My first visit to Israel began as a colourful tour of the country’s youngest city and ended as an epic stroll through the ancient alleyways of Jerusalem. I quite enjoy trips which are bookended by urban adventures and strung together by a rustic rural romp. So I was excited to wake up at the crack of dawn and speed out of Tel Aviv, eagerly anticipating our next two days which would be spent zig zagging across the Holy Land from Galilee up north to the Dead Sea down south.
Tishbi Estate Winery
Our first stop as we drove north was Tishbi Estate Winery, located just a short drive outside of Tel Aviv. The previous night we had stayed up until the wee hours of the morning, enjoying a tour of the city’s trendiest bars and nightclubs so couldn’t help but smirk as we all waddled into the winery half awake at 10am ripe and ready to sip ourselves through one of the Holy Land’s most celebrated wineries.
Tishibi is a family run affair, which can be traced back to 1882 when Michael and Malka Chamiletzki first set foot upon the land of Zichron Yaacov after emigrating here from Lithuania. Michael had been chosen by Baron Edmund de Rothschild to plant and develop vineyards in the area and as we fast forward to today, one can’t help but appreciate their well earned success. On your visit to Tishibi be sure to check out their cute cafe, restaurant, bakery and tasting room where an awe inspiring selection of Valrhona chocolates are paired perfectly with each glass.
The highlight of my trip to Israel was the authentic Druze lunch we prepared in the home of the always smiling P’nina who lives in an Arab neighbourhood in Galilee. The intimate culinary experience was made possible by GaliliEat owner Paul Nirens who greeted us at P’nina’s home with a cup of hot herb infused tea.
Over the course of the next two hours we rolled up our sleeves in P’nina’s kitchen. She started by showing us how to prepare traditional flatbread called zalabya, forming balls of spicy dough with our wet hands which were then flattened out and fried in hot oil. When it was time to finally enjoy our feast we sat in a sun soaked dining room overlooking the rolling hills of Galilee. We were all starving, gorging ourselves on majadara (lentils and bulgar wheat), cherry tomato tabouleh, maklouba (an upside-down chicken, rice and vegetable pilaf), stuffed vine leaves and my favourite dish of all, a bubbling pan of sinye (meat kebab cooked in creamy tahini).
We would spend the evening at Vered Hagalil which translates to “the Rose of Galilee,” a picturesque 30 acre guest farm. The breezy and spacious property offers guests a perfect escape from the hustle and bustle of city life. The property features lively horse ranch, top notch steak house and a potpourri of cabins, cottages and suites which offer stunning views of the sea below. Since biblical times Galilee has been famous for its abundance of fish. Many of Jesus’s disciples were fishermen here, and he did much of his preaching by its shores. Put your feet up on your patio and you’ll find the quiet calm here makes an easy daydream where you’ll find yourself slipping back in time.
Horseback Riding on the Sea of Galilee
We arrived at Vered Hagalil shortly after 3pm and were quickly whisked into the farms stables. After strapping on a helmet I soon found myself sitting on top of a handsome horse, trotting across the highway and diving into thick brush. We adventured across petite creek and skipped through a field filled with thorny bushes and mighty boulders before marching along a winding path which offered jaw dropping views of the Sea of Galilee. Two hours later, moments before arriving back at the stables we enjoyed a picture perfect crimson sunset which swept across the horizon. Hopping off my horse with bow legs I couldn’t help but realize that horseback riding is not just a pretty practice and indeed requires a significant amount of muscle work, many of which I did not know existed on my frail frame.
Bet She’an National Park
The following morning we drove to Bet She’an National Park, the country’s best preserved Roman-Byzantine town. The ancient city lay on the old trade routes between Mesopotamia and the Mediterranean. First inhabited 5,000 years ago during the Canaanite era, it later became the main city in the region during the period of Egyptian occupation. Falling to the Philistines in the 11th century BC, it then became part of Solomon’s kingdom. After the conquest of Alexander the Great, it was renamed the Scythopolis and became a flourishing Hellenistic city. It later retained its economic importance under the Byzantines, also becoming a major centre for Christianity. An economic collapse, than an earthquake in AD 749, eventually left only a small remaining Jewish community. Today history buffs arrive on the daily in droves, skipping through ruined temple colonnade, brilliant baths and spectacular Roman theatre which was once capable of seating 7,000 spectators.
We continued our drive south towards the Dead Sea, stopping for an essential hike on top of King Herod the Great’s Masada. The isolated mountaintop fortress is located 440m above the banks of the Dead Sea and was fortified as early as the 1st or 2nd century BC. It was then enlarged and reinforced by King Herod, who added two luxurious palace complexes.
Folks looking to get a workout can hike up to Masada via zig-zagging path, or if time is of the necessity hop on a gondola which will have you up top in no more than a minute. Take a deep breath while enjoying the stunning panoramic views of the Dead Sea via Hanging Palace, marvel at ancient Cistern (Herod’s water solution) and perfectly intact mosaic floors and frescoes dotted throughout the complex.
Ein Gedi Nature Reserve
Ein Gedi is famous as a lush oasis in an otherwise barren landscape. The site is mentioned in the Bible for its beauty (Song of Songs: 1-14) and as a refuge of David who was fleeing from King Saul (I Samuel: 24). Today the area is protected as Ein Gedi Nature Reserve, which we explored via bumpy Jeep tour. The drive to the desert from the Dead Sea was a short one and an excellent adventure for those who have a penchant for jaw dropping sunsets. Our guide weaved us around rustic unpaved roads as sharp cliffs and dry-as-a-bone mountain peaks loomed overhead. The desert is entirely made of salt, an interesting geological revelation when one realizes that the region is thought to be where the demise of Sodom and Gomorrah took place. One is reminded to “not look back, move forward and avoid turning into a pillar of salt.”
Dead Sea Spa
After a long day on the road it was perhaps perfect that after checking into lux Isrotel we were whisked to the hotels spa for a classic Dead Sea mud treatment. I’ve had an opportunity to indulge in top destination spa’s from Namibia to Hong Kong and have to say my muddied experience in Israeli is up there on the list as one of the most memorable. I couldn’t help but laugh as a giant pot of Jello pudding-thick mud was slathered across my body. Lights were dimmed and I sat quietly for 20 minutes wrapped in a cocoon as the squish of mud slithered through every crease and crevasse. When my therapists returned to the room she motioned to a shower where I spent the next 20 minutes squeezing mud, thick like chocolate buttercream icing off my arms, legs and torso.
At 411 m below sea level, the Dead Sea is the lowest point on earth. The water is so laden with minerals here that it is around 26% solid which makes the experience for for swimmers a unique one as one feels alarmingly buoyant. The therapeutic qualities of the water and its mud have been touted since ancient times. Today beauty companies bring in big money selling cosmetics and creams made from minerals found in the Dead Sea. The following morning I woke up at the crack of dawn, wrapped myself in a plush robe and ran down to the beach. The sun had just risen over the horizon when I slipped in. I couldn’t help but giggle, one feels as if they are lightly cruising across a cloud. Seriously surreal.