Travel post: Therapeutic tourism

Numerous spa hotels have set up shop by the healing waters of the Dead Sea, offering visitors pampering packages and the chance to find out what the other-worldly experience of floating in the salty water feels like

The Infinity Pool at the Kempinski hotel Jordan, on the Dead Sea
Luxe on the lake: The infinity pool at the Kempinski hotel Jordan, by the Dead Sea

There’s something in the air down by the Dead Sea. You can feel it as you inhale; as you climb stairs with a spring in your step. You’d even be forgiven for believing the extra room in your lungs might make running seem like a walk in the park.

Of course, it wasn’t that I’d suddenly reached a new level of fitness without even trying. We were staying on the shores of the Dead Sea in Jordan, where the air contains 18 per cent more oxygen than at sea level.

When the mud slinging started, more health benefits revealed themselves. The hotel spa’s main ingredient – sloppy mud – was being dredged from the salty sea right on our doorstep. We slathered ourselves with mineral-rich gooey muck, until our skin pores started gasping for fresh air. Then stepped into the serene water to marinate and bob like a cork.

Up to 10 times saltier than seawater, the Dead Sea derived its name from the fact nothing can live in it due to its extreme salinity
Up to 10 times saltier than seawater, the Dead Sea derived its name from the fact nothing can live in it due to its extreme salinity (and yes, that’s me fulfilling a lifelong ambition)

I had wanted to visit the Dead Sea since seeing photos of people floating on top of it, clutching newspapers, years ago. And I wasn’t disappointed: you really are unsinkable. Each time I moved, the buoyancy created an upward pressure that kept me afloat like a rubber ring. I wrapped my arms under my knees and laughed aloud – it’s the most peculiar, memorable experience.

At 400m below sea level, the lake marks the lowest point on the planet. Each day, millions of litres of water evaporates from the surface, creating a thick, atmospheric haze overhead. Noises are soaked up by this haze, leaving little to hear but the sound of lapping water, and dangerous UVB sunrays are filtered out, so you tan but don’t burn.

Therapeutic tourism has been big business for centuries, with visitors flocking to the area to take advantage of the seawater’s healing properties (King Herod was a regular apparently). Dead Sea water and mud contain high concentrations of minerals including calcium, magnesium, bromine, sulphur and bitumen, which can relieve skin conditions such as acne and eczema, ease the pain of arthritis, beat allergies and boost circulation.

the-dead-sea mapThese healing properties come at a price, though: even the smallest of nicks start stinging when you enter the water (don’t shave first!). Bobbing around in liquid that kills all marine life also has a slightly eerie feel. DH didn’t stay in for long, citing a tingly sensation that saw him slipping out the warm sea faster than you can say pass the salt.

Just one splash in the eyes or mouth is also enough to send bathers scrabbling for the shore. I was enjoying myself far too much to be too worried, however, and after a good shower, my newly exfoliated skin felt as soft as a baby’s cheek. Nature’s loofah comes highly recommended.

The Anantara Spa at the 345-room, five-star Kempinski Hotel Ishtar is the largest spa in the Middle East, with 20 spa suites offering a host of massages and treatments. An oasis of gardens and lagoons, the hotel is designed to be an affectionate tribute to the Hanging Gardens of Babylon. Other five-star properties that have opened their doors at the lowest point on earth include the Movenpick Resort & Spa Dead Sea and Jordan Valley Marriott Resort & Spa, as well as the four-star Dead Sea Spa Hotel.

Adapted from my column in The Source magazineOther posts in my travel series: Hong Kong and Beirut

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