12/12/2011 08:08 am ET Updated Feb 11, 2012

Exploring Iran's Dead Sea And Qeshm Island

Iran and Israel have more in common than you might think. Enter the world's saltiest bodies of water -- this one is on Qeshm Island.

Qeshm lays 75 miles along Iran's southern coast at the mouth of the Straight of Hormuz. Every day, more than 15 million barrels of oil are squeezed through the tightly regulated waters. For many tourists, especially Americans, the beauty of Shiraz and the history of Persepolis are all but off limits -- "One percent chance," the man at the embassy told me on getting approved by the Ministry of the Interior. He was laughing. But for all the mainland's regulations, this Iranian island has a different policy: visitors welcome.

A thirty-four minute hop from Dubai in a Yakolev Yak-42 and you'll be there, landing over the shocking desert moonscape: sharp-sided mesas snapped like Lego pieces onto completely flat ground, fire burning over the oil refineries.

That is, of course, if you can get on the plane.

In Dayrestan Airport, Americans are fingerprinted with office supply stamp pads and offered sugar cubes to help scrub up while other foreigners file immediately to the one van to the one hotel offered us. Visitors of all nationalities but Israel are approved on arrival; many Iranians stop over from Dubai on a more economical route to major cities, but the rest are neither tourists nor businessfolk -- aside from us two Jewish sightseers (to Immigration, say Christian), the rest of the van carried disappointed-looking men and women from Central and South Asia to the purgatory of the Hotel Diplomat. With no interest in tourism, waiting only for visas to come through so they could return to Dubai, mosts guests of Qeshm (sometimes Geshm, or Qushm) couldn't care less about the scenery.

For $15 an hour, any taxi driver will take you the length of the island and back (about an hour and a half between the furthest points). Whether you're stuck or just visiting or visiting and stuck -- return flights are often delayed by twelve hours or a day -- there are at least two full days worth of informed wandering. The otherworldly caves and mangroves and beaches of Qeshm are exceptional and untrodden, and without parallel on the more visitable coasts of the Persian Gulf.

Our driver balked when the paved road turned to dirt, making a machine gun sign with his hands and charading I don't think you are supposed to go here with worried eyebrows. We had heard half-formed rumors about gunfire in the empty areas towards the south, potentially the army (or someone's army) in training, but we coaxed him onwards and never had to duck and cover. We never saw anything remotely unsafe.

The standalone wonder of the island is here, on a rocky red hillside partway along this dusty road from Dustku to Salkh. Situated on the southwestern perimeter of the island, the hillside is home to two hollows -- these are the Ghar Namak, the Salt Caves most locals know but have never visited. The larger is a cavern about twenty feet high with walls marbled in red and brown swaths and heaping piles of salt crystals on the ground. The ceiling tapers back into the depths and looks like the inside of an icebox, dripping with pure white salt stalactites.

Across the salt flats, clear water disappears into a smaller cave like the pool at Wilt Chamberlain's house. Our taxi driver was mystified as we shucked our shoes and ducked inside. Here is Iran's Dead Sea, nearly as saline as possible with all sides soaking in salt and red earth, begging tourists to come and float.

The water is about a foot deep and the cave is only waist-high, but sliding face up like a mechanic on a creeper, the curious can slip dozens of feet inside using the hanging crystals as handholds. Like the Dead Sea, (pending an analysis of the chemical make up of these salts) there are likely benefits to the skin and muscles from just a few short dips. The driver peeked in inquisitively. It is clean and cool inside with a smell of ocean and kosher pickles.

There was a man napping in a one-room house at the intersection of the main road and the short driveway up to the caves. A fishing boat idled near a perfect beach with a dead battery. But apart from our taxi blasting Persian rap at the cliffs, the bottom half of Geshm was quiet, gorgeous, just waiting to be explored.

More about Qeshm here @