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Mideast trip and other travels against the grain

Joel Widzer's recent trip to the Middle East was a successful test of his contrarian travel strategy, which suggests off-peak travel and eschewing all trends.
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A key principle of my travel strategy, which I call “contrarian travel,” is to travel against the grain: Go off-peak, follow the dollar, look for distressed properties, eschew all trends -- in general, look for the destinations and travel providers that need your business the most.

Right now, the dollar is somewhat weak, especially in Europe, where it is currently buying only 0.78 euros. Airfares to Europe are also pretty high, as are hotel rates. So, the contrarian traveler looks elsewhere: to Asia, South America and, yes, the Middle East.

I recently visited Jordan, Israel and the Sinai Peninsula, and the trip was an excellent test of the contrarian strategy. Of course, the Middle East is a region steeped in history and rich in tradition; any good guidebook can give you the rundown on this remarkable cradle of civilization. But the imperative questions for me -- and all contrarian travelers -- are these: How safe is the region and how affordable is it? I found the region rated high on both issues. As an added bonus, I found the people to be welcoming, sincere and charming.

My first stop was Amman, the capital of Jordan, where I stayed at the Grand Hyatt Hotel. The hotel was the site of a suicide bombing last November, along with two other hotels in Amman, yet I felt completely safe and would have no hesitation recommending the hotel to close family or friends. Security is now very tight but it is neither intrusive nor overbearing. Upon arrival, I was greeted warmly then swiftly whisked through the security screening; the process and equipment are similar to an airport screening. All hotel guests pass though the screening every time they enter the hotel, as do all visitors. An alternative to the Hyatt is the luxurious Four Seasons Amman, which was not involved in the bomb attack; its bed-and-breakfast rates range upward from $195.

Check-in at the Grand Hyatt was pleasant. The desk clerk spoke perfect English, and he escorted me to my upgraded room, explaining everything in a congenial manner. After showing me my room, he escorted me to the club lounge. When we crossed paths with a member of the housekeeping staff, he asked that my room receive turndown service right away, a very considerate gesture, I thought.

Later that evening I had an authentic Jordanian meal of chopped salad and sea bass -- with a drink, dessert and coffee -- all for a pittance. When I misread my bill and overpaid by 30 Jordanian dinars (JOD), the waiter immediately noticed and corrected my mistake: “Oh no, sir, you’re paying too much. It is only 17 dinars” (about $25).

My taxi driver was also helpful and honest. After dropping me off at the restaurant, he told me I could pay him later, trusting that I would call him after my dinner. When I did, he took me on a tour of the city, pointing out prominent landmarks for just 10 JOD, or about $14.

Jordan has plenty of modern shopping malls, a buzzing nightlife and five-star cuisine, but the great draw is its many interesting archaeological sites. A few of these sites include Petra, Jerash, the Desert Castles, Um Qais and, of course, the Dead Sea.

My second stop took me to the famed King David Hotel in Jerusalem, the flagship hotel of the Dan Hotel Group and a member of the Leading Hotels of the World. The King David Hotel has been host to world leaders such as Bill Clinton, as well as to many celebrities. Despite its notable guest list, I was upgraded to a room with a wonderful view of the Old City. The hotel has remarkable restaurants, a pool and gardens, and it is within walking distance of the major historic sites.

I spent an entire day exploring Jerusalem and still could not cover all the history of this extraordinary city. On my second day, I hired a driver to take me to Bethlehem and the Church of the Nativity, where believers say Jesus was born. I expected crowds but found none. In fact, the guide who escorted me through the church, describing everything in perfect English, told me that he used to take 15 to 20 groups through the church a day, but now he counts himself lucky if he has 10 groups a week. Such are the benefits of contrarian travel: You get personal attention from a seasoned guide unhurried by pressing crowds.

After my trip to Bethlehem, I headed out to the Dead Sea where I took the obligatory float and mud bath. It was strange floating on my back covered in mud, but it was mysteriously relaxing.

How does Jerusalem measure up on security and affordability? Very well. Security was top-notch everywhere I went, and not once did I fear for my life. The prices at the restaurant and shops were much lower than I would expect in Europe. I was able to hire a driver and a new, air-conditioned Mercedes-Benz for only $100 a day, and the driver knew exactly where to go and how to avoid precarious areas. Of course, most drivers will take you to a friend’s souvenir shop, where you’ll be treated to fresh tea or another drink; the driver earns a commission on the goods sold. These shops usually offer fair value, but if you don’t want to be pressured to purchase anything, be sure to say that you’re not interested in shopping.

I did not have a chance to venture much outside Jerusalem and Bethlehem, but Israel offers several other good tourist venues, including Tel Aviv, with its lively Dizengoff Street; Jaffa, an ancient port city now filled with artists’ studios and galleries; Haifa, with its beautiful coastal and mountain views; and the sunny southern Red Sea resort area of Eilat. The Dan Hotels have properties in all these destinations, and they offer a frequent guest program in which members get reduced rates, earn bonus points and receive up to a 12.5 percent discount of food and beverage purchases, among other benefits.

Across the border from Eilat is the Sinai Peninsula of Egypt, and on its northeast point, right on the Red Sea, is the Hyatt Regency Taba Heights. The resort is surrounded by mountains and has direct access to the sea. This part of the Middle East is considered to offer some of the best snorkeling and diving in the world. Points of interest in the Sinai Peninsula include the Monastery of St. Catherine and Mount Sinai, which overlooks it. The monastery is built on the site traditionally regarded as the place where Moses encountered God in the form of a burning bush. Visitors can climb the mountain by camel or by foot. I didn’t do it, but I’ve heard it’s an amazing experience, especially if you can be on the summit (7,500 feet) at sunrise.

The Middle East is not a popular travel destination for American tourists, which makes it an excellent destination for travelers with a contrarian attitude. Is it safe? Reasonably, yes. In my view, the danger is overrated, and both the governments and tourism providers are paying very close attention to security. To my mind, the historical attractions, warm welcome and dollar value in the region all make the Middle East a great alternative to high-priced destinations. It’s a contrarian pick, with contrarian benefits.

Joel Widzer is an expert on loyalty and frequent flier programs. He is the author of "The Penny Pincher's Passport to Luxury Travel," a guidebook on traveling in high style at budget-friendly prices. or .