Visitors to Israel are often looking for a spiritual uplift, and one of the country’s best-kept secrets for achieving that transcendent state is not found in Jerusalem’s Old City.
Perhaps it is the oxygen-rich air coupled with the high-concentration of relaxing bromide. Or maybe it’s the lure of natural therapeutic essences in the surroundings of scenic beauty. Simply put, there is no better place to unwind and rejuvenate than in Ein Gedi country.
Located on the western shore of the Dead Sea, the lowest spot on the planet, Ein Gedi is the site of some of the highest concentrations of medically beneficial minerals in the world. As if that is not enough, the depth of the region allows for maximum filtration of the sun’s otherwise harmful rays, and the higher air density naturally lowers blood pressure while supplying the body with additional oxygen.
It is no wonder that King Solomon, touted as the wisest man to have lived, extolled the virtues of Ein Gedi in his writings, and the prophet Ezekiel described wonderful visions of its landscapes.
At the heart of the region sits Kibbutz Ein Gedi and its adjoining resort hotel, the Ein Gedi Country Hotel, the only populated botanical garden in the world.
My husband and I were welcomed to a semiprivate narrated tour by long-time kibbutz member, Daniella, who cheerfully takes visitors around in her golf cart, showcasing the fragrant wonders that span the entire kibbutz, including the cactus garden interspersed within. The botanical garden boasts a wide range of desert plants from the four corners of the world, as well as tropical flora from various rain forest regions, grown with no exceptional cultivation techniques. Biblical plants such as myrrh and frankincense grow among date and other palm trees, as well as Sdom apple trees.
Daniella pointed out a small zoo, miniature golf course and an Olympic-sized pool with spectacular views of the Jordanian mountains to the right and the mountains of Ein Gedi to the left. She did all of this while simultaneously explaining the history of the kibbutz, which is nothing less than a modern-day miracle, a man-made oasis amid a barren desert that was founded in 1956 by a group of army recruits who dreamed of making a home in the Judean Desert.
The rooms offered by the hotel are as varied as the gardens that surround the kibbutz. Among the options available are the Botanical Garden Room, surrounded with a tranquil desert garden environment; the Romantic Room, with luxurious Mideast-themed décor and a Jacuzzi; and the Arugot Room, decorated in a rustic desert style with views of the Wadi Valley.
Meals at the Ein Gedi Country Hotel are delectable. Breakfast features a combination of continental and Israeli buffets, including 10 varieties of cheeses and yogurts. Dinners are equally sumptuous, with soups and meat, fish and poultry dishes and a Viennese table for dessert. However, anyone allergic to nuts will find themselves without much of a dessert selection.
Despite the stunning grounds and the amenities offered at the kibbutz, I suspect that this is not what keeps tourists coming back. It’s something in the air that makes you feel like you are floating through the day, drifting about in a magical oasis without a care in the world. The locals say it’s the bromide in the air that has a calming effect. According to our guide, even people with one lung breathe well in Ein Gedi due to the increased circulating oxygen.
We returned to the lobby and noticed a sign that read: “Unwind and detach yourself from daily stress with yoga under the baobab tree at 5 p.m.” That must be for newcomers, because I can’t imagine anyone feeling an ounce of stress here.
Our attention turned to the holistic treatments offered at the kibbutz’s Resort Hotel. Ayurveda treatments are offered for additional charge, but we decided to forgo those in favor of visiting the Wellness Centre at Ein Gedi Spa, which is free to guests of the Country Hotel.
The spa, on the shores of the Dead Sea, is only a short ride away by free shuttle service from the kibbutz lobby. A range of treatments, from Swedish massage to Thai or Shiatsu therapy, are offered at the spa, as well as mud wraps, peeling treatments with Dead Sea salts and aromatic oils, designed to remove dead skin cells and leave skin silky smooth.
We proceed to survey the grounds of the Ein Gedi Spa, nature’s treasure-trove in the deepest of the earth’s depressions.
There were a few tourists by the mud area in the late afternoon when we arrived. We joined them spreading mud over our entire body, scalp included, letting it work its wonders in silence.
I noticed that a number of men had an abundance of mud in their hair, covering their entire scalp. Apparently the mud is known to draw blood circulation up to scalp, and increasing blood circulation can encourage new hair growth.
We showered in hot sulfur spring water, and I relished in the oily residue that would renew my skin.
Floating in the Dead Sea, warm and buoyant, was an experience in itself. The exceptionally high salinity and variety of minerals dissolved in the sea provide both chemical and mechanical therapeutic action.
After rinsing off once again, we were treated to a swim in the spa’s freshwater pool and a late-afternoon snack near the solarium, where people with various skin disorders alternated sunning themselves with bathing in the thermo-mineral baths or in the Dead Sea to get relief from their ailments. The treatment is so effective against various auto-immune disorders, including rheumatoid arthritis, that the Danish government pays for its citizens requiring such care to spend one month a year at Kibbutz Ein Gedi and its spa.
For less than $5, the kibbutz offers guided hikes through the nearby nature reserves of Ein Gedi National Park, known for its natural sweet water springs and waterfalls, which flow between two wadis.
Flowing from a hill in the center of the oasis is the Ein Gedi Spring, which supplies mineral bottled water to the Israeli population, and runs from the taps of all faucets at the kibbutz. Close to the spring intersect several trails that lead to the Najar Scenic Overlook, the Dry Canyon and the David Waterfall.
In addition to a Masada tour, the kibbutz also offers a 45-seat safari jeep with half- or multiple-day Judean Desert excursions, including a moonlight tour, a biblical weekend trip and a Spice Route trek.
At the end of a wonderful day, it’s as if I’ve been given a taste of the Garden of Eden. Ein Gedi is a true delight for the senses, a retreat for the mind and body, a place where heaven meets earth and the rare spot where man lives in perfect harmony with nature.
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There’s the Rub — in Tel Aviv
Tierra couldn’t be more Los Angeles. But for this nouveau combination of mostly organic restaurant, massage parlor and oxygen bar, you’ll have to go to Tel Aviv, where this combo venue clearly out-Hollywoods Hollywood.
The only thing missing — so far — is a Hollywood-style patron, such as Madonna or Oprah. In the meantime, you can settle happily for Yaniv Ben Rachamin, the handsome young waiter. On a recent visit, he needed some crib notes to describe the eclectic menu offerings, but he’s surefooted and helpfully well muscled for any visitors who order the seven-minute, 22-sheckel (about $4) massage with their entree.
Like the others of the wait staff, Ben Rachamin is a certified masseuse. His specialty happens to be a Chinese-style regimen whose name he had trouble translating into English. But as he willingly demonstrated, the good fight against carpal tunnel syndrome knows no language barriers. You just remain at your table in your chair and let him go to work.
Tierra’s setting in its bustling, mostly residential neighborhood is stylish coffeehouse; the food is inventive. One typical appetizer consisted of figs stuffed with mushrooms, macadamia nuts and chicken — flavored with cardamom, cinnamon and a Hindu date dressing (34 sheckels). Not all the entrees strain to be eccentric; there’s “grilled pullet and polenta” for 58 sheckels and “calamari paperdello” for 54 sheckels. Some menu offerings are mouth watering; others more creative than tasty. But there’s a full bar to wash everything down.
Co-owner Yonatan Galili says he keeps the menu as organic as possible — except when going exclusively organic would raise prices. He’s gone through several career iterations, including successful industrial engineer, to reach this entrepreneurial exploration of the mind/body/stomach connection.
He sees the massages as a way for a person/diner to “be with himself for seven minutes.” He adds: “We are very aware of the Western way of life. We serve food that is friendly to the stomach so you can eat here and then later keep on working.”
Of course, another option is to get high at the oxygen bar and forget all about working. Galili has two flavors of oxygen — “secret” concoctions created specially by an expert in designing flavors for oxygen bars. One is to relax you; the other to energize you.
The giddy feeling that ensues doesn’t seem quite legal, but apparently, it’s OK to inhale. Just be glad that you’re not the one flying the airplane home.
Tierra is located at Yirmiyahu 54, Tel Aviv, 03-604-7222. Hours: 9 a.m. to last customer.
The Sabbath Rap