Pampered in Jordan: The Dead Sea resorts

In the ‘village square’ the and female duo were belting out their version of Van Morrison’s “Moondance,” “This night is magic, seems to whisper and hush, the soft moonlight seems to shine on your blush, can I have just one more dance, can I make some more romance with you my love.”

Sometimes on vacation, everything you want just comes together perfectly, and Jordan’s Dead Sea Mövenpick resort was checking all the boxes. Nargila. Check. A pint of cold beer. Check. A beautiful fountain, live music and good looking company. Check. A small legion of waiters were on hand to bring pistachios, ice cold water and whatever else they could rustle up.

It was a balmy Friday evening. Summer in the Jordan Valley, 400 meters below sea level is toasty. It had been 40 degrees centigrade a few hours ago and it was still hovering around 32 degrees, which made it just bearable to sit outside. The last bit of sunset could still be seen over the mountains across the Dead Sea and the lights on the road that leads up to Jerusalem from Jericho were visible. The completely flat water of the Dead Sea splayed itself out below, like a dark foreboding palette.

A view of the Dead Sea from the Movenpick (Seth J. Frantzman)

A view of the Dead Sea from the Movenpick (Seth J. Frantzman)

Jordan’s Dead Sea tourism is a relatively recent phenomenon. Awad Hajjara, who has worked as a tour guide for the better part of a decade, recalls the old days when people would come down to the Dead Sea from Amman and there were few places to stay. “Imagine 20 to 30 years ago when we came down here, the Dead Sea was much higher then.” He points to the side of the highway, “it used to be right there.” But the sea has been shrinking every year.

Along the coastline where the hotels are clustered one can see how they have had to keep rebuilding the beach areas as the water recedes. The hotel area on the Dead Sea is located at the northern part of the sea, unlike in Israel where the hotels are clustered farther south near Ein Bokek. There are around seven large resorts, including Marriott, Crown Plaza, Dead Sea Spa, Hilton and Kempinski. There is a water park called al-Wadi and some other attractions, including a recently built small mall. “It is most popular in winter when they are often fully booked on the weekend. You’ll see mostly Jordanians,” says Hajjara.

Arabs from Israel, as well as tourists from the Gulf come as well. At the Mövenpick, it seemed there were just a dozen or so Europeans, and the rest of the vacationers were from the Middle East. Price ranges a lot from the basic single rooms for 166 Jordanian dinars (NIS 893), to the deluxe private suites that are almost like their own houses, with well appointed balconies and relaxation areas that overlook either small gardens or the sea. The lobby of the Mövenpick is kitted out with arabesque furniture. It is a general theme. At the Zara Spa a man in traditional beduin dress, complete with a dagger, holds the door for patrons.

Bellydancer at the Movenpick (Seth J. Frantzman)

Bellydancer at the Movenpick (Seth J. Frantzman)

The walk from the main section of the Mövenpick to the beach is a little bit of a hike through deluxe bungalows that are made to look like an old Arab village, with stone on the outside and small parapets on the roof. The roof of the spa is similarly designed to copy the old hunting lodges of the early Islamic era that once dotted Jordan and the Dead Sea region.

AS I MADE my way towards the Dead Sea beach the smell of narghile smoke and loud Arabic music was wafting up. At first it seemed like some family was having a private party, but it soon became clear there was a “pool lounge” area that catered primarily to the younger hip set. Men with tanned bodies and sculpted muscles posed for pictures with women in skimpy bikinis, while two lifeguards in red shirts took in the scene. It wasn’t clear what lives they were guarding as the infinity wading pool overlooking the Dead Sea only came up to chest high. So this is where the other Jordan hangs out? The young tanned men making out with their girlfriends, drinking Corona for the exorbitant price of 8 dinars and sucking down double-apple flavored narghile for 5 dinars. You could do worse than feast your eyes on this for a while as the sun crept towards the horizon. I decided to forgo the Dead Sea and relax with the Arabic dance club music.

Jordanian tourism is suffering a 70 percent decline among international travelers. “Tourist fear coming to the Middle East,” says Hajjara. “Uneducated people don’t understand how far Jordan is from Syria or Iraq, they just think it is all the same. Coming from Jerusalem that was understandable, people also perceive Israel and the Palestinian territories as unsafe. The Kingdom of Jordan takes security seriously.”

There is a checkpoint leading into the resorts area. The mall has a metal detector at the entrance and the guards at the entrance to the hotel look under and throughout each car that enters. For people traveling from Israel to Jordan the most convenient crossing is King Hussein bridge near Jericho, but for Israeli passport holders the only option is to cross further north at Sheikh Hussein bridge near Beit She’an. A taxi to the Dead Sea from there will run around 50 dinars and it is about an hour drive. Beware the other bureaucratic costs (exiting Israel is NIS 106, entering Jordan another 40 dinars and on return another 10 dinars; leaving your car on the Israeli side is NIS 36 a night in the guarded lot).

The Movenpick pool (Seth J. Frantzman)

The Movenpick pool (Seth J. Frantzman)

There isn’t much to see along the way from Sheikh Hussein to the Dead Sea. One after another of small farming communities flash by and shops selling vegetables or whatever local harvest has just been brought in. It was tomato season when we passed, so heaping carts with tomatoes were on display.

One can stop at Tell Sukkot (Deir Alla) and also at the village of Karameh where there is an old mosque that still has the scars from a large battle in 1968 between Jordanian and Israeli forces. Closer to the Dead sea is the site of baptism of Jesus on the Jordan River.

A day trip can take one up to Mount Nebo where Moses first saw the promised land; or go to the town of Madaba and see the churches and famous mosaic depicting the Holy Land. The recently UNESCO-awarded baptism site on the Jordan River, which includes archeological remains relating to the time of Elijah the Prophet and other history; along with exquisite new churches, should not be missed. Other day trips might include trekking or hiking in the various wadis, or even a two-hour drive down to Petra. That means the Dead Sea could be a base for several different excursions over a week. Or you can just vegetate next to the pool and take in the narghile and nightly belly dancing festivities along with awe-inspiring sunsets.

Because of the mix of patrons the hotels on the Dead Sea have a lot invested in catering to families as well as the young crowd. At the Mövenpick one pool caters exclusively to children and families. Here there were women in “burkinis,” the all covering garment some conservative Muslim women prefer.

The resort’s Zara Spa is a great accompaniment. For 40 dinars there was a half hour massage by a Filipina massage therapist; and one can use the variety of different pools that all overlook the Dead Sea. A bar with hammocks and an infinity pool allows for relaxing. Another pool has Dead Sea water, so one can avoid the gritty sandy beach and relax in the water while being pampered. Another pool has a variety of places to sit and get a kind of jacuzzi affect of having bubbles come up from below. The crowning achievement is a rooftop “meditation area” that might appeal to Yoga enthusiasts or just people who want to feel they can sit and overlook the sea and not deal with the resort masses.

A half dozen restaurants provide everything from Chinese food to fish and local fare like hummus, lamb mansaf and Arabic salads. Jordan’s Dead Sea is still a work in progress. New hotels are going up and there is a need for some local nightlife. With the pools closing between 9 p.m. and 10, the guests find themselves in the “village square” listening to the singing duo. Twice nightly is an extraordinary belly-dancing performance, not to be missed. Here you get the feeling of being in an Arab country while enjoying the five star service and hospitality Jordan is known for. And that’s one thing that sets this side of the Dead Sea apart from its sister in Israel. Jordan does service to the nines. Waiters are constantly asking you if they can be of service. In the spa a special attendant in the men’s room is there to provide a comb or whatever else you need.

As Hajjara says, “if it says four stars here, you get five.” Just the view alone and the relaxing nargila and night air would be enough.

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