From the deck of a dive boat floating in the Red Sea off the port of Aqaba, Jordan, you can see Egypt, Israel, and Saudi Arabia – and Syria is a four-hour drive north. Despite sitting at the heart of a region in constant chaos, people in Aqaba, Jordan's only coastal city, are more interested in kitesurfing and scuba diving than politics. "It's the only place in the Middle East where an Israeli kitesurfer can go kiting with a Jordanian and then hang out with a Lebanese guy on the beach," says kitesurfer Efrat Sa'ar.
Inhabited since 4000 B.C., this city of 100,000 is ancient, even by Middle Eastern standards. But these days, it is establishing itself as an unlikely adventure destination. The high-end Blu Tala hotel has a diving and kitesurfing center right on its private beach, and, although it looks and feels like the palace of a Saudi prince, you can get a room here at Motel 6 prices. The more low-key and lived-in Bedouin Moon Village blends in with the rest of the low-rise city, which has a backpacker feel and is a popular meeting place for kiters, divers, and even climbers from all over the world.
Jordan has just 10 miles of coastline – all on the Gulf of Aqaba – but it cherishes what it does have. The government established a marine park in 1997, and the water here has one of the world's healthiest reefs, which is studded with coral in gorgeous hues and underwater wrecks (pictured). At lunch, dive-boat captains serve grilled tuna, baba ganoush, and an icy glass of lemonade and mint. Meanwhile, the stunning UNESCO-designated ruins of Petra – made famous in the opening scenes of 'Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade,' the third Indiana Jones film – is a two-hour drive into the desert.
The culture here is mostly Muslim Bedouin, but it's not uncommon to spot a burqa and a bikini on the buzzing public beach, where a promenade of palm trees and hanging bougainvillea evoke tony Monaco. Off the promenade is a maze of shops, where the smells of cardamom-spiced coffee, za'atar (herbs of the oregano family), and saffron fill the air. The bars are thick with smoke from hookah pipes. "Aqaba is the ultimate blend of Africa, Asia, and the Arabic world," says Wilfried Colonna, a French guide, who lives in Jordan year-round.
More information: Royal Jordanian Airlines flies to Aqaba from Amman and buses from Amman to the city ride along the Desert Highway, which terminates in the city. Travelers with a bit more time can head to Taba on Egypt's Sinai Peninsula and catch a ferry across the Red Sea. When they aren't in the water, visitors will want to check out the city's massive fort.