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Travel
July 14, 2011

Spa Rites

Text by Prabha Chandran

The Dead Sea, the world’s oldest spa destination gets a celebrity facelift, discovers Prabha Chandran, who visits in the hope of banishing wrinkles and other irritants

Off to check out the spas on the Dead Sea. Can’t wait to erase my wrinkles, thin my waist, thicken my hair, rejuvenate everything…if it doesn’t work, I’ll just get an ocean full of salt in my eye! My brash Facebook post had several friends cheerfully advising that I was beyond redemption, others wondering why I was vainly obsessing about appearances which were skin deep and still others wanting to know if the results were worth the travel and the expense. Having sought out spas in Europe, the Balkans and South-East Asia with varying degrees of luxury and treatment outcomes, it’s safe to say the Dead Sea spas are unique.

There’s a whole new row of magnificent seaside resorts which have recently transformed the Jordanian Dead Sea coast into an ultra spa-cial destination. Inspired by the country’s ancient desert castles or the modern terraced architecture of infinity pools and lagoons spilling into the sea, these romantic resorts have one aim: to rejuvenate, relax and repair your body and spirit. In doing so they are building on a spa tradition they claim goes back some 2060 years to King Herod and Queen Cleopatra, the more illustrious of the many ancients who have sought the restorative and healing powers of Dead Sea salts, mud, extracts and geothermal springs.

The morning rays slowly light the dazzling salt cliffs of the Judean Mountains edging the Dead Sea facing our hotel. Intriguing salt formations fringe the coast.

I hurry down the stairs to test the waters…only to halt abruptly before a ‘STOP!’ sign. The sea has receded from this flight of stairs by several metres since the resort was built four years ago. In fact, it’s evaporating at the alarming rate of one-and-a-half metres every year, a move that has sparked an ingenious proposal to channel more water in from the Red Sea. While environmentalists are warning of an ecological disaster in introducing marine life into a dead sea, the hotels and spas are anxious to reap their heavy investments. However, getting the Dead Sea’s other neighbours – Israel and Palestine – to agree to this solution may be as difficult as getting a divorced couple to remarry: not unheard of but pretty unlikely. So that’s another reason to plan a visit to the endangered sea – in 50 years it might just be a memory, though the Jordanians I met all disagreed.

The sharp bite of salt
We find a path that takes us down to the water and I slip on protective shoes and goggles to keep the sharp salt out of my eyes. I float carefully on my back, becoming completely buoyant, thanks to the heavy concentration of salt and minerals. I understand now that pictures of people reading newspapers while floating on this impossible-to-drown-in sea are not gimmicks. I watch a group of tourists enthusiastically smearing themselves with black, mineral-rich sea mud from plastic buckets on the beach, looking soon like chimney sweeps out of Mary Poppins. And then I begin to feel the tingling in earnest. The sharp bite of the salt gently stings my skin, getting the blood circulation going as it sucks at my pores. I recall a friend agonising over the terrible mistake of shaving her legs before wading into the waters – it was literally like rubbing salt into wounds, she said. I notice now that all the men at the beach hadn’t shaved that morning either! I’m not feeling raw, however after a 15-minute soak, I emerge from the sea covered in a fine film of mineral oil. In fact, I read that the Nabateans extracted bitumen from the Dead Sea to embalm their mummies – how much more restorative and preservative does it get? I wonder fancifully if I could embalm myself and ward off further ageing…later, I realise I’m not being fanciful because that’s precisely what the ubiquitous jars and bottles of Dead Sea products promise.

So here’s the Dead Sea’s first health and beauty secret: it’s the rich mineral contents of the brines that give its curative powers. While normal sea water has a mineral and salt concentration of four per cent, evaporation has increased it to 30 per cent in the Dead Sea. The famous black mud is heavy in chlorides – magnesium, potassium, sodium, bromine and calcium – which are effective in dealing with skin diseases, allergies, inflamed joints and arthritic conditions. Some 21 minerals have been traced in its waters of which 12 are found in no other sea water, says the website for the Dead Sea Medical Centre which offers an array of professional treatments including Galvanic current therapy, said to be as effective as a surgical facelift: tiny positive and negative shocks trigger a restorative response from skin tissue which repairs wrinkles and scars.

The second health and beauty factor comes from being at the lowest point on earth – the Dead Sea is roughly 1340 feet or over 408 metres below sea level. The descent to the ‘basement of the earth’ begins soon after leaving Amman and continues some 45 minutes till you reach the coast. The sun’s rays too, have to travel through an extra layer of atmosphere, a dense haze of evaporation over the sea and a thick ozone layer which reduces its harmful UVB rays before they hit you. The outcome of the highest barometric pressure on earth (800mm of Hg) is an oxygen level that’s 10 per cent greater than at the Mediterranean Sea. Both sun worshippers and patients lounge all day in the dry allergen-free air, hoping nature’s therapeutic sun, air and water will cleanse them of toxins and worse. But I’m after some spa treatments and since I don’t have a lot of time and money to waste in experimenting, I ask my hotel receptionist for an appointment at the best spa on the stretch. He guides me to the Movenpick hotel.

Warm, black mud
The Zara Spa is an impressive building with Middle Eastern accents nestled besides the sea. All 25 beauty and therapy rooms are booked when I arrive but when the receptionist hears I have just this day and want to experience the best, she smiles and fits me in for a mud wrap and mud facial, “if you don’t mind being attended by a man for the body wrap,” she says. Since courage is the better part of valour, I nod agreement. I’m ushered into the women’s section where I change into a dressing gown and a pair of disposable panties and slippers. I take a 10-minute sauna in the beautifully tiled turquoise and gold Thermarium, followed by a peppermint-scented fog shower to prepare my body for the mud wrap. A male masseur asks me to follow him into a nicely appointed treatment room. I make stupid conversation to mask a feeling of embarrassment as I remove my robe and lie almost naked on a thick plastic sheet on the table.

We talk about India as he begins to cover me with warm, velvety-black mud. He tells me he has many celebrity clients from the Middle East and Egypt and hopes my experience will bring Bollywood stars to the spa. I’m beginning to relax as I disappear into a chocolaty cocoon of mud. The plastic sheet is wrapped around the mud cocoon and a thick thermal blanket covers the lot. I regret that the dry floatation bed which simulates the currents of the sea is not available, but I find myself slowly drifting into a warm state of sub-conscious bliss…. My eyes open when the lights come on and Mr Masseur asks how I feel. I croak something in response while he strips the plastic layers then helps me get on my feet and into the shower. As the mud washes away, I feel my body coming back to life from a deep rest as my skin glows, feeling soft and hydrated. Apparently, the treatment offers relief from rheumatic pain as well. I head to the refreshment area to drink a cup of herbal tea while waiting for the mud facial.

A smiling English woman is also waiting for a facial and her glowing pink skin tells me she’s just had a spa treatment. “Yes, I tried the Dead Sea salt scrub,” she says. “I must say it was pretty rough but I feel like I’ve shed an old garment, now that it’s over.” We head off for our mud facials which we both later agree, were as good as we expected but not ‘dramatic’. Maybe we weren’t bold enough to try the Galvanic, cryogenic and other more extreme treatments at the medical centre. Nevertheless, we stock up on mud packs, cleansers and creams made from Dead Sea minerals and deliciously scented olive oil soap. And then it’s time to visit the star attraction of the spa: the suite of indoor and outdoor pools which include two indoor Dead Sea pools of greater and lesser salinity – the water is pumped up from the Dead Sea – the Kneipp foot massage pools and the spectacular infinity pool with its Jacuzzis, whirlpools, fountains and showers stretching out into a ledge overhanging the sea. I have a rhythmic Jacuzzi massage as I watch a luminous sun cast a hue of deepest rose across the horizon as it sinks gently into the sea. At the Marriott, the spa has a special treatment room for couples with a terrace that offers the same spectacular sunset – have a milk bath here then drink some refreshing juice as you watch the stars come out.

Marine algae wraps
While the most popular treatments are the signature Dead Sea package of salt scrub, mud wraps and mud facials, most spas also offer French marine algae treatments known for their anti-cellulite, firming and detox effects. Choose from a ‘Thalassic bath with micronised marine algae from the French Riviera’, or alternative therapies such as ‘Chinese reflexology and Shiatsu massage which energises the meridians’, acupuncture or a Swedish deep tissue massage, hot stones massage and even an Arabic coffee scrub to exfoliate your skin with the antioxidant benefits of coffee.

Massage treatments usually start at US$ 60 and go up to US$150 for Zara’s Exceptional Facial ‘designed by doctors, the ultimate biological botox-like lifting facial, this treatment is rich in natural algae and hormones for complete anti-ageing’. Or indulge in the US$1,130.00 seven-day spa package to give yourself an entire makeover.

The largest and newest spa – 28 spa suites and 20 treatment rooms – is the Anantara at the Kempinski Ishtar. Part of a spa chain found in five-star hotels across South-East Asia and the Middle East, the Sanskrit name hints at the Indian tradition of Ayurvedic treatments, yoga classes and a ‘signature East West massage’ to release prana by unblocking the energy flows along the meridians. The package, including a floral foot bath comes for US$ 185.

So, my advice on what works…when it comes to anti-cellulite, firming and detoxing, it’s hard to beat marine algae wraps and pills. After years of excruciating workouts in the gym, it took an algae cream treatment to finally melt the stubborn swell around my midriff. I haven’t tried the Dead Sea products long enough to know if they’re as high performance as the packaging suggests, but I know they are mostly organic and come with a time-honoured pedigree not just as cosmetics but natural medicines for a host of skin, joint, respiratory and allergy conditions. Indeed, there’s a thriving pharmaceutical industry on the banks of the Dead Sea and a research centre which attracts those in search of alternative treatments for a range of degenerative diseases.

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