The Dead Sea
The sensation of floating in the Dead Sea is so freaky, you keep testing it again and again -- releasing your body into that incredibly saline water and popping up to the surface, as buoyant as if you were weightless. It works every time, even for a novice swimmer.
Less than an hour's drive from Jerusalem, this is the saltiest sea there is, by a long shot, and the richest in minerals (magnesium, calcium, bromine, potassium). Not only that, it's the lowest point on earth, a
remarkable 417m (1,368 ft.) below sea level. Water flows into the Dead Sea from several sources, notably the Jordan River, but it doesn't flow out, it just evaporates -- at a rate so fast, the sea is shrinking year by year, so the sooner you get here the better.
The air contains 10% more oxygen than normal, so just breathing makes you feel relaxed and energized. It's hot (up to 108°F/42°C in summer) but dry, and thanks to an extra layer of atmosphere caused by evaporation, the sun's UV rays are filtered, making it a fairly safe place to sunbathe.
And there's sunshine 330 days a year.
The name is a misnomer, because this inland lake isn't truly dead -- granted, no fish live in this salt-saturated water, but a certain green algae does just fine, plus lots of red archaebacterium. The water looks slightly greenish, and also milky from all the minerals; at rocky coves along the shore you can see encrustations of salt from evaporation. And although the desert ridges around the sea look sandscoured and fierce, along the lakeside highway you'll find a few lush oases, many of them with sulfur hot springs.
Two main beach areas thrive along the Israeli shore. The first is at the ancient desert oasis Ein Gedi, where you'll find a rather crowded public beach, a kibbutz with a good hotel and spa, and a botanic garden planted with rare trees and shrubs from all over the world. Even nonguests can pay a day-use fee to use the hotel's spa or beach, which may be the Dead Sea's best for swimming. At Ein Gedi kibbutz, you can book a desert jeep safari, a Bedouin feast in a tent, or an hourlong cruise on the Dead Sea in an eccentric wooden double-deck boat called Lot's Wife. Farther down the coast, you'll pass the ancient fortress of Masada, and then reach Ein Bokek, where there are several hotels and free public beaches. The water is richer in minerals down here, and therefore said to be more curative.
Information: Ein Bokek Tourist Office (tel. 972/8/ 997-5010; www.deadsea.co.il).
Nearest Airport: Jerusalem, 112km (70 miles).
Accommodations: Golden Tulip Club Dead Sea, Ein Bokek (tel. 972/8/668-9444; www.goldentulipclubdeadsea.com). Kibbutz Ein Gedi Resort Hotel, Ein Gedi (tel. 972/8/659-4222; www.ngedi.com).