ensuite bathrooms? Let me introduce you to the mood-setting power of candlelight, both in public areas and guest rooms. In the rooms, mirror-lined shelves amplify flickers of light, something no lamp could replicate. Miss the meat at dinner? No, you didn’t, thanks to the power of Feynan’s Arabic buffet, featuring falafel, cheese, locally baked bread, vegetables, and dips like hummus and mouttabal. (Note: In alignment with the region’s Muslim beliefs, no alcohol is served-but if you must have a tipple, booze is allowed on a BYOB-basis, provided you remain discreet.) Wi-Fi is limited to the charging station by the front desk, but even as a millennial with an attachment to both work and memes, I found the restriction strangely comforting.

Photo courtesy of Feynan Ecolodge
Photo courtesy of Feynan Ecolodge
Photo courtesy of Feynan Ecolodge

But perhaps the most incredible part of the Feynan Ecolodge experience is the activities that put you in direct contact with the local community. You can sign up for cooking classes, hikes, and even shadow nearby goat headers, for only a small additional supplementary fee (usually about 4 JOD, or less than $6 US), a sum that goes directly to guides and families. Activities I enjoyed included a guided stargazing experience on the roof of the lodge, which takes advantage of the area’s lack of light pollution and subsequent incredible view of the night sky. As the guide set up telescopes and traced the constellations with a laser pointer, one of the local cats crawled into my lap and began to purr. I also visited a Bedouin tent for tea, which while a transactional visit, was fully suffused with the spirit of hospitality.

Photo by Photo by Bashar Alaeddin, courtesy of Feynan Ecolodge
Photo by Photo by Bashar Alaeddin, courtesy of Feynan Ecolodge
Photo by Photo by Bashar Alaeddin, courtesy of Feynan Ecolodge

As I sat with my hosts, I learned that about 80 families (around 400 people) make their homes in this area, and that they are one of the last remaining Bedouin tribes who have maintained their traditions in the face of change.

Photo courtesy of Feynan Ecolodge
Photo courtesy of Feynan Ecolodge
Photo courtesy of Feynan Ecolodge

As is customary, families relocate to a different location in the summers, following the same paths and pitching their tents in the same areas each year (minus any family members who must now spend the end of the school term near the school). Coffee is still purchased green, then roasted and sipped from a communal cup. Kohl eyeliner is still created through burning cotton and olive oil, and applied with a small stick.

The mission behind Feynan Ecolodge fits into the local traditions nicely, too. As a Bedouin member of staff told me, taking care of the Earth and friends-whether new or old-is considered a blessing. By the end of my visit, I’d experienced plenty of both.

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Laura Studarus is a contributor for Thrillist.

Travel

Ditch your Phone for ‘Dome Life’ in this Pastoral Paradise Outside Port Macquarie 

A responsible, sustainable travel choice for escaping big city life for a few days.

nature domes port macquarie
Photo: Nature Domes

The urge to get as far away as possible from the incessant noise and pressures of ‘big city life’ has witnessed increasingly more of us turn to off-grid adventures for our holidays: Booking.com polled travellers at the start of 2023 and 55% of us wanted to spend our holidays ‘off-grid’.  Achieving total disconnection from the unyielding demands of our digitised lives via some kind of off-grid nature time—soft or adventurous—is positioned not only as a holiday but, indeed, a necessity for our mental health. 

Tom’s Creek Nature Domes, an accommodation collection of geodesic domes dotted across a lush rural property in Greater Port Macquarie (a few hours’ drive from Sydney, NSW), offers a travel experience that is truly ‘off-grid’. In the figurative ‘wellness travel’ sense of the word, and literally, they run on their own independent power supply—bolstered by solar—and rely not on the town grid. 

Ten minutes before you arrive at the gates for a stay at Tom’s Creek Nature Domes, your phone goes into ‘SOS ONLY’. Apple Maps gives up, and you’re pushed out of your comfort zone, driving down unsealed roads in the dark, dodging dozens of dozing cows. Then, you must ditch your car altogether and hoist yourself into an open-air, all-terrain 4WD with gargantuan wheels. It’s great fun being driven through muddy gullies in this buggy; you feel like Laura Dern and Jeff Goldblum in Jurassic Park.  As your buggy pulls in front of your personal Nature Dome, it’s not far off that “Welcome…to Jurassic Park” jaw-dropping moment—your futuristic-looking home is completely engulfed by thriving native bushland; beyond the outdoor campfire lie expansive hills and valleys of green farmland, dotted with sheep and trees. You’re almost waiting to see a roaming brachiosaurus glide past, munching on a towering gum tree…instead, a few inquisitive llamas trot past your Dome to check out their new visitor. 

To fully capture the awe of inhabiting a geodesic dome for a few days, a little history of these futuristic-looking spherical structures helps. Consisting of interlocking triangular skeletal struts supported by (often transparent) light walls, geodesic domes were developed in the 20th century by American engineer and architect R. Buckminster Fuller, and were used for arenas. Smaller incarnations have evolved into a ‘future-proof’ form of modern housing: domes are able to withstand harsh elements due to the stability provided by the durable materials of their construction and their large surface area to volume ratio (which helps minimize wind impact and prevents the structure from collapsing). As housing, they’re also hugely energy efficient – their curved shape helps to conserve heat and reduce energy costs, making them less susceptible to temperature changes outside. The ample light let in by their panels further reduces the need for artificial power. 

Due to their low environmental impact, they’re an ideal sustainable travel choice. Of course, Tom’s Creek Nature Domes’ owner-operators, Cardia and Lee Forsyth, know all this, which is why they have set up their one-of-a-kind Nature Domes experience for the modern traveller. It’s also no surprise to learn that owner Lee is an electrical engineer—experienced in renewable energy—and that he designed the whole set-up. As well as the off-grid power supply, rainwater tanks are used, and the outdoor hot tub is heated by a wood fire—your campfire heats up your tub water via a large metal coil. Like most places in regional Australia, the nights get cold – but rather than blast a heater, the Domes provide you with hot water bottles, warm blankets, lush robes and heavy curtains to ward off the chill.

nature domes port macquarie
Photo: Nature Domes

You’ll need to be self-sufficient during your stay at the Domes, bringing your own food. Support local businesses and stock up in the town of Wauchope on your drive-in (and grab some pastries and coffee at Baked Culture while you’re at it). There’s a stovetop, fridge (stocked as per a mini bar), BBQs, lanterns and mozzie coils, and you can even order DIY S’More packs for fireside fun. The interiors of the Domes have a cosy, stylish fit-out, with a modern bathroom (and a proper flushing toilet—none of that drop bush toilet stuff). As there’s no mobile reception, pack a good book or make the most of treasures that lie waiting to be discovered at every turn: a bed chest full of board games, a cupboard crammed with retro DVDs, a stargazing telescope (the skies are ablaze come night time). Many of these activities are ideal for couples, but there’s plenty on offer for solo travellers, such as yoga mats, locally-made face masks and bath bombs for hot tub soaks. 

It’s these thoughtful human touches that reinforce the benefit of making a responsible travel choice by booking local and giving your money to a tourism operator in the Greater Port Macquarie Region, such as Tom’s Creek Nature Domes. The owners are still working on the property following the setbacks of COVID-19, and flooding in the region —a new series of Domes designed with families and groups in mind is under construction, along with an open-air, barn-style dining hall and garden stage. Once ready, the venue will be ideal for wedding celebrations, with wedding parties able to book out the property. They’ve already got one couple—who honeymooned at the Domes—ready and waiting. Just need to train up the llamas for ring-bearer duties! 

An abundance of favourite moments come to mind from my two-night stay at Tom’s Creek: sipping champagne and gourmet picnicking at the top of a hill on a giant swing under a tree, with a bird’s eye view of the entire property (the ‘Mountain Top picnic’ is a must-do activity add on during your stay), lying on a deckchair at night wrapped in a blanket gazing up at starry constellations and eating hot melted marshmallows, to revelling in the joys of travellers before me, scrawled on notes in a jar of wishes left by the telescope (you’re encouraged to write your own to add to the jar). But I’ll leave you with a gratitude journal entry I made while staying there. I will preface this by saying that I don’t actually keep a gratitude journal, but Tom’s Creek Nature Domes is just the kind of place that makes you want to start one. And so, waking up on my second morning at Tom’s —lacking any 4G bars to facilitate my bad habit of a morning Instagram scroll—I finally opened up a notebook and made my first journal entry:

‘I am grateful to wake up after a deep sleep and breathe in the biggest breaths of this clean air, purified by nature and scented with eucalyptus and rain. I am grateful for this steaming hot coffee brewed on a fire. I feel accomplished at having made myself. I am grateful for the skittish sheep that made me laugh as I enjoyed a long nature walk at dawn and the animated billy goats and friendly llamas overlooking my shoulder as I write this: agreeable company for any solo traveller. I’m grateful for total peace, absolute stillness.” 

Off-grid holiday status: unlocked.

Where: Tom’s Creek Nature Domes, Port Macquarie, 2001 Toms Creek Rd
Price: $450 per night, book at the Natura Domes website.

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