I first heard of Aqaba in the movie Lawrence of Arabia. Seems that during the First World War it was the Red Sea's only port, and a Turkish stronghold that couldn't be invaded by ships because of the big guns pointed out over the Gulf of Aqaba. But Lawrence realized those guns were fixed in position, so he and his band of Arab guerrillas swept in from the desert, capturing the town in about as long as it takes to gallop a camel across a few rows of tents. Today Aqaba, population 101,000, is one of a trio of shining resort cities within walking distance from one another, yet in three different nations. Just across the Gulf from Aqaba, Jordan, on the west bank, sits Tabah, Egypt, and on the north point lies Elat, Israel.
You can see it all from the balcony of the Martini Lounge, at the InterContinental Hotel. Built in 2005, the InterContinental has a private beach, a swimming pool running the hotel's length, two restaurants and 255 rooms. It's Sunday, Cigar Night at the Lounge, and the room is beginning to fill up, largely with British, Dutch and Jordanian visitors. No Americans, though: U.S. tourism is down by 60 percent since the beginning of the Iraq War. In fact, I haven't met another American in the city. That's too bad: Jordan remains one of the friendliest countries in the world. Nearly everyone speaks English. And they drink.
"After 11 p.m. it really begins to pick up," Ala Al-Momani, the wait-captain, assures me. The lounge's decor is firmly Middle Eastern modern, except for the four framed James Bond posters above the wooden bar. "Shaken or stirred?" I ask Ziad Hijazi, the bar captain. "You should shake -- shake well," he assures me. The menu lists every Martini imaginable, from the desert dry classic to the dessert-theme chocolate mint Martini. Near the bar sits a modest, well-stocked humidor. "We have guests here, they know the cigars exactly," says Hijazi. The most popular, he says, are Cohibas: the Esplendido (a bargain at 15 JD, or $21, plus 10 percent service charge and 7 percent tax), followed closely by the Siglo IV and Hijazi's favorite, the Exquisito (each retails for 10JD, or $14, before the service charge and tax). "The Exquisito is not full bodied, not strong," Hijaz says. "With Cognac, very nice."
From the Lounge's balcony you can enjoy your cigar, that shaken-not-stirred Martini and three countries in one magnificent view. "Anytime you are welcome here," Al-Momani says to me. Next time I'm in Jordan I'm taking him up on the invitation.
Phil Scott is the author of Hemingway's Hurricane [McGraw Hill] now out in paperback.
P.O. Box 2311
Aqaba 77110 Jordan