Sunday 18 March 2018

The Dead Sea: Just me, the sea... and the Indo

Down at the lowest point on earth, Chrissie Russell finds Jordan is well worth its salt

Chrissie floating on the Dead Sea
Chrissie floating on the Dead Sea

Chrissie Russell

The hotel attendant looked at me as if I was mad. It was a nippy spring day as he handed me a towel and watched me scamper down to the water's edge. But as I gingerly waded into the sea and felt my feet float up in front of me, I was blissfully happy to have finally realised a life-long dream to soak in the Dead Sea.

Lying flat on my back, reading my paper and surrounded by nothing but silence and blue sky, I could see why Jordan was one of the honeymoon contenders floated (excuse the pun) for royal newlyweds William and Kate.

I'd seen so many pictures of grinning faces reading and playing chess while bobbing happily on, not in, the salty water and was desperate to recreate them. I wasn't disappointed.

It is physically impossible to keep your feet planted on the sea bed. Every time I attempted to right myself my legs bobbed to the surface like corks prompting me to giggle like a wide-eyed baby unexpectedly discovering its feet.

I quickly abandoned my natural impulse to swim in the water and instead flipped on to my back to float lilo-like, staring up at the bright blue sky.

The silence -- there are no boats on the sea and at low season there were only a few tourists -- combined with the feeling of weightlessness was deeply relaxing.

By the water's side there were pots of silica-rich mud, said to ease skin conditions such as acne and eczema, heal allergies, help arthritis, boost circulation and promote youthful vitality.

I left the water to slather on palmfuls of thick black goo before returning to the sea to bake. The effects, I can report, were better than any of the numerous over-the-counter lotions I've tried. Once washed off (under one of the fresh-water showers -- splashing salt water on your face leave you feeling as if you've rubbed raw onions on your pupils), I was left with squeaky clean, silky soft skin.

It's no wonder the export of Dead Sea products is one of the country's biggest sources of revenue. Straight away I could see why the natural wonder had been such a favourite with visitors through the ages.

Queen Cleopatra was a fan of the lake's beautifying powers, as was King David, and modern-day celebrities such as Madonna and Victoria Beckham are said to be massive fans of the skincare range exported from the region.

Every year thousands of people visit the Dead Sea, delving 410m below sea level to the many resorts around its 80km long and 14km wide shores.

The water is 10 times more salty than sea water and getting saltier as less water comes in from the Jordan river in the north, causing the lake to shrink. One look at the salt crystals on the rocks around the water shows how far the water levels have dipped -- a rate of one metre per year, according to some research.

Governments on both sides of the lake are working on plans to stem the rate of evaporation and anyone I spoke to laughed off the idea that the lake could one day completely disappear, but still, I was glad I hadn't left it too long to make the journey.

My base for my six-day break was the Kempinski Hotel Ishtar, one of several five-star resort hotels right on the most northerly point of the Dead Sea on the Jordanian side.

Designed as a tribute to the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, the sprawling, terraced hotel complex cascades its way down to the shores of the lake. The hotel's private access to the water means guests can skip down to the sea in fluffy white bathrobes, as often as they want, rather than having to settle for the public, busier and less attractive, nearby Amman Beach.

Should you, and I never did, tire of the novelty of floating in the sea, the hotel also boasts the largest spa in the Middle East, complete with a lengthy dossier of treatments including massages, scrubs and Dead Sea facials.

The three restaurants serve up delicious multicultural dishes, often over the inky backdrop of the Dead Sea by night and the twinkling lights of Israel beyond. I saw in the last day of my 20s sipping a mojito by one of the resort's many infinity pools and couldn't have thought of a more special place to do so.

It would be easy to spend an entire trip lazing by the shores of the world's most famous sea, but so many historic sites and natural wonders are within such a short distance, you must drag yourself away for a spot of sightseeing.

Just a short drive from the Kempinski is Bethany Beyond the Jordan, where John the Baptist is believed to have baptised Christ. Entry to the area included an electronic earpiece commentary but my boyfriend and I swiftly abandoned it for our brilliant guide Atef.

We also took time to visit the resting place of Moses, Mt Nebo, and the brilliantly preserved ancient Roman remains in the heart of the capital, Amman.

We travelled on one of the world's most venerable trade routes, The King's Highway, and wallowed in the mind-boggling history of the Nabateean city of Petra.

Of course, the region is surrounded by troubled hotspots and at times this becomes all too evident. At the baptism site, across the six-foot muddy brook that is the River Jordan, tourists on the Israeli side were taking pictures under the watchful eye of armed soldiers.

But even though much of the Middle East is in a state of flux these days, we never felt anything other than safe and welcome.

I'm sure the Seychelles was pure bliss, but just think of the great honeymoon shots Kate and Will could have had, floating side by side in matching crowns.

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