The Dead Sea & Jordan Valley
Without a doubt the world's most amazing place, the Jordan Rift Valley is a dramatic, beautiful landscape, which at the Dead Sea, is over 400m (1,312 ft.) below sea level. The lowest point on the face of the earth, this vast stretch of water receives a number of incoming rivers, including the River Jordan. Once the waters reach the Dead Sea they are land-locked and have nowhere to go, so they evaporate, leaving behind a dense, rich, cocktail of salts and minerals that supply industry, agriculture and medicine with some of its finest products.
The Dead Sea is flanked by mountains to the east and the rolling hills of Jerusalem to the west, giving it an almost other-worldly beauty. Although sparsely populated and serenely quiet now, the area is believed to have been home to five Biblical cities: Sodom, Gomorrah, Adman, Zebouin and Zoar (Bela).
One of the most spectacular natural and spiritual landscapes in the world, the Jordanian east coast of the Dead Sea has evolved into a major hub of both religious and health & wellness tourism in the region. A series of good roads, excellent hotels with spa and fitness facilities, as well as archaeological and spiritual discoveries make this region as enticing to today's international visitors as it was to kings, emperors, traders, prophets and pilgrims in antiquity.
The leading attraction at the Dead Sea is the warm, soothing, super salty water itself – some ten times saltier than sea water, and rich in chloride salts of magnesium, sodium, potassium, bromine and several others. The unusually warm, incredibly buoyant and mineral-rich waters have attracted visitors since ancient times, including King Herod the Great and the beautiful Egyptian Queen, Cleopatra. All of whom have luxuriated in the Dead Sea's rich, black, stimulating mud and floated effortlessly on their backs while soaking up the water's healthy minerals along with the gently diffused rays of the Jordanian sun.
Some 2km south of the hotel zone is the AMMAN BEACH resort. Don’t be fooled by the name: Amman is about an hour away (and over 1200m up in the hills). This is the most easily accessible low-budget option for Dead Sea beach-bumming – not least because the car park serves as the terminus for public buses from Amman and elsewhere. It’s a well-run place with trees and plenty of shade.
There are two separate areas, both with access to the Dead Sea – the beach is a bit gravelly, but it’s OK – and both with freshwater showers, little play areas for children and café/restaurants offering simple meals (JD12–15 or so). The main beach area is a basic affair, with no pool and slightly scruffy facilities; women here might attract less attention covered up with a T-shirt and long shorts. The other area – entry is to the right of the main entrance – has a swimming pool and better facilities: women can feel comfortable wearing a bikini, there are lots of loungers (free), you can hire towels and the lockers are usable.
O Beach (OH BEACH)
About 2km south of Amman Beach, O BEACH is a super-swanky day resort, with immaculate sandy beaches and contemporary urban styling throughout – think minimalist design, infinity pools, cushioned lounges, pool bars, luxury spa, four restaurants. Visit during the day midweek and you could have the place to yourself. Weekends – especially Thursday and Friday evenings – are busier, but despite the boutique hotel ambience, there’s nowhere to sleep: at some point you’ll have to peel yourself off the two-person lounge beds and away from the chill-out beats to drive away. You can even rent one of twelve private tented cabanas (from JD350), enough for ten people, with butler service and personal Jacuzzi – but, again, management will call time on the party eventually. Service is generally attentive and standards are high, but you pay for the privilege.
South of O Beach, the road continues along the Dead Sea shoreline towards Aqaba, roughly 275km away. We cover the route later in this chapter (see South along the Dead Sea road).
The Dead Sea Panorama
On the main road 5km south of Amman Beach, a marked turn-off climbs into the mountains: follow it up 9km of steep switchbacks to reach the DEAD SEA PANORAMA complex. This sensitively designed building – managed by Jordan’s Royal Society for the Conservation of Nature (RSCN) – perches on a cliff-edge with spectacular views over the Dead Sea: footpaths lead away from the parking area to viewpoints, and there’s a short walking trail that covers a circular route around the site.
Within the main building, the excellent Dead Sea Museum covers four themes in fascinating detail: the geological origins of the Dead Sea, the ecology of the region, its archeology and history, and issues surrounding future conservation. The museum is spacious, modern and air-conditioned: the exhibits and accompanying videos make for an absorbing visit. Next door is an RSCN nature shop, selling handmade crafts and jewellery.
From a T-junction above the Panorama, a turn-off heads down 2km to the luxury Six Senses spa resort at Hammamat Ma’in. The main road leads up to the plateau, passing through Ma’in village and ending after about 30km at Madaba.