3 MAY 2008, Page 61

The greatest oddity of all

Olivia Glazebrook floats like a duck on the salty waters of the Dead Sea

On the way to the Kempinski Hotel Ishtar Dead Sea I inquired of our driver, Mohammed, ‘Will I need to cover my head, or wear long clothes when swimming in the sea?’ He was puzzled, asking, ‘But what for?’ ‘Well, you know — to be respectful...’ Thumping the steering wheel and roaring with laughter Mohammed replied, ‘Hahaha, no, no, at the Dead Sea you will see beautiful women in thongs, relaxing by the salty water...’ My (previously sleeping) husband opened his eyes. ‘Really,’ he murmured. ‘In thongs...’ For anyone like me, with limited experience of luxury hotels, the Kempinski Ishtar is an extraordinary place. Huge, splendid, indulgent; it doesn’t seem possible that luxury should exist in such a bald, uncompromising landscape. I could have believed I had been transported to another planet — or, at the very least, to the set of a film about the future. After a few hours it became hard to remember what country, or even what year, existed outside the hotel complex. My anxieties drifted away, shortly followed by my ability to think, take decisions, or remain aware of the world outside. After more than a couple of days I would certainly have become a drone, programmed only to eat from a buffet and be driven about in a golf cart. (Not that such a future doesn’t hold a certain appeal.) About 40 minutes south-west of Amman, and two hours north of Petra, the Kempinski Ishtar is perched above the north-eastern corner of the Dead Sea. The hotel’s position is the key to its bizarre charm: since the shoreline of the Dead Sea is 400 metres below sea level, it is almost at the lowest point on earth. It stands proudly amid a cluster of 5-star hotels on a steep slope which leads from the road behind it to the water’s edge in front.

Outside the hotel’s boundaries the ground is dishevelled, camel-coloured and stony, but in front of the main hotel — a vast, yel low block — the ground gives way in polite terraces. Each is furnished with pools and villas, and planted with verdurous lawns and fully grown palm and olive trees (all imported). On the custard-coloured beach (also imported) stand umbrellas and loungers, and beyond them lies the greatest oddity of all, the Dead Sea itself, which I think I never really believed wasn’t a fiction.

This, for me, was the star attraction. Whatever the hotel had to offer, whatever restaurants, spa treatments or poolside drinks it tried to tempt me with, here was a chance to immerse myself in something I had first heard about in a Scripture lesson at the age of eight. Even the spectacle of it filled me with excitement: a hot, damp wind stirred the palm trees; a thick blue haze (caused by evaporating salt water) clotted the air; a thirsty yellow sun sank behind the scalded white mountains of the West Bank. No boats, no seagulls, no fish, no seaweed; nothing but bacteria below the surface of the ruffled water. A strange and unsettling place.

But also a place to be amused by. Floating about on its surface — which is all that can be done — is rather a treat. It doesn’t feel peculiar, only quite natural, to be supported by the water. Like a family of ducks, guests bob calmly about on the sea’s surface, not going anywhere in particular, just smiling politely at each other as they float past. There is no point trying to swim; there’s nothing to do but relax and enjoy the sensation. It is quiet, partly because the salty air deadens sound, but also because there’s no shrieking or splashing — Dead Sea water in the eye is to be avoided at all costs.

Another natural attraction, which collects in pools at the water’s edge, is the mud. The hotel kindly decants it into terracotta pots and adds a dash of peppermint oil. Guests are then encouraged to smear it all over themselves and each other, and then hang out to dry for 25 minutes (like cormorants on a rock, drying their outstretched wings) before rinsing it off in the sea. When you emerge after the rinse, your skin is as soft and glowing as a sun-kissed peach. It feels heavenly, and what’s more, the sight of men and women wearing absorbed expressions and painting each other’s wobbly bits with black, oozing mud is not only comical but rather touching.

It was peaceful and uncomplicated to enjoy these pursuits, and in fact it was these relatively straightforward attractions which most appealed to me about the hotel. But for those who prefer fluffy dressing-gowns with their treatments, the largest spa in the Middle

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East is opening at the hotel in May, and for those who don’t like the feel of muddy, salty sand in their crevices, there are nine freshwater swimming-pools to choose between. The two nicest pools are beside restaurants — the Akkad Pool Grill and the Ashur Pizza and Grill — but I must confess to a fascination with hotel buffets, which made breakfast in the Obelisk restaurant a high point. A very large, colourful, brightly lit room; music piped through speakers (even on to the outdoor terrace), and a huge assortment of food through which I could browse with unbridled gluttony? Heaven. Lettuce, olives, gherkins, and cold meats relaxing on beds of ice; bacon, sausages and tomatoes sulking in mighty tureens; omelettes freshly cooked and slid on to your plate; cakes, buns, breads, pastries and muffins cuddling up together under a warming lamp; Corn Flakes, Cheerios and muesli sitting smugly on a central table — it’s amazing I ever made it to lunch.

In fact, the food at the poolside Ashur Pizza and Grill was the best we had, and its atmosphere was the most relaxed, partly thanks to the soft perfume and seductive rattle of the hubbly bubblies. A hubbly bubbly alone will relax me to the point of giggling semi-consciousness within about five minutes, and if you add to that two mud baths, a salt body scrub and some medi

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tative floating, the result is nine hours of dreamless shuteye.