FAVORITE ISRAEL VACATION EXPERIENCES – part one
When you think of a trip to Israel, what comes to mind? Traditionally, Israel has been recognized worldwide as the “Holy Land”, a top destination for many people from around the world to explore the roots of their religion. Then there are the archaeological and history buffs coming to uncover the secrets of Israel’s many past civilizations dating back more than three thousand years. More recently, with its increasing fame as a “Start-up Nation” full of innovators developing impressive new technologies and life-saving medical techniques and medications, Israel has become a destination for business people and researchers to come and study and learn about the latest hi-tech and scientific advances. Plus, from the Negev desert to the Golan Heights, ecotourism has become hot in Israel. But most recently, intriguing stories with a new angle have started to appear online about the trendy “new” Israel, with its hot nightlife and superb culinary talent. From Conde Nast Traveller to Vogue — the word is getting out that Israel is a top vacation destination.
So we traveled to Israel on a voyage of discovery this spring to check things out on the ground ourselves. Frankly, while we had high expectations, Israel exceeded them. Israel in the 21st century is a first-class destination full of friendly, approachable people. Everywhere we went, we chatted easily with the locals as we tried to get to know and begin to understand this fascinating country. Most unexpected of all was the harmony we saw between Jews and Arabs. Would you be surprised to learn that “the World Happiness Report 2016” ranks Israel (Jews and Arabs) 11th out of 158 countries evaluated by the United Nations? In fact, you can actually feel the “happiness” factor in the air over there. Plus we felt safe walking about in a country so well prepared to protect its citizens from terrorists. Israel definitely exceeded our expectations.
Moreover, we were awed by the quality of the museums. Little Israel, about the size of New Jersey with a population of just over 8 million people, has over 200 museums … more museums per capita than any other country in the world. Plus, Israel offers a vibrant cultural scene with one of the finest orchestras in the world, the Israeli Philharmonic. Fresh local produce is readily available at the country’s many outdoor markets, and the restaurant scene and wineries are making Israel a top destination for foodies.
And thanks to its 9 miles of gorgeous beach, burgeoning restaurant scene, swinging nightlife, awesome cultural scene and fascinating shopping, Tel Aviv has arrived. Move over Nice, Cannes, and Barcelona … Tel Aviv is joining you as one of the best Mediterranean beach cities for a weekend getaway or as the ideal gateway to an extended Israeli vacation.
Given the above, perhaps you won’t be surprised that we are planning a return trip to this fascinating land of miracles, old and new, again this summer. To get a feel for our enthusiasm for vacationing in Israel, have a look at just a few of our favorite Israeli vacation experiences, in no particular order, to whet your appetite …
- Early morning sail on the Sea of Galilee (Lake Kinneret) … The beauty of this experience in this open air wooden boat was almost spiritual with the beautiful blue of the sweet-smelling sea (actually a “fresh water lake) only matched by the splendor of the mountains surrounding it. I could just imagine Peter throwing his fishing net into the Sea of Galilee, or Jesus preaching on the shores of this idyllic location. If miracles do actually happen, this would be the ideal place to find them.
2. Tel Aviv beach walk … The beaches of Tel Aviv extend south to Jaffa and north to Herzliya, each of which has its own beaches. Under simply gorgeous weather conditions, with the sun shining broadly in a clear sky and with a nice wind blowing in from the Mediterranean to keep us cool, we walked from our hotel north to the Port of Tel Aviv and then south to the Manta Ray restaurant with its awesome view of Jaffa and the sea. Tel Aviv has sixteen beaches, each with its own character and particular charm, from family beaches to dog beaches to religious beaches. What I found most interesting was people-watching. Unlike so many other beaches I have seen around the world where sun-worshipping and reading have been the principal activities, the Tel Aviv beaches are full of life and activity. Plus, there’s a pervasive joie de vivre in camaraderie from beach to beach with young people sitting at tables playing cards or simply enjoying some cold beer and conversation together, or playing volley ball or paddle ball, and families picnicking or playing with their young children. I imagine in the summer time when the weather is really hot that the scene would be full of water activity as well. This is big city beach life at its best.
3. Dinner at Douzan (Arabic for “Harmony”) … Thanks to its charming front terrace with fabulous views of the magnificent Baha’i Temple and gardens with Mt. Carmel in the distance, not to mention people-watching on trendy Ben Gurion Avenue in the German Colony, and a strikingly vivid interior décor, Douzan sets the stage for a memorable dining experience. But it’s the devotion of the gregarious Arabic owner himself, Fadi Najar, combined with the truly delicious home-style Middle-Eastern cooking of his mother and aunt in the kitchen, that have made Douzan a destination restaurant in Haifa. What I love most about Douzan is that it is named for the “harmony” that exists between the Arabs and the Jews in this major Israeli port city.
4. Yad Vashem Memorial Museum and the Ilana Goor Art Museum plus the multitude of other phenomenal museums … Israel has the highest number of museums per capita in the world. In a span of two weeks, we visited nearly a dozen, each and every one of which left a strong impression upon me. Recommendations are challenging, but let me venture to say that my two favorites are Yad Vashem, established in Jerusalem in 1953 as a memorial to the holocaust which has developed into a huge complex that is a state-of-the-art world center for documentation research, education, and commemoration, and Ilana Goor Residence and Museum established in old Jaffa in 1995 to showcase Ilana Goor’s extraordinary artistic creations including sculptures, jewelry and furniture along with her fabulous personal collection of art of all types from around the world. Yad Vashem will overwhelm your spirit with suffering, torment and struggle to survive against unimaginable cruelty, while Ilana Goor will uplift your senses and fascinate you with the beauty of art found around the world presented in a very personal way in the artist/collector’s extraordinarily beautiful 18th century residence overlooking the Mediterranean seacoast and the Tel Aviv skyline. http://www.yadvashem.org http://www.ilanagoormuseum.org/eng
5. Maestro Zubin Meta’s 80th birthday celebration concert by the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra at the Charles Bronfman Auditorium in Tel Aviv … A strikingly modern and gorgeous venue with the Maestro Meta conducting one of the best orchestras in the world to a full house, and an outstanding musical program featuring works by Mozart, Dvorak and Mahler along with two renowned soloists playing string compositions by Bach and Brahms. The Israeli Philharmonic has hosted most of the world’s greatest conductors, from Arturo Toscanini to Leonard Bernstein, as well as renowned soloists including pianist Arthur Rubenstein and violinists Jascha Heifitz and Isaac Stern.
6. Walking the Via Dolorosa in the old city of Jerusalem … One of the most significant sites in all of Christianity, the Via Dolorosa, or “Path of Sorrows”, is widely held to be the route that Jesus took from his sentencing by Pontius Pilate at the Praetorium up to his crucifixion at what is now the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, which was built to memorialize the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus under one roof. This 2000 foot route up narrow, winding stone streets of old Jerusalem features nine Stations, each marking a sacred story of this famous walk, with five more stations contained within the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. For as long as Christians have been coming to the Holy City, they have walked the last path of Jesus, and these sacred stories, and the knowledge that they have been told time and time again over many centuries, is what makes this walk come alive. As you take this famous route, you cannot help but be moved by the awesomeness of what occurred here more than 2000 years ago, and you truly feel that you are stepping back, way back, into history. To break up the weightiness of the walk, our guide took us for a light relaxing lunch in the charming garden terrace café of The Austrian Hospice of the Holy Family, which opened in 1863 as the first national pilgrims’ guesthouse in the Holy Land. The views from the rooftop terrace were magnificent. Afterwards, we made our way up to the ancient and imposing Church of the Holy Sepulcher.
7. Visiting the Masada fortress in the Negev desert … A monumental well-preserved fortress with a powerful history and glorious views of the Dead Sea and the desert, a visit to Masada is a thrilling and awesome experience, and a fascinating walk back into history during the height of the Roman empire. Built in the year 30 BC by King Herod, Masada was conquered by a group of Jewish zealots at the onset of the great revolt against Rome in 68 BC. Four years later, the Romans besieged Masada, and a year later in 73 BC the 960 Jewish people living at the top of Masada committed suicide rather than become slaves and prostitutes of the Romans. I very much enjoyed visiting King Herod’s northern palace, the Roman style bath house with its beautiful mosaics, and many other structures which along with the artifacts relate the history of Masada. Not only is Masada the largest and most complete Roman siege camp remaining today, its embossments and murals on many of the building walls have been artfully restored by Italian experts. Named best tourist site of its type in the world by readers of Traveler Magazine in 2000, Masada was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2001.
8. Chagall’s windows at Hadassah University Medical Center in Jerusalem, renowned for its excellence in medicine ... Born in Russia into a Jewish family, Marc Chagall later moved to France to develop his art. He was prolific in a multitude of artistic mediums but most famous for his stained glass windows, from the cathedrals of Reims and Metz to the windows of the United Nations building to the small synagogue within the walls of Hadassah Medical Center in Jerusalem. Chagall worked for two years with an assistant on these windows, first developing a new process that allowed him to apply color directly to the glass without having to follow the traditional technique of separating each colored pane with a lead strip. Thus freed up to create, Chagall used as many as three colors on one pane, producing windows of radiant beauty and focusing on biblical themes from the Old Testament while working with some of his favorite images of floating animals, fish and flowers in his traditional color palette of bold primary colors, transforming time and space as only Chagall can do. Once completed, Chagall presented these windows as a gift to his people. Sitting on the steps of the small enclosed atrium of the Hadassah synagogue and looking up at the glory of Chagall’s windows which encircle the top of the synagogue’s high walls, I was mesmerized by their beauty.
The above list is far from comprehensive. We did and saw and ate so much more, and still have a long “yet to do & visit” list that will take us at least 2 or 3 trips more to complete. So stay tuned for more coverage on our “Favorites from Israel”.
Bon Voyage if you too decide to go discover the pleasures of travel in Israel!
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