— Try not to splash. That's not the usual recommendation for a seaside vacation, but Israel's Dead Sea is like no other beach resort. Unique it is, with a salt and mineral content upward of 30 percent, which is why you need to pay attention to Rule No. 1. A splash of Dead Sea water in your eyes or mouth can send you running to shore.
The Dead Sea isn't really a sea at all. It's a lake in the Negev desert, about 50 miles east of
and 15 miles from Jerusalem, with Israel on one side and Jordan on the other. Bedouins still roam the sands and the Judean hills, and you're likely to see a few camels as you drive to the lowest spot on Earth. It's about 1,300 feet below sea level at the water's surface.
The first glimpse of the sea, from a high road, reveals its glasslike surface, edges rimmed in white where the salt and minerals have caked along the shore.
The water in parts is oddly colored, appearing neon green and sparkly in places and electric blue in others. Undoubtedly, the water's mineral content contributes to those colors, but perhaps the sun and light refraction may have something to do with it as well.
The sun, which shines in the Negev about 330 days a year, needs to travel farther than to most places on Earth, and the air near the water is heavy with natural minerals from the evaporating water, drawn down even more now by increased use from rivers feeding it.
Rule No. 2: Don't try to swim. Floating is the preferred method of immersion at
Sea. Because of its salinity (about eight to nine times that of most sea water), the buoyancy is like nothing you've experienced before: You can't sink.
Walk in to a depth of about waist height and lean back. Your feet pop up out of the water, almost like a jack-in-the-box toy, a strangely unnerving experience that can't help but make you smile. If you walk along the beach, you'll see people everywhere in the water, lounging comfortably, head, hands and two feet effortlessly topping the surface.
I made the mistake of trying to turn onto my stomach. The move completely upset my equilibrium, and I was left flopping around until I decided to go with the flow and ease back into the more natural reclining position, with my feet sticking out of the water. It must be an absolute blast for nonswimmers to be able to float so effortlessly. People can, however, get into serious trouble when going face first into the water, so lifeguards are on duty.
Thousands of health seekers travel to the Dead Sea region every year, many seeking relief from
. The sea with its high mineral content is the main draw, but so are the region's oxygen-enriched air and sun.
Whether the supposed health benefits would pass muster at the world's leading clinics, we don't know, but Israel's Ministry of Foreign Affairs website notes successful treatments for arthritis, psoriasis, respiratory ailments and
. Additionally, a small 2011 study by Ben Gurion University researchers showed a drop in
' blood-glucose levels following a one-time, 20-minute immersion in Dead Sea waters.
Many of the dozen or so Israeli hotels that front the Dead Sea have heated pools filled with the mineral-rich waters. So if the outdoor air and water aren't warm enough, you can still enjoy the therapeutic effects as well as the silliness that goes along with the buoyancy.
After a bit of practice at one of the indoor pools, I found myself able to sit upright, as if I were at a desk or dining table.
But don't get too silly. The water is dehydrating, and you're advised to spend no more than 20 minutes in it.
The first time I went into the Dead Sea, I didn't immediately rinse off, and soon I found my bare legs and shoulders caked with salt. Lot's wife comes to mind. But she would anyway, because this is the setting for those Bible stories. Not far from the Dead Sea is a geographical formation known as Lot's wife, which sits atop Mount Sodom. Yes, that Sodom. It's worth a look.
A more compelling nearby attraction, though, is Masada, site of the ancient mountain fortress of Herod the Great. Jews fleeing persecution in Jerusalem about A.D. 70 joined fellow refugees there.
After a two-year siege by the Romans, defenders chose death rather than capture and enslavement, and the last Jewish stronghold fell, ending Jewish independence until 1948.
Israeli youth regularly climb the trails leading to the top of Masada, one of Israel's most popular tourist destinations and a
World Heritage site. Visitors are welcome to hike the trails as well, but there's also a cable car.
The views are phenomenal from the top. But even more impressive, I think, is the ability to walk amid and touch the 2,000-year-old cut rock that once housed the Jewish holdouts.
Rule No. 3: Don't panic at night when you hear low-flying jets outside your hotel windows. Israeli pilots train over the Dead Sea. Take a deep breath of the mineral-enriched air. It's supposed to induce calm.
If you go
To get to the Dead Sea area, you can rent a car at
in Tel Aviv and drive the roughly 50 miles or take a taxi to the bus station, where you can get a ticket for about $12 each way for the two-hour bus trip.
The Israeli Ministry of Tourism's website for North America is at goisrael.com. It offers a lot of good information, including links to accommodations at the Dead Sea and elsewhere in Israel.