For many, my spring vacation choice was a real head scratcher. Israel? Really? Is it safe?
My husband and I hadn’t planned to visit the Middle East this year. We’d been sitting on a big, use-it-or-lose-it US Airways credit from a cancelled trip to Italy last fall. We basically played spin-the-globe and landed on Israel, a place we’d always wanted to visit. We found a top-rated tour company on Trip Advisor, checked the late-April weather (sunny and 70!), and off we went.
We’re back now – safe, sound and psyched to beat the drum for the Holy Land, a magical place that fed my head, my soul and my belly.
If Israel’s not already on your must-see list, here are 12 reasons you should add it – pronto!
- It’s safe. No, really, it is. You have to go through security TWICE to board a plane for Tel Aviv/Jerusalem. My TSA pre-check status meant nothing to the tough-guy screeners at the gate – I had to shed my shoes and jacket along with everyone else. Once you’re in country, young IDF (Israeli Defense Force) soldiers are posted everywhere. It doesn’t take long to get used to – and feel reassured by – all those machine guns.
- Jet lag, schmet lag. The flights – roughly 11 hours direct from Philly to Ben Gurion Airport and some 12 hours coming back – are long enough to allow for some real shut-eye, not the catnaps you get on a flight to Europe. (You might, however, disembark with a disconcerting case of cankles if you stay put too long – I could barely get my feet back in my sneakers.)
- It’s manageable. Israel is about the size of New Jersey so you can see the whole shebang in a week. Add a day of travel on either end and it’s an exotic, 9- or 10-day destination.
- The history. The place is one big archeological dig. You think ancient Rome is old? Wait ’til you see the 5,000-year old ruins at Megiddo! AKA Armigeddon, Megiddo was the world’s first city, and according to the Bible, it will also be its last. Other mind-blowing golden oldies? Herod the Great’s desert fortress Masada, his impressive city, Caesarea, and the Dead Sea scrolls found at Qumran, just for starters.
- The religion. Israel’s the birthplace of the Big Three monotheistic faiths: Judaism, Christianity and Islam. We chose a “highlights of Israel” tour because we wanted to see all the holy sites – Jewish, Christian and otherwise. We were transfixed by the meticulously manicured B’Hai Gardens, the otherworldly beauty of the Sea of Galilee (Jesus’ stomping ground), the ancient Byzantine Beit Alfa Synagogue, the ultra-Orthodox Mea Shearim neighborhood in Jerusalem and the polyglot of iconic churches, mosques and temples in Jerusalem’s Old City. As Catholics, we were especially moved by the Church of the Annunciation in Nazareth, the site of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount overlooking the super serene Sea of Galilee, the Garden of Gethsemane, and the sites of Jesus’ crucifixion, burial and resurrection all within the four walls of the mordantly mystical Church of the Holy Sepulcher.
- The food.
The breads, from BIG bagels to challah and laffa, are fresh baked and often served warm, and the Mediterranean cuisine, particularly in cosmopolitan Tel Aviv, is exceptional. Other standouts: the hot Frisbee-sized pitas and fresh salads slung by the servers at Jaffa’s Old Man and the Sea; the Best Tomato Salad Ever (my name but I’m not kidding) at Herbert Samuel and the inventive open-kitchen creations at North Abraxas (sit at the bar!), both in Tel Aviv; the super-fresh catch at Jerusalem’s Sea Dolphin; the bounteous buffet breakfast at the world-renowned King David Hotel; the luscious lamb shawarma in the shadow of the Western Wall…
- The super-charged geo-politics. The journo in me was stoked to see firsthand: the strategic value of the Golan Heights (we watched a rocket explode just over the border in Syria); a Jordanian flag flapping just a few feet across the muddy Jordan River; throngs of jubilant Israelis dancing in the streets on Independence Day; the heavily guarded checkpoint and No Man’s Land between Israel and Palestinian-controlled Bethlehem; and the controversial Israeli settlements in the West Bank. I came away with a much better grasp of the Israeli-Arab conflict. I’ll be paying closer attention to Middle Eastern politics from now on, that’s for sure.
- The tour guides. Ours, Eli Dabby (Shalom Israel Tours) was one in a million – funny, warm, wise, peace loving and eager to please. Others we met who were touring with Rent-A-Guide raved about the humor and storytelling of their guide, Jackie. In Israel, guiding is a valued profession. Guides have to attend special classes for two years and take an exam to become licensed by the Ministry of Tourism.
- Yad Vashem. After the Western Wall, it’s the most visited tourist site in Israel – and for good reason. I half cried my way through the Holocaust History Museum, the Hall of Remembrance and the Garden of the Righteous Among the Nations at this 44-acre complex outside Jerusalem. The U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in D.C. is wonderful, but wandering through this place, in their country, is moving beyond words.
- The people. Israelis, both secular and faithful, were warm and wonderful. From server to soldier, everyone had an interesting story, it seemed.
- The scenery. Dramatic desert vistas, the dead calm of the earth’s lowest point, the Dead Sea, Bedouin herding sheep on craggy cliffs like shepherds from the Bible, the tranquil Sea of Galilee, the enchanting Old City with its towering stone walls, colorful street bazaars – Israel is a photographer’s dream.
- The fruits of the land. Plump and sweet Medjool dates from Jericho, Jaffa’s renowned oranges, surprisingly tasty wine from the Golan grapes, and all-natural beauty products made from Dead Sea Minerals and Galilean olives – (more on these in a future post), Israel is bountiful beyond belief for a country that’s more than half dessert.
BTW, I’d highly recommend our tour company, Shalom Israel Tours, headed by one Shalom Stark. (I kid you not!) His service and gratitude were tremendous.
(An FYI: Jewish Heritage tours tend to fill big buses but our Highlights of Israel tour had only 14 people aboard a large van. Perfect size! An added bonus: traveling with interesting English speakers from around the world!)