Israel Travel Guide to the South

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Jerusalem
Jerusalem

Israel – a country whose name evokes emotions galore and innumerable reactions, is still a wonderful revelation when you visit it. Well this is the birth of Jesus Christ and Christianity, is home to Jews and also has an important connection with the Prophet of Mohammed. And no, it is not all about spirituality – well where else would you find a winery in the midst of a desert, see an oasis with fruits and plants, float in a sea, explore ruins dating back to over 2000 years and party at the hippest of places? And that is exactly the kind of diversity that Israel offers and takes you on a journey like no other.

The Nubian Ibex
The Nubian Ibex

My first stop is a Jerusalem and it is the perfect precursor to a trip that is full of delightful surprises. Since it is late evening when I arrive after a rather long journey, I am still rearing to go and decide to stop by at the Old Jerusalem Railway Station which is now a shopping hub and has a nice vibe thanks to new age art deco cafes and music performances that happen here. It is also a good place to shop for quirky accessories or simply lounge around. But the primary attraction lies at the historical and religious sites of the Old City that needs a whole day and is best done on foot. Start at the Tower of David Museum that gives you a detailed insight into the history of Jerusalem through the ages and the place itself is well laid out across different galleries marking the various periods in history. The interactive museum has interesting displays and traces the history of the temples of this place across periods. After this it is a great idea to walk on the Via Dolorosa (Stations of the Cross) path, which is believed to be the path that Jesus walked on before he was crucified. Set amidst a bustling local market, there are 14 stations that show the major milestones of his walk. Of special interest is the Church of the Holy Sepulcher which houses the now empty tomb where Jesus was buried and is also the site of crucifixion. The church has stunning architecture and the sense of divinity here is palpable. A stop at the Western Wall (Kotel), Judaism’s most sacred site is another must do. You can leave a note for your wish and locals believe it is bound to come true! The Western Wall Tunnels is another interesting stop that needs prior reservation and a guide for you to see the excavations that show the underground portions of the wall. Finally hop on the Ramparts Walk – a walkway atop the Old City walls that offers a unique panoramic view of the Old City and its surroundings. The Arab Market (Shuk) here is a good place to stop by for interesting local souvenirs.

The Dead Sea
The Dead Sea

After soaking in the history of the city, I head to the Dead Sea region, said to be the lowest place on earth, being 421 meters below sea level. The sea here is rich in minerals and salt and naturally is home to a thriving cosmetic industry and the Dead Sea health and beauty products Visitors’ Center in Kibbutz Mitzpe Shalem is a good place to stock up for gifts back home. The Dead Sea itself is easily the world’s best outdoor spa whose waters are so dense that you can float in them thanks to the fact that the salt content is 32% compared to 4-6 percent elsewhere! You are however advised not to dip your face into the water. You can also head to the sulphur pool here for a dip that is good for your skin. The mud of the Dead Sea also makes for a great face pack and I was rather amused to see a group of young girls with mud on their faces running alongside the shore while I was here. Once you have a fill of the sea, take a hike in Nahal David – Ein Gedi Nature Reserve a Biblical oasis with a spring and waterfalls, where David hid from Saul. Also take a tour of the Kibbutz Ein Gedi’s eco tourism botanical garden where you can see some unique flora and fauna including the Baobab tree whose beautiful white flowers bloom in the night. The abundance of avian life here left me very surprised and I was lucky to spot several sun birds, kingfishers, yellow throated bulbuls and more on this trip.

The ruins of Massada
The ruins of Massada

The site of Massada or the ruins of King Herod’s mountaintop fortress and last stronghold of the Jewish revolt against the Romans in 73 C.E. is close by and is another place that you must visit which is close to this region. A cable car takes you atop the mountain and the ruins are spread all over the place. On your way back, do stop at the museum that showcases some interesting relics including Biblical scrolls. Driving through the Negev desert which has arid landscapes that are dry and barren, I am surprised when I start seeing specks of green. Going closer, I realize that I am in the midst of a vineyard and to my fortune it is harvest season and the vines are bursting with white and purple grapes. As we head into the winery, I learn that Israel’s deserts have a few boutique desert wine places that manufacture their own blend of wines and the Carmei Avdat wine cellar is one of them. This place is a delight as apart from the grapes, you will also see fruit tress like pomegranate, figs, peaches and more apart from olives! There is a wine tour and wine tasting as well here and if you have more time, the place also offers eco friendly accommodation too. While the desert is extremely hot, a stop at the Arava Agriculture Center will cool you off. I was surprised to see the detailed research and development activities here have resulted in watermelon being able to grow vertically as well. A short tour will showcase how vegetables and herbs are grown here and it is impossible to take your eyes off the arresting sun flowers that bloom here.

Southernmost tip of Israel is at Eilat
Southernmost tip of Israel is at Eilat

I then head to Eilat – Israel’s southernmost resort town on the Red Sea and there is a new vibe here. A sense of relaxation and a holiday mood is what you will sense here and the sea itself is one of the best especially if you want to swim. The calm waters here are almost therapeutic and the canals and waterways interspersed with landscaped gardens and flowering shrubs makes a wonderful sight for sore eyes.  The musical fountain at Eilat is a must do while you are here and the show of music and water is synchronised to perfection and it is where families bond together as well. I was quite charmed by little children dancing in front of the fountains to the music getting drenched and having a whale of a time! And to get up close with nature, visit the Dolphin Reef a beach with water attractions and an opportunity to swim with the dolphins. In fact the dolphins come close to the staff and you can actually touch them! In Eilat a visit to the Underwater Observatory Marine Park – with underwater museum, aquarium, shark pools and coral reefs is a must as well. This is where you can also see how the underwater beings are fed and take a lesson in deep sea diving!

Vineyard in Israel
Vineyard in Israel

My last stop is Tel Aviv – Israel’s   commercial, cultural and financial centre that is buzzing with life. This is where the beach welcomes you and the water of the Mediterranean Sea is simply breath taking. In complete contrast to the rest of the country, this is where you have tree lined walking paths, buzzing restaurants and a vibrant night life where the party never ends. And no it is not just all glitz and glamour, as you walk around you will see that this place also has some lovely Unesco-listed Bauhaus buildings, the calm Neve Tzedek quarter and Jaffa that has an interesting Arab heritage. The atmosphere here is pumped up and the fun vibe is impossible to miss. As it was my last day here, I decided to head to the beach next to my hotel that was abuzz with all kinds of activities – people swimming, playing with a Frisbee and children having a great time. And to my pleasant surprise I was treated to a sunset like no other. The sky morphed into myriad shades of orange and red and yellow and as I stood transfixed, I saw a man in a wheelchair enjoying life’s little moments as it is meant to be. Truly, Israel was a revelation in more ways than one and I have come away with memories that will always make me smile!

Fact File

How to reach: Turkish Airways flies from Mumbai to Istanbul with an onward connection to Tel Aviv.

Where to stay: Israel has a number of options and Dan Boutique Hotel, Jerusalem, Ein Gedi Hotel, King Solomom Hotel, Eilat, Carlton Hotel, Tel Aviv  are good luxury options.

Travel Tips:

  • Israel’s currency is the Shekel that is not traded in India. However you can carry US Dollars and get it changed in Israel. Just make sure you spend all the currency while you are there.
  • The summer is quite severe so adequate sun protection is a must. Carry a hat with you at all times.
  • Try the local food and desserts while you are here especially the Israeli salads that are a great vegan option too. Vegetarians have several options as well.

This story appeared in the Feb 2018 issue of Smartlife Magazine here: SL_0218_84-91_Travel-Israel

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