I first heard the rumors about the Jordanian Dead Sea many years ago. It’s said that on the correct side of the Jordan, opposite our Dead Sea with its veteran hotels and their battered image, lie magnificence, luxury and open expanses. But unlike Sinai and Aqaba, which are slowly penetrating the Israeli tourist map, the Jordanian Dead Sea remains legend-like, an abstract idea. The usual reason Israelis first give for ignoring the area is that the upscale hotels of the Jordanian Dead Sea are not especially cheap. Nevertheless, a short look on Booking.com shows that in Jordan accommodations at a prestigious resort run by a well-known chain are available for the price of a room with bunk beds in an Israeli field school. Not a bad reason to hit the road.
Getting to the Jordanian side of the Dead Sea, even though it’s just across the way, is not a simple matter. The closest crossing, Allenby Bridge, deals with Palestinians and the caprices of the occupation. Israeli citizens are supposed to go to the border terminal across the Jordan River from Beit She’an, 100 kilometers (62 miles) north of the area with the hotels; the crossing at Eilat is 260 kilometers south of the Dead Sea. I still have a trauma from the Beit She’an terminal. One time I got there and the Jordanians wouldn’t let me cross over, on the pretext of some random safety regulation.
At present, following the deterioration of relations with the kingdom, the procedures have only become more rigid. To enter via the northern crossing, anyone traveling on an Israeli passport one must arrange to be met on the other side by a guide from Amman – a dubious pleasure that costs 400 shekels (currently $117). “Take out a second mortgage,” I was advised by Rinat Turgeman, a regular visitor to Jordan, who has become the angel of other travelers and tried to help me out with some tips. Half a year ago, it was decided that the Israeli traveler would have to hire a fictitious tour guide at the Aqaba crossing, too, but there the cost is about 75 shekels.
Still, Turgeman promised me fantastic things at the Jordanian Dead Sea. “You won’t find hotels like that in Israel, and I’m talking about ‘wow’ hotels. The service there is better and things are cheaper, even if not by that much. In the final analysis, it comes out to about 1,000 shekels less for a vacation, which is significant.”
In the end I chose the southern option. I take advantage of every excuse to get to Aqaba. Somehow, things usually work out there. I believed that with a little research, I would find an inexpensive way to get up to the Dead Sea. I’m a failure in many areas, it’s true, but when it comes to transportation I’m a tactician with animal instincts.
So, I devised a plan. I was determined to get the 8 A.M. bus that goes from Aqaba to a town named Tafilah, about 80 kilometers southeast of the Dead Sea, where I could get a bus or taxi heading to my destination. I believe in traveling according to names: Tafilah reminded me of tefillah (Hebrew for “prayer”), so it was attractive to me. When I got to the bus depot, a resourceful elderly man, who was charging his phone from a flashlight battery, informed me that the bus I needed had just left. But there’ll be another one soon, he promised. “Soon” in Jordan could mean two hours.
When I told him I was heading for the Dead Sea, he came up with a smarter idea: to take a bus to Karak, which is even further north, get off at the intersection just before the city and go on from there. I was pleased, because the name Karak reminded me of the lovely Hebrew word krach (metropolis). The bus to Karak was about to leave, packed with goods that the passengers had bought in Aqaba. For some reason, when Jordanians travel to that Red Sea city, they are seized by an obsession to buy huge winter blankets in plastic wrapping. I wedged myself in between all the mammoth packages of blankets, next to a boy who later dozed off on my shoulder. Good fortune smiled upon me: It turned out that the guy in the seat across the aisle, Haitham, lives in a village near the Dead Sea hotels. He chose me as his good friend and took me under his wing. After I mumbled a few words in Arabic that I’d picked up from a couple of lessons on the internet, he spoke to me in fluent Arabic. I didn’t understand a thing.
The ride was pleasant; we passed by our Arava desert on the other side. The only scary moment was at the checkpoint at the exit from Aqaba’s duty-free area. The customs agents signaled the men to get off with their blanket packages. I was the only foreigner. One of the agents asked to see my passport and held it upside down, laughing at the Hebrew letters. Others opened a random package of blankets and nodded in a peculiar way. Finally, they indicated that we were free to go.
After about two hours on the road, Haitham and I got off at the intersection close to the Lisan peninsula. I was already pretty close to the Dead Sea and was going to take a taxi to a hotel. But Haitham convinced me to join him on a sunny walk of about a kilometer to the next bus stop down the road. He asked me my name – “Roy ‘Chicky’ Arad,” I told him – and then he said, “Chicky, I love you.” I figured it wouldn’t be nice to leave him and get a taxi, so we ended up walking on and passing through a forlorn town, where the chief investment seemed to be in the design of the barber-shop signs.
The walk turned out to be totally superfluous: As soon as we boarded the bus at the stop, it turned around and returned to the intersection we’d started from, picked up passengers, before turning around again and heading for the Dead Sea hotels. I told good-hearted Haitham that I would spend the first night at the Mövenpick. He spoke to me knowledgeably about the hotels, ranking them and so on, but I’d bet one of my kidneys he’d never slept in any of them. I would soon learn that grading hotels is a local sport.
In contrast to the Israeli side, where sinkholes are causing serious damage, the whole northern part of the Jordanian Dead Sea, where the hotels are located, has been spared this blight. According to geologist Eli Raz, a researcher at the Dead Sea and Arava Science Center at Ben-Gurion University, the Jordanians are more considerate of the Dead Sea.
Perhaps to impart a sense of security, or to symbolize their independence from the state, Jordanian resorts on the Dead Sea are fortresses surrounded by serious walls. Entering any of them requires passing through an experience like a border crossing. Suitcases and people are scanned; if there’s a car, its undercarriage will be checked with a mirror to ensure that its not carrying a bomb. The world of terrorism and the world of vacationing are twins. After all, every airplane flight is a sort of commemoration of diverse geopolitical threats and for a myriad of fears of terrorism experts.
There’s also another danger, this one expressly inscribed: On the wall outside every Dead Sea resort is a huge sign stating that it is prohibited to bring in food and water pipes. The economic model for these hotels is not “all inclusive,” more like “all exclusive.” That is, the price of the hotel may look cheap when you are booking, but you’ll pay for everything excluding the room. You’re trapped between the walls, and every drink or item of food costs at least four times as much as it would in Aqaba (and about the same as one could expect at a top Tel Aviv hotel).
After being crammed into the bus with the blankets and other paraphernalia, entering a spacious luxury hotel came as something of a culture shock. The staff in the palace wore tarbushes and a handsome lad with a golden flamingo attached to his back bent over and filled small glasses with orange juice from the flamingo’s beak. The marble floor was polished and glistening, and carved wooden figures adorned the space, as though someone had worked hard to reconstruct the set of an old Hollywood movie about the Middle East.
The tarbush-clad reception clerk seemed happy to see a client from Israel. Most Israelis who stay here are Arabs, he said. In any event, I’d only get the key card to my room in another quarter of an hour. For some reason, and I couldn’t find an explanation for this, the check-in time at Jordan’s Dead Sea hotels is the latest I’ve ever encountered. At Mövenpick Resort & Spa Dead Sea, it’s 4 P.M. Meaning, when I stayed there, I had only a little more than an hour of daylight to enjoy afterward. (Check-out is a standard 12:00.)
A very patriotic atmosphere prevails in this hotel, maybe due to some guilt feelings over the fact that the Mövenpick chain is Swiss. My room, for example, was in the main building, which was called Yarmouk – a reference to the river on the Syrian border where a historic battle was fought in which the Muslims defeated the teetering Byzantine empire. The key word at resorts here is exaggeration, not to say over the top. Mövenpick is of immense and totally inefficient dimensions: To walk from the lobby to the sea takes a quarter of an hour, during which the stunned tourist passes by gardens, pools and splendid fake fortresses. I got lost for some time amid gargantuan, empty shrines looking for an elevator. I don’t think there’s a hotel this size in Israel (and that’s a good thing, too).
The resort’s main attraction is a spectacular infinity pool that overlooks the sea, but I really wanted to take a dip in the sea itself, which is very pleasant this time of year. Until now, I have refused on ideological grounds to smear myself with mud, as is the custom at the Dead Sea. I mean, how can people covered in that ghastly muck not feel stupid? After all, it’s clear that the claim about mud being healthy is a myth, if not downright fraudulent. Still, because this time I was on assignment, I rubbed a little mud on myself, in a tasteful manner, explaining to those around me that the whole thing was a deception, and receiving polite nods in return. The truth is that I enjoyed it.
I then went back to lounging next to the infinity pool, posting photos online so my acquaintances good see how successful I am. The problem was that the water was cold, so that after being photographed in it, most everyone fled in horror. I myself opted for the heated pool, where many people bobbed about but I was the only one who swam. The truth is that during the entire time I spent in hotels at the Jordanian Dead Sea, I hung out by the pools for hours and hardly ever saw anyone swimming. These days, pools seem to be seen more as props for photos, like selfie sticks.
There are sights on this side of the sea that you don’t see on the Israeli side: a girl in a burkini cuddling with her boyfriend; two girls wearing head coverings walking hand in hand – one on stilettos with Gucci shades and a glittering sweater. At poolside, I spoke with Thea from Malta, who works as a manager for the H&M chain and had flown in from Sweden. She was alone at the time, but said she was there with an English guy. We arranged to meet later at the bar, and talked about going together to Madaba, the ancient site in central Jordan known for its 6th-century mosaic map of the Holy Land. Life was looking rosy.
From astronomical to immoral
In the meantime, I needed to eat. A quick glance at the menu showed that dinner prices ranged from astronomical to immoral. I decided not to cooperate with the scheme. For an hour or two I was on a hunger strike. But it’s a problematic strategy to stay in a fancy hotel, even if it only costs 400 shekels a night, and die of starvation. Happily, I saw on Google Maps that just a nine-minute walk away there’s a secret mall with restaurants; in the end I had a good meal that cost only twice as much as in Aqaba, instead of four times as much. I had beaten the system. The big dinner tired me out, I dozed off and woke up a few hours later, having missed the rendezvous with curly-haired Thea from Malta; she was lost forever.
The next place I stayed at during my Jordanian sojourn was the Kempinski Hotel Ishtar Dead Sea. Immediately upon entering, I felt like an odd duck. This is the most luxurious, and most expensive, hotel at the Dead Sea and the country’s largest resort; all the guests arrive in rental cars, usually SUVs, or taxis, actually limos. Half of the vast expanse of this hotel is a parking lot. Nobody arrives here by bus or on foot. A foot is an organ for massaging, not for walking. I had a long, pleasant wait at the guard booth before a golf cart took me to the reception desk, far below. In the meantime I hung out with the cordial staff, who were smoking happily.
One of the guards told me that Kempinski is of course the No. 1 resort in these parts, and that No. 2 is not the Mövenpick Resort & Spa Dead Sea but the Marriot – a hotel I’d never considered staying at, maybe because of its short name. I felt cheated. Was it possible that my foot had trod in a hotel that was only in third place at the Dead Sea?
At first glance, the décor at Kempinski looked less Orientalist than at Mövenpick, more Jordanian. No fake ancient walls or tarbushes. I soon grasped, however, that the concept here was that of a Babylonian temple, one dedicated to Ishtar, the Mesopotamian goddess of love and sex, and the inspiration for the resort’s name. The restaurants are called, for example, Akkad and Ashur – pretty bizarre considering that Ashur serves Italian food. There’s also a bar called Inan, which is Ishtar’s Sumerian name. Yonatan Ratosh, the Israeli poet and founder of the Canaanite movement, would be appalled by the sight of all the ancient Eastern peoples who had suddenly been resurrected only to offer pasta.
The staff at Kempinski can also be described as over the top. I could have found my room by myself, but Maria, a sweet Filipina with braces, insisted on escorting me. On the way, she said she’d been to Israel and had good things to say about our trains. I thanked her. The Dead Sea hotels have many foreign workers, from the Philippines to Bangladesh. Regardless of what goes on in Israel, it’s not clear why a country like Jordan, which suffers from rampant unemployment, is bringing in foreigners instead of hiring locals.
The Kempinski beach is a lot better than the one at Mövenpick. As part of their fondness for extraneous staff, Kempinski has a dedicated employee whose job is to smear the mud on you, as though it’s a task that demands assistance. I asked the smearer if he’d met Israelis; only Arabs, he said, and protested that tipping isn’t their strong suit.
But the outstanding advantage of Kempinski lies not in the facilities or in the excessive number of service staff, but in the rooms themselves. I took the cheapest one, but even it was huge. Across from the immense bedroom and enormous bed were a tremendous porch, a little space that Maria says is intended for drying hair, and a bathroom the size of my apartment – and I’m not exaggerating. What was I supposed to do with this vast territory? Who was I going to hide from?
Toward evening I was reminded, while reading The Jordan Times, the country’s official English-language daily, that it was Valentine’s Day. It may be a dumb holiday, but I didn’t want to spend it alone in my room. Maybe there would be young women from the United Arab Emirates at the bar? But it was empty, apart from a beefy guy hunched over his cellphone. Millions had been invested in the concept of the goddess of love and sex here, but she was not in evidence. Dejected, I went back to my palatial room, which could accommodate a family of Syrian refugees. I felt a bit lonely.
The paradox of privilege is that a businessperson who works from morning to evening and spends a fortune to buy an apartment in a high-rise opposite the sea will barely have time to sit on the balcony and take in the view. Thus it was for me at the Kempinski, which is perhaps the most impressive luxury hotel I’ve ever been in: I hardly managed to enjoy myself. I swam three or four laps and sat across from the pool. I saw about 10 minutes of sunset from my room. The descending sun was pink and amazing, but I would have seen it if I’d been sleeping in a tent, too. In fact, I would have seen it better, because the window in the lounging area in my room was covered with wood carvings, to prevent kids from climbing in and out.
The fact is I have decent memories from bad hotels. I missed the hotels with the two-digit-dollar rates in Aqaba, with sleazy names like Moon Beach. Give me gilded curtains in bad taste. Give me towels arranged on my bed like a crippled swan, and defective service covered up with grandiose gestures by megalomaniacal reception clerks. I don’t know how to enjoy myself with rich people’s stuff.
Hot, but cool
The Facebook recommendations about traveling to this part of Jordan were unequivocal. One person noted that visiting the Ma’in Hot Springs was one of the most powerful experiences of his life. Even though the eponymous hotel there is not on the Dead Sea but insists on being located in a canyon 19 kilometers away – I decided I couldn’t pass it up. After all, I edit a poetry journal with a similar name – Ma’ayan – so it seemed as if we were meant for each other, me and the resort.
I traveled to the resort along a thrilling route with an Uber driver in a blue convertible. Compared to the inns at the Dead Sea, there’s nothing over the top here. But the hotel doesn’t need to offer a thing. The natural advantages are impressive enough: The fusion between unexpected, boiling-hot mineral pools and a desert oasis has placed Ma’in on Vogue’s list of the world’s most beautiful springs and on variouo lists of top spa hotels. One can easily suffice by staring at the two waterfalls opposite the window in one’s room while sprawling on soft towels made in Pakistan, or by squirming around in the water of the pool that bubbled out of the spring at a temperature of 65 degrees Celsius but was cooled down to 34 degrees.
It’s sad that an impressive natural resource like this, which should be available free to normal Jordanian citizens, has for the most part been appropriated for tourists and wealthy people. Jordanians do get a certain discount in part of the area, which is also under the resort’s management, but the bulk of the site is accessible only to clients of the resort and spa.
Winter is the best time to visit the Ma’in hotel; in the summer the water is too hot. The food is plain tasty and Jordanian and not especially expensive, and the décor is tasteful and functional, while not trying to recreate some embarrassing historical moment. Not to insult the gods of Ashur and Akkad, whom I respect and don’t want to get entangled with.
There are plenty of attractions in the area. I really wanted to see Lot’s Cave, where, according to legend, Abraham’s nephew was given liquid refreshment by his daughters before they slept with him – a situation that produced Ammon and Moab, two cool peoples. By the way, Israel has its own Lot’s Cave, and I wouldn’t be surprised if the Palestinians also have something similar, not to mention the Cypriots. In the end I took a quick trip to Mount Nebo, from which Moses gazed out upon the Promised Land before he died. The visibility wasn’t amazing, so I didn’t see much more than the Dead Sea and a smidgen of Lake Kinneret and Jericho.
In the hotel pool I had an interesting conversation with two tattooed hipster sisters from Amman, mainly about the character types of people from different cities in Jordan. Afterward, I went to see the part of the area that’s open to the public, an opportunity to see happy, jubilant people, without the poses of luxury-hotel guests. Beyond the burning-hot pools, the gimmick here is the waterfalls, which shower down on you with tremendous force. The atmosphere called for darbukas, which unfortunately no one had brought, maybe because they would have rusted in the sulfuric waters. Still someone beat out a rhythm with his flip-flops.
Like all the places I visited, the Ma’in Hot Springs site is also excessive in size. One has to walk about half a kilometer (500 yards) from the from gate to the hotel itself, and then another half a kilometer to the spa, skirting vegetable patches belonging to the hotel’s restaurant along the way. The spa looked nice and has its own special waterfall, but it’s expensive. In the morning, the hotel’s manager, George, asked each guest if he was satisfied. He said jokingly: “I am Syrian – but I am not serious.” The hotel, he said, was part of an international chain but is now a privately owned by a Syrian who received Saudi citizenship.
Floating in the broiling-hot water, after all the luxury hotels, I concluded that I’d finally found something good about this way of life.