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From sea to sea Drifting between Israel's four bodies of water can be a healing experience indeed.

Israel's four seas -- the Red, the Dead, the Bread and the Med -- are the stuff miracles are made of. At Israel's southern tip, the Red Sea, of Cecil B. DeMille fame, is host to tropical fish, coral reefs and dolphins that commune with humans. At 1,300 feet below sea level, the Dead Sea not only rests in the lowest place on earth; its unique, mineral-rich waters also offer unparalleled relief to skin and respiratory ailments. The freshwater Sea of Galilee, where the miracle of the loaves and fishes was recorded, draws Christian pilgrims to its many holy sites. And, of course, hugging Israel's coasts, there's the Mediterranean, where, among other historic events, Jonah was swallowed by the whale.

It's nothing less than remarkable that Israel -- a country roughly the size of New Jersey -- boasts four bodies of water, each one dramatically different from the other. To describe all there is to see would fill volumes. Here are some of the highlights.

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The Red

Of them all, the Red Sea is my favorite. It's where I learned to scuba dive and where I also had the most amazing underwater swim with dolphins.

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In less than an hour, I flew Isr-Air from Tel Aviv's Sde Dov Airport to the city of Eilat, where I checked into the four-star Ambassador Hotel, which boasts newly renovated rooms at competitive rates, including a first-class breakfast overlooking a stunning swimming pool and the sea.

I chose the Ambassador, the site of the Red Sea Sports Club's Manta Diving Center. Within two hours of landing in Eilat, I was squeezing into a wet suit and getting a 30-minute beginning dive lesson from Neri, an Israeli. First on land and then in the shallow beach across the street, Neri showed me how to breathe through the regulator, equalize pressure in my nose and ears, empty water from my mask without removing it while diving (press it against my forehead, look up and breathe hard through my nose) and signal with a thumbs up when I need to surface. Neri explained he would adjust my compression as we dived to 6 meters, or about 19 feet, the limit for uncertified divers. All I had to do was breathe regularly, kick my legs from the hip and let him know if I was having any trouble. It would be a good way to help me decide whether to get certified.

We started swimming slowly downward and within seconds, we were surrounded by beautiful corals and stunning fish. As we dove, Neri held my hand, which gave me the feeling of dancing through water. It was magical, peaceful, even romantic. I couldn't believe the colors of the fish -- stunning blues, greens and purples -- and how beautifully the sun shines 15 feet under water. Time seemed to stand still until Neri gestured that we had to surface. Back on land, I returned my equipment, showered off the sea and posed for a picture with Neri.

Next, I headed down the road to the Eilat Coral Reserve area and the headquarters of Snuba. Unlike the traditional dive, where I wore the tank on my back, the Snuba tank floats in a raft on the surface of the water and the regulator's hose extends to the beginner's 6-meter limit. Like Neri, Ofer, my Snuba instructor, held my hand as we glided past beautiful coral beds. Among more stunning fish and ribbon-like moray eels, Ofer also showed me the hiding place of an octopus, which he gently teased through openings in the coral. In the arch under a natural coral bridge, he pointed to the deadly stone fish, then ran his finger across his throat to warn me to stay back. The Coral Reserve was so beautiful and Snuba so easy that I returned the next day.

I started my third and final day in Eilat at the Dolphin Reef, an open-sea facility, where I dived with another instructor. Tal, a young Israeli woman, has a special relationship to the dominant male in the Reef's pod of seven bottlenose dolphins imported from the Black Sea. Although Cindy, as the male is called, avoids most humans, he adores Tal.

His affection for her was obvious. As soon as we passed the underwater gate that separates the swimmers from the dolphins' area, Cindy was waiting for us.

Suddenly, I felt timid. I was so awed by Cindy's size and presence that I was hesitant to touch him. But Tal, who has been swimming with him for about six years, waved me closer. She showed me how to scratch Cindy's fins hard with my nails. His skin was rubbery but smooth, and my scratching seemed to help clean away a thin film. I scratched and scratched, kicking my legs to keep up. This went on for a few seconds until Cindy swam away. Tal had explained on land that when this happens, we shouldn't swim after him but just wait calmly for him to return. Sometimes, we simply sank down to the ocean floor and rested on our knees until Cindy rejoined us. At times, a pregnant female dolphin Cindy had mated with would come by and chat with whistles and ticks, which we could hear clearly under the water. After she would leave, Cindy would return. At one point, as I was scratching him, he allowed me to swim along slowly with him for several blissful moments.

The Dead

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About four hours drive north from the Red Sea, the mineral-laden Dead Sea draws crowds seeking its therapeutic effects. I visited the Hyatt Regency's Mineralia Spa Club for its intense sulfur pools, filled with water pumped from the Dead Sea itself. Mineralia is the ultramodern equivalent of the spa Cleopatra created in the same place thousands of years ago.

Mineralia is gorgeous, with Roman and Greek architecture and a swim-way that takes you from a large indoor mineral pool to its outdoor counterpart. I had read that the water's high mineral content is calming and curative for serious skin disorders. Because of the incredibly high salt content, I floated with great ease. But I suddenly became aware of tiny cuts in my skin that stung like crazy.

In one of the sulfur pools, I met Henri Birld, a French executive who, at the recommendation of his physician, vacations at the Dead Sea for its therapeutic effects. Within five days, his psoriasis sores had completely healed.

While we chatted, an attendant brought us cups of cool drinking water, fresh towels, even my pad and pen. After rinsing off in a shower just a few feet away, I lay down on a chaise for a rest under skylights. The attendant wrapped me up like a lavish sandwich in a combination of bath sheets and blankets. Deeply relaxed, I closed my eyes for a rest.

Next, I headed for my first-ever mud treatment. As I lay on the table in a clean but dimly lighted room, my Russian attendant scrubbed my skin with a loofah to open my pores, she said, with a wonderfully fragrant gel. Next, she smothered my back, leg and arms with 4 kilograms of creamy black Ahava mud from the Dead Sea that she had heated in a microwave. She covered me in plastic wrap and an aluminum blanket to keep in the heat and massaged my face with oil.

After 20 minutes, she unwrapped me, helped me up and led me to the shower.(It's not easy to walk when you're covered in mud!) My skin felt soft, my muscles relaxed and my psyche, incredibly pampered. But a day at the Hyatt isn't cheap. For hotel visitors, spa entry costs about $30, the mud treatment about $55, and the sulfur pools another $10 for 20 minutes.

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A more affordable option is the nearby Ein Gedi Spa. A flat fee of about $13 includes a day's entry to mineral pools filled with Dead Sea water, beach access to the Dead Sea itself and a huge vat of creamy black mud where you can smear yourself at no extra charge.

The name Ein Gedi comes from the nearby natural oasis where tradition tells us a young David hid from King Saul 3,000 years ago. A trip to Kibbutz Ein Gedi, which operates the spa, is well worth it. This pioneering cooperative settlement has planted such a unique assortment of flora that the Hebrew University in Jerusalem has designated it a botanical garden.

The Bread

The New Testament tells us the Sea of Galilee, about three hours drive north from the Dead Sea, is where Jesus walked on the water, preached to crowds, fed them by multiplying bread and fish, and performed other miracles.

Danielle Reese of Columbia, S.C., recently visited the area and prayed while sailing on the sea with a group of other pilgrims. "To see how calm it is, it gives me serenity because it reminds me that Jesus can calm any storm in my life," Reese says. For her mother, Joan, of Fort Myers, Fla., the experience "brings the Bible to life."

The Reese women sailed on the lake as part of a 10-day tour of Israel led by Rev. George Sweeting of the Moody Bible Institute in Chicago. Sweeting regularly brings groups out on the water "for inspiration and to study the scriptures about being on the Sea of Galilee." His tours sail on handmade, wooden "Jesus boats" designed according to a biblical model and operated by a company called Holyland Sailing. The boats are so popular that in one month alone, some 15,000 tourists sail on Matthew, Mark, Luke, John and Peter, as the craft are called.

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The inspiration for Holyland Sailing came from the 1986 discovery of a fishing boat from about the first century along the northern shores of the Kinneret -- as the sea is known in Hebrew.

The boat is on display at Kibbutz Ginossar, which also shows a film about how two kibbutz members discovered the boat preserved in mud. The Israel Department of Antiquities and Museums excavated the boat and developed a program for its preservation.

Sailing on the Jesus boats and visiting Ginossar, where I also discovered camel rides and Turkish coffee served in a Bedouin tent, were just a few of the excursions I took from Tiberias' historic Galei Kinneret Hotel -- a favorite hotel of David Ben Gurion, Israel's first prime minister. During my peaceful weekend there, I loved swimming in a beautiful outdoor pool, which overlooks the sea, and in the sea itself along the hotel's tiny private beach.

From Galei Kinneret, it was a short jaunt north along the waterfront promenade past Crusader ruins to the "Galilee Experience," a multimedia show that depicts the history of the Galilee region and Jesus, its best-known resident. The program was founded by Evangelical Christian Americans Terri Morey, a former Baltimore resident, and her husband, Eric, formerly of Denver, who have made Israel their home.

In the opposite direction from Galei Kinneret, it's a 20-minute walk to Hammat Tiberias, the site of an ancient synagogue preserved in a national park. The floor of the excavated synagogue features one of the country's most beautiful mosaics, a remarkably early example of the zodiac. And in a corner of the tiny park, natural hot springs send steaming water into a stone pool and the smell of sulfur into the air.

Across the street, I indulged at the Tiberias Hot Springs, which may be the oldest known thermal baths in the world. Mineral water pumped into a series of indoor and outdoor hot pools is said to be beneficial for rheumatism, arthritis, gynecological disorders and a general sense of well-being. Once again, I was slathered with a warm, buttery black mud. And after a shower and dunk au naturel in a private mineral bath with lavender and other oils, I couldn't have been more relaxed.

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The Med

It's impossible to visit Israel without at least glimpsing the Mediterranean. The sea hugs the entire western coast of the country, which is dotted with cities and historical sites. In the north, near the Lebanese border, there's Rosh HaNikra, with its dramatic white cliffs. Along the coast, you'll hit Nahariya, Acre, Haifa, Caesarea and Netanya before arriving at Tel Aviv, Ashkelon and Ashdod. Aside from Rosh HaNikra, each of these cities has played an important role in either the commercial, governmental or cultural life of the area at some time. After all the sensory stimulation I had experienced at the Red, Dead and the Bread, I was ready for a mellow evening along the Med.

Starting by car in north Tel Aviv, my friend Nurit and I passed the grungy electricity plant called "Reading," a popular and a surprisingly pretty spot for watching the sun drop into the sea. We turned off the main road at the dinky Sde Dov Airport (one of the departure sites for Eilat) and followed the road until we passed the electricity tower. There, we watched a gorgeous sunset and captured a Hasid, an ultra-religious Jew dressed in black, on film as he watched the colors paint the sky.

As we cruised further south, we passed the Hilton, Sheraton, Ambassador and other hotels lining the Mediterranean Tayelet or Promenade, the spot for in-line-skating in Israel. Kids run freely around here. On Thursdays and Saturdays, folk dancers gather at the Ramada Continental Hotel to hora to old favorites.

As soon as we passed a junction called Atarim Circle, we suddenly glimpsed the jewel-colored Med again on our right. We were getting hungry, so we popped into the ever-popular Yotvata in the City, a family-oriented restaurant owned in part by the kibbutz of the same name. Although the kibbutz is known for its dairy products sold throughout the country -- imagine eating at a Yoplait or Dannon restaurant -- the restaurant's best picks are its fresh natural juices. With dinner, we sipped a yummy, neon-colored blend of pineapple and green Galia melon -- an Israeli cross of honeydew and cantaloupe. A generous pitcher was a steal at about $3.

A few minutes away by foot, we checked out the Opera Tower, a three-story vertical mall sitting on the site of an old opera from the British Mandate period. The place is packed with restaurants, shops, movie theaters and, for those missing America, Ben & Jerry's and Pizza Hut. We stopped at Steimatsky's, a book store chain with a great selection of books in English.

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There is so much to do along the Mediterranean, but one of the most invigorating things is to simply take off your shoes, walk in the sand and breathe in the fresh sea air.

And that's what I did, nearly every morning I was there.

When you go

Airlines: Numerous major airlines travel from the United States to Israel, including El Al, the Israeli national airline. Security is tight, so arrive two hours before departure time and do not accept anything from strangers. To fly within Israel, contact your local travel agent or, within Israel, contact IsrAir (call 177-022-4888) or Arkia (02-625-5888).

Public transportation: Within Israel, Egged (pronounced Eh-GEHD) bus routes are extensive and affordable. The one-hour trip from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem costs less than $5 one-way. Travel to the Dead Sea area from Jerusalem is about $10. Cabs and rental cars are also available. High seasons are fall, around the holidays of Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, and spring, around Passover and Easter, so reserve your rental car in advance.

Tips: You can change money with automated and live money-changers that don't charge commission at the airport, but you'll get a much better rate in town.

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Calling: To call Israel from the United States, dial 011, then 972 for Israel, then drop the zero before the area code and proceed dialing the rest of the number. For example, you would call the Manta Diving Center by dialing 011-972-7-637-0688. Within Israel, dial 07-637-0688.

Red Sea

Diving: If you want to dive, the Ambassador & Red Sea Sports Club Hotels are very convenient. Call 011-972-7-638-2222; fax 972-7-638-2200; or e-mail infmbassador.co.il.

The cost for a beginning dive at the Manta Diving Center is $45, including instruction and equipment. Call 07-637-0688; or fax 07-637-0655; or e-mail mantedseasports .co.il.

An introductory dive at Snuba -- including equipment, instruction and a 30-minute dive -- costs $40. Contact Snuba at 07-637-2722 or fax 07-637-6767.

A guided snorkeling session with dolphins at the Dolphin Reef, including wet suit and equipment, is $51. An introductory dive is $61. Call Dolphin Reef Eilat at 07-637-1846, fax 07-637-5921 or e-mail reeetvision.net.il.

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Underwater options: For those not interested in diving, the Jules Verne Explorer provides a great view of Eilat's coral reefs and underwater life. The Jules Verne Explorer costs $18 for adults, $15 for children 3 to 12 years old and $3 for children up to 3 years old. Reservations are recommended. Call 07-637-7702 or 633-4668, fax 07-633-4924.

At Coral World's Underwater Observatory, you can observe a zoo-like collection of sea life in various tanks. You can also climb below sea level in a tower to see the surrounding sea life. For more daring travelers, the observatory's Yellow Submarine submerges to 60 meters, or about 180 feet. The Submarine costs $65 for adults and $39 for children.) Contact the Coral World Underwater Observatory at 07-637-6666, fax 07-637-3193.

Sea of Galilee

Holyland Sailing can be reached at telephone 06-672-3006, fax 06-679-0262 or at holylankinneret.kinneret.co.il.

Kibbutz Ginossar's Beth Yigal Allon Museum and Education Center, which maintains the preservation center for the ancient fishing boat, can be reached at 06-672-1495 or 06-672-2905. Entrance fees to see the boat, which are about $5, are used for its preservation efforts.

Kibbutz Ginossar's Camel Caravan can be reached at 06-672-3007 or fax 06-679-0262. The cost for a five-minute ride is about $4.50 for kids and $6 for adults. Longer rides are also available. Kids are lent "biblical" garments to wear during their rides. The cost also includes a visit to a Bedouin tent serving Turkish coffee, fresh mint tea and pita bread.

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The Galei Kinneret Hotel can be reached at 06-679-2331.

"Galilee Experience" can be reached at 06-672-3620, fax -6--672-3195 or e-mail gal_expetvision.net.il. The cost is $8 for adults, $6 for students and $5 for children.

The Hammat Tiberias National Park can be reached at 06-725-287. There is an admission fee of about $2.

Tiberias Hot Springs: The reservations desk can be reached at 06-672-8500 or fax 06-672-1288. Entry to the mineral pool complex, which includes access to indoor and outdoor pools, sauna, exercise classes and the Kinneret beach, is $14 for adults and $9.60 for kids during the week. Rates increase slightly on weekends and holidays. A cosmetic mud pack and mineral bath costs $55.50 during the week and $61 on the weekends.

Where to eat: The culinary specialty in Tiberias is St. Peter's fish. Tour guide Elie Ben-Meir, a former Baltimorean who now lives in Israel, recommends the Dalia Restaurant. It's a cab ride from Tiberias toward Ginossar but the food, especially the hummus and other salads, was delicious. The telephone number is

06-672-5362.

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Tours: Ben-Meir offers guided tours of Israel. The cost is $125 a day plus additional fees for transportation, accommodations, meals and other expenses. He can be reached at 02-6712807 or fax 02-673-6819.

Mediterranean

Yotvata in the City is at 80 Herbert Samuel Promenade in Tel Aviv; call 972-3-510-4667.

The Opera Tower is at 1 Allenby Street just across from the beach. Be prepared to open your bag as you enter the building for a security check.

The Ramada Continental Hotel is the site of folk dancing along the Mediterranean Promenade; call 972-3-527-2626.

Dead Sea

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Stepping in: You will float in the Dead Sea easily, but don't try to swim; you'll risk splashing water in your eyes. Don't shave that day -- and even the day before if you've got sensitive skin -- because even the smallest abrasion will send you howling.

Where to stay: The Dead Sea is an easy day trip from Jerusalem, although it's also a great place for an overnight visit. Rates vary depending on the room and the season. Contact the Hyatt Regency Dead Sea Resort & Spa at 07-659-1200, fax 07-659-1204 or on the Internet at www.hyatt.com. If you stay at the Hyatt or another hotel with a spa, be sure to reserve your treatments in advance. Ein Gedi Resort Hotel can be reached at 07-659-4222 or fax 07-658-4328. Ein Gedi Spa can be reached at 07-659-4934 or fax 07-658-4544. More information about Ein Gedi attractions is available at www.ein-gedi.co.il

Boat rides: Ein Gedi Kibbutz operates Lot's Wife, the only commercial boat offering rides on the Dead Sea to the public. Call 07-659-4760.

Pub Date: 1/25/98


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