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.

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TV animation of our approach to Tel Aviv
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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.

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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.

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Yummy Breakfast at the Yam Hotel
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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!

 

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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!

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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:

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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.

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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.

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Vibrant pomegranates
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Turkish taffy
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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.

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Inside Church of the Holy Sepulchre
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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.

 

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Breakfast on terrace at YMCA Three Arches
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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:

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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.

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Cable wires leading up to fortress at Masada
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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Outside Church of Pater Noster
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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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:

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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.

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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.

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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:

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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….”

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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?

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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.

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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!!

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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!

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Juliet

I love to travel and I love to write, so what could be better than writing about travel?

One thought on “Israel!”

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