Israel’s Dead Sea shimmers like a proverbial oasis in the desert. Vestige of an inland sea stretching as far west as the Mediterranean, the Dead Sea is one of the world’s saltiest. But high salinity means high buoyancy, and more than a million visitors flock there each year to experience the joy of effortless flotation. Mineral-rich waters and black mud heal ailments ranging from skin diseases to rheumatism. At earth’s lowest point, 1,388 feet below sea level, filtered ultraviolet rays allow sunbathers to bask safely for hours, and the air’s high oxygen and bromine content promotes a sense of well-being. Between swims and spa treatments, visit storied sites like Masada, or take a jeep ride through the Judean Desert. A 7 to 10-day trip - with stays in both the Dead Sea region and Jerusalem - promises physical and spiritual rewards.
From Newark’s Liberty International Airport, El Al, Israel’s national carrier, flies nonstop to Tel Aviv’s Ben-Gurion International Airport. From there, pick up a rental car or van, and drive 50 miles east to Jerusalem (www.itraveljerusalem.com). Near the Old City’s Jaffa Gate, the trendy Mamilla (www.mamillahotel.com), designed like a Postmodern Crusader’s castle with black wrought-iron chandeliers and soaring black-metal staircases, has an award-winning spa, a courtyard garden, a popular bar/disco, and two restaurants, including a terrace eatery overlooking high-end boutiques and restaurants. Nearby is the 236-room King David (www.danhotels.com), luxury flagship of Dan Hotels, which recently opened its fourth Jerusalem property: 505-room Dan Jerusalem atop Mt. Scopus, not far from the Hadassah Medical Center and a Hebrew University campus.
Sights to see
The world’s most sacred sites are only steps from the Mamilla. Built on the spot where Jesus was crucified, Christianity’s most sacred site, the dim, incense-filled Church of the Holy Sepulchre (www.holysepulchre.com) is a hive of age-old churches and chapels, buzzing with prayer. Southeast, through the winding lanes of the Jewish Quarter, lined with shops, as well as eateries selling hummus and falafel, is Judaism’s most sacred site, the 2,000-year-old Western Wall (www.thekotel.org). Join believers of all faiths there to pray and leave written requests to the Almighty wedged between the ocher-colored stone blocks. Above, on the Temple Mount, the gilded Dome of the Rock (www.domeoftherock.net) is adorned with 45,000 gold and blue tiles. Islam’s third most sacred site after Mecca and Medina, the 7th-century shrine is open only to Muslims.
West, within sight of Israel’s Knesset, the Israel Museum’s (www.imj.org.il) domed Shrine of the Book houses the 2,000-year-old Dead Sea Scrolls, the world’s earliest Hebrew Scriptures. Equally moving is Yad Vashem (www.yadvashemusa.org), Israel’s Holocaust memorial, farther west. Highlights of the recently opened Holocaust History Museum are the Art Museum, with 10,000 harrowing works produced during and after the Holocaust, and the Hall of Names, with photos and bios of the victims.
Before leaving Jerusalem, browse through Machane Yehuda (www.machne.co.il), a lively shuk with 250 stalls selling hummus, bread, spices, olive oil and other goods. A “Shuk Bites” ticket, available on the website, provides a map and a punch-card for 10 tastings at various stalls. Don’t miss Halva Kingdom for freshly made halvah in more than a hundred flavors.
From Jerusalem, take Route 1 east 20 miles to the Beit Ha’arava junction, then head south on Route 90 toward the Dead Sea. After five miles, you’ll reach Qumran National Park (www.parks.org.il), where Bedouin shepherds discovered the Dead Sea Scrolls in 1947. The visitor center shows an engaging film, but just gazing up at those ancient caves spirits you back through the millennia. In Mizpe Shalem, 15 miles farther south, discounted skincare products made from Dead Sea mud, salt and minerals are sold at the AHAVA (www.ahava.com) outlet.
Relax and Rejuvenate
As Route 90 continues south - flanked by the Judean Desert on one side and the Dead Sea on the other - enjoy fabulous views of turquoise waters framed by low-lying mountains. Continue another eight miles past Ein Gedi, where, according to biblical lore, David once took refuge from King Saul. Today, visitors enjoy healing sulfur springs, and hike through nature preserves sheltering ram-like Nubian ibex, tiny rock hyraxes and other native creatures.
A 15-mile drive farther south brings you to tony Ein Bokek where a dozen deluxe hotels - including the Crowne Plaza Dead Sea (www.crowneplaza.com) and Le Meridien (www.starwoodhotels.com) - face the Dead Sea along a palm-shaded promenade. Check into the luxurious Isrotel Dead Sea Resort and Spa (www.isrotel.com), a sprawling family-friendly establishment with a beach, two outdoor pools, and two restaurants - the Golden Bouquet for buffet dining, and the Ranch House for steak, chops and ribs. Come evening, relax on the long seaside patio or enjoy romantic after-dinner dancing in the piano lounge. On the Esprit Spa’s extensive menu are Dead Sea black mud wraps, and “Pampering for Couples,” a candlelit interlude in a “Love Suite” with a double Jacuzzi. Doubles, with breakfast, start at $368.
Relax for a few days, then join outfitter Gil Shkedi (www.shkedig.com) for a two-hour jeep ride through the Judean Desert. Caves dot the sandy landscape, and salt peaks, including the fabled Mt. Sodom, rise from parched wadis. Another day, drive 10 miles north to Masada (www.parks.org.il), where in 73 A.D., Jewish freedom fighters took their lives rather than submit to Roman tyranny. Ride a cable car or hike up the mesa-like mountaintop to see extensive ruins, including Herod the Great’s palaces and storerooms, his elaborate water system and the world’s most complete system of Roman siege works. In the open-air theater below, a sound-and-light show is presented March through October. The annual Masada International Opera Festival (www.israel-opera.co.il) returns with “La Traviata,” June 12-16, 2014, following a 2013 hiatus. After visiting Masada, take Route 90 about 35 miles north to the Beit Ha’arava junction. From there, it’s 50 miles west to Tel Aviv for the flight home.
For More Information
El Al Airlines has the most nonstops to Israel from New York/Newark and the only nonstop from Los Angeles. Log on to www.elal.com, or call 800-223-6700. For more on Israel, visit www.goisrael.com