I’ve always had a love-hate relationship with the Dead Sea. It’s hot, dry and the very image of it leaves one with a feeling of parched mouth and hobbling through the sharp rocks and salt crystals to get to its waters.It is also one of the most quintessentially beautiful places, with its clear, flat water and its epic biblical connection.Like all things, it deserves a second, third or 10th chance. And what better way to take that chance than a nice weekend at the newly renovated Crowne Plaza Hotel, sitting by the pool or spa.First a little history. Ein Bokek has been Israel’s main place to stay on the Dead Sea for decades. Some of the older hotels were initially constructed between the 1960s and 1980s. The hotels provided some respite from the temperatures in the summer, which rise to 39º. Today there are 14 hotels operating at the site.For those who visited Ein Bokek a decade ago and were disappointed by the dilapidated Soviet-era feel, things have improved and deserve a renewed look. A NIS 200 million infrastructure improvement that began in 2012 has redone the beach along the sea and added a bicycle path and promenade. A new mall is being built and the internal roads are being redone.International tourism is taking notice.The Telegraph highlighted Ein Bokek in November 2016 among other destinations and asked if Israel could be the “winter sun alternative to Egypt and Turkey.” Certainly the current state of security and political situation in the region makes Israel an island of calm. The drive down to Ein Bokek from Jerusalem is about an hour and a half and affords one the opportunity to choose a series of activities along the way, or on the return journey. The Qumran archeological area showcases life before the Roman-Jewish war and is near where the Dead Sea Scrolls were plundered by local Beduin. Supposedly the British built a golf course near here at Kalya.Down the road is Ein Fash’ha or Einot Tzukim, the lowest nature reserve in the world, which features springs and pools.One can also see how far the Dead Sea has receded in the last century and be reminded of the destructive nature of modern technology, whose dams and river diversions are slowly destroying this natural wonder.If you skip the springs but still want to glory at how the sea has evaporated, you can stop on the main Route 90 heading south where there is a small monument to the Palestine Exploration Fund and a large black mark the British left above the road. In 1920 the water level was 392 meters below sea level. Today it is slightly more than 418 meters below sea level, and shrinking every year. So, strictly speaking, if you were driving on the road that now runs along the Dead Sea 120 years ago, you’d be under salt water.Further south is the epic fortress of Masada, which rises out of the wall-like hills that surround the sea like a crenellated triangle. A few more turns with exquisite views of the sea, and you’re at Ein Bokek. You’ll see the manicured bicycle path before the entrance with joggers, some wearing Speedo suits, plodding along in the heat. It will make you wonder why anyone would choose to run in the afternoon sun.
The Crowne Plaza Dead Sea is located next to the water’s edge. David Bernas, the general manager says his hotel offers the “ultimate vacation.” Opened in 1997, it is inclusive, with no need to leave to go shopping or spend money.“It’s a real place to relax.” He says that in the last two years around NIS 20m. has been invested to renovate the rooms and open a VIP lounge.“We are planning next year to renovate the spa, and today we are renovating the ballroom and installing new lights, art and carpets downstairs,” says Bernas.“The beach is one of the nicest and we are the closest and best location, 50 meters to the beach. We have a new playground and outside gym. We are making improvements all the time, and it reflects our targets.”The hotel is laid out like two interconnected L shapes, so its rooms almost all seem to face the sea. Many have balconies and large windows that can be opened to take in the scenery and air. This provides not only for a beautiful view, but also the ability to enjoy the sunrise that peeks over the mountains of Jordan on the other side. We took a suite at the north end of the hotel, which also faces the mountains and has a view of the canyon leading to the actual spring of Bokek, from which the area gets its name.Rooms range in cost depending on the season. For two nights over the weekend we found a room at the Crowne Plaza online ranging from $226 to $450 depending on the days. Bernas says that budget travelers can sometimes find rooms at his hotel for less than that midweek or after Shabbat. For the higher- end traveler taking a larger room, there is a VIP lounge that offers wine, snacks and hard liquor all day.At the base of the hotel, by the sea, is a large circular pool with an island in the middle that is connected to both sides with a small bridge. The island houses a lifeguard and DJ who pumps out tasteful, but decent, modern music during the day. The pool is open from the early morning to 7 p.m. The crowd here is more relaxed than in Eilat, with fewer teenagers and loud visitors. Most of the tourists seemed to be from Russia.According to Bernas, the hotel receives large numbers of Germans, Italians, Swiss and Americans as well.Next to the pool is a modest bar that sells hamburgers, hot dogs and drinks during the day. It could use a renovation to start selling cocktails and more interesting snacks. But it’s a nice respite during the day. Those who desire outside lunch will find an Aroma and McDonald’s a few minutes’ walk from the hotel.A new outdoor gym, wading pool and playground for children, including a ping-pong table, affords families and gym addicts something to do during the day. Just off the gym is the hotel’s spa.Here there is a heated saltwater pool, two Jacuzzis, a dry and wet sauna and a series of rooms to receive massages for a fee.The first day we skipped the spa to relax by the pool and enjoy the beach, which is just a few minutes’ walk. The saltwater crystals have encased the pathway that leads into the water. There is a lifeguard who warns the public not to stray too far into the water. Here one can rest in the oddly buoyant Dead Sea or spread mud on themselves. While I bobbed in the water, men and young women chatted in Spanish.Dinners at large hotels always seem to be like one of those nature films in which all the animals suddenly discover some newly inundated water source and all have to crowd around it. Tourists all behave in slightly different ways: the gazelles who bound from one food area to the next; the zebras who move ponderously along in a line; the elephants that take up an entire buffet section; the peckish mice who dart among those in line.What were they being served? Lamb shoulder sliced by a chef. Chicken breast, kubbeh soup, whole sea bream, tilapia in spicy sauce, meatballs, stuffed spring chicken. There was an army of salads, a small sushi table, a hummus station, a massive array of desserts. The hotel tries to reduce the flow of people by serving dinner in two sittings, which cuts down on the long lines. Breakfast was similar: long avenues of cheeses, herring, fruits, salads, hard-boiled eggs, jachnun, quiche, pancakes and creamed potatoes. There are cooked-to-order omelettes, waffles and poaches eggs on weekdays, but not on Shabbat.The morning crowd by the pool was younger, including some couples from the former Soviet Union playing in the pool. Some older people had congregated at the indoor saltwater pool and a few men and women were in the wet and dry saunas. It’s a bit unclear why people would choose a sauna in an environment where the sun turns the beach into a kind of sauna, but they seemed to enjoy it.For those seeking outdoor adventure, a walk up to the Bokek spring or a walk down from the top of the ridge to Ein Bokek are possible.Trails dot the mountains and if you have two cars you can leave one at the top on Route 31 on the way to Arad and walk down Nahal Bokek. The trail takes you along the He’etekim cliff and down past two waterfalls and the Bokek spring, which means you can cool off in the water. It also allows you to see the expanse of the Great Rift Valley, of which the Dead Sea is a central portion.You’re walking down through 25 million years of geology.For those trying to stay within range of Jerusalem and who want to enjoy the wonders of the Dead Sea, Ein Bokek is worth a visit. It has a more subdued atmosphere than the wildness of Eilat, it’s less full with Israeli visitors and has a greater proportion of foreigners. With a large array of different activities for the family or adults, this little oasis deserves a visit.The writer was a guest of the Crowne Plaza Hotel.