The last time I had a chance to visit Northern Israel was in the summer of 2007, following the Second Lebanon War. The mission: to survey areas affected by the conflict and report on how Jewish communal funds were helping to ease the pain. This time around, the agenda was far lighter, as I boarded a bus last month with more than a dozen fellow journalists from American Jewish newspapers on a mission sponsored by El Al, Israel’s Ministry of Tourism and the American Jewish Press Association.
Tourism is flourishing in Israel, with a record 3.5 million visitors last year. But according to 2011 statistics, the most recent available from the Ministry of Tourism, which assembled our itinerary, 43 percent of the year’s visitors found their way to Tiberias and the Sea of Galilee, and just 27 percent visited the wider Galilee area. That’s compared with 81 percent of tourists who visited Jerusalem and 66 percent who visited Tel Aviv. Only 9 percent of tourists made it to the Golan Heights.
The average stay in the Galilee area was 0.5 nights, compared with 4.1 nights for Jerusalem and 3.5 for Tel Aviv.
This trip was a chance for Israel to showcase the north’s restaurants, resorts, museums and wineries for those who want to break away from the major cities. Countering the lure of the Negev, the Dead Sea and Eilat to the south (which saw even fewer visitors than the north in 2011) is the Kinneret (the Sea of Galilee), which has reached its highest level in 10 years thanks to an abundant rainy season (which we experienced firsthand), the mystical and artsy city of Safed, the San-Francisco-like bay city of Haifa (which we didn’t visit) and a good chunk of modern and ancient Israel’s history.
Our foray from Jerusalem began at the junction of the Jordan Valley and Jezreel Valley at the ancient ruins of Beit Shean, which the Romans called Scythopolis; excavations of its 10 acres in the 1920s and ’30s and later in the ’80s turned up ruins of 20 different settlements, dating from the fourth century BCE to the 19th century CE.
Next came a brief tour of Safed, beginning with falafel in the modern center of town, then a walk through the artist colony to look at shops and synagogues. At the Soul Art Gallery in Abraham Sade Square (www.soulandart.biz) we viewed sculpture by the late Nicky Inber (1920-1996), and curator Tival Sade told us the tale of how Inber escaped from a Nazi concentration camp by creating a mask out of bread that resembled a guard.
You can’t fully capture the holiness of this home of sages in a quick visit, but there were modern reminders of divine providence even in empty synagogues. The Yosef Caro shul is adorned with a chunk of Kassam rocket that barely missed the building during the 2006 conflict. At the Ari Ashkenazi Synagogue, a large shrapnel hole is preserved in one of the benches. Legend has it that during the 1948 War of Independence a worshipper bent down to pick something up when an explosion hit outside, and the shrapnel hole is where his head would have been. Today, visitors stuff notes into the crevice as they do at the Kotel.
From Safed we made our way to Kibbutz Ginosar to visit the Yigal Alon Museum (www.beitalon.co.il). The signature exhibit there was discovered by two amateur archaeologists, brothers Yuval and Moshe Lufan, who strongly believed that “one day the Kinneret would give them a present.”
In 1986, that present came in the form of receding waters that exposed an ancient boat (below) believed to date back to the time of Jesus. Though there’s no indication that Jesus himself had anything to do with it, it has become known as the Jesus Boat and it attracts throngs of pilgrims each year. Visitors can see the carefully preserved hull and watch a video about how a team wrapped the wreck in plastic foam and floated it to its museum perch.
Next in Katzrin, the Golan Heights Winery was ready for us on our next excursion, with some of the 30 to 40 kosher wines it sells under three brands: Yarden, Gilgal and Golan. We toured the facilities that turn out an average six million bottles per year; some of their products have garnered honors from Wine Enthusiast Magazine, rare for a kosher vintner.
Our guide, Yakov Solomon, introduced us to a 2009 Gilgal Cabernet (well suited for a steak meal), a 2009 Gamla Merlot (less dry and surprisingly savory to me), a 2011 Gilgal Chardonnay (too acidic) and a 2010 Gilgal Brut (slightly bitter but vaguely sweet.) A handy tip we learned: Prior to drinking, wines should be allowed 10 minutes per year of their vintage to breathe. Growing the grapes in the immediate area makes for short transportation time, which preserves the quality, and the area’s extensive sunshine means more photosynthesis and more sugar for the grapes.
“This area is putting out world-class wines after 1,200 years of Muslims,” said Solomon, below, referring to the fact that, by tradition, Muslims do not drink or produce wine.
Dinner featuring an area favorite, the St. Peter Fish (a member of the tilapia family), awaited us at the restaurant of Kibbutz Ein Gev (www.eingev.co.il) on the eastern shore of the Kinneret; it was as close as we would come to the beautiful Sea of Galilee during our busy trip. Our guide, Gideon Har Hermon, explained that the sea is shaped like a harp, or kinor, which is the origin of its name. Sadly, we didn’t have a chance to survey how the shoreline has advanced or visit the spot where a member of Congress recently got into hot water for skinny dipping.
During our tour we learned that the Kinneret is still about 10 feet short of its optimum capacity, and that during his tenure, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon authorized three desalination plans to feed it from the ocean. One is already functioning. The other option was to import fresh water from Turkey, which might have hit a hitch as relations between the two countries soured in recent years.
After dinner, we had a chance to unwind at the Mitzpe HaYamim Hotel and Spa in Rosh Pina (www.mitzpe-hayamom.com). Next to the vegetarian dining room, guests come upon a tea bar with a dizzying array of blends. We were treated to massages and had a chance to use the indoor pool and Jacuzzi. The Eucalyptus-scented steam room was a highlight for me.
The facilities also include an organic farm that supplies the dining room with dairy and produce. There are also craft workshops including candle and soap-making. The elegant rooms are accessible by glass elevator and overlook an indoor waterfall and garden atrium (below).
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The first stop of Day 2 was the 5,000-year-old seaport of Acre (also called Akko), where I became fascinated by the work of the Crusader-era Hospitallers, also known as the ancient Knights of St. John. Around 1023, these monk-soldiers set up shop in Acre to provide relief to sick or injured pilgrims to the Holy Land.
We toured the excavated bathhouse and former sewage tunnels, and found some Crusader graffiti. In the center of the ancient castle, we viewed the construction for a new Grand Munir family and children’s center that by year’s end will host shops and activities.
After touring the ancient area, where the waves of Haifa Bay cascade upon what’s left of a seaport wall, there’s not much more to do in Acre, but at least one Israeli is betting big on the future of hospitality there. Uri Jeremias, proprietor of the Uri Buri fish restaurant, has painstakingly restored, over the course of eight years (with help from the Antiquites Authorty, a former merchant’s palace and turned it into the Efendi Hotel (www.efendi-hotel.com). Facilities include a 400-year-old Turkish bath, a mosaic from the 18th century and a wine cellar he says dates back to the Crusader era. The boutique hotel has first-class accommodations and a decent view of the Mediterranean that is partially obscured by other houses and shops. It’s no EconoLodge, though. Rooms start at $320 off-season.
We were getting hungry by the time we reached our next stop, Makom B’Lev, located in Abirim, a community in the western Galilee. So our hosts, Eyal and Edna Hefer weren’t content setting out a wide assortment of their homemade goat cheeses and other snacks; they sent out for pizza, too. Essentially an Israeli-style dude ranch with cabin accomodations, (below) Makom B’Lev (www.makombalev.com -Hebrew only) offers trails for hiking and horse-riding. You could also tour the facility on rugged, gas-powered golf carts. Eyal also offers therapuetic horse-riding and hosts encounter groups for kids or others who are dealing with issues, and demonstrated this skill for our group with an impromptu session of trust-building and secret-sharing. Goats tend to have free run of the place, as we learned when a particularly friendly kid followed us back to our bus.
Dinner was a particular treat at Roberg, the kosher meat restaurant at the community of Livnim (www.roberg.co.il- Hebrew only), where the food is paralleled only by the spectacular view of the Ginosar Valley. From the dining room, you can watch Chef Ilan Roberg or his sons prepare your meal on a closed-circuit TV screen. We were treated to a sampling of chicken and meat dishes, my favorite by far being the lamb with lentils and bulgur.
After another cozy night at Mitzpe Hayamim, we began our return trek south to Tel Aviv with a stop at the former British detention camp at Atlit, established in the late ’30s to jail Jews trying to break the British blockade.
Newly installed at the museum (www.ilmuseums.com) is the Galina, (below) a replica of a pre-state immigration ship (it’s actually a 1970s Latvian freighter). Inside the landlocked ship visitors can view a film, based on transcripts of real testimony, about two young people hoping to enter Israel; their hopes are dashed when the ship is intercepted by a British destroyer.
A particularly inspirational moment comes when, after the voyagers fail to repel boarders by throwing potatoes, a girl climbs the mast and defianty displays what is soon to be Israel’s national flag.
Next came my favorite side trip, the recently opened Air Gallery aviation museum (www.airgallery.co.il) at Habonim Beach, where founder Dan Mokady, a former fighter pilot, spins tales of the first European aviators to land in the Holy Land. He also shows off his collection of vintage aircraft, including a Czech Mig, several French-made Dornier planes that formed Israel’s earliest air force and a bright-yellow, two-seat 1940 Tiger Moth biplane (below) believed to have been used in the War of Independence.
(With some effort, his crew managed to start its engine for us). Mokady, who won’t say much about how the museum is funded except to say he gets no government aid, runs an adjacent skydiving business, Paradive (www.paradive.com)
Nearby in Kerem Maharal is the Amphorae Winery, (www.amphoraewines.com), housed in a stone building deliberately evocative of a Tuscan villa. Founder Guy Rilov told us his family recently celebrated the bicentennial of his ancestor’s immigration to the region from Russia. The non-kosher winery and adjacent Makura farm, specializing in olive oil, focus on organic processes and the use of recycled water and solar-powered electricity.
We capped off our northern exposure with a visit to the Druze village of Ussefiyah. Our guide, Azmi Azmi, informed us that Druze and Jews have a great deal in common, including their similar dietary restrictions — no pork, and a delay between meat and dairy — and their concern about assimilation and intermarriage, though unlike Jews and like Muslims they eschew alcohol. Fully Israeli citizens, Druze serve in the army and their faith reveres the biblical figure Jethro, who was the father-in-law of Moses.
We were treated to a meat lunch at Nations and Flavors, (www.el-carmel.com), operated by El Carmel, an initiative created to expose Israelis and visitors to the life and culture of the Druze. With a panoramic view of the Jezreel Valley, the restaurant is under the certification of an organization called the Main Rabanut.
That’s right, a certified kosher restaurant run by Druze — another of the many surprises in store for adventurous visitors to the north.
Click here for an interactive Google map of locations mentioned in this story.
Travel expenses for the AJPA’s tour of Israel were subsidized by Israel’s Ministry of Tourism and El Al.