Time Out visits the Jordanian side of the Dead Sea - and finds it less romantic, though more fun, than the popular image of the Middle East's biggest waterbed...
Dead reckoning: the Dead Sea experience
Descending to the Jordanian side of the Dead Sea along the highway, your phone buzzes with 'Welcome to Israel' texts.
The Dead Sea, a lake and not in fact a sea, straddles the borders of Jordan and Israel. It's the lowest point on earth, and industrial activities on both sides means its water level is dropping by around a metre a year. At this rate, it will be gone within about 40 years.
As steeped in religious heritage as it is salty, the Dead Sea is supposedly the place where King David sought refuge from King Saul, where Abraham fought a war, where Ezekiel had prophecies and, just to the north, in a fresh water river, John reportedly baptised Jesus (he would never have got him under the Sea's now super-saline waters).
A rich aqua marine colour at its depths, the Dead Sea's waters blur to emerald at its edges. The shores are lined with salt crystals, lining up like nervous bathers just daring to dip their toes in at the water's brink. It makes for an undeniably beautiful scene, and the thought that the mystical city of Jerusalem lies just behind the lurching mountains of the other side, adds to the intrigue.
Public transport is reportedly unreliable, so if you are not part of a tour it is worth thinking about hiring your own wheels for a visit. There are a series of beach resorts skirting the coastal road. The Amman Beach Resort is a sprawling complex with a restaurant - the buffet was good for 8DH, though most of that statement is based on the dessert - a few pools, and a somewhat dingy beach. Entry is 16DH for non-Jordanians.
While the 'Dead Sea experience' is not to be missed, I can't pretend that it is enjoyable. In the nigh-on 45-degree mid-August heat nothing would have been less welcome than caking yourself in stinking gloopy mud (available for 3DH on the beach) and floating, hippopotamus-like in the stagnant, milky, hot waters of this land-locked tub. Beautiful to look at, yes; pleasant to get in, no. Any cuts or mosquito bites will smart, any water in the eyes will sting and any hope of a pleasant swim will have to be reserved for the crammed swimming pools above. In short, the Dead Sea experience was technically gross, but hilarious in almost equal measure.
The waters were littered with tourists trying to recreate the iconic experience of reading the paper while bathing, and the beach was punctuated with mudded-up sunbathers who looked like they were trying to recreate bad-taste comedy. You can do little but float on your back in this saline soup; trying to move your legs downwards to a standing position is nature-defying.
While this is not an experience necessarily to be re-tried, it is one to be wholeheartedly embraced, the first time around. Of course things would no doubt have been different and possibly more pleasant in the cooler months.
Nearby sites and attractions
Mount Nebo Opposite the northern end of the Dead Sea stands Mount Nebo at 1,000m above sea level.
Walk up the aromatic, pine-lined path to the mountain's top, where there is a church, an ancient mosaic of a hunting scenes, a very interesting visitor centre and a stone monument detailing that this is the spot where God reportedly first showed Moses the Promised Land, some years before Moses died and was buried nearby. The complex is in Franciscan custody.
Past the church the valley opens up before you. There is a helpful sign that points out the directions and distances to Jerusalem, Ramallah, Jericho, Nablus, Bethlehem and others. A glittering spot in the distance marks the spot on the river where Jesus's baptism is believed to have taken place.
Karak Castle Jordan's largest crusader castle, and one of the three largest in the Middle East region - the other two being in Syria - Karak takes pride of place on a hilltop around 25km from the Dead Sea. Though the modern city of Karak is fairly uninspiring, the castle is well worth a wander around.
Make your way through the castle's sight-challenging passages, looking out for slumbering bats. If you are lucky, push open the sometimes-padlocked door of the cavernous room that would have served as a crusader barracks and marvel at the amount of light allowed in through the tiny roof slits.
See evidence of the Muslim inhabitants who took the castle over from the crusaders, with Islamic designs carved into the stone.
Dana Nature Reserve and Village For a night or two's peace and calm (aside from the occasional nighttime hyena cackle) head to Dana village, on the verge of the expansive and wildlife-rich nature reserve of the same name.
The nature reserve itself (JD6 entrance) is made up of colossal sandstone cliffs, and below sea level lulls in the expansive Rift Valley. It is home to a rich bird life, along with agile ibex, Yoda-eared lynx, and perhaps even the occasional wolf. Make time for the visitor centre and see local women at work making silver jewellery inspired by nature.
Dana Tower Hotel (+962 795688853) - so called because it's second storey is the highest point in the village - is undeniably rustic, but charming. Rooms vary in size from spacious, to just-big-enough-to-cram-in-a-bed, but all are clean and welcoming. The dinner buffet, laid on by the hospitable ladies who look after the place, is worth writing home about, as is the rooftop view of the sun setting across the valley.
Intrepid Travel offers an eight-day Explore Jordan small group tour from £820 which visits Amman, Wadi Rum, Petra, Dana Nature Reserve, the Dead Sea and Madaba. The price includes accommodation, transport, some meals and activities, and services of a local tour leader. It excludes international flights. Book at www.intrepidtravel.com.