By: Lawrence Ferber
While Israel’s major tourist draws entail Jerusalem and its bevy of high-profile attractions (the Western Wall, Stations of the Cross, Arab Market and Yad VaShem Holocaust Museum a mere sampling), ruins like UNESCO World Heritage Site Masada, and the hip city of Tel Aviv, I’m taking some roads less traveled this visit.
Literally so, in the case of an all-terrain 4X4 Jeep ride up and through the rocky Judean Desert, leaving tire scuffs as the only hint of a road or path in our wake. These pale mountains, resembling oversized hunks of Halva, are actually made of salt (I had a taste, too!), and they surround what are speculated to be the rocky, lifeless remains of Sodom and Gomorrah (“because they look like they’ve been punished,” my guide, Barak, noted). Following the quite fun, rough-and-tumble drive, we arrived at the top of the desert mountain, overlooking the Dead Sea and Jordan’s border.
THE DEAD SEA
I take a stop at the Dead Sea itself, via the Crowne Plaza’s private beach. The chunky, rough granules beneath my feet as I wade into its turquoise depth, aren’t sand. It’s crystalized salt. The water, a solution thick with salt, is like glycerin, or a non-sticky syrup. You just let yourself drop and bob; the viscous solution keeps you afloat. A heated mud treatment at the Crowne Plaza capped off the experience, and I must admit, it cleared up a couple of blemishes on my wrist.
EIN GEDI NATURE RESERVE
A hike through the Ein Gedi Nature Reserve mixes rocky, mountainous surroundings with spring water waterfalls and pools: it’s drinking quality, bottled and sold in fact, but you can sample it from a metal cooler near the park’s entrance (bring an empty bottle!). Besides some young folks taking impromptu dips, I spotted a number of local “residents” – the adorable Hyrax, stubby critters that could well have been the result of a drunken night between a guinea pig and a squirrel. They were people-friendly enough to allow for close-up photo ops, but I refrained from petting one and risking a chomp.
Things got even bumpier during an ATV ride around HaHula Valley. This time I drove myself, through puddles of chocolate milky mud and green pastures, at one point stopping at a lone ancient ruin.
Tzefat (Safed), Israel’s highest city and one of its four holiest, is a mecca for Kabbalists, narrow ancient streets bearing light blue doors representing the heavenly skies, and a spring of freezing Kabbalah water to immerse in. I can’t say I believe much of what a local Kabbalist expert told me over dinner – like how consuming Matzoh on Passover will “heal” all spiritual and physical ails – but it was a charming town nonetheless, both rustic and modern, the latter thanks to pockets of art colonies and galleries.
Thoroughly rustic was Pekee’in, a village that’s home to the Druze, a religious minority particularly despised by Muslims. Here they find tolerance and sanctuary, and actively amalgamate themselves within and pledge loyalty to Israeli society, even serving within the army. Arranged by the Western Galilee Tourism Association (Tel: 050-5711018), a lunch served within the town leader’s home was fantastic and memorable, an endless array of homemade courses including hummus, stuffed eggplant, salads, and refreshing mint lemonade (a favorite throughout Israel).
The city of Haifa proved another treasure with its gorgeously landscaped Baha’i Gardens (the Baha’i faith is another culture/religion that exists here), and upscale dining/nightlife quarter, The German Colony, overlooked by Mount Carmel. The views from the mount’s top — and Dan Panorama Hotel — were a gorgeous way to end, and begin, the day.
Dinner at the German Colony’s Hasdera 1872 restaurant (15 Ben Gurion Ave, Tel: 04-8551872) was a delight, notably a white-fleshed Dennis fish, a smooth chicken liver pate, a Tiramisu-fluffy cheesecake, and decor including a glass floor through which you could see remains of an ancient late 1800s wine cellar. Israel’s roads aren’t just paved with culture and palpable history, they’re paved with a boutique-style class and a lesser known, well-worth discovering diversity.
New York-born freelance travel and entertainment journalist Lawrence Ferber has written for dozens of publications and websites including Entertainment Weekly, New York Magazine, The Advocate, Time Out New York, The Village Voice, Passport Magazine, L.A. Weekly, and MTV affiliate LOGO Online. His blog is ewelthorpe.blogspot.com.