Let the Dead Sea Lift Your Spirits - Page 2

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Israel's Dead Sea
The abundance of salt in the Dead Sea forms pillars above the water. The salt is used in specialty bath products and cosmetics.  (Israel Ministry of Tourism)
The Disappearing Dead Sea
In the 1960s, Israel diverted water from the upper Jordan, the prime source of the Dead Sea, into a pumping station that distributes water throughout the country. In the 1970s, Jordan and Syria diverted the lower Jordan's main tributary for a variety of irrigation and hydroelectric projects. As a result, the Dead Sea has lost one-third of its surface area over the last 50 years, and each year it drops an additional meter. As the sea dries up, cracks in the seabed create enormous sinkholes, which then drain more water from what's left of the Dead Sea into underground caverns. More than 1,000 sinkholes have appeared during the past 15 years.

In July 2005, the World Bank approved a two-year study for a plan that would transport water from the Red Sea to the Dead Sea. If the $15.5-million study, being conducted by Israelis, Palestinians, and Jordanians, warrants this project, the Dead Sea could regain some of its lost waters and continue to exist well into the future. However, some ecologists fear that replacing the depleted freshwater with saltwater could disturb the equilibrium of the sea, thereby causing more damage than improvement.

Of the many spas and hotels bordering the shores of the Dead Sea, the Ein Gedi Country Hotel, Wellness Center, and Spa (+972.8.659.4230; www.ein-gedi.co.il) may be the most inviting. It sits on a plateau in the Judean Desert overlooking the Dead Sea. Soak in warm sulphur pools or the Dead Sea itself at the hotel beach (no entry charge for hotel guests), which has access to amenities like sunshades, hot showers, changing rooms, and lockers. The hotel also features two restaurants and a botanical garden, a haven of over 800 rare species of trees, shrubs, and flowers. The spa offers western-style treatments including aromatic massage, hot stone massage, reflexology, and mud wraps. The Wellness Center's holistic treatments—including toxin cleansing, natural peeling, and an herbal steam sauna—use natural remedies to "restore the balance of the mind and body."

But there's more to the Dead Sea than its all-natural spa treatments and its burgeoning tourist infrastructure. The name itself is actually a misnomer—the shores of the Dead Sea are not lacking life. Abundances of flora and fauna line the beaches, and about 500 million birds, including storks, pelicans, and honey buzzards, take refuge here during their biannual migration from Africa to Europe and back. Nearby historical sites include Qumran, where the Dead Sea Scrolls were unearthed in 1947, and Masada, a plateau which served as a refuge from pillaging Syrians and Greeks, Herod's pleasure palace, and the vanguard of a dramatic revolt against the Romans in the first-century AD.

Access and Resources
Less than an hour's drive from Jerusalem, the Dead Sea could be visited in the course of a day. But the profusion of historical landmarks nearby should justify at least an overnight stay. Bus services from Jerusalem and other surrounding cities run frequently, including the Egged Bus (+972.3.694.8888; www.egged.co.il), which charges roughly $10 each way. Hostels and hotels in and around the Dead Sea offer a range of comfortable accommodations. The Kibbutz Ein Gedi Hotel (1.800.844.4007 from U.S.; www.ngedi.com) is decorated by local artists and overlooks the sea. The rooms are comfortable and some have verandas, patios, and Jacuzzis. The pricier Dead Sea Gardens Hotel (+972.8.668.9090; www.gardenshotels.com) has 200 rooms overlooking the Dead Sea, a spa, and two restaurants. For younger travelers, the Ein Gedi Youth Hostel (+972.8.658.4165; eingedi@iyha.org.il) offers clean dorm-style sleeping accommodations for low rates.

Some items to remember for your trip to the Dead Sea: sunscreen, water, a hat, and sunglasses. The sun is brutal during summer, when temperatures go into the 90s and higher (the maximum temperature was recorded at 123 degrees). Finally, a warning: avoid getting any water in your mouth, as the bitter taste of just one drop will linger all day, and swallowing even a mouthful could be harmful. Also, the water's high salinity can cause pain if it gets into a cut or scratch. After spending any time in the Dead Sea, make sure to rinse off with freshwater, typically available at the beach.

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