Whether in Masada during the traditional summer concert of Israeli singer David Broza that starts as the sun rises over the Dead Sea, or a sunset in my beloved Kibbutz Ein Gedi – the Mountains of the Moab, east of the Dead Sea in Jordan, are a breathtaking scene. Since childhood, my mind is full of endless visions of those enigmatic mountains. The same applies to the Gileads, north of the Dead Sea, east of the Jordan River. These mountains were seen from my father’s car whenever we drove from Jerusalem to his friends living by the Sea of Galilee. Like him, they arrived in Israel after world war two and the Holocaust Atrocities.
I frequently used to fantasize what secrets those mighty mountains hold. When I joined the hospitality industry, working for Hilton I became bewitched by the hotels on the Dead Sea, on the forbidden other side. Israel and Jordan signed a peace treaty almost 30 years ago. Since then I have visited Petra and Aqaba, but not those hotels. This time I made up my mind to travel. “It is time”, I whispered to myself.
With my long time friend and veteran travel writer, Itzhak Rabihiya who speaks fluent Arabic, we started our trip on a January midweek morning. The distance from Jerusalem railway station where he picked me up, to the Hilton Dead Sea in Jordan, our chosen home away from home is 76 Km, crossing the Allenby bridge border station on the Jordan river. In Europe this voyage would have taken less than an hour. But unfortunately this is not the case in the challenging middle east. For security reasons, Israelis are not allowed to use this crossing. We had to drive 2 hours north to the Sheikh Husein crossing , south of the Sea of Galilee, and an additional 2 hours to our hotel. The crossing was slow. Thechnicallits were endless, but after an hour we met Sam, our Jordanian driver, a companion for our trip. The journey began.
Closer than ever, the mighty Gileads didn’t look so gigantic. On the other side, the Gilboa mountain of Israel suddenly looked like the Spanish Pyrenees. The illusion of depth and distance. The narrow crowded road crossed numerous villages and towns. Vegetable counters, small trucks and busy farmers were busy selling great looking tomatoes at a ridiculous price. Less than one Dinar for a box, a dollar. Before sunset we finally made it to the Dead Sea. A welcoming security person was checking if we were on the hotel’s guest list. Once confirmed we were let into the green compound. Security is undoubtedly a major issue here. None of the impressive environmentally friendly beachfront hotels here allow a visitor inside through the main gate of the surrounding gate, unless being a hotel guest or authorized by management.
The pampering Hilton Dead Sea resort was our home during our trip. The outgoing pleasant host, ever smiling Australian born Bill Dewell, Head of Operations describes more. “We have 275 rooms, including 23 suites of various configurations. We have 4 swimming pools. I really think everyone can find their own corner. Two of the pools are actually heated for winter. We have direct access to the Dead Sea via the beach and elevators that take you down. One of the interesting things, if you do the Dead Sea Experience with us, we will actually give you a mud certificate. A small memento of your time here in the Dead Sea”, he concludes.
Even sand was brought here by trucks, to guarantee a coast feeling similar to the Red Sea beaches. Travelers flock to the Dead Sea to soak in its healing waters and slather its restorative mud from head to toe. The hotel’s complimentary Dead Sea Experience is one of the most rejuvenating and unique I have ever encountered. The beach team will cover your entire body with high quality mud from a gigantic bowl, while pleasantly squeezing shoulders and back. Right after you are sent into the water to float like an experience in outer space. Whenever you are ready the team will wash off the mud and scrub your body parts with salt until you are it becomes soft as a baby skin. Following that, comes a shower with shampoo and dead sea soaps while you are seated on a bench under the sky. A clean towel is provided once the process comes to an end, followed by a certificate you are welcome to take home with you.
A wonderful surprise were the exceptional hotel restaurants – the 1312 with contemporary middle eastern cuisine and Bacchus, the Italian casual trattoria. Great Gastronomy to be cherished. A dinner buffet is also available in the third restaurant. Needless to say, all restaurants are non kosher, but pleasant.
Service by the staff at the Hilton Dead Sea resort is worth mentioning. The combination of women brought from Indonesia to work as hostess and waitress with the ever smiling locals create a winning hosting formula. The international flair is guaranteed and guests, mostly from Europe, feel content.
Unlike Israel, where hotels are located on the south-west part in front of the evaporating salt pools, Jordan’s hotel complex is located on the north-east part. This difference has enormous advantages. The feeling of the receding sea is less noticeable. The hotels are built on a slope all the way down to the water. The beach is quickly accessible via elevators. The water becomes deep after a few steps.
Jordan has access to the sea only from Aqaba port town by the Red Sea. 334 km away from Amman, the capital and the major metropolitan. The Dead Sea is only 52 km away and serves as the only recreational water in the country. Therefore the hotels are extremely popular during weekends and holiday periods. Furthermore, the Hilton also operates one of the biggest convention centers in Jordan. The demand for congresses, fairs, exhibitions by the Dead Sea is definitely there. In Israel the Dead Sea hotels are far from the main cities and it serves totally different local market needs.
An additional factor are the rates. Even though most of Jordan’s hotels in the lowest point on earth are internationally branded, staying there is not expensive. Hilton Dead Sea charges 100 Dinars per room per night with breakfast (140 USD) and in the high season 130 Dinars.(184 USD). These rates are extremely cheaper in comparison to Dead Sea Israeli hotels, all operated by local brands. Certainly a notable difference.
Attractions within reasonable proximity to the hotel are available. Standing 1250 meters above sea level in the 12th Century, Ajloun Castle, built under the rule of Saladin, was meant to guard travelers in three wadis. The ancient city of Jerash is considered the largest and most well preserved site of Roman architecture outside Rome. The marvel at the stunning colonnaded streets, public squares and hilltop temples, leaves us amazed.
Mount Nebo, the mountain considered to be where Moses saw the Promised Land before he died, is inspiring. Preserved Byzantine mosaics are dominant in the worth visiting Franciscan monastery.
The sixth century Madaba Mosaic Map in St. George’s Church presents the oldest surviving original cartographic depiction of the Holy Land and Jerusalem. This colorful town offer authentic shopping with endless mosaic attractions.
A must-visit attraction is surely Ma’in Hot Springs, a series of hot mineral springs and waterfalls. Have you ever had a 63 degrees Celsius shower under a waterfall in nature in the middle of winter? This is your opportunity. Just after, don’t miss the Dead Sea view from the mountains of Moab. A must, surly at sunset. Seeing Israel, my country from the other side, making my childhood dream come true, was a rewarding experience I will cherish for a long time.
The peace treaty between Israel and Jordan has been alive for almost 30 years. I am praying that border crossing technicalities will be revised and eased. The travel industry will be just rewarded. So are tourists.