Emerging from the hills after the steep descent from the capital, the Amman–Dead Sea highway passes a busy little intersection before meeting a T-junction: the highway bends left towards the Dead Sea hotels, while a minor road cuts right to the Baptism Site. The old road to Jerusalem formerly led straight on at this junction, but the King Abdullah Bridge which carried it over the river was bombed in the 1967 war and never rebuilt; it has now been superseded by the King Hussein Bridge 8km upstream.
Although you’ll pass one or two hotels near the T-junction – as well as turnoffs to Sweimeh village nearby – the Dead Sea’s main hotel zone lies about 8km south, past the mammoth King Hussein Bin Talal Convention Centre. The hotel zone comprises a cluster of four- and five-star properties complete with pools, spas, showers, bathtubs, flushing toilets and a fairly extensive acreage of irrigated and hand-watered gardens, planted in what is naturally barren, salty soil. Almost all the fresh water for this hotel strip is piped from Wadi Mujib, which remains severely depleted. In such a desperately water-poor country, it’s a moot point whether luxury development in this particularly arid spot is entirely a good thing.
This area at the lake’s northeastern corner includes almost the only developed beaches on the Jordanian shore, the remainder of which is mostly lined with jagged, salt-encrusted rocks. Hotels usually allow beach access to non-guests – expect a fee over JD25 per person for a day visit, including towels, showers and access to hotel pools – but they may turn you away if they’re particularly busy: phone ahead wherever possible. Otherwise there are two options for beach access.
Some 2km south of the hotel zone is the Amman Beach resort. Don’t be fooled by the name: Amman is about an hour away (and over 1200m up in the hills). This is the most easily accessible low-budget option for Dead Sea beach-bumming – not least because the car park serves as the terminus for public buses from Amman and elsewhere. It’s a well-run place with trees and plenty of shade.
There are two separate areas, both with access to the Dead Sea – the beach is a bit gravelly, but it’s OK – and both with freshwater showers, little play areas for children and café/restaurants offering simple meals (JD12–15 or so). The main beach area is a basic affair, with no pool and slightly scruffy facilities; women here might attract less attention covered up with a T-shirt and long shorts. The other area – entry is to the right of the main entrance – has a swimming pool and better facilities: women can feel comfortable wearing a bikini, there are lots of loungers (free), you can hire towels and the lockers are usable.
About 2km south of Amman Beach, O Beach is a super-swanky day resort, with immaculate sandy beaches and contemporary urban styling throughout – think minimalist design, infinity pools, cushioned lounges, pool bars, luxury spa, four restaurants. Visit during the day midweek and you could have the place to yourself. Weekends – especially Thursday and Friday evenings – are busier, but despite the boutique hotel ambience, there’s nowhere to sleep: at some point you’ll have to peel yourself off the two-person lounge beds and away from the chill-out beats to drive away. You can even rent one of twelve private tented cabanas (from JD350), enough for ten people, with butler service and personal Jacuzzi – but, again, management will call time on the party eventually. Service is generally attentive and standards are high, but you pay for the privilege.
South of O Beach, the road continues along the Dead Sea shoreline towards Aqaba, roughly 275km away.
On the main road 5km south of Amman Beach, a marked turn-off climbs into the mountains: follow it up 9km of steep switchbacks to reach the Dead Sea Panorama complex. This sensitively designed building – managed by Jordan’s Royal Society for the Conservation of Nature (RSCN) – perches on a cliff-edge with spectacular views over the Dead Sea: footpaths lead away from the parking area to viewpoints, and there’s a short walking trail that covers a circular route around the site.
Within the main building, the excellent Dead Sea Museum covers four themes in fascinating detail: the geological origins of the Dead Sea, the ecology of the region, its archeology and history, and issues surrounding future conservation. The museum is spacious, modern and air-conditioned: the exhibits and accompanying videos make for an absorbing visit. Next door is an RSCN nature shop, selling handmade crafts and jewellery.
From a T-junction above the Panorama, a turn-off heads down 2km to the luxury Six Senses spa resort at Hammamat Ma’in. The main road leads up to the plateau, passing through Ma’in village and ending after about 30km at Madaba.