Dead Sea swim a healing plunge

THE BALTIMORE SUN

DEAD SEA, JORDAN / / It's high noon at the lowest point on Earth. A French couple are bobbing in the water effortlessly, holding hands and whispering sweet nothings. A German tourist is lying on the surface, reading his newspaper and sipping a bottle of mineral water. A Russian man is posing for his wife, sitting upright in 10 feet of water, his arms crossed on his chest, floating in the sea as if it were his personal, adjustable mattress.

Swimming in the Dead Sea is as easy as lounging on a poolside chaise. Bathers don't get tired treading water. They don't even breathe hard. No yucky algae or kelp tickle their toes; no jellyfish sting; and even the most Jaws-traumatized swimmer knows there are not, and can never be, sharks here. And all the while, the mineral-rich water relaxes their nerves, heals cuts and scrapes, and cures ailments in their lungs, joints and glands.

This is the Dead Sea, which means nothing lives here except resilient microorganisms so biologically insignificant that you don't care. A Tristram's grackle might swoop by the crystalline moonscape of the salt-encrusted shores, and a sadly disoriented carp might float into the briny expanse from the sea's main tributary, the Jordan River. For such creatures, too much exposure to the water is fatal for the same reason it is so easy for humans to swim in it. The Dead Sea is 33 percent solid substance, a liquid so rich in salt -- at least 10 times the content of ocean water at the surface -- that it easily bears our weight.

Floating is simple, once you get the hang of it. After gingerly picking their way across the gravelly shore, first-timers sometimes dive happily into the murky green water, face-first, the way one might dip between the ocean's breaking waves. Their shrieks of pain when the potent mixture of magnesium chloride, bromide and iodine comes into contact with the sensitive tissue of their eyes elicit knowing grins from the romantic French couple and a grunt of pure schadenfreude from the German tourist: They've been there.

Getting into this water is tricky, but once you figure out how, a Dead Sea vacation in Jordan can be a surprisingly relaxing alternative to the more frequented destinations in the Holy Land. The Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan is a peaceful land wedged between the seemingly endless turmoil of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to the west, and the roadside bombings and kidnappings of Iraq to the east. The conflicts occasionally spill into Jordan. In November, a triple suicide bombing struck three hotels in the capital, Amman, killing 57 people.

It was a rare outbreak of violence in a land whose Harvard-educated king, Abdullah II, has struck a friendship with the West. Following a policy first pursued by Abdullah's father, the late King Hussein, Jordan has open borders with Israel and welcomes tourists to its numerous medieval castles, Roman and Nabatean archaeological sites, and biblical attractions, including the site on the Jordan River where John the Baptist baptized Jesus, and Mount Nebo, the spot from which Moses first glimpsed Israel.

Tourists from the United States (and most other countries) can easily purchase visitor's visas at the border for the equivalent of $16. Important roadways are well marked with English-language signs, and Jordanians are friendly and welcoming toward Westerners. Having landed at Queen Alia International Airport in Amman from New York, rented a car, and driven the 30 or so miles to the Dead Sea and back (filling up once, and once having my dead battery jump-started), I can report that it is possible to do all this and not know a word of Arabic (although the occasional shukran, habibi - "thank you, my dear friend" - is appreciated).

The Dead Sea is particularly welcoming: Other parts of Jordan have snow and cold in winter, but the Dead Sea, at 1,373 feet below sea level, is always balmy. During a January visit, the daytime temperatures never dropped below 70 - and never rose above 86.

We chose to stay at the Jordan Valley Marriott Resort & Spa. We liked the security at the front gate, where armed guards check visitors' IDs before letting them into the garden-like compound; they also check bags for explosives at the door, which we found comforting. The place offers the eclectic mix of bars, themed restaurants and poolside catering one would expect from a five-star resort that attracts Americans, Europeans and Jordanians, but at about $110 a night, rooms are a bargain.

An array of heated pools descends from the main hotel restaurant to the sea some 300 feet below. Watchful cabana boys sling margaritas, change towels and adjust the dozens of humidifiers that keep the poolside atmosphere bearable in the heat of the day.

The resort offers day tours of Jordan's other unique features, the red desert of Wadi Rum and the rose-colored carved stone city of Petra, as well as various massages, including the hot stone massage my wife indulged in during our last visit.

But the main attraction is the Dead Sea. Its minerals are said to lay waste to pretty much every disease known to mankind, including rheumatic and skin disorders, heart disease and stress. It's a good thing, too, because getting in the water can be stressful in and of itself.

Remember the earlier description of why never to dive into the Dead Sea. No running start, no joyous belly flop. You ease yourself in.

You don't swim in the Dead Sea so much as you balance, trying to keep the liquid from displacing the heaviest part of your body - for most of us, the derriere - and pushing it up and your face down into the pungent brine.

Bathers soon learn not to wipe their faces with wet hands, but even for the practiced Dead Sea swimmer, this joyously buoyant liquid can be an unforgiving brew.

"Wade in with any exposed cuts or grazes and you will gain instant enlightenment as to the meaning behind the phrase 'to rub salt into one's wounds,'" chortles my dog-eared copy of the Lonely Planet Guide to the Middle East.

On the first day of Dead Sea bathing, you are reminded of these in bright shiny red flashes of stinging pain, as though a thousand little poisonous eels were nipping at your body. But you know there are no eels - Dead Sea, remember?

The poison is also the cure. Our little cuts and nicks were all history by the end of the second day.

And at 5 o'clock that evening, a cabana boy announced happy hour. We watched the sun disappear behind the Judean Hills lining the Israeli side of the sea. A bagpipe played a dirge. The sky turned the color of flaming rocket fuel. As mist settled over the water and Venus rose over the hills, the lights went on in Jerusalem across the sea. We took it all in from the terrace and slowly healed.

If You Go

Getting there

From Baltimore-International Thurgood Marshall Airport, several airlines offer connecting flights to Royal Jordanian Airlines, which has daily nonstop flights from New York's John F. Kennedy International Airport.

Taxi drivers at Amman airport will take travelers to the Dead Sea for about $42. For guests of the Jordan Valley Marriott Resort & Spa, the hotel will send a car to meet for about the same price.

Americans do not need to obtain visas in advance to travel to Jordan; however, all travelers must purchase a visa (about $16 per traveler) at the airport.

Where to stay

Jordan Valley Marriott Resort & Spa -- Friendly, English-speaking staff can set guests up with day trips to Petra, Wadi Rum and Aqaba. For information, call 011-962-5-3560400 or go to marriott.com.

Dead Sea Spa Hotel -- Has an outdoor, poolside bar that serves canned beer (about $4), and fruit-flavored hookahs, or tobacco water pipes ($7 per smoke). The hotel has several freshwater pools and a spectacular collection of water slides for children. Call 011-962-5-3561000.

What to do

When not in the sea, or the pools, try the souvenir shops that line the road from the airport to the Dead Sea. The Marriott features a disco night, when the youth of Amman swarm into the resorts.

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