June 18, 2008

The Dead Sea: A Place of Healing

EIN GEDI, Israel -- Southeast of Jerusalem, past fields of date palms, majestic Judean Desert mesas, a couple of security checkpoints and, if you're lucky, some goat-herding Bedouins sits one of the must-see destinations for any tourist in Israel. Glistening beneath a sun that shines about 330 days a year is the Dead Sea, the lowest place on Earth, which happens to also be one of the highest when it comes to restorative value.

The healing and therapeutic powers of its mineral-rich water -- estimated to be as much as 10 times saltier than the ocean -- combined with the dry and highly oxygenated air, heat, lack of pollution and low atmospheric pressure make this place tops in health tourism. People from across the globe take trips (sometimes on health-insurance dimes) to treat skin conditions, such as psoriasis, and other maladies including arthritis or bronchial ailments. Plenty of Israelis make regular visits as part of their wellness plans.

Given its salinity, there's a famous buoyancy to this sea. The most popular photos taken by tourists include the ones of people comfortably kicking back while reading a newspaper, floating effortlessly. Even the nonswimmer can enjoy this oddest of sensations.

Though it does the body good, there are dangers in these waters. You don't know sting until you've gotten the Dead Sea in your eyes or a cut. Watch out for the visitor who races from the water for a frantic freshwater shower rinse.

It's not just about the seawater, though. The thermal sulfur pools from mineral springs may stink and the vats of mud -- meant to be slathered on and baked in the sun -- might cause the squeamish to cringe, but step right in for a soak and play like a kid.

There are plenty of stopping points along the shoreline, from simple beaches to places like the Ein Gedi Spa, where visitors can treat themselves to services such as massages and facials, or lounge around a freshwater pool if the salt becomes too much. And while all of this is tripworthy on its own, there's plenty else going on in the region: first-class hikes and historical and religious treasures.

Bordered by Israel and the West Bank on one side and Jordan on the other, the Dead Sea, which is fed by the Jordan River, is about 40 miles long. But the shores are receding each year, at a rate of about three feet annually, as incoming water -- in a part of the world where water is gold -- is now largely being diverted elsewhere by Israel, Syria and Jordan.

Efforts have been taken to find ways to save the Dead Sea, among them a proposed "Two Seas Canal," which would pump water from the Red Sea's Gulf of Aqaba in Jordan -- and at the southern tip of Israel -- into the Dead Sea. This idea was born out of an exploratory agreement signed in May 2005 by Israel, Jordan and the Palestinian Authority.

But concerns -- environmental, political and archaeological -- are keeping this at bay. As is the case with so much in the Middle East, solutions don't come easy.


--JESSICA RAVITZ can be contacted at [email protected] or 801-257-8776. Send comments to [email protected]

Getting there and around

--The most frequent direct bus service to the Dead Sea region is out of Jerusalem's central bus station, but there are also direct buses from Haifa, Tel Aviv, Be'er Sheva, Arad, Dimona and Eilat. For a bus schedule and fares, visit www.egged.co.il/Eng/. Buses stop at all the major sites along the shoreline, but keep your eyes open as drivers may speed by the one you want. To be safe, check in with the driver so he/she knows where you're going, or ask an Israeli to help you out.

--From Jerusalem, a visit to the Dead Sea is an easy day-trip (about 50 miles one way), but if you're interested in a predawn -- necessary to beat the heat and catch the sunrise -- climb up Masada before rejuvenating with a dip in the sea, you might consider staying in the area the night before. The options range from youth hostels to the luxurious resort hotels of Ein Bokek, rooms at the popular Kibbutz Ein Gedi or the desert floor near Masada's base where backpackers, legally or not, are known to gather. Visit www.deadsea.co.il for details about accommodations.

--If you head to the Ein Gedi Spa, entry is free for guests at Kibbutz Ein Gedi, about $16 for others (there are student discounts), and additional fees apply for cosmetic or massage treatments, which should be booked in advance by calling 011-972-8-659-4813. You can learn more at www.ngedi.com.

--Visitors also may consider any number of desert hikes in the region. One of the most popular is the Ein Gedi Nature Reserve, a canyon rich with trees, flowers, wildlife, streams and waterfalls. Entry fee is about $6 for adults, $3 for children.

--Want to bring some of the Dead Sea home? Visit the Ahava Factory & Outlet Store, about six miles north of Ein Gedi, for hair and skin products made with the sea's famous minerals.

For more info

To learn more about the Dead Sea area -- events, places to see, hike, stay, eat and helpful contact information -- visit www.deadsea.co.il.

Some tips for Dead Sea dips

--Drink lots of water and be prepared for the sun and heat.

--Though it's harder to get sunburned at 1,370 feet below sea level, it's not impossible: Wear sunscreen.

--If you have any cuts, know that the water will make them sting. The bigger the wound, the bigger the pain. For this reason, hold off on shaving till after your float.

--Wear water shoes, if you have them, as the salt deposits on the sea floor and shores can be jagged.

--Don't splash or attempt to full-on swim. This is not water you want in your mouth or eyes.

--Float on your back, read a paper if you like and simply relax.