Incredible, Inspirational Israel
By Renee Werbin
A trip to Israel isn’t just a vacation, it’s an astonishing experience, an amazing opportunity to sample the history of the Holy Land in a modern country filled with great restaurants, stunning beaches, fabulous spa resorts, trendy shops, golf, diving and even skiing. Israel offers unique opportunities to “float” in the salty waters of the Dead Sea, dive in the waters of the Red Sea, and water ski in the waters of the Mediterranean Sea. Along the way you can absorb history as you walk in the footsteps of Jesus and welcome the Jewish Sabbath on Friday evening with a prayer at the Western Wall — all of these activities can be experienced in a country that’s about the size of New Jersey.
Getting to Israel is easy, as most of the major airlines fly into Ben Gurion, Israel’s international airport. Residents like to describe their airport as a shopping mall; it’s replete with dozens of duty free shops selling exquisite jewelry, religious merchandise and spa products from the Dead Sea. Citizens of the U.S. need a valid passport. travelgirl tip: Make sure yours is valid for at least six months past your return date. I always recommend prearranging your arrival transfer but taxis are abundant and reliable, or you could opt for a sheirut, which is Hebrew for “a shared ride.” Currency in Israel is the shekel and it is best to exchange some dollars for shekels upon arrival. Many Israelis will accept U.S. dollars, and credit cards are welcome throughout the country but you will need some local currency while on tour.
A Jerusalem Primer
Let’s start our journey in Jerusalem, time honored and legendary city of biblical fame. Allow about an hour of travel time from the airport; as with any major metropolis, the actual time is dictated by the traffic. Hotels in Jerusalem range from the luxurious and renowned King David and the five-star David Citadel to the lovely Sheraton, the deluxe Inbal, the beautiful Regency and the Moorish-styled American Colony Hotel. There are plentiful three- and four-star choices including the Dan Panorama, the Prima Chain (including the Kings and the Prima Royal), the Novotel and the Jerusalem Gold. Your travel agent will be glad to guide you according to your budget and your needs.
I was recently a guest at the King David. The hotel welcomes visitors with a nostalgic walk down VIP lane in the lobby: the writing is literally on the floor, with notable names of former celebrity guests and dignitaries such as Bill Clinton, King Hussein of Jordan, Barbra Streisand and Richard Gere. It’s like walking in the footsteps of giants on the way to your room! Food is delicious at the King David where a fabulous Shabbat dinner is served every Friday night. The hotel also boasts an attentive staff, an Olympic-size swimming pool and luxurious rooms. This hotel is truly five-star and incredibly well located for sightseeing and walking to the Wall in the Old City.
Where to begin in this exquisite city that is the focal point of three major religions? Even non-religious tourists will enjoy the splendors of Jerusalem. The view from Mt. Scopus is memorable and a perfect place to get your bearings and take a panoramic photo. Another incredible view waits from the Mt. of Olives. Note: if you decide to climb aboard one of the resident camels, be watchful of your possessions while you negotiate your price!
Jerusalem is divided into the Old City and the New City. The Old City is surrounded by a wall built in the mid 1500s by Suleiman the Magnificent. Inside the wall you can hear the echo of thousands of years of history as you make your way past the markets and stalls of the area known as the Shuk. It is imperative to wear comfortable shoes and I recommend rubber soles, since Jerusalem’s stone paths can be slippery.
The Old City is an historian’s dream where the Bible actually does come to life. Walk in the footsteps of Jesus and make your way along the Via Dolorosa to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. When you arrive you will find yourself in the heart of the Christian Quarter. Other prominent holy sites include the Garden of Gethsemane and King David’s tomb. The golden Dome of the Rock built upon the Temple Mount is the most famous Islamic site in Jerusalem.
Make time while touring the Old City to visit the Davidson Center, where visitors can see a computerized version of what the Temple Mount looked like thousands of years ago. A must see and a most important site is the Western Wall, the holiest site for the Jewish people. Every Friday before sundown hundreds of Orthodox Jews come to pray beside the Wall.
It is an adventure to walk through the last excavation of the City of David but please be sure you have waterproof shoes. The quest begins as you proceed through dark water tunnels holding a candle to illuminate your way. It’s also thrilling to walk atop the Old City walls at night but this does require a reservation booked well in advance.
The New City of Jerusalem is home to Yad Vashem, Israel’s moving memorial to the Holocaust. This is another must-see, as is the haunting Children’s Memorial located on site. Don’t miss the Israel Museum, which houses the actual Dead Sea Scrolls, known to many as the Shrine of the Book. If you have time to visit the museum’s other exhibitions, they certainly merit your attention. Another museum in Jerusalem worth seeing is the Hertzl Museum which tells the story of Theodore Hertzl and his vision to found a Jewish homeland. Behind the museum lies Mt. Hertzl, the resting place of many Israeli heroes.
Now that we’ve walked down biblical lane, let’s party a bit and travel to Tel Aviv. After all, what’s a travelgirl to do when the sun goes down?
The Beat of Tel Aviv
Tel Aviv is one of Israel’s most modern cities replete with eclectic restaurants, swinging nightlife, brilliant theatre, beautiful beaches and an opera housed in the Tel Aviv Performing Arts Center. The Israeli Philharmonic Orchestra is world class, and musical director Zubin Mehta is legendary. The national theatre of Israel, Habima, is also located in Tel Aviv. The Israeli Ballet was founded in 1967 and offers a rewarding experience with some extraordinarily talented dancers.
Some of the restaurants are just sublime! Let’s start with Messa, offering French fare in a marbleized white room. It’s chic, it’s stylish and the food is superb. Margaret Tayar’s, located in the port city of Jaffa, offers gourmet seafood. Everything is fresh and prepared daily by Margaret, the namesake inspirational chef. Orca is another standout presenting tapas, outstanding entrees and sensational desserts. Chef Eric Stroitman has a winner on his hands; call ahead for a coveted seat. Maganda in the Yemenite Quarter near the Carmel Market offers Middle Eastern fare. The restaurant is lovely and the Middle Eastern kabobs and falafel can’t be beat.
You can dance the night away in Tel Aviv or spend your evening sipping vino in a lovely wine bar, it’s the Middle East and it’s anything but ancient. Why not try a bar by the port or a restaurant overlooking the sea? Brasserie M & R is open 24 hours. Recently opened, this new chow down is a huge success. Tel Aviv can be a romantic city, whether you’re dining, clubbing or sipping a cup of joe in a crowded coffeehouse filled with the artsy set. This is a first class city filled with stylish shops, impressive art and intelligent people who are very glad you came to visit!
Tourists are flocking to Israel — celebrities included. The Queen of Rock herself, Madonna, has been visiting Israel for years. This dazzling diva is a devotee of Kabbalah, (Jewish mysticism) and visits Israel to study and learn about this facet of spirituality. From Oprah to Donna Karan to Kristen Davis, travelgirls are flocking to Israel eager to see the sights and experience the beauty of this special land.
The city is gearing up for an impressive celebration as 2009 is when Tel Aviv celebrates its 100th birthday. Glittering centennial events begin in April. Tel Aviv is home to some memorable museums such as Independence Hall. Located on Rothschild Blvd. 16, this is the actual former home of Tel Aviv’s first Mayor, Meir Dizengoff. What a memorable place this is! Israelis gathered in Independence Hall on May 14, 1948, in this original building to sign the Scroll of Independence proclaiming the establishment of the Jewish State of Israel. During the tour one call hear the original roll call of the United Nations announcing each member’s vote. Unlike Jerusalem, which is filled with ancient history, Tel Aviv is a modern city and in this impressive building one can witness recent history exactly as it unfolded in 1948.
The Museum of the Diaspora is another fantastic museum that deserves attention. Also known as Beth Hatefutsoth, exhibits tell the story of the Jewish people 2,500 years ago to the present. Especially moving is an exhibit entitled Gate of the Faithful showing 18 miniature models of synagogues from around the world. These reproductions are quite amazing offering a glimpse into once vibrant Jewish communities. Be sure to see the Scrolls of Fire and the Gate of the Family.
Quite near Tel Aviv, the city of Holon houses an interactive children’s museum you will want to see. One of its current exhibits takes a sighted person through the world of the blind. White cane in hand I felt my way through halls and alleys and even ate a meal in the dark. Quite unique, a blind person escorted my group all the way. He was fearless, we were not, but his easy demeanor comforted us as he led us into a blind person’s world. Dialogue in the Dark offers the sighted and the sightless a way to find common ground. This is one conversation you won’t want to miss.
Exploring Points North and South
If you have the luxury of more time to spend in this part of the world, numerous precious treasures lie in either direction. Travel north from Tel Aviv and you’ll find yourself in ancient Roman towns such as Caesarea, Haifa, Safed and Tiberias. The area north is known as the Galilee and the scenery is most picturesque. Fertile valleys and forests offer spectacular opportunities for biking, hiking and hot air ballooning. Spas dot the area and offer luxurious retreats. One can spend the night in a Relais & Chateau spa such as Mitzpe HaYamim, take a religious journey and visit Nazareth and the Mount of Beatitudes where Jesus delivered the Sermon on the Mount, or visit Safed, one of the four holy cities in Israel hosting elite artists’ galleries within a maze of cobblestone streets that lead to medieval synagogues and old stone houses. Safed is the epicenter of Kabbalah, the mystical insights into Jewish law. One might find Madonna and Demi Moore studying here along with Jewish scholars and Rabbis; this is a town with a Jewish soul.
While in the Galilee don’t miss the opportunity to visit several wineries including the Golan Winery, which produces some memorable vintages sold around the world. Enjoy a boat ride on the Sea of Galilee; this is actually Israel’s only fresh water lake. Dine as our ancestors did on St. Peter’s fish at one of the local restaurants in Tiberias and venture a few miles north of Tiberias to see the “Jesus Boat,” an ancient boat pulled from the mud that was carbon dated to the first AD. The boat appeared due to a great drought in 1986.
South of Jerusalem lies the Dead Sea, the actual lowest point on Earth. Nothing can live in its salty depths, but the health benefits are amazing and are known to be anti-aging. The rich minerals can cure skin diseases such as psoriasis and it is said Cleopatra visited, found the waters renewing and made the Dead Sea her own personal health spa. Take a dip in the water; the extremely high concentration of dissolved mineral salts will keep you afloat. Take a good book and read while floating, but beware, don’t stay in over 30 minutes, keep your head above water and don’t shave the day you hit the water. This is a mesmerizing place to spend a few days and several hotels entice travelers with rejuvenating spas and indoor Dead Sea water pools. This is the perfect place to try the Ahava skin creams produced from the minerals of the Dead Sea. They leave your skin feeling lovely and youthful and the products make fantastic souvenirs to remind you of your trip long after you’ve returned home.
Also by the Dead Sea is the mind-boggling rock fortress known as Masada. This desert stronghold tells the tragic story of more than 900 Jewish rebels who fled Jerusalem to avoid conquest by the Roman Empire. Visiting can be quite an exhaustive outing as one can enjoy the challenging experience of climbing the snake path to reach the top of Masada at the crack of dawn. (photo??) Catch your breath and watch the sunrise or sleep late and take the cable car up; you will find the site mesmerizing high atop this ancient rock cliff.
Israel is chock full of history but it’s also a vacationer’s paradise and nowhere in the country is this more evident than in Eilat, where a unique coral reef awaits. Eilat offers an underwater observatory, opportunities to swim with the dolphins, luxurious hotels such as Herod’s Palace, the Hilton Queen of Sheba, and the Eilat Princess — hotels every travelgirl will enjoy. It rarely rains in this haven of bliss located on the Red Sea Riviera. Eilat is also a shopper’s haven offering boutiques that herald the latest fashions, and it’s also a place where nightlife is bountiful. Israelis vacation with tourists and the jet setting crowd dances the night away. With a cornucopia of restaurants offering a variety of fine cuisine, the possibilities are endless in this, Israel’s southernmost spot.
When you go:
• Join a scheduled tour or hire a private guide for your first tip to Israel. First-timers will need a minimum of seven days to explore the country’s wonders.
• Spring and fall offer the best weather. Summer is also a great time to go, although the weather is hotter.
• Prices are best in the winter months when it can be cold and rainy but beware of the Christmas season when peak prices are in effect. If you choose to travel during religious holidays book early and expect incredibly large crowds.
• Israel is a very casual country; jackets and ties are not required at most restaurants, nightclubs, and bars.
• Dress appropriately when visiting holy sites and wear comfortable walking shoes while touring. Jeans are quite acceptable during the day as are shorts and T-shirts during summer season. (shorts and t-shirts okay for holy sites?)
• You will need a converter for your cell phone charger and your curling iron. Check with your hotel, most offer hair dryers in the room.
For more 411 on Israel, visit www.goisrael.com
The North America information center can be reached by telephone at 888-77-ISRAEL or 212-499-5660.