My favorite Israel experience, without a doubt, was our road trip from Jerusalem to Eilat, with necessary stops to climb Masada and float in the Dead Sea. We were lucky to have some good friends join for this journey, doubling our group size, doubling the fun, and providing Bryan with some logical backup to combat my impromptu shenanigans.
The very idea of this particular road trip received a lot of controversial feedback. After sifting through research and reviews from other travelers, we initially believed that the journey would not be safe, and it would behoove our group to hire a guide. Argh. We really hate being led around on a short leash and following a required schedule, but at times we concede to such requirements if there’s a good reason. Thanks to a local, Israeli friend who helped form our travel itinerary, we learned that a guide wouldn’t be necessary for our adventure!
I’m not necessarily saying that traipsing around the Israeli desert is a good idea, with or without a tour-guide. Keep in mind that this journey requires crossing in and out of highly volatile zones, as you make your way from Israel over and through the West Bank, passing various settlements (scattered throughout the desert and surrounded by barbwire fence), before re-entering Israel. I am however here to tell you how to hopefully execute a perfectly safe road trip, with no guides required.
Your first order of business is to grab snacks and use the bathroom before you hit the road. I am taking you on a drive through the desert, and in general we were told it’s best to simply stick to the highway without any stops or detours along the way – this is the safest route.
Your second task is to follow the exact route shown below – and try not to get lost – it should take you about 90 minutes from Jerusalem. There are two main ways to get from Jerusalem to the Dead Sea hotel-zone, which is located on the southernmost body of water, 20 minutes past Ein Gedi. It is very important that you stick to the highlighted route while passing through the West Bank. I’m not saying that something bad will happen if you go the other way, but the alternate route through Hebron will take a lot longer, and you will most certainly be heavily questioned and delayed during your border crossings by baffled control agents, suspicious as to why you would choose to drive this way. The highlighted route is one frequently traveled by tour groups, so border control is accustomed to travelers using this route. We crossed with ease.
When you arrive at the Dead Sea, and are in need of a snack, I recommend following the golden arches to the Hebrew McDonald’s. The development around the Dead Sea was built specifically for tourists (most of which are Israeli vacationers, enjoying their summer escape during our August visit). There is no community, no restaurant scene and no nightlife (outside the all-inclusive hotels). So grab your American-road-trip Micky D’s treat if you (like us) arrive too early for hotel check-in.
Now that you’ve made it to one of the wonders of the world – a body of water so unique and incredible, that people travel from all over the globe for a chance to cross this experience off their bucket list – it’s time to enjoy! But first, let me share with you a few facts that you won’t find online. Just a bit of insight from firsthand experience…
FACT #1: The sand is hotter than you can imagine! This may seem obvious, but I’ll go ahead and reiterate. You will need sandals, and you will need to wear your sandals all the way down to the white, salty deposits that accumulate at the water’s edge.
FACT #2: You are floating in 33.7% saltwater (10 times saltier than ordinary seawater). What does this mean for you? For one, it means you will dehydrate quickly, so be sure to drink more water than you even think you need. If you’re a girl (or a metro-fabulous guy) it also means that you shouldn’t shave your legs within 48 hours before you enter the dead sea! You won’t be able to handle the burning sensation, and you will surely ruin your relaxing experience. Additionally, be sure to thoroughly rinse your bathing suit after floating, or say goodbye to that bathing suit.
FACT #3: The colors of the water are spectacular and ever-changing. Depending on the time of day, you will see blue, green, gray, purple and even pink – be sure to reflect on this incredible body of water at all times of the day as each will provide a new, unique experience; however, the best time to be floating is in the pink waters at sunrise. This is coming from someone who loves waking up for sunrise; however, this also marks one of the most beautiful experiences of my life and one I would recommend it to everyone.
FACT #4: It’s best to float at sunrise. We did visit in August (the hottest month), and I’ve heard that other seasons bring a warm bath-like temperature, but our initial float was like floating in a hot tub. The minerals of the Dead Sea produce an oil that sits on top of the water and heats up in the sun, making the hottest time of day the late afternoon. In turn (and I reiterate) the best time to be floating is at sunrise, when the water temperature is much cooler and the colors are unbelievable.
FACT #5: You will notice people covered in mud, walking around the beach, which is confusing as mud is nowhere to be found. We did our best to swim out deep and dig our feet around for mud, only to find more of the white, salty sand. Turns out the mud is dredged from much deeper in the Dead Sea, and sold for purchase at nearby spas (or the store just beside McDonald’s). The mud is indeed quite incredible, leaving your skin feeling silky and smooth after rinsing. Plus it’s a lot of fun to play in the mud.
FACT #6: There is a sign by the beach with the following warning: You should not be in the water for more than 20 minutes, you should not submerge your face, and you should not swim. FOLLOW THESE RULES. Take it from the girl who broke them all. I tried one too many floating tricks and ended up splashing salty water on my face (burning face), I tried swimming and flipped over as it’s nearly impossible to swim (burning eyes), and I floated for 45 minutes straight (burning body, itchy scalp).
We spent one night (two full days) enjoying the Dead Sea and the surrounding area, and this proved to be the perfect amount of time. In addition to our Dead Sea floating, we also went to the top of Masada. This is a popular hike at sunrise; however, due to the extreme heat and dangerous conditions, the hiking trail was closed during our tour. Masada is well worth a visit, regardless of your method making it to the top. This historical mountain was made famous during a siege by troops of the Roman Empire, which lead to a mass suicide of the defending Israeli troops in 73 AD. The ruins at the top are beautiful, and the view is absolutely phenomenal.
Our Israeli Desert adventure did not stop at the Dead Sea – we continued onward towards Eilat, a small city at the southernmost tip of Israel. Stay tuned for a post where I guide you through the second half of our road trip, as we continue on what could be the most incredible adventure of my life.