ISRAEL A TOURIST'S CORNUCOPIA - By Arlene Becker
Though Israel is small, about the size of New Jersey, 320 miles long, and a fraction as wide, it has varied climates and terrain, with mountains, deserts, hills, valleys, rivers, waterfalls, lakes, wadis, and oases, all within a short distance of one another. It also offers a wide range of experiences and sights, like the multi-layered remnants of civilizations and religions that you cannot find elsewhere.
Though the spectrum of peoples, cultures, and languages is from all over the world, most Israelis speak English and signs are in English as well as Hebrew.
Israel offers opportunities for most activities and unusual ones as well.
In Caesarea, once a Roman capital, on the Mediterranean, you can: tee off next to a Roman pillar; explore the ruins of ancient Caesarea and Roman aqueducts; eat in a cafe built in Roman walls; and dive off a Roman built pier.
Israel has a variety of deserts and specialty tour companies offer expeditions of them via ATV, camel, or donkey. Israel's Society for Protection of Nature offers desert camping trips.
Israel is great for spelunking. Explore some of the 800 caves at Bet Guvrin National Park with their soaring ceiling, natural staircases and cisterns. Caves elsewhere have ancient oil presses and cisterns.
Camel rides, offered in many places, are jolting experiences. One minute you’re sitting a couple of feet off the ground, then suddenly, with a snorting grunt, the camel's up and you're up there, holding on for dear life.
Relax on pillows in a Bedouin's black goat hair tent and drink fantastic sweet herb tea or strong cardamom coffee brewed by Bedouin males often to the accompaniment of chants and rhythmic beats. Dinners and overnight stays can also be arranged.
In the Ramon Crater, one of the largest in the world, you can hike, rappel down its sides, take a jeep tour, camp, or just stand near the Visitor’s Center at its rim and admire the view.
Almost everywhere you go in Israel you'll find archeological remnants and excavations-in-progress. Become part of a dig as an archeological volunteer for a day or more. One of the most extensively excavated sites is the ancient town of Bet Shean, once Canaanite, then Roman, then Byzantine Christian. The ruins include a Roman Temple and Christian Basilica. Walk on Roman streets, and sit on ancient stone seats in its excellently preserved Coliseum.
There are many special water experiences in Israel: lush oases, like Ein Gedi, where you can swim in cool clear waters and under waterfalls; Sachne, called Eden on earth, with three natural pools; and Banias, one of the streams feeding the Jordan, where water flows from a cave. Several beaches offer the chance to sun bathe next to archeological remains thousands of years old.
Stay at a kibbutz hotel, they are all over Israel, to get a feel for kibbutz life. Most Kibbutzim have swimming pools and resort amenities. Old timers may invite you to their homes to talk about the old days. On kibbutz Lavi, on a hill overlooking Tiberias, an original settler's one room dwelling is kept as a museum.
In the far north, in the Golan, eagles and birds of prey soar among the green hills in a wild bird sanctuary. Hike to the nearby remnants of Gamla, a 2,000 year old city perched on the side of a triangular mountain.
SPAS AND SPECIAL SIGHTS
Spas are popular in Israel again, as they were when the ancient Romans ruled. The Romans built several spas on sites of hot springs and mineral waters. Hamat Tiberias, a modern spa is erected on the site of the ancient Roman spa. Nearby you can take a boat across the Sea of Galilee to eat St. Peter's fish in a kibbutz restaurant, or sail on a replica of the 2,000 year old boat found in the Sea of Galilee, now displayed in Kibbutz Ginosar.
Another spa is Mitzpeh Hayamim in the Galilee, Israel's green hilly Northern area, on a hill with panoramic views, animals, farm fresh milk, homemade cheeses, jams and breads, and organic vegetables from its gardens. The main building has huge high-ceilinged rooms, and an interior atrium with birds.
Nearby, the old city of Safad is a place of ancient and modern mystics. Being here is like stepping into another life. The feeling is enhanced by the town’s narrow multi-stone-stepped streets, hundreds-of-years-old synagogues, and artists’ homes, all surrounded by misty looking bluish hills.
Near Haifa, a lovely hilly seaside city, and home to the Bahai Temple, is The Carmel Forest Spa. Israel's more luxurious hotels also offer spa services.
In the Dead Sea area, the lowest spot on earth, float on the silky feeling Sea without even knowing how to swim!
Enjoy its minerals, springs, mud, and sulfur pools. Dead Sea beauty products, are sold here, and all over the country. Most hotels have spas and pipe in Dead Sea Water to hotel pools.
Your lungs will love you. The air is pollen-free, and rich in oxygen.
Near the Dead Sea is Masada, a hilltop plateau where Jewish Freedom fighters and their families fled to escape the Romans. Remains of their buildings, water cisterns, King Herod's Palaces (with well preserved colorful mosaics), and Roman camps are still there. From the plateau there’s a magnificent view of the surrounding hills and the Dead Sea. A cable car goes to the top, but to imagine what it was like in ancient times, hike up the winding 'snake path'.
The Qumran caves, where the Dead Sea scrolls were found, are nearby.
THE RED SEA
Eilat, on the Red Sea's Gulf of Eilat, with purplish hued sand mountains, is at the southernmost tip of Israel. It’s the only town around for miles and it’s like a lush oasis at the edge of the Arava desert. It's a lively place with many discos and restaurants. There's even a moonlit disco cruise, as well as daytime Bay cruises. In the summer there are spontaneous dancing parties on its beaches!
Eilat has some of the best coral reef diving and snorkeling anywhere, with exceptionally clear waters at almost every depth. Visibility is superb. The sea is comfortable with a temperature range between 70 and 77 degrees. You can see the underwater life from a glass-bottomed boat; in a 360 degree two chamber fifteen foot under-the-water observatory; or in a tourist submarine. The weather is warm with sunshine almost year round.
Water activities include: water skiing; sailing; windsurfing; deep sea fishing; an Israeli invention Snuba, a cross between diving and snorkeling, with breathing done through a tube connected to a tank on a boat; and dolphin watching at a reserve near the city.
Eilat’s international bird center has a variety of species, including those indigenous only to this area. It also has the world's only biblical wild park with representative biblical animals.
It hosts a number of music festivals and an international windsurfing competition.
Near Eilat are the spectacular multi-colored formations of the King Solomon's Mines at the Timna Nature Reserve
The crown of Israel, and one of the most fascinating cities anywhere, is comprised of the Old and the New Cities. The 200-acre walled many-gated Old City is divided into Arab, Christian, Jewish, and Armenian quarters. The variety of peoples, religions and dress in this small area is phenomenal and include: Armenian priests with long black cassocks; nuns with a variety of headgears; priests of many denominations; Arabs with keffiyehs; and Hassidic Jews with long side locks and black garb.
The Old City is probably the largest archeological site in the world, with layers upon layers of civilizations. Walk along the excavated Roman Cardo with its elegant pillars, or inside Crusader arches with the original Crusader shops now modern boutiques. Inside the Crusader structure, even deeper, are the remains of a Jewish wall almost three thousand years old.
Tour the market, with its winding narrow streets. Explore the Quarters. Visit the Western Wall, a remnant of the Jewish Second Temple. Men and women pray in separate areas. On Friday nights there's dancing and singing in the men's section.
Near the Wall you can take the Tunnel Tour to see sections of the Wall beneath the present level (there's a stone the size of a school bus), and a 2,000 year old Herodian Street. Above the Wall is the golden Dome of the Rock Mosque. Inside, a huge bolder marks the spot from which Mohammed is said to have ascended to heaven. For Christians, the Church of the Golden Sepulchre, and the Via Dolorosa, where Christ made his last walk, are Old City highlights.
Jerusalem has fine museums, including The Tower of David Museum and Citadel, in the Old City, a 700 year old historic structure with dioramas of Jerusalem's various stages, and an archeological garden. The Davidson Center is a new museum about the Temple.
In the New City the Israel Museum displays Jewish cultures and art from different parts of the world. The attached Shrine of the Book Museum, shaped like the clay jars in which they were found, houses the Dead Sea Scrolls. Close by is the Biblical Museum, a non-denominational museum of bible history. Yad Vashem, the museum of the Holocaust is very somber. The trees of the Righteous Gentiles, who risked their lives to save Jews, line the walks.
Jerusalem, whose sobriquet is “Jerusalem of Gold”, is built of pinkish white stones and at sunset or sunrise the city, tinged a golden pink, seems to glow.
Israel’s nightlife burgeons on Saturday nights, after the Jewish Sabbath, when Israelis take to the streets to mill around or to visit the discos and clubs.
Tel Aviv and Eilat are the nightlife cities. Tel Aviv, Israel's cosmopolitan city on the Mediterranean, has numerous clubs and cafes, many on the beaches and people sit for hours, drinking coffee, and socializing. Tel Aviv’s broad sand beaches and stone boardwalk stretch for miles.
Jaffa, a four thousand year old city next to Tel Aviv, has a lively nightlife with interesting clubs and restaurants in old Arab buildings. Artists’ galleries, boutiques, and cafes sit atop stone-stepped tiers next to the Mediterranean.
Israel’s eateries offer food from all over the world including; Arabic, Thai, Yemenite, Moroccan, Middle-Eastern, Japanese, Chinese, Indian, Romanian, Hungarian, and just plain western food. Hotel breakfasts, included in room rates, are thirty-item-plus affairs with vegetables, cheeses, salads, cereals, hot dishes, breads and sweets. After an Israeli breakfast lunch is unnecessary.
Israeli fast food is Falafel, fried chick pea balls with salad in pita bread, or schwarma, meat and salad wrapped in pita bread. They're inexpensive and meals in themselves. Take-out stands are everywhere.
IF YOU GO
HOW TO GET THERE
On El Al , Israel 's airline, you'll get a taste of the country before you arrive. On some flights you may see men praying in the aisles. Complimentary Israeli wines are served on board. Its service is excellent.
El Al's number, 1-800-223-6700
WHERE TO STAY
In Jerusalem -The historic and prestigious King David Hotel has Old City views, high-ceilinged rooms, an impressive 20-foot-ceilinged lobby, and 4.5 acres with English gardens, pool, and tennis courts.
If you're really adventurous, and don't mind non-luxurious quarters, try hostels or other accommodations within the Old City walls. They’re exotic and cheap.
InEilat -The Dan Hotel, on the Bay, is an impressive curved structure with soaring columns, lots of color, marble, mosaics, and spa facilities with a Turkish bath. Its huge pool is set in lush gardens. The Hilton Queen of Sheba is another very posh hotel.
In Tel Aviv-The Hilton, a huge hotel with a spa, business center, shops, and a post office, salt water pool and tennis courts. All the rooms overlook the Mediterranean..
In the Dead Sea Area- The Hyatt Regency Resort and Spa is the largest spa in the Middle East, and one of the most luxurious anywhere, with a huge lobby, rooms with balconies overlooking the Sea, two Dead Sea water pools, sulfur pools, and two freshwater pools, one 120 feet, the other 180 feet long, and a stream and bridge in its restaurant!
In Jerusalem, Rienzi is an elegant restaurant with atmosphere, situated in two old Arab houses. Its specialty is home-made pasta and Israeli trout that melts in your mouth. In the summer there's courtyard service.
Korus is a Middle Eastern restaurant in the indoor several-storied Jerusalem Mall (the largest in the Middle East). About a dozen complimentary appetizers are served before you even get to the entrée. Servings are bountiful.
SHOPPING Yemenite filigreesilverwork and jewelry; colorful Bukharian skullcaps; jewelry made from the Eilat Stone, Dead Sea cosmetic products; carvings from olivewood; and artwork.
CUSTOMS OF THE COUNTRY
Many restaurants are kosher, with meat and dairy served separately. Businesses and public transportation are closed Saturdays, and Jewish holidays, except in Eilat, Tel Aviv, and Haifa. In synagogues and at the Western Wall men should cover their heads, and women should wear skirts or dresses.
Buses go everywhere. Private vans also go frequently both inter and intra cities and there's an inland airline. For car rentals you can use your American license.
FOR INFORMATION The Israel Government Tourist number is 1-888-774-7723. The website is www.goisrael.com