Extension to Eilat: From the Dead to the Red Sea

By David Cogswell

After spending two days and three nights in Jerusalem, Isram’s Seminar at the Source packed into two jumbo motorocoaches with approximately 20 travel agents on each and headed east through the Judean Desert toward the Dead Sea and Jordan. The desert landscape we drove through was a wonder, with a mysterious beauty like the surface of some alien planet, with dramatic mountains and valleys of sand.

Our tourguide Shmuel told us we barely needed gasoline for today’s drive since we were traveling from Jerusalem at 2,700 feet above sea level to the Dead Sea, which at 1,200 feet below sea level, is said to be the lowest point on earth. Brakes, on the other hand, had better be in tip-top condition.

The whole of Israel is only about the size of New Jersey, so it’s possible to get from one end to the other easily within a day. We stopped at Masada, a colossal rocky plateau jutting out of the desert floor that served as a fort for a community of Jewish rebels during the first Jewish-Roman War. We rode to the top of the mesa in a cable car and Shmuel showed us the ruins and gave a vivid narrative of the historical drama that played out there when the fort was under siege by Roman armies in the year 73 A.D..

We passed within sight of Jericho, where “Joshua fit the battle,” in the song. Then we found ourselves driving along the edge of the Dead Sea. The sea level is dropping and much of what is now the seaside was under the surface a few years ago. The sight of the receding waterline was disturbing, a stark reminder of the vulnerability of the earth’s most precious environmental treasures. In one hopeful arena in world affairs, the governments of Israel and Jordan are working together on a joint project to replenish water in the Dead Sea by bringing more from the Red Sea. The project requires an expensive processing of the Red Sea water so that when it is added to the Dead Sea it does not change the chemical composition of the water.

The water of the Dead Sea is loaded with mineral salts, very little of which is the familiar sodium chloride (NaCl,), or table salt. The mineral solution is so concentrated that no microorganisms can live in it at all, hence the name. But the unique combination of mineral salts are known to have very beneficial effects on human health. It is known to be a great help to people with arthritis, rheumatism or psoriasis. The solution of minerals is so strong that it is dangerous to swallow the water or get it in the eyes. It’s recommended that you avoid putting your face into it at all.

The Dead Sea’s medicinal qualities are so legendary they have fueled an industry of cosmetics made of Dead Sea mud. Besides its medicinal attractions, going into the Dead Sea is an otherworldly experience. It’s a novel experience akin to going on a thrill ride, bungee jumping or taking the Zero G flights that allow you to experience weightlessness.

We had our Dead Sea beach experience at the Crown Plaza Dead Sea. It was February, the cool part of the year, but warm enough to lay out on the beach. The beach was well populated with sunbathers, though only a few were venturing into the water. Those who did moved slowly and carefully over the sharp, glassy crystals that coat the bottom. Some just waded in and splashed the water on themselves. Others lowered themselves into floating positions on the water.

The Dead Sea beach is like no other beach experience. Where we were, there was no surf. The water was still and glassy. The sun was hot, the air was cool, but not cold. It was a very quiet beach with none of the typical beach din of screeching children and splashing surf. The water was still and clear as tap water. But it didn’t feel like tap water in your fingers. It had a slightly thicker consistency, a trace of oiliness in its texture. The crystallized salt at the bottom was so sharp it was hard to walk on with bare feet, but once you were floating you could scoot yourself around easily.

The Dead Sea water is so dense that you don’t so much get into it as lie on it. When you are wading in, and your weight is concentrated in a small spot, your feet sink through to the bottom. But when you lie back into the water, you just pop up to the surface like a buoy. Your body weight is not enough to penetrate more than a few inches below the surface of the dense water. You essentially lie on the surface of the water with some of your body sinking below the surface. It is a fun sensation. Travel marketing literature is peppered with the word “unique,” but the Dead Sea experience is really unique.

After feasting at a buffet lunch at the Crown Plaza, the intrepid agents of Isram’s Seminar at the Source once more hit the road again and this time headed south toward the port of Eilat and the Red Sea. We arrived in the late afternoon, had time to get set up in our rooms and then go to dinner at the Royal Palace, the most deluxe of several properties on the strip owned by Isrotel. Our dinner was a grand buffet at a deluxe property, and it was Friday evening, the Sabbath had begun and many families were out for dinner.

Eilat is a charming resort town with colorful hotels along the beach that are reminiscent of Las Vegas. The Rimonim Neptune, where the Isram group stayed, is an affordable alternative, set on the beach with a plot of boardwalk vendors between the property and the beach.

It is a travel truism that Americans don’t travel to places like Israel to go to the beach. Americans go to Israel for history, culture, Biblical lore, and they have some of the best beaches in the world nearby in the Caribbean, Mexico, Hawaii and mainland U.S. But because of the increasing popularity of Petra, Isram offers an extension that combines Eilat with Petra. With Petra as the draw, a stay at the seaside resort town of Eilat can be very pleasant. In fact, when it comes to cultural attractions, I think beaches are underrated. Culture and history can be found in beach towns too. Every beach community, with its local vendors and bathers, embodies the local styles, flavors, culture and history, and chances to meet face to face with the locals.

The manager of the beach facilities told me Americans almost never come to Eilat. He speaks French, German, Hebrew and English, but he says has little need for English any more. “I’m studying Russian now,” he tells me. The Russians come in great numbers, he says, undeterred by news reports of the trouble in the area.

While we stayed in Eilat, Isram organized an optional tour of the abandoned Nabatean city of Petra, truly one of the marvels of archeology. Since I had had the great pleasure of seeing Petra the previous year and had some work to catch up on, I stayed in Eilat to work and enjoy the beach ambiance. Even though it was February, the air and water were warm enough for a dip. After two nights and one day in Eilat, we headed north again for Tel Aviv, with a number of planned stops along the way.

For more information about Isram’s Seminar at the Source, click on http://www.isram.us/groups/SAS09. -- David Cogswell

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