E in Gedi — The first time I visited Israel more thaN 30
years ago, I treated my copy of “Israel on $50 A Day” (or whatever the amount was at the time) as if it were a bible. I used it to book cheap hotels, to find cheap restaurants and heeded its advice to flash my student ID card anywhere and everywhere.
Three decades later it’s hard to spend less than $100 a day at any major Israeli tourist destination even without accommodations, but when Anne, my best buddy from college, visited Israel recently, we were determined to pamper ourselves on a budget.
We chose the Dead Sea region because it’s one of the most special places on earth and, with planning, can be surprisingly affordable for a spa destination.
The fact that we could drive there from central Jerusalem in an hour-and-a-half (often less) was also an incentive. The drive itself is a unique experience. At first it’s possible to spot Bedouin encampments, where tents or shacks boast satellite TV dishes but no running water; later, the topography becomes increasingly more inhospitable to any form of life, but arguably even more beautiful. Dusky mountains with alluring caves soar on the right while the impossibly blue-green sea beckons on the left.
Since our companions, a New Jersey bat mitzvah girl and her mother, had never visited Israel, we started our day at the mountaintop fortress of Masada, where an ultra-modern complex now includes a museum, a nice restaurant and a youth hostel. Anne and I took one of the two large cable cars up the mountain while the teenager and her mom hiked to the top via the “Snake Path,” tired but exhilarated.
There are places you can visit time and again and still be awed, and Masada is one of them. Just standing atop the fortress besieged by the mighty Roman Army some 2,000 years ago, you can’t help but wonder how a band of Jewish revolutionaries survived as long as they did in this arid place, before taking their own lives.
The Sicarii were able to hold out because they occupied a palace built by King Herod, the master builder of that time. Walking through the intricate web of now-restored dwellings, storehouses, cisterns, ritual baths and a synagogue, some with mosaic floors or painted walls, is a reminder of Herod’s genius.
During our informal tour, we encountered Israeli youth groups and school children, as well as a half-dozen bar/bat mitzvahs in progress.
We spent quite a bit of time watching two experts painstakingly restore a fresco, as well as a group of American archaeology students excavating the outer edges of the plateau, not far from a Byzantine Church discovered nearby.
Hot, tired but happy we had taken the time to visit Masada, we headed to the Ein Gedi Spa, a day spa for anyone who wants many of the amenities of a 5-star Dead Sea Hotel spa at an affordable price (about $18 for an adult, $10 for a child).
While nothing can compare to the finer hotel spas, which offer fluffy bathrobes and dozens of enticing treatments (each of which can cost $100 or more), the Ein Gedi spa is the next best thing. A sprawling complex, it offers direct access to the Dead Sea, six indoor thermo-mineral pools (there is separate and mixed bathing) as well as a beautiful outdoor fresh-water pool. Also outside is a place to scoop up Dead Sea Mud, which has been shown to have restorative powers, and showers.
The Dead Sea has so receded from the Ein Gedi spa in recent years, visitors must walk five to 10 minutes to the sea or take the spa’s shuttle.
Despite the presence of hundreds of visitors, the spa never felt crowded — until we tried to book health treatments, which were mostly booked by then. It’s strongly recommended to book treatments ahead of time. Swedish, hot stone and deep tissue massages, mud wraps and peeling reflexology are some of the offerings.
While some in our party had a massage, I entered one of the women’s only thermal pools and simply relaxed. It moved me to see women who were identifiably Jewish or Arab according to how they were dressed remove a robe, scarf, hat or wig, and enter the water together.
After the recommended 15 minutes in the thermal bath, I went outside and lathered myself with thick mud. I made a point of breathing in the clean, dry air that alleviates respiratory problems. Later, my friends and I met up in the large, rather warehouse-like dressing room (be sure to bring flip-flops), showered and made our way to the cafeteria and finally to the gift shop. There we purchased some Dead Sea skin products that cost considerably less in Israel than they do in the U.S.
Refreshed from three hours in the spa, we headed back to Jerusalem.
Time permitting, we would have stayed overnight in the beautiful southern Dead Sea region, to watch the Masada Music and Light Show, to hike through the Ein Gedi desert oasis, or to see the Qumran caves (where the Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered) and other sites on the northern side of the Dead Sea.
Budget tourists can find simple but clean accommodations at the Ein Gedi and Masada youth hostels. There are also a few cabins in the vicinity.
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