A salty, 36-hour break at the Dead Sea

There are all kinds of pleasures to be had at the lowest place on Earth, especially during a winter getaway

Jessica Steinberg, The Times of Israel's culture and lifestyles editor, covers the Sabra scene from south to north and back to the center

Heading down to Jaky Ben Zaken's boat for a ride on the Dead Sea (Jessica Steinberg/Times of Israel)
Heading down to Jaky Ben Zaken's boat for a ride on the Dead Sea (Jessica Steinberg/Times of Israel)

The Dead Sea’s rocky, sinkhole-pocked shores, stinging salt-saturated water, and necrotic name don’t automatically conjure up visions of a tourist paradise. Still, approximately half of visitors to Israel head to the spot that’s the lowest point on Earth, making it the third most-visited area in the country, after Jerusalem and Tel Aviv.

A relatively short drive from the capital — barring flash floods — and two hours from Tel Aviv, if traffic is clear, one will find the main tourist area of Ein Bokek, a stretch of high-rise hotels and strip malls.

A bit further afield, though, is an abundant range of outdoor activities that are the perfect escape from the cloudy skies and dreary drizzle of the Israeli winter season.

The key is to find an assortment of plans that take advantage of the area, without spending too much time in the shops filled with Dead Sea products and bathing suits.

On the way down:

There are plenty of hikes and national parks in this neck of the woods, from the Masada snake path and the ancient wonders of Qumran, to David’s stream and the Arugot stream. There are also less strenuous options that offer an overview of the area without requiring commitment to a longer or more difficult hike.

The salty residue encrusting the landscape around the Dead Sea. (Jessica Steinberg/Times of Israel)

Nahal Dragot, also known as the Darja in Arabic, is a hike hugely popular with Israelis, popular for its dry waterfalls, pools of water, and rappelling (if you try this one, make sure to go with experts). But you can also take the easy way out and drive up the curving road off Route 90 to the parking lot, and venture beyond to the rocky plains where there are fantastic views of the region.

Sunset at Metzoke Dragot, off Route 90, on the way down to the Dead Sea. (Jessica Steinberg/Times of Israel)

If you want to stretch your legs more than that, park below the parking lot at the Metzoke Dragot Hostel, and walk up to the parking lot along the long, yellow painted pipeline, which has some fun boulders for scrambling and exploring on either side. Stay for the sunset, which is generally spectacular.

Another fairly easy loop trail on the way into the region is Wadi Salvadora, named for the wide-spreading Salvadora persica tree growing next to the stream. The easy, circular hike is five kilometers south of the now-closed Mineral Beach, and takes about two hours in total to complete; make sure to take the blue trail back to Highway 90, where you parked the car.

Finally, if smooth paths are more your speed (and if you have someone in a wheelchair or walker), take a stroll in the Ein Gedi Botanical Gardens of Kibbutz Ein Gedi.

Baobab trees at Ein Gedi Botanical Gardens. (photo credit: Shmuel Bar-Am)

Spread out around the kibbutz is a garden with marked trails; signposts name all the plants. There are lookout points to Mount Sodom, the Arugot river, and the Dead Sea; a baobab tree — remember that from “The Little Prince”? — with a massive trunk that begs to be hugged; a birdwatching lookout; a variety of rocks from the region; some 40 species of palm trees; and seedlings available for purchase at the nursery, which is open every morning of the week except Friday and Saturday.

The garden is open Sunday-Thursday, 9 a.m. to 4 p.m.; Friday, 9 a.m. to 2 p.m.; and Saturday, 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Entry to the garden costs NIS 20 per adult, and NIS 15 per child and/or senior citizen.

Where to stay:

There are myriad of options. For a rustic stay in the desert, try the Metzoke Dragot Hostel, a hippie accommodation with comfortable rooms and huts, as well as space for pitching tents. The hostel had a communal kitchen for those who opt to bring their own food, as well as a kosher dining room serving breakfast and dinner. Just be sure they’re not hosting the annual tantric festival if you’re heading there with the kids.

Another choice that exists a distance from the high-rise hotels of Ein Bokek is the Ein Gedi Kibbutz Hotel, which has a range of rooms, from the simple original rooms to recently renovated suites and deluxe rooms. There is also a full-service kosher dining room on site.

Down in Ein Bokek, there are more than a dozen hotels to choose from, most of which require a two-night minimum.

Be sure to check hotel websites for special deals, which is how we got to the Isrotel Ganim, a four-star-level hotel.

What stood out about the Isrotel were spacious family rooms (for up to four people), a comfortable lobby with plenty of cushy chairs and couches for small and large groups, excellent food (including good options for the vegans in our crowd), and cappuccinos during weekday breakfasts and fresh filtered coffee on Shabbat, rather than hot water and instant coffee.

An overview of some of the hotels along the Ein Bokek hotel strip, facing the Dead Sea. (Courtesy Isrotel)

It also has a good-sized outdoor pool with plenty of single and double-sized day beds, and an indoor saltwater pool for guests aged 16 and up.

What to eat:

Even if you don’t hike Metzoke Dragot, be sure to stop for a fresh lemonade or rosewater-flavored malabi pudding at Yigal Argaman, who operates a green-painted van of 1970s vintage at the crossroads of Metzoke Dragot. He’s generally open most days till 4 or 5 p.m.

Be sure to stop for fresh lemonade and a malabi pudding along the way to the Dead Sea. (Jorge Láscar /CC BY 2.0)

Food options aren’t abundant in this neck of the woods. Every hotel and hostel offers breakfast and dinner, and there are several mini-markets in Ein Bokek where you can buy canned products, some outrageously priced fresh pita, packaged salads, and dairy products, but prices are high, sometimes twice the price of supermarkets in other Israeli cities. So it’s worth packing a hamper of snacks and basics for the ride and picnics along the way.

There is an Aroma and a McDonald’s in the circular mall at the entrance of Ein Bokek, neither of which are kosher. Farther along on the main road of the town is a strip mall with a grilled meat restaurant (not kosher), and a Cafe Cafe. It might not be the best food you’ve ever eaten, but it’s edible (and kosher), and kids get a free scoop of ice cream with their meal.

More activities:

We reserved spots on Salty Landscapes, in order to experience a unique way of seeing the Dead Sea, and to gain a better understanding of what is happening to this natural resource.

Jaky Ben Zaken, who runs educational boat rides around the Dead Sea. (Jessica Steinberg/Times of Israel)

Salty Landscapes is run by Jaky Ben Zaken, who lives in Kibbutz Mitzpe Shalem, and takes visitors on his 10-person boat around the northern end of the Dead Sea to look at sinkholes, salt formations, and exposed rock. The cost is steep, at NIS 1,800 per boat ride, but it is a fascinating hour-and-a-half exploration of the region, and suitable for both kids and adults.

For more reading about Jaky Ben Zaken and the research being done on the Dead Sea and its receding shorelines, read Melanie Lidman and Luke Tress’s extensive series on the subject.

The layers of salt and earth revealed by a sinkhole at the Dead Sea. (Jessica Steinberg/Times of Israel)

Finally, make sure to take a dip in the Dead Sea. Due to sinkholes, Mineral Beach and Ein Gedi Beach are now both closed, leaving bare, hulking skeletons where there were once changing rooms, cafeterias, and kiosks. Instead, while the local authority figures out what to do in the area, they’ve carted in sand and set up changing rooms and outdoor shower-heads on the stretch of Dead Sea water in Ein Bokek.

It’s still a treat to float in the salty, mineral-rich waters, staring through the turquoise, still waters to the tracts of salt and rock below.

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