Regardless of whom I told that I was going to Israel, one thing was consistent – everyone had a reaction. Some expressed fear over going to a place where political tensions are ongoing. Others were overjoyed with sentiments that ranged from “I could feel the spirituality under my feet with every step,” to “Israel changed my life.”
It set a high bar for expectations. My intentions were to go, take it all in, keep an open mind, and see what happened, but with a place so highly charged religiously, it can be tricky to avoid some self-reflection and inquisition along the way.
What I found was that the “Holy Land” was indeed spiritually complex. It was intellectually stimulating in a way that few places in the world compare. The intricate relations between the Christians, Jews, Muslims, and yes, there are atheists in Israel too, was quite frankly one of the most fascinating parts of my visit. And yet, there wasn’t a moment I felt concerned for my safety.
Whether it was strolling through Tel Aviv at night, walking through metal detectors to get to the Western Wall, trekking through the Negev Desert’s Bedouin territory, venturing around Eilat five minutes from the Egyptian border, or simply flying on El Al Airlines where people get out of their seats midflight at sunrise to pray in the aisles, the feeling was overwhelmingly peaceful. More accurately, I felt a heightened sense of awareness for my surroundings and innermost thoughts.
The trip began with 18 hours of travel from LAX through JFK to Tel Aviv’s Ben Gurion airport. El Al’s King David Lounge at JFK was a splendid way to pass the time, charge the laptop, get on WiFi and refuel with some sustenance before the longer haul across the Atlantic. The food in the lounge (tomato fennel soup, fresh hummus and pita bread, salads, and an Israeli cabernet sauvignon) seemed like a good indication that we were about to have some delicious food.
We arrived in Tel Aviv shortly after 5 p.m. the next day. Jet lag to me is a phenomenon of the mind if you are able to sleep on planes, which I can. So while my body’s time clock felt a bit off, I was surprisingly fresh and ready to explore. After checking in to the David Intercontinental Hotel and taking a much-needed shower, we were off to dinner at Meatos Grill Bar, the first of what would end up being a primarily Kosher dining experience for the entire week in Israel. One of the most interesting parts of my time there, in fact, was learning more than I ever needed or wanted to about Kosher eating and orthodox Judaism, including the ins and outs of what the Shabbat really means.
For full disclosure, let me preface this with saying that I grew up without any formalized religion. My father and stepfather are Jewish, though not practicing, and while there are Christian relatives on my mom’s side of the family, they are not particularly religious. I consider myself spiritual, but confess that my knowledge of organized religion is limited.
So when we learned that one of our fellow travelers was a practicing Orthodox Jew and we’d be eating Kosher all week, I was intrigued. For the most part, the food all around was very good, but with 95 percent of the restaurants in Tel Aviv being non-Kosher, it left me wondering, especially when others who had been to Israel raved about the food. Meatos in Tel Aviv was a fine choice (Here’s a list of the five best restaurants in Tel Aviv), as was Chez Eugene in Mitzpe Ramon, but by far the best of the kosher restaurants we visited was Hachatzer in Jerusalem. Situated in the old train station compound, the decor is warm and comfortable, but also modern.
After studying at the prestigious Le Cordon Bleu in Sydney, Australia and working in several restaurants around the world, Hachatzer’s Chef Moti Ochana returned to his homeland and opened Hachatzer, offering an impressive selection of quality fresh salads, meat, fish, stews and salads with a fusion of Mediterranean, Middle Eastern, and Asian influences.
The street food in the markets of Jerusalem, however, was some of the best you can get anywhere in the world. No visit to Israel is complete without falafel and shawarma from a vendor in the market, Arab, Jewish, or otherwise.
While all of the history and remarkable landmarks in Israel are sights not-to-miss (and will be the subject of a future post), the most striking impression I left the country with was that Israel is not just a place to pray, but also a place to play. And play we did!
Here are the highlights:
Biking along the promenade in Tel Aviv to Jaffa
Bikes are now readily available all over Tel Aviv, thanks to a new bike-sharing program called Tel-O-Fun that began in May 2011. You’ll find docking stations that include around 2,000 green bikes available for rent with a simple self-service kiosk that accepts major credit cards. It’s also incredibly affordable – for less then 30 minutes it is free, from 31 minutes up to 90 minutes, it’s NIS 5 (about USD $1.50) and for a full day, you pay NIS 14 (about USD $4).
Biking has been popular in Tel Aviv for some time, but it’s a growing trend. Fourteen years ago, Tel Aviv did not have even one bicycle path and today the city has more than 100 kilometers of paths, trails and lanes. The Municipality of Tel Aviv-Yafo even plans to spend another NIS 150 million (approximately USD $38 million) in the next five years to build 150 kilometers of new bike lanes in the city.
Another option that will give you a better sense of the city, its history, and current happenings, is to go with a guide. ZUZU, the largest Segway rental company in Israel also works with a local bike shop in Tel Aviv to offer guided tours. Each cyclist wears a headphone to hear the guide along the ride.
If you’re looking to get into the hottest parties in Tel Aviv, which is commonly known as one the best party cities in the world, make friends with the knowledgeable and super friendly ZUZU guides! If they like you, you’ll get the inside scoop on the best parties that night and avoid the more touristy clubs in exchange for a truly authentic Tel Aviv party experience.
Hiking in Nahal David, Ein Gedi & Kibbutz Ein Gedi
I’ve been in plenty of deserts, but until I visited Ein Gedi, I had never seen a true desert oasis. Driving through the Judean Desert is like being on the moon. There is no plant life, no water, just sand and rock for as far as the eye can see. When you arrive at Ein Gedi, it’s much the same, only with palm trees, but as you get deeper into the hike, the landscape gets continually more lush. What the experience must have been like for the person who discovered it, I can only imagine!
Ein Gedi National Park is situated on the eastern border of the Judean Desert, on the Dead Sea coast, and covers an area of about 6,250 acres. Within it is the spring-fed stream of Nahal David, a moderate hour-long hike to the end where you find David’s Falls. Along the way, there are several smaller waterfalls and springs that serve as a sanctuary for various plant, bird and animal species, including the ibex, which looks like a mountain goat, and the hyrax, which looks like some kind of gopher or gigantic tree rat. The hike itself is gorgeous, well-marked, and suitable for anyone with some level of fitness.
If you go: take a stop to visit the nearby Kibbutz Ein Gedi. Founded it 1956 and originally a date plantation, it is now home to an internationally acclaimed botanical garden that features more than 900 species of plants from around the globe. Our guide there, Zadu, has been a member for 60 years and knows literally every single plant, tree, flower, and fruit on the property. Today there are more than 500 members including 165 children.
Note: If you want to join a Kibbutz, as one from our group did after seeing their simple, uncomplicated, beautiful way of life, you have to be 35 years old or younger.
Hiking Masada’s Snake Path
This is one of the more known adventures in Israel. Hiking Masada is no easy feat. The trail is steep most of the way, rocky and uneven, twisting and looping the entire way up the hillside (hence the name), but is simply incredible. The best time to go is early morning, not just because the weather can heat up pretty quickly, but also because the beauty and the silence at the top of the mountain is breathtaking. You will stare in awe as you watch the sun come up and over the mountains of Jordan and the Dead Sea to the east and the Judean Desert below. That alone is a religious experience for many.
Depending on the time of year, the path is open 45 minutes before the sunrise. If you’re in good shape, it’ll take about 40 minutes to get to the top, but give yourself time to stop and take photos – you’ll want to! For those not as physically fit, you can either trek along slowly or opt for the aerial tram ride to the top. You won’t be there for the sunrise, but you can still enjoy the views and the experience once the sun is shining!
Once you get to the plateau, you’ve reached what was the private fortress of Herod the Great between 31 to 37 BCE. Massive excavations have unveiled his palace and baths at the north end of the mountain, the Roman siege ramp on the west side of the mountain, and cisterns throughout. If you notice a painted black line along the stone ruins, this is where archeologists discovered the remains. Above the line begins the restoration of what the site may have looked originally.
The location is best known for the Siege of Masada, a violent outbreak in the first century CE in which troops of the Roman Empire invaded the fortress, leading to the mass suicide of the Sicarii rebels.
Tip: there are information signs, but for the most thorough tour, consider hiring a guide like Ofir Jacobson who knows every detail of Masada’s storied history and is a phenomenal storyteller. He’s also extremely knowledgeable in Israel’s history in general and available for private tours. For Jerusalem in particular, a personal guide can make the experience much more enjoyable and enriching.
Floating in the Dead Sea
In a word, the Dead Sea is magical. Because of the salinity (35 percent as opposed to most seas with 3 percent) and the high mineral content, the Dead Sea is known for its therapeutic properties and the ability to be buoyant. Literally, you cannot sink. It’s the most bizarre feeling to stand, yes stand, straight up in the water without your feet touching the bottom. The popular touristy photo op is reading a newspaper while floating…Go ahead, it’s okay. We all did it.
Tip: Be careful not to splash. Getting the water in your eyes or mouth is downright painful. I accidentally got a tiny drop in my nose and it was enough of a burn to clear my sinuses for weeks! Also, do not shave prior to going in the water. It’s an unpleasant sensation to say the least. Again, I speak from personal experience.
The Dead Sea is the lowest place on Earth at a depth of 416 meters below sea level and as such, the only place on the planet where the crust of the Earth recedes to such an “in-depth low.” Fed by the Jordan River, it’s a misconception that no life exists in the Dead Sea. What we commonly think of as sea life certainly cannot survive, but life in the form of halophils or halobacterium do exist.
Two other factors contribute to the magical aura of the Dead Sea. One, it gets sun an average of 330 days a year but there’s less chance of getting sunburned here than anywhere as the atmospheric filters allow the sun to caress and warm without the same level of exposure to harmful rays. And two, the air is dry, unpolluted, pollen-free, and purifies the respiratory system while helping to filter and soften solar radiation.
Tip: if you want to douse your body in the rich mud along the shores of the Dead Sea before your float, head to the northern sections near Ein Gedi. In the southern parts, you’ll have to rely on the packaged mud sold in hotels.
Along the drive to the Dead Sea, the elevation is marked, so you can keep track of how far below sea level you’re going. If you see a camel on the side of road wearing a colorful blanket along the way, you’re at sea level. And for those wondering like I was, yes, it is a real camel that is replaced with another every several hours. My guide assured me – the stereotypes are true – camels are perfectly designed to sustain the harsh desert conditions.
Keep an eye out along the way for salt mountains on the Western side of the road – they’re the only ones in the world – and for piles of salt along the shore. The white of the salt makes the shoreline glow at dusk.
Tip: If you want to buy Dead Sea cosmetics, lotions, salts, or mud to bring home (and you should – they cost a bundle anywhere else), the two best brands are Sea of Spa and Ahava. Consider a visit to the Ahava factory to see the scientists at work. To get there, head west at the Mizpe Shalem junction off of the 90 highway that runs along the Dead Sea. It’s located about 10 kilometers north of Ein Gedi.
Exploring Timna Park
If heading south to Eilat, Timna is a worthwhile stop. Since the 6th millennium BCE, the Timna Valley has been a hotbed for copper mining. While mining operations ceased long ago, the abandoned shafts have been excavated to reveal thousands of saucer-like plates on the slopes below the Timna Cliffs.
Exploring the area is like a desert playground and there are various hiking trails within the park. It’s rarely crowded and you’ll often have the entire valley to yourself. As you drive (or walk) through the park, keep an eye out for “the Mushroom,” a whimsical sandstone rock formation with a boulder on top, the result of years of erosion. The most impressive, however, is the huge sandstone formation in the center of the Valley known as “King Solomon’s Pillars.” At various times throughout the year, particularly in summer, Solomon’s Pillars serves as the backdrop for exotic outdoor concerts and dance performances under the moonlight.
At the foot of the Pillars is the site of an ancient Egyptian temple dedicated to Hathor, the Egyptian goddess of mining, and founded during the reign of Pharaoh Seti I in the fourteenth century BCE.
For a good overview of the Timna Valley’s history, the visitor center at the entrance has an interactive video presentation that runs every hour in Hebrew and English. Admission is NIS 42 (about USD $11).
Swimming with Dolphins & the Relaxation Pools at the Dolphin Reef in Eilat
Located along the shores of the Red Sea in Eilat, the Dolphin Reef is a unique ecological site where visitors can enjoy a natural atmosphere, spectacular views, a secluded beach, and the rare opportunity to meet and observe bottleneck dolphins in their natural habitat.
The Dolphin Reef is simply the wrong name to describe this hippie-like haven. A name like the Love Shack would be far more appropriate. My first experience there was an evening in their three heated relaxation pools – the first is deep, with sea water, the second, shallow with soft fresh water (rain water), and the third is salt water that mimics the Dead Sea allowing for absolute flotation.
Inside the relaxation pool cabanas, you’re surrounded by trees that resemble a rainforest canopy that keep you sheltered in a cocoon-like atmosphere. The dim lighting, comfy earth-toned pillows, candles, and natural rugged wooden floors transport you to another world. Everyone who works there has a glow and an aura about them that can only be described as pure joy for life. You can feel it, smell it, and have no choice but to let it in. Wine, tea, water, cookies, and various other indulgences are included in the usage fee, NIS 190 (USD $50).
If you go to the relaxation pools, I have two recommendations – go at night and indulge in a water treatment with one of their therapists. It’s not advertised on their website, but it’s available, and remains one of the most relaxing experiences I’ve had in my entire life. In a word – it’s heavenly.
The treatment is similar to a watsu massage, where the therapist holds you in the water, sometimes using floatation aids, and moves your body in and through the water at various speeds and directions to stretch and relax the muscles. Your head is in the water for most of the massage, and music that can only be heard from under the water enriches and further encourages the relaxation. The best way to experience it fully is to let go completely and trust your therapist. Be open and let your body relax. After the treatment, head to the sauna for even further soothing.
Tip for the ladies: My therapist was named Asaf. Request him. You will thank me later.
The following day, we returned to swim with the reef’s dolphins. This is not your typical “get in a pool with trained dolphins” experience. For one, you’re in the Red Sea. And two, the dolphins are there of their own free will. Their decision to approach snorkelers or divers is not a result of training or feeding reinforcement, but rather the result of years of trust and friendship with the animals.
There are no guarantees that the dolphins will approach and there’s a strict policy to not touch them. But if you respect them and the fact that you’re in their habitat, they will be curious, as they were for me. At one point, two approached and one brushed so close to my hand that I actually did get a chance to feel its silky soft fin. The experience was again, magical. This place alone is worth the four-hour drive south to Eilat.
Parasailing in Eilat
While parasailing isn’t the most exciting of adventures for serious adrenaline junkies, on a windy day like the one we had there, it can be quite fun. More importantly, it’s an incredible way to see your geographic surroundings. In this case, that means sailing over the Red Sea with views of four countries at once – Israel, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt. Eilat is the farthest point south in Israel, a five-minute drive from the Egyptian border.
Note: there are a couple different roads that connect northern Israel with the south. One that runs along the Egyptian border was recently closed due to security concerns and terrorist activity. If you’re driving on your own without a guide, be sure to check with your hotel or a government agency before hitting the road into territory that could be dodgy.
Jeeping & Rappelling Mahktesh Ramon Crater and Biking in Sde Boker
There is a reason David Ben Gurion, the first prime minister of Israel, so loved and retired to the desert. While the 4,700 square mile desert was formerly known as a place good only for hiking, dumping waste, and perhaps seeing a Bedouin, the area is currently fulfilling Ben Gurion’s dream of seeing it bloom, experiencing a boost in interest and activity.
The Negev covers nearly 60 percent of Israel, but it’s home to less than 10 percent of the population. The rest is a playground for outdoor enthusiasts who like Ben Gurion, see the simple joys in dry desert air, vast open space, and moon-like vistas.
Makhtesh Ramon is usually referred to as a crater, but it is not an impact crater from a meteorite, but rather a valley surrounded by steep walls and drained by a single riverbed. The world’s largest is in the Negev at Mitzpe Ramon. The best way to see it is to take a jeep tour (check out Adam Sela for a variety of itineraries and options), as hikes can literally take days. If you have the time and adventurous spirit to camp, this is a great place to do it.
Sela and his guides can also arrange a rappelling trek down the side of the steep cliffs of Mahktesh Ramon. To up the ante on the thrill factor, hang upside down in a yoga backbend to see the desert floor become the sky and the sky become the earth.
Biking trips can also be arranged in various areas of the Negev. The one we did was in an area called Sde Boker, where Ben Gurion made his home (now a museum and library) and is where he and his wife Paula are buried. It’s also home to an active kibbutz.
Archery in the Negev Desert
Desert Archery was something that sounded odd and bizarre. I didn’t know exactly what to expect, but was pleasantly surprised. Desert Archery is similar to Frisbee golf, only with bows and arrows and balloons for targets, and this is the only known place in the world you can do it.
The course starts with an easy short distance to the target. Others along the course are more challenging, measuring distance over the precision of popping a balloon. Either way, it’s a super enjoyable way to spend an afternoon. I highly recommend giving it a shot (pun intended) during any stay in the Negev.
Camel Trekking in the Negev Desert with the Bedouins
Beyond riding a camel, which is fantastic, a visit to the Noam Farm is as close to an authentic experience with a true Bedouin as you’re going to get. Recently making international headlines, the Bedouins are a current and ongoing political, social, and cultural issue in Israel. They are struggling to cope with poverty, crime, and the process of urbanization, the very antithesis of their nomadic tradition. You see their camps set up along the roads and hillsides throughout the Negev and would never walk into their establishments for safety concerns.
Located in the Nezer Sereni Kibbutz and Israeli-owned, Noam Farm is operated by Bedouin farmers. They take care of the camels, the land, and the grapevines. Yes, the Negev Desert is making wine! Our morning there began seated around a campfire enjoying homemade tea and pastries, both of which were the best I had on the entire trip. Tea with nana (mint) was common throughout Israel, but this tea had a special flair and spice.
In a phenomenal moment of humanity, one of my fellow travelers, Lanee Neil indicated that she liked the Bedouin farmer’s green scarf. He handed it over. Stunned, she realized that this must be one of those cultures in which when you say you like something, the polite thing to do is to give it to that person. So, she returned the favor and gave him her pink scarf. As she said, “a scarf for a scarf is a lot warmer than an eye for an eye.”
Riding a Segway through the New City in Jerusalem
Jerusalem above all is the place in Israel to pray. The history is complex and the landmarks immeasurable. Strolling through the markets, walking up the Via Dolorosa, visiting the Western Wall and Holy Sepulchre are all a must while in the city.
But, for a little playtime, explore the New City by Segway. ZUZU, the same company that rents bikes in Tel Aviv, also has an outpost in Jerusalem. They have pickup locations around town, but a convenient meeting spot was around the corner from our hotel, the David Citadel. You put on a helmet, find your balance, and off you go, zooming along the streets through Michkanot Shaananim and Yemin Moshe, where you find one of the best views of the Jaffa Gate and Old City. ZUZU guides give you the inside scoop and history of places or sights along the way via headphones.
Here’s a video recap of the adventures had in Israel:
About the Author: Lindsay Taub is an award-winning journalist with over a decade of experience as a writer/editor/photographer covering travel, lifestyle, culture, arts, food, health, and all facets that make life a journey. Follow her on twitter @lindsaytaub58.
This trip was sponsored in part by Israel’s Ministry of Tourism.