Salt cures - or at least energises - in the Dead Sea, 423 metres below sea level, writes Susan Wyndham.
Floating on my back, I am as relaxed as if lounging on a waterbed and as happy as a pig in mud. The sea is calm and tepid, dotted with dirt-black figures, and the scene seems eccentric but utterly benign until two facts swim into focus. An inadvertent gulp of water parches and burns my mouth and I realise that I - or any living creature - would quickly die of thirst out here. Later, I look at my map and see that the hazy far shore I have been gazing at is not just the eastern border of Israel but the disputed West Bank.
It's not the first time I've been reminded on this trip through Jordan that I am at the heart of the Middle East's biblical and political history. But it feels especially incongruous from the luxury of a sprawling seaside resort where the challenging questions are where to eat lunch and whether to have a mud wrap or a massage.
We've arrived at the Kempinski Hotel Ishtar, on the north-eastern lip of the Dead Sea, at the end of a fascinating four-day tour from the Jordanian capital, Amman, to the ancient city of Petra, carved into the cliffs, and the sandy valley of Wadi Rum. We have visited Mount Nebo, where Moses looked out at the Promised Land he never reached, and looked up at the pillar of salt known as Lot's wife on the rocky cliffs where Lot and his family escaped the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah but his wife made the mistake of looking back (or perhaps of sipping Dead Sea water).
It's a pleasure to see the sea after all that desert. We have passed clusters of palm trees that signal an unseen river in a canyon, farmers growing tomatoes and carrots by the road, and pipelines snaking across empty plains. But even the Jordan River is little more than a stream and residents of cosmopolitan Amman, with its cypresses, grassy squares and Turkish baths, have water pumped into tanks once a week and pay heavily if they need more.
"Water for us is like a dream," says our guide, Abed al-Salam Helweh. "It's special because you can't have it. I don't know how to explain it to Europeans, but perhaps Australians understand. We have a special prayer for rainfall in winter. Where you have water you have life."
Not in the Dead Sea, though. Actually an inland lake in the Rift Valley, it is fed by the Jordan River but has no outlets and little rainfall, so its concentrated water is almost 10 times saltier than the ocean. While this makes the sea inhospitable to fish and other life forms, it creates health-giving properties that were enjoyed before Christ's birth.
As well as the sea's mineral content, the area has the lowest elevation on earth, at 423 metres below sea level, which gives it an energising combination of high oxygen, ozone and atmospheric pressure with low ultraviolet radiation despite a dry, sunny climate.
An ever-growing line of hotels, resorts and medical spas on both the Israeli and Jordanian sides of the sea attracts local weekenders, foreign tourists and people seeking therapies for skin, respiratory and arthritic conditions, as well as restorative beauty treatments.
Australians don't need to travel this far to lie on a briny beach, but it makes great sense as part of a trip to Jordan - a secure, modern, relatively liberal and welcoming haven amid the neighbouring unrest in Iraq, Israel and Syria, whose refugees pour over Jordan's northern border.
For me the Dead Sea has always sounded surreally intriguing, but here it is, conveniently situated on the country's main highway three hours north of Petra and less than an hour south of Amman.
Arriving on a spring evening, we eat dinner on the terrace of a beach club that offers facilities for day visitors. In the cool, sea-scented air we could be on the Mediterranean as we demolish yet another buffet of hummus, baba ganoush, falafel, grilled meats, salads, flat bread, pastries and creamy cakes.
With alcohol scarce outside international hotels, I have become addicted to the ubiquitous fresh lemon juice mixed with sugar and mint.
Breakfast at the Kempinski is a similar feast, with the addition of delicious goat cheeses and yoghurts as well as European and Asian standards. And then there's lunch at the hotel's Italian restaurant (one of eight) and afternoon tea in the lobby, where I find the best Turkish coffee of the trip, a nice change from endless cups of tea or the weak, cardamom-flavoured Jordanian coffee that doesn't satisfy my caffeine need.
Eating is, however, just a sideline to the resort's main purpose. In swimsuit and towelling robe, I head down the cascading paths to the private beach overlooking the silver-blue water, claim a chair and work out the peculiar code of behaviour.
Adults and children wander around nonchalantly painted from face to foot with fine black mud that has come from the seabed. Beach attendants will apply it for you, or you can help yourself from the urns along the waterfront as I do. It's childish fun to scoop out cold dollops and slather it on.
Following the signposted instructions, I sit in the sun until the mud dries to a crust that makes me feel like a terracotta warrior, and then walk into the water. It is only when I lie back that I feel the difference: instead of sinking, my whole body bobs above the surface. I can stand upright with my feet dangling and look as if I'm only waist deep. A man swims by, but clearly that requires practice; when I try to lie face down my legs fly up and I feel as if I will be spat out like a pip. One thing is certain: you cannot sink in this sea.
Most people loll or stand and chat while washing off the mud. The instant benefit is noticeably soft, smooth skin, and apparently the minerals have detoxing, firming, anti-ageing qualities that I won't experience in two days.
To give myself an extra chance I book into the Kempinksi's Spa by Anantara, a vast complex with Jacuzzis, hydrotherapy pool, Arabian bathhouse, fitness centre, yoga studio, and treatments based on Thai and Indian traditions. It includes Dead Sea salt scrubs and body mud wraps. Here your mud is mixed with perfumed oils and served with tea. Later we are taken to a local shop that sells every mud and salt product you can imagine and I stock up on oxymoronic "mud soap".
You can, of course, treat a Dead Sea resort like any other, ignoring the mud and enjoying the swimming pools, gardens, restaurants and bars. Sitting by one of the pools, I get talking to a friendly young woman in a veil who was a recent refugee from Syria, where her family home was destroyed. She has family in Amman (and, it seems, a boyfriend) so has avoided the border camps, but she is another reminder of the protected world that tourists experience.
The Kempinski is the most luxurious of many hotels along a strip that was a military zone until 20 years ago; like the others it buys in water for its pools, spa, kitchens and bathrooms. With temperatures seven to eight degrees warmer than in Amman, and water temperatures always in the 20s, the Dead Sea is a year-round calm oasis - just remember not to drink the water.
The writer travelled to Jordan as a guest of the Jordan Tourism Board.
FIVE MORE MUST-SEES IN JORDAN
Look over the city from the ancient citadel, visit a Turkish bath, have coffee in Rainbow Street, dine at Hashem or Fakherddin restaurants.
MOUNT NEBO AND MADABA
Moses' burial place and nearby town with St George's Byzantine church, archaeological museums, and excellent meals at Haret Jdoudna.
Give two days to the magnificent ancient city carved into desert cliffs. Nearby Wadi Musa has hotels from the Marriott to the Petra Guest House.
Ride jeeps and camels through the desert and Bedouin villages; stay in a tent camp.
Among the world's best-preserved Roman provincial towns, with a mediaeval Arab castle at nearby Ajlun.
Etihad has a fare to Amman for about $1875 low-season return from Sydney and Melbourne, including taxes. Fly to Abu Dhabi (about 14hr) and then to Amman (3hr 30min); see etihad.com. Australians require a visa for a stay of up to 30 days ($75).
Le Royal Hotel, Amman, is a 31-storey, five-star hotel in the city centre. Deluxe double rooms start at about $180 a night.
Kempinski Hotel Ishtar, Dead Sea, has 345 rooms and two royal villas. Superior double rooms start from about $260.
Tour buses and inexpensive taxis are easy ways to travel around this small country, but good roads and English signs make rental cars another option.