Azores

Itinerary: Sao Miguel, Flores, Faial, Pico & back to Sao Miguel

From Boston to Sao Miguel…..

We departed Boston on Sata Airlines daily evening flight to Ponta Delgada on the Island of Sao Miguel on September 20, arriving at 6:30 a.m., just before dawn on the 21st. The flight was uneventful, which made us happy after having read less than stellar reviews of Sata. We booked a 2 bedroom house in Nordeste on AirBnB, and also arranged a car through the host of the property.  While it worked out fine in the end, communication with the host and directions to the house were seriously lacking. All we knew was the house was in Nordeste and to look for blue signs marked “Casas do Frade.” Easy enough to get to Nordeste, as the highways are great and there are many signs pointing you to Nordeste. What the host failed to mention is that there is a Nordeste Region and a Nordeste village. We started looking for the signs when we reached the village, when we should have started looking several kilometers earlier. Turns out the house was actually located in Lomba da Cruz, which is so tiny it’s not on the map but trust me, it’s not in Nordeste village. After stopping numerous pedestrians, most of whom spoke little to no English, we figured out where to go. A lady who spoke exactly no English saw us wandering around and after much wild gesticulating on both our parts, we realized she was the local caretaker of sorts for the property and she realized we were trying to check in. She called Antonio, the owner, who explained that we couldn’t check in until 2:00 (notwithstanding that I had emailed several times to confirm that we were arriving early in the morning.) Long story short, the lady let us in, Antonio arrived at 2:00 bearing some nice groceries for us, and spent about an hour with us and a map, explaining all the sights we shouldn’t miss. Since our bodies were still on U.S. time, much of his explaining didn’t sink in but we appreciated the effort. On the plus side, the house was a lovely 2 bedroom stone with its own driveway and a big yard, set high on a hill with a magnificent view of the Atlantic.

p1010528
Sunrise view from AirBnB in Nordeste
p1010531
AirBnB rental in Nordeste

Nordeste is just beautiful. It’s somewhat removed from the more happening parts of Sao Miguel and lacking in notable restaurants and shopping. But the area more than makes up for what it lacks with really breathtaking landscapes. Driving around you feel like you’ve discovered the real Jurassic Park.  Overall the roads are excellent and it’s easy to get around.

That first day we were exhausted, so we settled on visiting Farol do Arnel, the Nordeste lighthouse. If you decide to do the same, I recommend walking down from the main road, as it is an incredibly steep and terrifying little road, and I’m not sure your average 4 cylinder rental could climb back up. The walk back up was no picnic but we were getting our hiking muscles warmed up so we didn’t mind.

On day 2, September 22, we decided to drive to Furnas and check out the thermal baths. We drove south from Nordeste along Highway 1-1A, which sometimes felt like we were in the Amazon with all the lush vegetation and almost no other cars. We walked around the big lake at Furnas, which was nothing special. But then we went to Poca Da Dona Beija, probably the most manicured of the hot springs on Sao Miguel. There were 4 or 5 baths and we enjoyed trying each one. The water was comfortably warm, and again, we thought of the Amazon with all the beautiful wild landscape all around us.  Afterwards we grabbed cold showers and changed back into our clothes.

img_20160922_064956163
Baths at Poca Da Dona Beija

We also visited Parque Terra Nostra, which has famous gardens and a gigantic thermal bath that sits in front of an old mansion. The Terra Nostra Garden Hotel is there too. Looked nice, but we preferred to stay someplace with a view of the ocean.

That evening (and the next) we dined at O Cardoso restaurant in Nordeste, which was recommended by our AirBnB host. This is a family-owned establishment that clearly has a very regular and devoted clientele, judging from the people we saw just hanging about on the porch, drinking beer, playing cards and looking very much at home. The restaurant serves typical Azorean fare, grilled or fried fish, green salad, boiled potatoes. The owner knows his wines and we enjoyed a nice Alvarinho that he recommended.

On day 3, the weather was not looking great, so we decided to look for the famed Azorean bullfinch, known locally as the Priolo. The Priolo is said to be found only in the Azores, and  even then, only in Nordeste. We drove to the Centro Ambiental Do Priolo, a nature center that is devoted to, you guessed it, saving the Priolo. We were the only visitors, and the guide was more than happy to give us a tour of the little center (it’s tiny. You need about 8 minutes) and tell us where we were most likely to spot the elusive bird. “Just drive to Tronqueira until you reach Pico Bartolomeu,” she said. “It’s a dirt road but you won’t have any problem.” What she views as no problem is clearly not what I view as no problem. In short order, we found ourselves driving up a steep and winding road, and I use the term “road” loosely here, as it was dirt, potholed and unmarked. There were no signs, and no other people or cars in sight. We drove and drove, the expletives were flying, and I wondered aloud (my husband says “panicky” would be an apt description of my state of mind) what would happen if someone was driving toward us, as there were no turnaround options, and one side of the road dropped off steeply into Jurassic Park. I envisioned earthquakes, landslides, they would never find our mangled bodies. (OK maybe I was a tad panicky.) After about a half hour of this, out of nowhere emerged a little parking area with a sign that said “Pico Bartholomeu.” We got out of the car, looked through the binoculars, listened for the Priolo’s distinctive chirp. Nothing. But I must tell you, it was gorgeous, and had I known that we were in fact on the correct road, I would have enjoyed it more.

img_20160923_104035815
Map marking Priolo sightings in Nordeste
img_20160923_112910566_hdr
Seeking the elusive Priolo…Pico Bartolomeu

Fun fact: The Tronqueira is a challenging part of the European Rallye. Google and decide for yourself if you want to try it. Check out this video I found. About 7 minutes in I think you’ll understand why I lost my composure a bit!

Driving down was much easier than driving up. From there we drove to Faial da Terra, and did a nice little 1.8 km hike to Salto Do Prego to see a waterfall, and had nice little lunch at a local place called O Miroma that served cozido, a distinctly Azorean dish of meats and vegetables cooked for hours underground using the heat from the earth itself. On the drive back to Nordeste, we stopped at one of the many Miradouro (lookout points) and thrilled in the fabulous views. We literally stood at the top of a rainbow. This particular Miradouro was called Miradouro da Ponta Do Sossego. Pretty darn gorgeous.

img_20160923_163149838
Miradouro da Ponto Do Sossego

Day 4, September 24, we were treated again to a magnificent sunrise from our little house. In the morning we drove to Lagoa Fogo just to see it, as we planned to hike down to the Lagoa later in the trip. Wow, beautiful. Then we drove to Praia Moinhos in search of Formosa Beach, recommended to us by locals. It was a nice drive down, where we found a great little restaurant right on the beach, and enjoyed cheeseburgers and fish soup while watching the waves. That afternoon we drove to the town of Maia on the north coast, where we had arranged a hike with Rimi and João, proprietors of Minuvida, a newly established “travel experience” business that features an orchard lodge and guided hikes and much more to come. We hiked for about 2 hours, after which Rimi and João treated us to a local wine tasting, along with cheeses, meats, jams and chocolate. Wonderful way to spend an afternoon.

By this point we had seen about half of the sights we had planned on for Sao Miguel, even though that was really just a small fraction of the many places to check out on the largest and most populated of the Azores. The next day we were off to Flores but we would return to Sao Miguel on the flipside.

From Sao Miguel to Flores…..

September 25, the 5th day of our vacation, was spent on a quick visit to Ponta Delgada, the capital city, which we really hadn’t seen yet. More on Ponta Delgada at the end of the trip. We returned the car and jumped on our flight to Flores, where we would spend the next 2 days.

The flight to Flores took about an hour and a half, on a Sata propeller plane. The flight was easy and on time. The airport at Santa Cruz in Flores is, as you might guess, tiny. As we were coming in for a landing, I wondered where was the runway? The plane touched down at the very beginning of the runway, which is to say just feet from the island’s edge, and stopped at the very end of the runway, which is to say just feet from another edge. We rented a beat-up car with 86,000 miles on it that had very little power, which made driving some of the steep hills of Flores quite a challenge. We spent a lot of time in first gear. Weather was extremely foggy, like driving in the clouds, which felt hair-raising since you couldn’t see 3 feet in front of you on steep unfamiliar roads. But we had no trouble finding our accommodations on the other side of the island. We booked a little stone house at Aldeia da Cuada, which is part of an old abandoned village that has been reincarnated as tourist lodging. To say the place is rustic would be an understatement. While it is visually stunning, our unit, dubbed “La Quinta” was like sleeping in a barn. Low ceilings, dampness, flies. The bed was very tiny for the two of us (husband is over 6 feet tall). There aren’t a lot of options for accommodations in Flores, but I would not stay here again, since I value sleep. But other reviews on Trip Advisor are positive, so to each his own, I suppose.

p1010572
Aldeia da Cuada with the clouds rolling in

The first night on Flores, we dined at Papadiamandis. Husband had octopus, which was a first, and I had some kind of fish that was very good. We also tried limpets (locally called lapas), sort of a cross between clams and mussels, served with butter and garlic in the shell. We dined with another couple that we met there, people who were decidedly….well, you decide. The husband thinks women have destroyed education and the wife is a horse masseuse who’s angry about the way Americans treat the native population. We declined an invitation to join them for dinner the next night.

img_20160925_194921868
Dining on Octopus at Papadiamandis on island of Flores

Day 6: We arranged a 3 hour hike with West Canyon Tours. Marco picked us up at 9:30 a.m. and we enjoyed magnificent views as we hiked around Lajedo and Faja Grande. Hiking level was about medium. Marco was a terrific guide, and after the hike he took us to a little lunchstand run by his buddy down near the water (isn’t everything there by the water?), and we scarfed down some kind of meat sandwich and a beer. We didn’t care what it was, since we were starving from the hike. After Marco dropped us back at Aldeia da Cuada, we took a very short drive to Ribeira do Ferreiro, a wild and beautiful place that is well worth the hike of about 600 meters from the road. Loved it.

img_20160926_112226386
Hiking around Lajedo and Faja Grande on island of Flores
img_20160926_162652587
Ribeira do Ferreiro

That evening we enjoyed a lovely dinner on the patio at Aldeia da Cuada (pumpkin soup, fish, the usual boiled potatoes and green salad, nice bottle of red Douro wine and panna cotta for dessert.)

Day 7, September 27: We had breakfast at Aldeia da Cuada and drove around the island looking for famous lakes before our afternoon flight to Faial. If you are considering a visit to Flores, just realize that you will be far out in the Atlantic and it can be foggy. One moment it will be sunny and dazzling, and literally one minute later you are standing in a cloud that you can see wafting toward you. This made driving a challenge and also made seeing anything at all hit-or-miss. So our visit to the lakes was more or less a bust since visibility was nil. Even though we didn’t see much of Flores, we really enjoyed the experience of being on a remote island in the Atlantic amidst some of the most stunning landscapes we have ever seen. That afternoon it was back on a plane, this time bound for Faial.

From Flores to Faial…..

We arrived at Horta after a short flight (again on a Sata prop plane) and rented a car. We felt like we were returning to civilization! We had no trouble driving from the airport to the apartment we had reserved called Apartamentos Kosmos, located on the main street, about midway between the marina on one side and the ferry terminal on the other side. Great location and plentiful free parking. The apartment was beautiful and so comfortable, with a king size bed, a nicely equipped kitchen and a little private balcony where we could enjoy a glass of wine (and hubby his cigar.) The only downside was no laundry, but we were directed to a laundry service a few blocks away that washed all our grungy clothes (priced by the pound) for a very reasonable 8 euros.

That first day in Horta, we wandered around the marina, enjoying the glorious weather (No fog! Brilliant sunshine!) and lots of street art. We checked out Peter Sport Café and the Scrimshaw museum above the café. I thought that would be boring but it was actually really interesting to see some of the beautiful work produced by mariners on their long voyages. Definitely worth the 3 euros to get in. That evening we dined at Medalhas in Horta. This restaurant was recommended by the tourist office and has good reviews on trip advisor, but we were disappointed in the quality. We had ribs and chicken, plus the ubiquitous boiled potatoes and side salad. It was truly average.

Day 8, September 28: After a great night’s sleep at Apartamentos Kosmos, we headed to the marina to meet the guides at Azores Experiences for a pre-arranged whale watching trip. (We are told that Azores Experiences is being merged with Horta Cetaceos but Portugal being Portugal, much red tape has delayed the finalization. We booked by emailing azoresexperiences@gmail.com. Very professional and responsive.) Perfect weather for heading out on the zodiac, a/k/a RIB (rigid inflatable boat) with 8 other people across the waters, looking for whales. Unfortunately, we arrived at the very end of the whale season, and no whales were to be found, although we did see up close a huge pod of common dolphins (“common” because they are found worldwide, but actually uncommon to spot). We were out on the water for about 2 hours, and even though we were short on whales, we still thoroughly enjoyed the trip, especially the magnificent view of Mt. Pico a few kilometers away.

img_20160928_101423833
View of Mt. Pico from the Zodiac

After the morning fun, we grabbed a quick lunch at the Iceberg Café near our apartment. Do not go there unless you are a fan of wonder bread. Worst meal of the trip.

That afternoon we drove to the Capelinhos Volcano Interpretation Center where, again, I had somewhat low expectaions but it was actually fascinating to learn about the formation of these islands and the volcanic explosion in the late 1950’s that increased the size of Faial island and sent thousands of Azoreans to the Americas. Then we headed over to Castelo Branco, which has a nice little hike and stunning ocean views. Husband enjoyed the bird watching from here, especially the shearwaters. It’s just a gorgeous spot to stop and enjoy being alive.

We dined that evening at Taberna Pim on an outside patio. This is a lovely spot for a drink at sunset. Dinner was respectable, with calamari, olives, rare tuna, green salad and a carafe of red wine. Service was slow, but having an unhurried dinner is a pleasure when you are in a setting as nice as this. (We did, however, give our extra bread to the table next to us because they waited a looonnnnggg time and seemed hungry!)

Day 9: We wanted to take the ferry to Sao Jorge because that island is said to have the most beautiful hiking trails. After what we had seen on Sao Miguel, Flores and Faial, that is a tall order. Unfortunately for us, the ferry schedule from Faial to Sao Jorge was unfavorable as they had switched to off-season times a few days before our arrival. So we contented ourselves with a day on Pico. The morning was rainy, so we opted to visit Gruto das Torres, lava tubes that remained after eruptions eons ago. The tours can only accommodate 15 people at a time, so it’s a good idea to reserve in advance. We arrived before they opened and were first in line, so we succeeded in getting in the first tour of the day.  Loved it! We donned hard hats and were given small flashlights to help guide our steps as we descended into the tubes. The tour took about 45 minutes, and by the time we emerged, the sun was out.

img_20160929_114155439_hdr
Emerging from the lava tube at Gruto das Torres

We drove to Ponta da Ilha restaurant, which is on the eastern tip of Pico island. The drive allowed us to see a lot of the island; the restaurant was well marked but requires driving down some winding local roads that are a bit tricky. But it was worth the effort. This is a nice little local place with a buffet of typical Azorean foods (fish, chicken, beef, green salad, boiled potatoes). Great service and relaxed atmosphere. As we drove back to the port of Madalena, we stopped at various lookouts and swimming holes formed out of lava. Finally, before returning the car, we stopped at Cooperativa Vitivinicola da Ilha do Pico, which promotes regional wines. They give tours and wine tastings, and of course they sell wine. Highly recommend if you are into wines.

img_20160929_171026966_hdr
Cooperativa Vitivincola da Ilha do Pico, in Madalena
img_20160929_175501033
On the ferry leaving Pico Island

We returned the car and took the ferry back to Horta, and decided we really need to revisit Pico some day. A few hours was not nearly enough. We thought about climbing the mountain but after seeing it, decided we probably were not in the right physical shape. Next time!

Back in Horta, we were craving some American style food, so we got a pizza to go from Pizzaria California a few blocks from our apartment. That was a win! What can I say, sometimes you need a taste of home.

Day 10, September 30, we were ready to visit the Caldeira, rated at the top of must-do things on Faial. We donned our hiking gear and drove up, past the beautiful Pont da Espalamaca, through the little picturesque town of Flamengos, winding up and up and up until we reached the rim of the Caldeira. There are a bunch of hikes up there, well-marked with distances. We opted for the 8 km hike around the rim. Wow, talk about scenery! The Caldeira reminded me of Crater Lake in Oregon, only this one is full of lush vegetation instead of deep blue water. On one side of the path, you have a steep drop down into the green mouth of the thing; on the other side you have verdant pastures full of cows munching contentedly on the landscape, which gently rolls away from you down to the crystal blue ocean. I’ve never seen anything like it. The hike itself is billed as easy by the folks at www.trails.visitazores.com but I would rate it as medium. Definitely needed our sticks and good hiking shoes.

img_20160930_104819456
Trail signs at Caldeira on Faial
p1010598
Hiking around the Caldeira, loving awesome ocean views. Doesn’t get much better than this….

After the hike and a shower, we headed to Genuino, a locally famous restaurant in Horta, renowned for its namesake owner, who has circumnavigated the globe in his sailboat. Alone. Twice. Lunch for me consisted of a plate of the most delicious prawns ever. We returned again that evening for dinner. The restaurant is quite elegant, with great service and fine food. While my evening meal (veal) was good, my dining partner raved about the giant hunk of rare tuna he was served. We dined with a German couple seated next to us and had fun talking politics, both U.S. and German. Sensitive subjects all around but we enjoyed it.

img_20160930_142001635
Prawns for lunch at Genuino in Horta

Day 11, October 1, our last day in Horta. We checked out of Apartamentos Kosmos and decided to have a leisurely day exploring the island before our late flight back to Sao Miguel. We started with a great hike that began at Porto Pim beach and winded up some steep steps near the Dabney home, ending up on a beautiful outcropping overlooking the ocean on one side and Porto Pim bay on the other. This was another hike rated “easy” but as you can see from the picture, there were a whole lot of steps.

img_20161001_111957501_hdr
Hiking above Porto Pim Bay on Faial

We followed up the hike with a great lunch at a little joint next to the beach called Café Porto Pim. Looks like a dive but oh my, what a great lunch! I had some kind of chicken baked in puff pastry with green salad and…rice! No boiled potatoes! We sat outside on their little patio in orange plastic chairs, admiring the street art and the shimmering bay. Seek this place out. After lunch, we drove to the Faial Botanical Garden, where we were treated to a personal tour. Once again, lots of interesting info about the fabulous flora all over these islands. Very low key and enjoyable. We rounded out the day by driving to an oceanside pool that lies just under the airport runway near Horta. Undoubtedly the strangest pool location we’ve seen yet, but despite the chilly temperature, plenty of locals were enjoying a dip. At 7:00 we jumped back on a plane for our return to Sao Miguel.

And Back to Sao Miguel….

Now back in Sao Miguel, where we rented the second floor of a house in Capelas that we found on VRBO. Although it was dark by the time we arrived, Antonio had provided perfect directions. When we arrived at the not-so-impressive looking façade, I was a little worried about what we would find, but I judged too soon. Antonio greeted us, pressed a button and the gates opened into a little private paradise dubbed Vila Alegre. Antonio provided plentiful groceries and wine for our arrival, which was much appreciated. Even more appreciated was the immaculately maintained and decorated apartment, with 2 bedrooms, a sunroom, a fully equipped kitchen and living room, and French doors leading from one bedroom onto a patio overlooking magnificent gardens. Oh and beyond that, the ocean. Hello Vila Alegre!

p1010601
View from Vila Alegre bedroom

Day 12 October 2: We had checked out Lagoa Fogo the prior week, but today was the hike down from the top. It was a foggy day so visibility wasn’t great, but it was now or never. The hike down to the lake is steep but not really difficult. When we reached the bottom, the fog was even thicker. The scene reminded me of Loch Ness, looking eerie and as if a sea creature was about to emerge from the dark water. The hike back to the top, surprise, was more of a challenge, but we were up to it. The whole venture took about an hour.

To sooth our sore hiking muscles after Fogo, we drove down the hill to Caldeira Velha, where we found incredible hot springs in the middle of more crazy Amazon-looking landscape. (I must note that at this point, Hubby asked if I wasn’t going to take a picture. I just couldn’t. It was so beautiful, I thought I’d rather just enjoy the moment. Now I kind of wish I had taken at least one, but alas, I did not.) We donned our bathing suits and hopped in. Even the waterfalls were a soothing warm temperature.

Afterwards, we showered and changed (facilities provided but water is cold!), and drove to Bar Caloura in Lagoa and enjoyed my favorite meal of the trip. At mid-afternoon, the place was packed with both tourists and locals but seemed predominantly locals. We enjoyed fantastic grouper and some other fish that we had never heard of, plus a buffet consisting of the usual green salad and boiled potatoes, but they also had black-eyed peas that were just delicious. Service was excellent, prices were reasonable, and the setting was wonderful, on a patio overlooking the ocean. One of the cool things about Bar Caloura is it is right next to a swimming area that consists of a large swimming pool like you would see anywhere else, but it’s built practically on the ocean, allowing the waves to crash over the swimmers. You can stand on the edge of the swimming pool and dive into the pool, or turn around and dive into the ocean instead. People were swimming down there, then coming up to the restaurant for lunch.

img_20161002_155227640_hdr
Pool next to Bar Caloura

October 3, our last full day in the Azores, it was time to visit Sete Cidades, consistently ranked #1 or thereabouts on Trip Advisor under Things To Do. The drive there from Capelas was pretty and the roads were good. We arrived to find a charming little town and of course the two lakes of blue and green. Was it nice? Yes. Would I rank it #1? Not at all. After two weeks seeing so many lovely, interesting, dramatic, cool things in the Azores, Sete Cidades is nice but for us did not rise to the level of “WOW!” like so many other places. We did not check out the hiking there, so perhaps the trails above the lakes would provide a better, more dramatic perspective.

The last thing we wanted to see and maybe experience was the Ferrarias, natural thermal pools located on the far western tip of Sao Miguel. Of course there are plenty of thermal pools around the island. What distinguishes the Ferrarias is that these thermal pools are in the ocean, so you have warm water bubbling up even though you have cold ocean water washing in. We really wanted to try this but made the mistake of going at high tide (unintentionally). The waves were so high it was too dangerous to venture in, even with the ropes strung across the pool to hang onto. This is definitely on our list for our next trip. Beware that the road to the Ferrarias from the main highway is very, very steep and winding. Just hold your breath and do it!

A little aside, on our way to the Ferrarias from Mosteiros  (more natural pools worth visiting but again, we arrived at high tide, the worst possible time to attempt a swim but it’s gorgeous), the road was great until we hit a detour sign indicating road work. “Desvio” they called it. This Desvio took us literally on a dirt road carved out of the jungle. There were no signs, no workers, no people, nothing once you got on this Desvio. Our rental car really took a beating over several miles but we emerged unscathed. So if you find yourself driving contentedly along a lovely paved highway and road work sends you on a Desvio, hold onto your hat and know that it ends, eventually.

Our last night in the Azores, we drove from Capelas to Ribeira Grande on the northern shore of Sao Miguel. Even though Ribeira Grande is one of the larger cities in the Azores, we had not yet seen it. The drive there was an adventure. Although the highway was perfectly fine, it took us through a little town that was preparing for some kind of festival, and people were milling around the streets, which had piles of flowers up and down the center, and some people had buckets of brightly colored material (Pellets? Flower petals? Confetti?) that they were pouring in thick lines down the center as well. We could see people setting up various booths on the sidewalks too. Fortunately we made it through the town before they shut down the streets.

Once in Ribeira Grande, we headed to Alabote, one of the better known restaurants. It’s right across the street from the ocean, and again there was a big swimming pool with ocean waves crashing over it.

img_20161003_182631669
Pool across the street from Alabote restaurant in Ribeira Grande

We dined on the patio and watched a magnificent sunset, regretting that there was so much we hadn’t yet seen and done, and said we’d just have to return. Food at Alabote was good, not great, but the setting is what made it special.

Finally, on October 4, it was time to pack up and head to Ponta Delgada for a few hours before our afternoon flight home. Even though Ponta Delgada is the capital city, we really hadn’t had a chance to do any exploring there. We spent the morning visiting the Museu Carlos Machado, which includes a long term exhibit devoted to the Azorean sculptor (Carlos Machado!) located at the Santa Barbara Center that is lovely and FREE, as well as a church and a natural history museum one block over that has some of the most bizarre stuff (taxidermied two-headed calf, anyone?) and very cool specimens, flora and fauna, from nature both in the Azores and beyond.

img_20161004_113417439_hdr
Shark specimen at Museu Carlos Machado

We wrapped up our morning with lunch at O Tasca, a great little restaurant a few blocks from the Ponta Delgada gates. The food was terrific, as was service and ambience. We wished we had time to linger over a bottle of wine, but alas, we could not tarry.

img_20161004_122801607
Menu from O Tasca in Ponta Delgada

We headed to the airport, returned the car, and prepared for the flight home. All told, a wonderful trip. And like so many of our trips, we left vowing to return. We never got to Sao Jorge and we missed the whales! Great reasons to go back….

 

Israel!

Itinerary: Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, Dead Sea, Negev, Haifa, Galilee 

Starting with a few days in Tel Aviv….

Israel has long been at the top of our bucket list and I was determined to fly Business Class, given the distance and travel time. But who can afford that? So about 3 years ago I began a quest to horde points to pay for that little extravagance, times two.  This isn’t a points blog so I won’t get into how we did it, but I do pat myself on the back that all our flights for this trip were booked using points! Whoo hoo! The downside is we had to be content with less than ideal routing and flight times. We began by leaving from Pittsburgh on September 29, flying Delta to JFK, where we had a 4 hour layover before our American Airlines flight would take us to Tel Aviv via stops in Barcelona and, then on Iberian, to Madrid, and finally arriving in Tel Aviv at 10:00 p.m. on September 30. Whew, that was exhausting but in Business Class it was not too terrible. I had never been to the Middle East before, so I enjoyed watching the animation on the plane indicating our approaching landing.

IMG_20180930_201402
TV animation of our approach to Tel Aviv
IMG_20180930_154409
The long flights were made a little easier in Business Class, booked with points!

After retrieving our bags at the airport, we grabbed a taxi and headed to Yam Hotel, in the North Port Area of Tel Aviv. I was wary of taxis, having read that travelers should always use the meter and never accept a flat quoted rate. Our driver did quote us a flat rate, and, having no idea of its accuracy, we insisted on the meter. When we arrived at Yam, the driver’s credit card device wouldn’t accept our credit card (or so he said), and the meter showed about 40 shekels more than the quoted offer. So my traveling partner (husband) wandered around looking for an ATM, unsuccessfully (we were so tired at the airport, we had totally forgotten to get some cash!) The driver agreed to accept U.S. dollars, at an inflated exchange rate. So the trip was not off to the best start.

I looked up at the hotel and worried that it and the neighborhood, from the outside, at night, in my exhausted condition, appeared less than desirable. But luckily, my fears were unfounded, and we loved the Yam Hotel so much we can hardly wait to go back! The rooms were admittedly small, but so well designed that there was a place for everything. The bed was very comfortable, the bathroom had nice quality amenities and a great shower, and we even had a balcony with a view of the Mediterranean.

IMG_20181002_135947
View from our room at the Yam Hotel

Where the Yam really excelled was in service and food! The staff was young and enthusiastic. There is baklava at the front desk pretty much all the time. The morning breakfast spread was nothing short of phenomenal, with all kinds of salads, breads, eggs, shakshuka, fruits, you name it! Plus cappuccino.

IMG_20181003_063618
Yummy Breakfast at the Yam Hotel
IMG_20181002_081049
Part of Breakfast Buffet at Yam Hotel

The Yam also had a daily happy hour with plenty of beverages of all kinds and heavy hors d’oeuvres. The Yam offers free bikes with baskets and locks. The Yam gives guests a beach bag and beach towel. The Yam has its own scent, which greets you like a welcome kiss when you enter the lobby from the beach. Did I mention how much I love the Yam Hotel?? And another thing about the Yam Hotel, it seems to cater to single travelers and couples. I would not say it is kid-friendly because the rooms just are not very big. That for us was a bonus. Hey, I like kids. I’ve got 4 of them. But on vacation, sometimes it’s a bonus not to see any in your hotel!!

So our first real day in Tel Aviv was Monday, October 1, which also happened to be the last day of Sukkot, a national holiday in Israel. It was fun to see sukkahs everywhere, including on the beach. In the U.S., you just don’t see them too much apart from whatever your synagogue might erect for the holiday (of course there are plenty of people who put them up in their yards, but it’s pretty unusual where I live.) Because of Sukkot, many shops and restaurants were closed, so we contented ourselves by taking the bikes out and rode them along the promenade all the way down to Old Jaffa. It was a beautiful day and a great way to see the beaches of Tel Aviv and stretch our legs after the long trip in.

After the bike ride, we hit Metzitzim Beach, which is the closest one to Yam Hotel, for lunch and some fun in the sun. I had a delicious roasted eggplant and humus at the seaside restaurant (not sure of the name but it’s prominent on the beach). Service was painfully slow, but sometimes it just seems that way to us Americans, who are accustomed to rushing through everything. We reminded ourselves we were on vacation, and just go with it!

 

IMG_20181001_142441
Lunch with Sukkah in background at Metzitzim Beach

Besides being sunny and comfy on the Mediterranean, Metzitzim has plenty of beach chairs available. You just go to the automated kiosk, put in a few shekels, and give the receipt to one of the beach workers, who sets up the chair for you. For the two of us, it was around 12 shekels, which seemed crazily cheap to us. That was a really user friendly experience and one I highly recommend.

After beach time and a nap, we headed to meet friends for dinner at Shtsupak, a short walk from the Yam. This was a fun little seafood restaurant, very casual, with great food and a relaxed atmosphere. They brought something like 9 different “salads” (including humus, of course, and ikra, a fish roe spread that we had all over Israel) to start us off, gratis. Well, it’s gratis if you order an entrée. I often order appetizers as my entrée, so if you do that, you’ll be hit with an extra charge for the salads, but it was worth every penny.

On Tuesday, Sukkot was over, so we headed back to Old Jaffa and worked our way back north through Neve Tzedek and Carmel Market. We stopped at Yemenite Art by Ben-Zion David and I bought a pretty Roman glass pendant that I completely love and only wish I had also bought some earrings too!

yemeni necklace
Yemenite necklace from Ben-Zion David in Old Jaffa

Word of advice: If you buy something expensive in Israel, you may have to pay a 17% VAT (value-added tax) at purchase, but if you’re not an Israeli citizen, you can get a refund of the tax at the airport on your departure. This happened to us with the necklace. At the airport, we had to produce the receipt for the necklace (I had it with me) and the necklace itself (which I was wearing), but then they asked to see the actual box it came in, which I had in my checked suitcase. They reluctantly refunded the tax without seeing the box, but in the future I would definitely be sure to have everything with me if I was looking for a refund.

Another word of advice: At the airport, you’ll receive a blue card like this:

blue card
Border Control Card..keep it with your passport!

My advice is to keep it in your passport. We were asked for this card at every hotel we visited and many places where we shopped, and were told it was needed to avoid the aforementioned 17% VAT.

Back to the fun…In Neve Tzedek we stopped for some tasty gelato at Anita, much enjoyed on a very warm day.

IMG_20181002_121637
Tasty Gelato at Cafe Anita in Tel Aviv

Soon we found ourselves in the Carmel Market, one of those “must-see” places if you are in Tel Aviv. We had a lot of fun wandering around tasting things! Plus it’s a bonanza of photographic opportunities if you’re into Instagram-worthy moments.

IMG_20181002_130043
Vibrant pomegranates
IMG_20181002_125954
Turkish taffy
IMG_20181002_130035
Colorful figs

In the afternoon, we returned to the beach for a little R&R, a little book reading, a little nap. I could not complain and felt like I was getting the hang of “slow down, you’re on vacation!”

That evening, we dined at Shila, a restaurant not far from our hotel that had been recommended to us by an Israeli friend. Shila is on the upscale side, in the moderate to expensive range. We dined on various kinds of fish, had great service, and felt we were mainly in the midst of locals, not tourists, and I definitely recommend it for a nice dinner out in Tel Aviv.

On to Jerusalem……

Wednesday, alas, we had to check out of the Yam as we were heading to Jerusalem for the next four days. Yam arranged a private driver for 4 of us and we left Tel Aviv around 7:30 a.m. The drive took close to an hour with much traffic and we were glad not to be driving ourselves. We paid around 500 shekels (approximately $130) for a large comfy air-conditioned van with a driver, which for 4 people seemed pretty reasonable.

We arrived in Jerusalem too early to check in at the YMCA Three Arches, which we chose largely on the recommendation of Douglas Duckett of TripAdvisor Israel Forum fame. More on the hotel later, but I have to thank Douglas for the excellent advice! Since we were early, we left our bags at YMCA, and met up with our tour guide, Avi Ben-Hur, whom we met through a connection with Classrooms Without Borders. We spent the day with Avi visiting the Jewish Quarter, the Armenian Quarter, the Davidson Center, City of David, Church of the Holy Sepulchre, and, of course, the Western Wall (Kotel). These were all so interesting to explore, and made the more so due to our guide’s extensive knowledge and sociable personality.

IMG_20181003_164715
Inside Church of the Holy Sepulchre
IMG_20181003_135327
Outside City of David

After the day’s tour, we returned to the YMCA Three Arches and officially checked in. This hotel is directly across the street from the much fancier and more famous King David Hotel, which was heavily guarded the day we arrived because Angela Merkel, Germany’s Chancellor, in town visiting Netanyahu, was a guest. Many machine guns were in evidence, something you don’t see very often in the U.S. The YMCA is a beautiful building and serves up a very respectable breakfast buffet.

 

IMG_20181004_070859
Breakfast on terrace at YMCA Three Arches
IMG_20181003_191849
Inside lobby at YMCA Three Arches

The rooms were decidedly 3 star quality and sorely in need of renovation, with old carpeting and a hair dryer dating circa 1972 that kept falling off the wall. But it was comfortable enough, quiet, reasonably priced, and the location of the hotel was ideal.

Word of advice: In Jerusalem, we were about a week into our trip and wanted to do some laundry. The YMCA offered a laundry service at the usual hotel-inflated prices, but we were pleased to discover a 24-hour laundry service just three blocks from the hotel. We dropped off a big plastic bag of clothes, and they promised it would be laundered, folded and ready in three hours. For our own convenience, we left it there overnight and were able to pick up everything, fresh and ready to go, before 8:00 a.m. Pricing was per pound, and we ended up paying around $10 U.S. for a large load of clothes.

For dinner we wandered around and decided on Nafoura Restaurant, not far from the Jaffa Gate. We thought it was just OK food, but the ambience was nice.

An added bonus of the YMCA Three Arches is the free parking lot behind the hotel. On Thursday, we rented a car from Hertz a block away, and met up again with Avi for a second day of touring. To get from Jerusalem to the day’s destination, Masada, we drove on Route 90, a wonderfully maintained highway with little traffic, that is the most direct route, running south along the Dead Sea and through the West Bank. Avi provided informative commentary of the history of the area, including showing us the spot where the Dead Sea Scrolls were found in Wadi Qumran, which is located in the West Bank. (We learned only later that some people would view our travel on this road as a political statement. Trust me, it was not.) Along the road we saw Bedouin camps, wild asses running through date palm groves, and even a herd of camels running by! Hence this sign:

IMG_20181007_145029
Sign you just don’t see in the U.S.!

On our way to Masada, we passed Ein Gedi, which had been recommended to us as a great place to visit, but our schedule did not allow it. Next time! Masada, an ancient fortress in the Judean desert that is famous for the mass suicide of Jews who took their own lives to avoid becoming slaves of the Romans, is reached by hiking up or by cable car. It was around 90 F degrees the day of our visit, so we opted for the cable car. It was the right move. Once at the top, we enjoyed a hike and history lesson with Avi. Masada is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and well-worth a visit. I was glad we had a tour guide, because all ruins can start to look the same (to me, anyway) without more information. The day was very hot, and thankfully we had wide-brimmed hats, lots of water, and hiking sticks.

IMG_20181004_093607
Cable wires leading up to fortress at Masada
IMG_20181004_101557
At Masada…Do we look like tourists??

After Masada, we drove back to Jerusalem and had a great relaxing lunch at the Modern Restaurant at the Israel Museum (but saved the Israel Museum itself for the next day), followed by an educational and moving visit to Yad Vashem, the World Holocaust Remembrance Center. Avi worked for several years at Yad Vashem and was a fountain of knowledge. Yad Vashem is an amazing and sorrowful place. The closest experience for us would be the 9/11 Memorial in New York, which obviously pales in comparison with the scale of death and destruction wrought by the Holocaust, but the feelings of sadness and difficulty in comprehending the level of hatred that lead to these tragedies were much the same.

That evening, we walked about 15 minutes from the YMCA to Café Yehoshua and enjoyed a relaxing dinner of burgers and other local fare. Seemed like we were the only tourists so we were happy!

On Friday, we still had the car so we headed back to the Israel Museum and joined a free docent-led tour focusing on archeology and Jewish Art & Life & Synagogue Route. The docent was an American Israeli who was knowledgeable and entertaining, making the tour a highlight of our trip. After the tour, we visited the Shrine of the Book, an exhibit housing the Dead Sea Scrolls that should not be missed. We saved the outdoor sculpture garden for Saturday, when much of the rest of Jerusalem would be closed for Shabbat.

After the Museum, we drove over to the Mahane Yehuda Market with the goal of finding some tasty shawarma. Parking was tricky with lots of traffic on the narrow crowded streets around the Market but we found a parking garage and were good to go. Thank you Google Maps! After wandering around the food stalls, we asked some young Israelis (with machine guns) where to find the elusive shawarma, and happily were directed to a no-nonsense, non-english speaking place that was just what our stomachs ordered.

IMG_20181005_143922
Scored some tasty Shawarma at Mahane Yehuda Market

After returning to the YMCA & showering, we dressed up a little and headed over to the Kotel for Shabbat. This was a great and fun experience, seeing so many Jews literally racing through the streets of the old city, all dressed up in their Shabbat-best, with Hasidim much in evidence. Some of the clothing is explained here. I went to the women’s section and chose a Siddur (Jewish prayer book) from the many shelves of books that are provided there, put my hand on the Wall and said a few prayers that I could read in Hebrew, while my husband did the same in the (much larger) men’s section.

IMG_20181005_182454
Kotel (Western Wall) on Shabbat

We skipped dinner (still feeling full from the tasty shawarma) and headed back to the YMCA, feeling happy about all the great things we experienced that day.

On Saturday, with so much of Jerusalem closed for Shabbat, we visited the Mount of Olives, where many important Christian sites can be found, as well as incredible vistas of Jerusalem.

IMG_20181006_094843
View from Jewish Cemetery on Mount of Olives

There were plenty of Christian pilgrims at all the sites we visited, including the amazing Church of Pater Noster, which displays the Lord’s Prayer on ceramic tile in 160 different languages. Some of the groups were singing joyously as they walked through the gardens. Although we’re not Christians, we enjoyed their voices, which really added to the sense of place.

IMG_20181006_101634
Outside Church of Pater Noster
IMG_20181006_100733
Lord’s Prayer in some of the languages at Church of Pater Noster

One of the most beautiful things we saw on the Mount of Olives was the Jewish Cemetery, well worth a visit because of the history and beauty found there. We also visited the Garden of Gethsamane and the nearby Church of All Nations, (said to be built over the rock where Jesus prayed the night before he was crucified) which was beautiful but absolutely packed with Christian pilgrims, making it difficult to appreciate, and left us feeling more frenzied than contemplative.

IMG_20181006_113217
Pilgrims inside the Church of All Nations

Before leaving the Mount of Olives, we happened upon a place with a handwritten sign dubbed the Tomb of the Prophets, in a worn-looking neighborhood. But we ventured in and were treated to a tour of underground tombs (who knows if the site is authentic but we enjoyed seeing it) by a guide who just sits there waiting for visitors. We were the only people there, we toured the site with candles for illumination, it took 10 minutes, we paid (voluntarily) a few shekels, and it was definitely an ancient site, regardless of the presence or absence of prophets. If you find yourselves on the Mount of Olives, I say go for it!

 In Jerusalem, not far from the Mount of Olives, we walked through the Lion’s Gate  and found nearby the Church of St. Anne, said to be the home of the Virgin Mary’s parents, a seemingly simple structure with remarkable acoustics. Indeed while we visited, a Christian group entered and sang, which was a nice treat. As with so many places in Jerusalem, ruins and subterranean pools surround the Church, making it fun to explore.

After the Mount of Olives, we drove back to the Israel Museum, which was mostly closed but the outdoor sculpture garden was open, and that is what we came for. It is extensive and spectacular! It was a hot, hot day, and we were glad we came prepared with plenty of water. If you’re an art lover, this place is a must-see.

 

Israel Museum Outdoor Sculpture Garden: Adam sculpture by Rodin, Bronze Trees by dissident artist Ai Weiwei, and “Love” Sculpture, by artist Robert Indiana, in Hebrew 

Fun fact about the “Love” sculpture: the letters stacked on the right, “aleph” and “bet”, together mean “Father”, and the letters stacked on the left, both of which are the letter “hey”, are used to spell the word “God”. Put them all together and you get…LOVE. And we just, well, love that!

For our last dinner in Jerusalem, we walked to Dolphin Yam (I’ve since learned that “Yam” means “Sea” in Hebrew) on the recommendation of a friend of a friend. Saturday still being Shabbat, many restaurants would not open until 8:00 p.m. (or later) but Yam, not being kosher, was open earlier. The streets were very quiet due to Shabbat, the evening was warm, and we passed some cool street art along the way.

IMG_20181006_201459
Street mural in Jerusalem…Hubby not included!

We were seated at a table outside and shared a few appetizers and a large seafood platter that looked better than it was. Too much fried food for my liking, but it was still fun to try the different offerings.

IMG_20181006_185354
Seafood platter at Dolphin Yam

We saw and experienced many things in Jerusalem but I was disappointed we could not find a time to visit Mount Scopus and see the Chagall Windows at Hadassah Medical Center. The hours they were open just did not jibe with our travel schedule. Guess we’ll just have to return!

The Dead Sea and on to Negev…..

On Sunday, we checked out of the YMCA and said Goodbye, for now, to Jerusalem. On the agenda for Sunday: Drive south to take a dip in the Dead Sea, then to Yatir Winery for a tour, ending up at the Isrotel Beresheet in Mitzpe Ramon. For the Dead Sea, we reserved a day pass at the Crowne Plaza hotel in Ein Bokek in advance so that we would have access to decent shower facilities and lunch when we were done dipping. There was one issue I was concerned about: the previous day, I tripped on one of the stone roads on the Mount of Olives and gashed my hand breaking my fall. Open wound + Dead Sea = pain, so I sought out a nurse at the hotel, who bandaged my hand to protect it. We changed into our bathing suits and headed out into the water, a soft pastel sea green, which was perfectly calm and warm. If you go to Israel, DO NOT MISS THIS! It was a bizarre kind of otherworldly experience to feel your legs flip out from under you as you get into deeper water. You CANNOT sink. No swimming skills needed. I held my bandaged hand above me and just floated around, totally relaxed.

IMG_20181007_105109
Floating in the Dead Sea…Look Ma, no hands!

There weren’t many people around, and the ones who we saw dipping seemed on the elderly side. Maybe they were there “taking the waters”? The Dead Sea is said to have medicinal qualities, whether due to the salt or the unusual barometric pressure (being the lowest body of water ON EARTH), I don’t know. Some people sat on the beach lathering themselves in Dead Sea mud. I bought some Dead Sea mud and Dead Sea bath salts in the hotel shop, and discovered later it was much cheaper than what you find at the airport duty free shops. So if you want Dead Sea bath products, get them at the source!

After our bathe, we showered in the less than great facilities at the hotel (be advised there are no amenities, like soap or shampoo, so bring your own, and the towels are tiny. We came to Israel with inexpensive beach towels and put them to good use). We were ready to leave before the lunch was available, and strangely, the hotel gave us a 100% refund of the approximately $30/person we had paid to use the facilities and reserve lunch.

From the Dead Sea, we continued south and east, driving on to Yatir Winery, which was recommended to us by friends and was conveniently located about half-way to Mitzpe Ramon. We had trouble arranging a visit to the winery, as the website didn’t have info, but after numerous emails back and forth, we had reserved a time and they were waiting for us. There were no other guests, just us, and the proprietor gave us a highly personalized tour, capped with a wine tasting. We bought 2 bottles of reds and looked forward to consuming them during our second week in Israel. We enjoyed the tour very much and can recommend it if you are driving in the area.

IMG_20181011_175535
A nice red from Yatir Winery in the Northern Negev

After the winery, we continued south until we reached the town of Mitzpe Ramon and the hotel I’d been dreaming about, the Isrotel Beresheet. This hotel was our big splurge on the trip, with the rooms going for around $600/night, way above our usual price point. It was beautiful and comfortable, situated on the rim of the Makhtesh Ramon, a huge crater formed by eons of erosion of limestone and sandstone. Our room had its own little pool, which looked nice but it was actually kind of cool in the desert, so we really didn’t use it. But the ibexes that wander around the property seemed to enjoy it, and hubby found a herd of them drinking out of it when he returned to the room one afternoon.

IMG_20181008_172529
Ibexes near our private pool at the Beresheet

Our first night, we dined on the terrace at the hotel restaurant. The food was just meh, but the ambience was nice, as we looked over the Makhtesh at dusk. Anticipating the starry desert skies, we had booked a place on an astronomy tour that first night, but the tour was cancelled due to cloudy skies. We hoped for better the following night.

Our first morning at Beresheet, we thoroughly enjoyed the breakfast buffet which was extensive (and included in the price…yay!!) Some of the hot food was less than hot, but the salads, cheeses and pastry were enough to sustain my enthusiasm for the hotel. Plus I ordered a cappuccino and they brought me this:

IMG_20181008_074913
Patronis Cappuccino?

I wondered how on earth the good folks at Beresheet created this amazing image in my morning beverage, but, as I should have known, an Israeli company invented a device known as the Ripple Maker, which creates 3-D images right out of the foam. I want one of those in my kitchen!

At 9:00 we met our tour guide from Adam Sela Jeep Tours. He picked us up at the hotel and we spent the next 4 hours motoring all over the Makhtesh, learning about its history and formation, geology and wildlife. We had a blast and the guide was a 26-year old who was knowledgeable and fun to be with. The fee was 1025 NIS (around $270 for 2 of us plus a private guide & jeep), which we thought was reasonable.

IMG_20181008_121941
Taking a break on our tour of the Makhtesh with Adam Sela Jeep Tours

Upon returning, we grabbed lunch at HaHavit in Mitzpe Ramon, enjoying burgers and a fun ambience. The place is decorated with posters from Coachella going all the way back to the 1970’s, which seemed odd since Coachella is a U.S. thing, specifically a Southern California thing, but they were still cool to see, having featured pretty much every major band you can think of from the past five decades.

After lunch, we spent the afternoon relaxing at the Beresheet by the very lovely infinity pool that borders the Makhtesh. Although hubby claimed not to be too keen on the hotel (too upscale for his pedestrian tastes), I did not hear him complaining.

IMG_20181008_151700
Not suffering near the infinity pool at the Beresheet Isrotel

For dinner we got pizza to go from HaHavit and enjoyed that by our little pool, along with one of the bottles of Syrah from Yatir. We were very happy to see the night sky was cooperating for our rescheduled astronomy tour with Astronomy Israel. Ira Machefsky, the man behind the company, picked up us at the hotel around 9:00 p.m., along with about 15 other people, and we caravaned behind him for about 10 minutes to an alpaca farm, where we found folding chairs and blankets and a bright starry sky waiting for us. For the next two hours, Ira entertained and educated us on the heavens above, pointing out and explaining various constellations, and providing three large telescopes for our viewing pleasure. We saw the rings of Saturn! Had a great time, and Ira ended the evening with a boombox blaring the styles of Don McLean singing “Vincent (Starry Starry Night)”.

Heading North to Haifa…..

We departed Mitzpe Ramon after breakfast on Tuesday and headed north. On the drive, we saw this strange light phenomenon and had to stop for a photo:

IMG_20181009_095540
Strange light phenomenon on the drive north through the Negev

The place was surrounded by barbed wire and the hourglass shaped light was revolving. Having no luck asking around and googling, I found my answer on Reddit (of course!) We had passed a solar power station at Ashalim, still in its testing phase. The light was created by lots of mirrors or solar panels or something like that reflecting the sun. When it is completed in 2019, it’s expected to be the 5th largest power station of its kind in the world.

On our way north we stopped first at the ancient Roman city of Caesarea on the Mediterranean, north of Tel Aviv. It was a beautiful day, but I gotta be honest, it was full of construction and I found it strange to see restaurants and cafes on top of the ruins bearing names like “Crusaders Café”. The Crusaders were basically the ISIS of their day, forcing conversions and viciously murdering any non-Christians they encountered. Maybe in 500 years we can look forward to “ISIS Café” in whatever places they’ve conquered. But I digress….There were lots of ruins to explore and helpful signs explaining the city’s layout and the excavation of the harbor. Definitely worth an hour or two.

IMG_20181009_130347
Near the ancient Hippodrome in Caesarea

From Caesarea, we continued north in search of Tishbi Winery and Restaurant in Zichron Yaakov, which was recommended to us by friends of friends. The lunch we had there was hands down the best meal of the trip! We dined outside under the arbors on a perfect afternoon, enjoying Tishbi’s own Riesling wine, a little seafood carpaccio, a vegetarian asparagus and some delicious sea bass. They sell chocolates and wines, and we loved it so much, I would definitely try to hit this place on any future trip to Israel.

IMG_20181009_142456
Dining at Tishbi Winery and Restaurant in Zichron Yaakov

After our very satisfying lunch at Tishbi, we continued on to Haifa. We booked a room at Bat Galim Boutique Hotel in the Bat Galim neighborhood on the strength of Trip Advisor ratings. I regret to report that both Haifa and the hotel fell short of our expectations. The hotel was more boutique hostel than boutique hotel. No overnight staff. Tiny room. Open your door and you are in the reception area. People talking in the reception area might as well be inside your room. The breakfast buffet was minimal. It was hard to avoid bumping into people in the tiny space and the tiny tables barely had seating room. The low price should have tipped me off, but the reviews, I think, did not accurately describe the place. Sure, it was clean, it was convenient, it was moderately comfortable. But very, very basic, and you may say I’m just a spoiled princess (what’s your point?), but I would not return to this hotel.

As for Haifa, it looks good at night, from above, when it’s dark and everything is twinkling in the harbor. During the day, it looked dirty, lots of trash on the ground, the prevailing architecture was crumbling Bauhaus meets utilitarian Soviet Republic. This is not to say there aren’t places worth visiting, and probably a longer visit would have given us a better impression, but as it was, we can’t say we loved it.

We did very much enjoy visiting the Baha’i Gardens and Shine, which provided a stunning visual counterpoint to so much of Haifa.

IMG_20181010_093219
Baha’i Gardens in Haifa

We also really enjoyed the Clandestine Immigration and Naval Museum, where we learned about Jews struggling to immigrate to Israel during the British Mandate prior to 1948. The Museum even has parts of the ships and submarines used in those days that you can walk through. It’s an important story that isn’t widely known outside of Israel.

We visited Elijah’s Cave, which to be honest was less than interesting for us. You walk up a bunch of stairs, enter the cave/room, which is divided into men’s and women’s sections, and has a lot of prayer books. What can I say. It paled in comparison with the Western Wall, but I do understand that for some people its sacredness is what makes it special. For me, well I’m happier with the cup we put out for Elijah at Pesach than I was with that cave.

We also enjoyed taking the cable car up from Bat Galim to the Carmelite Monastery on Mount Carmel. You get a great view of Haifa from up there. We walked down (which I protested the whole time) instead of taking the cable car down. I do not recommend walking, as it is several miles and there is a lot of traffic. At the base of the mount, we finally hailed a ride using the Gett App, which wasn’t as seamless as Uber but it got the job done.

The next day we visited the ancient city of Akko (Acre). We had hoped to take the recently launched ferry from Haifa but for reasons that escape me, the ferry wasn’t running on the day of our visit due to weather conditions. It was a sunny calm day, so I’m not sure what that was about. So we drove about an hour to reach Akko (with traffic.) This was a fun way to spend an afternoon. There are lots of ruins to explore, including the Templar’s Tunnel and winding narrow old streets through Arab neighborhoods. We somehow wedged ourselves in the car between two ancient stone buildings while looking for parking, and, being inexperienced wimpy Americans in this situation, sat in the car pondering how to extricate ourselves, when a sympathetic Arab guy working nearby motioned for Hubby to get out of the car so he could park it for us. He expertly maneuvered the car out of the street with a half inch to spare in either side, and parked in a small lot next to a white and green mosque. We were very appreciative, and he left us probably thinking “Those idiots….”

IMG_20181010_110401
Mosque near parking in Akko

We had lunch at Kukushka (sorry I could not find a better link!) in the Turkish market area in one of the old streets and did a lot of people watching there. Akko may have been better visited with a guide, since there was so much to see, but we still enjoyed it.

That evening we returned to Haifa and dined at Chang Ba Thai restaurant near the Haifa Port. Food was great, and we had a table on the sidewalk for more people watching.

A quick segue to the Galilee and Golan Heights….

Thursday morning we packed our bags and headed northwest toward the Galilee. We had a lot on our schedule. First, we stopped at Pina Barosh B&B  in Rosh Pina and left our bags, and then drove on to the Golan Heights and Mount Bental. The drive was not particularly beautiful, and we were a little unnerved by the signs along the edge of the road warning not to go beyond the barbed wire due to “Live Mines.” We climbed and climbed, and finally reached Mount Bental, the site of battles between Syria and Israel in 1967 and 1973. There are bunkers to explore, and really great vistas into Syria beyond. There’s a café and gift shop, and not much else, but for us the visit was worth the effort.

IMG_20181011_103935
View into Syria from Mount Bental in Golan Heights

From Mount Bental, we drove to Tiberius looking for a nice lunch, and though we found a good place for kebabs, Tiberius was ugly and a traffic nightmare. We parked on a street with paid parking, but the meter had a handwritten sign saying it was out of order (according to a passer-by). That did not stop the local authorities from ticketing us, which was incredibly annoying. I managed to pay the ticket online after translating the instructions with the help of an Israeli friend. But that sure seemed like a tourist scam to us.

We also drove to the Mount of Beatitudes, which was full of Christian pilgrims joined in prayer, then to Capernaum, which was full of Christian pilgrims joined in prayer. We also stopped at the Yigal Alon Center, which houses the ancient Galilee boat. There were dozens of tour buses there, and as far as we could tell, the Center houses nothing except the boat. There’s an educational video about the excavation and preservation of the boat, and it’s interesting to see, but we were not convinced it warranted the throngs of tourists it seemed to attract.

We returned to the B&B, which was on a lovely little street directly across from the first Zionist settlement in Israel. We walked around the settlement and visited the small synagogue there, and then continued up the street to the Nimrod Lookout, a memorial to a young Israeli soldier who died during one of the wars. There’s an audio about the soldier and it’s a beautiful lookout point. Took 10 minutes and there were few other people around. Both the Zionist settlement and the lookout were well worth the effort.

IMG_20181011_161108
View from Nimrod Lookout in Rosh Pina

We had dinner that evening at the B&B on their lovely terrace and finished off the last of our Yatir wine.

IMG_20181011_182132
Dining on the terrace at Pina Barosh in Rosh Pina

Sadly, our room at the B&B was not comfortable. The air conditioning did not seem to be working, and the bed was lumpy and hard. But have you seen a prettier room?

IMG_20181011_115820
Our room at Pina Barosh B&B

Friday morning was our last full day in Israel. We got up early and drove to Agamon HaHula Nature Preserve in the Hula Valley. Our visit coincided with the crane migration and my only regret is that we arrived around 7:30 a.m., when the cranes were landing. But here’s a video I found online that shows what was just ending as we arrived. The sun was a giant orange ball just rising, and I’m still mad at myself for not capturing a picture of that. One of the great things about Agamon is they have golf carts for rent so you can motor around the Preserve quietly, stopping at your leisure any time you see something cool. We saw lots of birds that were new to us. Agamon also offers guided tours at 5:30 in the morning, but they are in Hebrew so we didn’t reserve one. I wish we had, because just being there at that hour would have allowed us to see much more. We hope to return to Agamon some day.

Returning to Tel Aviv…..

After looking at the birds, we returned to Rosh Pina and checked out of the B&B and headed back to Tel Aviv. Our goal was to return the car to Hertz by closing time at 1:00 (it being Shabbat) so we wouldn’t have to deal with that before our absurdly early flight in the morning on Saturday. The Hertz office was right across the street from the Tel Aviv Renaissance which we had booked (again using points) for our last night. We made it to Hertz with about 10 minutes to spare.

Our normal strategy for the final night of a big vacation is to choose an upscale hotel where we’ll be a little bit pampered and a lot comfortable. We had a great experience last year at the Renaissance Wangfujing in Beijing and were hoping for something similar. Alas, it was not to be. The Tel Aviv Renaissance  is old and sorely in need of improvements. The air conditioning barely functioned and when it did, it was loud and clunky, waking us up over and over. The bathroom was tiny and in bad shape. Everything about the room was lumpy, old and tired. The only good thing about the room was the beautiful view of Gordon Beach below, and the only good thing about the hotel was its proximity to the beach. Would never in a million years stay at this hotel again unless it is torn down and rebuilt.

IMG_20181012_130905
View from our room at Tel Aviv Renaissance Hotel

We spent our last afternoon lounging on the beach, which was very, very crowded. To get a beach chair and umbrella was more complicated than using the simple kiosk on Metzitzim as we had the prior week. You had to find a beach worker, tell them where you wanted to sit (which wasn’t easy with all the crowds), and pay them cash. I can’t remember the price but it was many multiples more than what we paid on Metzitzim. On the plus side, they did a fine job setting us up with 2 lounge chairs and an umbrella, and then took our lunch and drink orders. We ordered a couple of sandwiches and ice cream, along with some adult beverages, and we appreciated the service.

After the beach, we organized all our stuff for the next day, then headed to dinner at Goocha Dizengoff, which was walking distance from the hotel. Not having a reservation, we had to wait about 15 minutes for a table and ended up sitting at the bar. The food was fabulous and at the bar you can watch the food prep, which was a thing to behold. Totally professional and efficient, and just fun to watch. For me, this was the second best meal of the trip, after Tishbi. We ended the evening with gelato at Otello, a couple of blocks from the restaurant. Was it good? It’s gelato, of course it was good!!

IMG_20181012_194639
Gelato at Otello after dinner at nearby Goocha Dizengoff in Tel Aviv

We rose on Saturday painfully early for our 5:30 a.m. flight from Tel Aviv back to Pittsburgh, via Madrid and JFK. We had too many long layovers for my personal comfort, but at least business class again kept me stretched out.

My favorite part of the trip? Jerusalem, Dead Sea, and Tishbi Winery. My least favorite? Bat Galim Boutique Hotel, and the less than ideal routing to and from Israel. Would I go back? Well, we really just scratched the surface…what about Eilat, the resort city at the southern tip of Israel? Or Tel Dan Nature Reserve in the north, which has been called “a little piece of heaven”? We drove right past Ein Gedi, a nature reserve across from the Dead Sea billed as one of Israel’s premier hiking spots. Druze villages, the Chagall Windows, and of course those cranes we just missed in the Hula Valley….Yep, we’ll be back!

Turkey 2013

Itinerary: Istanbul, Izmir, Ephesus, Cappadocia
Why the H*ll Are You Going to Turkey?

Day 1. Hubby and I are ensconced in the KAL lounge at JFK, enjoying the complimentary snacks and adult beverages. We’re on a layover between our home in Pittsburgh and our ultimate destination, Istanbul. Yes, Istanbul. The one in Turkey. Why KAL lounge? Here’s a travel tip. If you apply for a Fairmont Visa card and are approved, you get 2 free nights at any Fairmont Hotel or resort, including breakfast, for 2, anywhere in the world. And you get a free pass to their associated airport lounges. And they waive the annual fee. As long as you spend $1000 in the first 3 months you own the card. Well, I can do that pretty much in my sleep, so here we are.

KAL
KAL Lounge at JFK, waiting for our evening flight to Istanbul

But why Turkey? There is a simple explanation. When I turned 50, and yes I must confess that I am now a woman of a certain age, I made a list of 10 places to go before I die. That sounds morbid, but let’s face it. I’m getting to the age where things start happening to people. If I want to do stuff, I better do it now. After all, in 20 short years I would be 70 years old, and who knows what kind of nonsense mother nature wants to throw at me between now and then? So according to my logic, if I visit one place in the list every 2 years, I’ll hit all 10 by the time I hit 70. If I live longer than that, BONUS! I’ll add Myanmar to the list.

I studied Hagia Sophia in an art history course back in college. It was built back when Istanbul was called Constantinople. It looked romantic. We also studied the 5th century churches in Ravenna. Some day, my 20 year old self said, I would really like too see those churches in Constantinople and Ravenna. In 1984, after I got into law school I quit my crappy paralegal job and went to Ravenna. Those 5th century mosaics lived up to their reputation. In 1986, I was in a job interview in Pittsburgh. The interviewer was well traveled and had photos of Hagia Sophia on his wall. “Is that Constantinople?” I asked. He enthusiastically replied yes, but said it was Istanbul. Doh! I knew that. But I think he liked that I got his travel passion. And he hired me.

In 1987, after taking the bar exam and before starting work in the Real World, I went to Paris for 3 weeks. I had the great luxury of staying at the apartment of a Parisian friend who was away on vacation. In Turkey. The French often had these long leisurely vacations, and a lot of them went to Turkey. Damn, I said to my 27 year old self. I really want to go to Turkey.

Forward 25 plus years. I won’t get into the details but we’ve been busy. In 2011, we went to Banff, high on my top 10 list. Wow Wow Wow! I will post some photos from that trip soon, but for now you have to trust me that Banff’s place on the list was well-deserved. So this year we picked Turkey. The situation in Turkey and the Muslim world generally is such that I believe things may get a lot worse before they get better. By “worse” I mean less hospitable to Americans. And I don’t want to wait until I’m 70 to see Hagia Sophia. So off we go.

We’re boarding now. Turkish Airlines. Let’s see if they merit their reputation as Europe’s number 1 airline.

Turkish Airlines

I guess technically it’s still Day 1 since we have not actually landed yet. But the calendar has turned so for our purposes, it’s Day 2. Let’s talk about Turkish Airlines. I’m seated in the center seat of Row 11, Comfort Class, of a Boeing 777. This is a freaking huge plane. The appeal of Comfort Class is said to be its reclining seats, raised leg rests and ample leg room. Row 11 is the first row in Comfort Class, so the leg room is more than ample. I can stretch my legs straight out in front of me and not come close to touching the wall. Reclining seats? Not so much. They go back about as far as any other airline seat. Leg rests? They only rise about 6 inches. If you’re tall like my hubby, they don’t serve much purpose.

Each seat has its own entertainment center, where you can watch BBC news, catch a recent movie, or listen to a variety of musical styles. The entertainment center also lists email and internet services, but those were not available. Maybe they’re for use only on the ground, but it didn’t make a whole lot of sense to list them when they weren’t functioning. I decided to watch the movie “The Heat,” starring Sandra Bullock and Melissa McCarthy, two very appealing actresses, in a female buddy cop scenario. This movie was described to me as “hilarious” by other women of a certain age, so I thought, why not a little guilty pleasure. Let me add that the reviews of this movie had not been kind. Unfortunately the critics were right on this one. Add the lameness of the plot to the fact that the movie was edited to remove all salty language and you have a pretty unwatchable piece of celluloid. Bad choices, Sandy and Melissa, bad choices. Turned it off about half way in.

How about the food? Let me share with you the excitement I felt when I booked this flight back in January and was given a wide variety of meal choices. Jain, halal, kosher, vegan, seafood, oriental vegetarian, to name just a few. Sorry to report the quality of food was just, meh. But the service! There’s an attendant whose only function seems to walking up and down the aisles, attired in a white chef’s coat and hat, offering piping hot rolls to the hungry passengers. Other attendants are equally friendly, and attractive to boot, seeming genuinely pleased to be serving us. When was the last time you saw that on a US carrier? Never? That’s correct. So the food may be lackluster but I sure did enjoy having it served to me.

Turkish airlines food
Dinner on Turkish Airlines

Hate to end on a negative note, but check in was less than optimal. The Turkish Airlines counter opened promptly at 3:00 yesterday. We were 4th in a very long line of passengers of every possible race and persuasion. Check in should have been smooth and efficient. Our tickets were paid for and I had printed out the receipts. Did I have the credit card I used to book the flight, the perky agent asked. No, I did not. I didn’t want to use that card in Turkey, so why would I bring it? Without getting into the tedious details of what followed, I will just say that I tweeted once or twice (OK maybe 3 times) expressing displeasure with the chaotic hour I spent sorting out this nonissue. I must have done it right, because within minutes I received not one but 3 emails from Turkish Airlines asking how they could help. Long story short, we lost an hour we could have been spending luxuriating with the (other) beautiful people at the KAL lounge.

Would I flu Turkish Airlines again? Absolutely. Just bring the right credit card, and remember, it may be Comfort Class, but its still airline food.

Turkish airlines plane
Boarding the plane

We landed Turkish time: 11:26 a.m. Body time:  4:26 a.m. A long but fun day. We checked into our room at the Radisson Blu Bosphorus in the Ortakoy area on the European side and spent a lovely, leisurely afternoon ambling across the Galata Bridge that spans the Bosphorus, stopping under the bridge for fresh fish sandwiches (you point to the fish and they cook it up on the spot!) At the other side of the bridge, we found the Egyptian Market, which was packed with people but still very fun to wander around in. Then we crossed back over and walked up the street to the Galata Tower, bought tickets and climbed up for a really great view of the city. Weather was beyond perfect, sunny, warm, blue skies as far as they eye could see.

2013-10-23 15.15.15
Egyptian Market
2013-10-23 15.58.15
View from Galata Tower
Galata fish market
Fish Market under Galata Bridge
Topkapi Palace, Hagia Sophia & Blue Mosque

Well our first full day in Istanbul was so full of sightseeing and information and new experience I just don’t know what to say first. Should I talk about Fulaya, our private tour guide, who knows everything about Turkey and the mosques and the people and the art and the architecture and the history and where to eat and how to use the tram? Should I talk about Hagia Sophia and how it was built by Emperor Justinian in the 5th century and remained a church until around 1453 when the Ottomans defeated the Romans and changed it to a mosque, until around 1923 when Atatürk took over and made Turkey a secular country and changed it to a museum, or how that now that there’s an Islamist president it might be changed back to a mosque?

2013-10-24 04.24.43
Inside Hagia Sophia

Or should I talk about the Blue Mosque, and how we had to remove our shoes and put them in a plastic bag, and I had to cover my head with the LLBean scarf I was wearing, and Jon had to tie a blue sheet-like thing around himself to cover his legs (he was the only man in Turkey wearing shorts) as we went inside and watched men praying on the carpet, on their knees, facing Mecca, and as we walked outside all the minarets in town were broadcasting the call to worship for the second of 5 times today?

2013-10-24 13.05.35
Outside the Blue Mosque
P1000999
Inside the Blue Mosque in Istanbul

Or maybe I should mention Topkapi Palace, where the Sultans used to live with their Harems, and the painted mosaics covering all the rooms, and the rose garden and the views of the Golden Horn, and the rooms full of jewels and daggers and boxes containing hairs or broken teeth of the prophet Mohammed and let’s not forget the room that contained the staff of Moses and the turban of Joseph (yes, the one with the coat of many colors) and as we’re viewing all of this there’s someone chanting verses of the Quran because the stuff we’re viewing is, you know, kind of holy and special to a whole lot of people in this world?

2013-10-24 03.09.09
Inside Topkapi Palace, with traditional Turkish tile design on the walls

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the Basilica Cistern underneath the old city which back in the day used to hold enough water to sustain a city under siege and has columns holding it up, including one with a carved head of Medusa on its side as its pedestal, but which is now used to impress tourists (it does impress, profoundly) and serves as a venue for musical acts.

2013-10-24 13.55.23
Inside Basilica Cistern

How abut the food? Flaming salted fish, grilled calamari, eggplant 10 different ways, Turkish coffee, pistachio baklava, Turkish delight, and the thing I intend to try tomorrow, raki.

2013-10-24 08.18.16
Traditional Turkish Breakfast
2013-10-24 08.14.35
Turkish Coffee
2013-10-23 18.24.37
Turkish Efes Beer…Restaurant placed the American flag next to the Turkish flag to welcome us

We also visited the Grand Bazaar, one of the largest covered markets in the world (and supposedly where the opening motorcycle chase scene from the James Bond movie “Skyfall” was filmed). What a crazy place, so full of people and shops and sounds and smells! We visited the shop of the artist Nick Merdenyan and bought the most gorgeous artwork, calligraphy on some kind of plant leaf that is unlike anything I have ever seen. He even framed it and delivered it to our hotel.

2013-10-24 14.54.56
Entrance to Grand Bazaar in Istanbul

Believe me, we have barely scratched the surface of this fascinating city. Tomorrow we are on our own and will navigate public transportation to see few places off the beaten track.

Pierre Loti, Kariye Museum & Archaeology Museum

Today was not sightseeing as much as just tooling around like a local. We took buses, trams, taxis, and even a funicular up to the celebrated Pierre Loti Cafe, a charming spot high above the Golden Horn, where we drank tea and shared a bowl of ice cream and enjoyed some magnificent views.

2013-10-25 15.55.28
Tram in Istanbul