Israel’s main draw for many is the plethora of famous landmarks. So many of the names that appear on the road signs – Jerusalem, Sea of Galilee, Nazareth – have been familiar since childhood.
But Israel is also a modern country with a tourism infrastructure that caters for all kinds of tourists’ tastes. Glorious beaches, bustling cities, nature reserves, health spas, religious shrines shopping malls, markets and artists’ colonies all reside side by side in this tiny country as I was to find out over the course of the week.
Our first stop was to Tel Aviv – a vibrant city that never sleeps. This brash cosmopolitan metropolis and the country’s business centre did not even exist until 1909. It was only when a group of Jaffa residents moved north to build a new city on the sand dunes did this city start to shape up. Today it has sidewalk cafes, fine museums, parks, beaches, chic shopping malls and boutiques. Tel Aviv was made for strolling and browsing. You can walk for miles along the beachfront promenade from the north of the city to Jaffa in the south passing Tel Aviv’s luxury hotels and the striking new Opera Tower shopping centre.
If the hustle and bustle of Tel Aviv proves too much, then the Galilee provides a much needed escape. As you travel through the foothills of the Galilee Mountains you are sure to be affected by the pastoral peace of the towns and villages such as the Unesco-listed Old City at Akko and the beautiful Bahai Gardens at Haifa.
The Sea of Galilee coastline and surrounding hills are a year-round vacation resort with nature trails, historical sites and holiday spots – a nature enthusiasts’ dream. The Upper Galilee is a further treat for the senses. It’s an area for outdoor activities including horse riding, canoeing, kayaking, rafting, fishing and skiing in the winter. Archeological remains are everywhere including fortresses from Islamic and Crusader times, synagogues from Talmudic times, and Roman temples.
Think of olive oil, and most of our attention is turned to places like Italy or even Spain. But it wasn’t until my trip to Israel I realised how sacred olive trees are considered here. During Biblical times, the entire season of the olive harvest signified a time of festivities. Years on, olive oil is still made by cold press as a visit to the Saba Habib Olive Oil in Kibbutz Parud revealed. Anyone interested can visit this family run business to learn how olive oil is made and discover its nutritional values. Tahini lovers can watch the sesame seed paste being made in millstones while those wanting to learn about herbs and their use in traditional medicine can do so all free of charge. For the record, the tahini is the best I’ve ever tasted.
It’s not surprising that Israel’s close proximity to the mineral-rich Dead Sea makes it an ideal place to go and visit a health spa. So when our body begged for a break from all the delightful and action-packed sight-seeing, we really seemed to time it right when we checked ourselves into the Mizpe Hayamim spa hotel. Overlooking the Golan Heights and the Sea of Galilee, this place really is a gem. Wrapped in tranquillity surrounded by forests and gardens, the spa hotel has an organic farm, bakery and dairy, orchards, herb gardens and streams. It’s one of the leading places in eco-tourism where virtually nothing is wasted.
This little gem was a vision of Dr Eric Yaroslavsky who wanted to combine holistic medicine and complementary medicine, and wished to create a place that was as close to nature as possible where people could consume organic food and strike a balance between body and soul. It took him 15 years to build his dream from 1926, and today, the 37 acres of land has expanded with 97 beautifully appointed rooms and suites – it’s décor and numerous plants an extension of the outdoor in. With 300 goat and sheep, 40 cows, 100 different kinds of fruit and vegetables, around 70 fruits and 40 different kinds of dairy products made on site daily, physical needs aside, your mind and soul too are fully cared for. The Muscat restaurant here is a real treat which allows you to sample a creative menu with ingredients from the farm. The charcoal roasted chicken marinated in Israeli spice Za’tar was the best I have ever tasted.
And then of course, Israel is mostly associated as the Holy Land and with a rested mind, body and soul. After Mizpe Hayamim, it was time to take that vital trip to the biblical city Jerusalem. The name alone creates images spanning millennia but it’s not until you arrive here that you feel the power of this city. Just catching a glimpse of the faces of the faithful as they walk towards the wailing wall or see the Dome of the Rock, and you know that for most people a trip to the Holly Land really is a trip of a lifetime. It is the thrill of walking in the footsteps of history, from retracing the steps of Abraham 4,000 years ago, King David 3,000 years ago, Jesus 2,000 years ago and the Crusades 1,000 years ago. Irrespective of religion, I couldn’t help but be honoured and humbled to visit this amazing city.
Images courtesy of Israel Ministry of Tourism (thinkisrael.com)