Karen - for those who don't know her - loves health spas and all the massages, facials, and "lotions 'n' potions" they offer (and I have to admit she's starting to convert me in a small way, although I've yet to have my first facial... who just said, "you need one"???). So we found the perfect solution in the Marriott Jordan Valley Resort & Spa,
a five-star complex right by the Dead Sea in Jordan and with everything we could want in a relaxing two-day getaway.
Dead Sea "101"
The Dead Sea is actually a lake, approx. 50 miles long and 11 miles at it's widest point, and lies between Israel and Jordan.
There's a good Wikipedia entry on it that'll tell you more, but here's the "for Dummies" version:-
Q: Why is it called the Dead Sea?
A: Because nothing can live in it (no fish etc.)
Q: Why can nothing live in it?
A: Because its so salty - about seven times saltier than the ocean
Q: Why is it so salty?
A: Because it's so low. The Dead Sea is the lowest point on Earth, with the surface of the Dead Sea being 417m below sea level.
It is this depth that gives the Dead Sea it's unique chemical mix of salts, magnesium chloride, bromide, and many other minerals and elements I can spell but otherwise know little about. And it's this chemical formula which has made it famous as a health resort - the area has a number of health benefits, from the mineral content of the water, to very low pollen levels, reduced ultraviolet radiation from the sun (you can sunbathe here without burning), and higher atmospheric pressure.
OK, lesson over.
We arrived at Amman airport on Wednesday evening, courtesy of Royal Jordanian Airways. With most of my travel hitherto being with European and American airlines, I was quite surprised to be served a full dinner on what was after all only a 2-hour flight. One other funny thing happened on the flight out; the flight left Riyadh airport from gate G12, and I was in seat 12G. The result of this was three other passengers mistakenly claiming that I was in their seat during boarding and then getting mildly embarrassed when I (diplomatically - I'm a Diplomat now after all) pointed out their seat number instead of the gate number on their boarding cards.
We were met a Queen Alia airport by Omar, the travel agency rep who was to drive us the rest of the way to the resort. Omar led us through the throng and through what I have to say is a very dreary and depressing-looking airport; looks more like a large gloomy train station. Waiting in the people-carrier outside is Ishmail - the driver, and once we're all aboard we set off on the one-hour drive which - since Amman is about 1km above sea level and our destination over 400m below - is all downhill.
The hotel is really lovely and the staff very helpful and pleasant.
On checking in we realize they've made a mistake with the accommodation, which results in us getting upgraded to an Executive Room with direct pool access: good start! I'm a Marriott Rewards member so that helped too. Because of our late night arrival we didn't have much chance to explore, so after a quick walk around the three outdoor swimming pools we retired for the night.
Next morning and the weather's looking decidedly dodgy; overcast, fog, wind.
Thursday is our only full day here and the main event is the treatments Karen and I have booked at the spa; Aromatherapy Massage and a facial for her, Swedish Massage for me. We've booked our treatments at separate times so that the other of us can keep the children entertained. Abigail LOVES the water and cannot see a pool or a stretch of open water without getting in it - regardless of temperature, so by 9.30 in the morning on a pretty cold and gloomy day Elliot and I are sitting on poolside sun loungers wrapped in towels to keep warm
while Abigail enjoys the large pool - which needless to say she has all to herself.
We also take a walk down to the beach but it's very windy and there's a red flag signifying No Swimming :-(
Come the evening and Karen and I are smelling nice and feeling relaxed after our massages. We have a Gin & Tonic in the bar (Gin & Tonic! Bar! luxury!) before sitting down to a nice relaxing dinner (I had a particularly fine Australian Angus fillet steak) and an early night. We were quite tempted by the hotel's two private cinemas, where you can select a movie from a list they'll put it on for you, but once dinner was over all we wanted to do was sleep - relaxing is actually quite tiring isn't it?
Friday morning and our last chance to take a dip in the Dead Sea before we leave at lunchtime. An early walk down to the beach confirms the red flag is still flying although the weather has improved considerably, but we are told by an attendant that we can paddle. "Better than nothing" we thought so we returned to the room to get changed, towels etc., then went back to the beach about half an hour later to see several other people milling around and... no red flag! Elliot is not a great fan of swimming, particularly swimming in the sea, so he takes on the role as official photographer/videographer for this auspicious occasion.
There's already a large middle-aged man in the water, looking perfectly at home. "I bet he's either South African or Australian" I think to myself, since in my perception those two nationalities have more of a natural affinity with the elements, the outdoors, and this kind of physical activity in general than us Brits, and a hardiness that makes me feel a little inadequate. I say "Good Morning" from my position on the beach and the "G'Day" that comes back confirms my suspicions and further embeds my neurosis.
Time to take the plunge, so after selecting and donning ill-fitting sandals from a communal box
"How to fit size 8 feet into size 6 wet sandals"
we march down the shingle to the water.
I am surprised by how warm it is. There are lots of people watching by now so I'd already psyched myself up not to be a wimp and to manfully stride in no matter how icy cold the water may be, so the relatively warm water is very welcome.
The great thing about swimming in the Dead Sea is that you don't have to swim; the water is so bouyant that you can just relax and float around (just don't get the water in your eyes - Ouch!). It actually takes considerable effort to return to a standing position from lying "on" the water. The traditional "proof shot" for a Dead Sea swim is to have your photo taken reading the paper whilst reclining in the water. I think I had been aware of this before but it completely slipped my mind when it most mattered - as usual - so I don't have a newspaper with me. Needless to say, "Bruce" does have one and is having his "paper shot" taken by a family member. I sheepishly ask if I can borrow his paper when he's finished, for my shot. I don't like to ask, and I'm still annoyed with myself for not thinking of it beforehand, but this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity so I bite the bullet. "Bruce" says, "Sure, you can keep it". I don't actually want to keep it, just use it as a prop for a couple of minutes, but I guess disposing of a paper that I forgot to bring down is my end of the bargain.
The Paper Shoot over, and it's mud time! We step out of the sea and up the beach to a bucket full of Dead Sea mud, which you're supposed to rub all over your body and then wash off in the sea; good for the skin etc.... ask Karen she knows all about this stuff.
I'm pleased though because we're the first to notice the mud bucket and so become the trailblazers of the group, showing the other families what to do and they duly follow us like sheep and we're all standing there in the wind and the cold rubbing mud on our flesh.
"Bruce" comes up a minute or two later with his family and I now feel on equal terms, the Man-Points balance having been restored since, of course, finding the mud bucket and being the first to use it has the same power as being first in the water and remembering to bring a paper.
Being in the Dead Sea feels fantastic and is further improved by the mudbath; I heartily recommend it - whatever the weather.