In June 2019 my wife, son, daughter-in-law and I vacationed for 10 days in Israel. My wife, son and I had last been to Israel 20 years ago and my daughter-in-law had never previously visited. We flew from Washington’s Dulles airport to Israel via Frankfurt and had a direct return flight from Israel to Washington.
As we have done with a number of our recent trips, we used an experienced U.S. based travel agent working with an in-country tour operator, in this case Mabat Platinum Touring Services, Ltd., to develop a customized tour for us. The tour company arranged for our own guide/driver and minivan, arranged hotels, admissions to most sites we visited, some guided tours, and some meals. They provided us with restaurant and touring suggestions for days and times when we were on out own. The tour company also arranged for two people to meet us at our gate on arrival to accompany us through immigration and customs and to get us through check-in to our gate on our departure. This significantly shortened the time and anxiety typically associated with arrivals and departments in foreign countries and is something I would recommend to anyone traveling to Israel.
Our itinerary started in Tel Aviv where we stayed three nights. We arrived in the early evening. We toured the beach near our hotel and had dinner before going to bed early. Our first full day in Israel was on our own, which allowed us to get over jet lag at our own pace. We visited the Nahalet Benjamin Art and Craft Fair and spent the afternoon at our hotel pool and on the beach. On our second full day we were met by our guide to tour Jaffe, the original Neve Zedak neighborhood of Tel Aviv, eat some falafel for lunch and visit the Tel Aviv Museum of Art, which has a very good modern art wing and interesting collection of Israeli art. That evening we dined at a very nice restaurant in the Old Port area of Tel Aviv called the Kitchen Market. Our hotel in Tel Aviv was the Carlton, which is right on the beach, offered large rooms with balconies and very good service. Our room included a large breakfast buffet served at the hotel’s beach club overlooking the water.
On day four we checked out of our hotel in Tel Aviv and went up the coast, visiting the Roman/King Herod era Caesarea, Haifa, Crusader developed Akko and Nazareth before arriving at our hotel in the Galilee, the Pastoral in Kfar Blum Kibbutz. Caesarea has a well-preserved Roman aqueduct, theatre, arena and temples along with the ruins of King Herod’s palace by the sea. It also contains a mosque and remains of later Crusader defensive walls and shops and restaurants serving the tourists.
In Haifa we stopped briefly to see the spectacular Bahai Shrine and Gardens and take in panoramic views of the city from Mt. Carmel.
In Akko we visited the Crusader fortress and tour Arab markets in the city. The Fortress was used as a prison during the British Mandate and was the site of a dramatic jailbreak by the Irgun. Today it serves as a museum and event venue. We had an excellent seafood lunch at El Marsa in Akko, which the Wall Street Journal had recommended.
We combined touring both Jewish and Christian religious site on our trip, visiting the Basilica of the Annunciation in Nazareth. It is a church located over Mary’s home in Nazareth that has been built, destroyed and rebuilt many times. Today’s Basilica is a modern building featuring large murals and art contributed from Christian communities around the world. It has an opening in the where you can descend to see the remains of Mary’s house and pray in front of it. There is reportedly some actual archeological evidence that it is the house where Mary lived.
The Hotel Pastoral in Kfar Blum is a modest hotel with rooms in pods spread across a fairly large property with a central restaurant and reception area. The property is located in northern Israel, close to the Lebanese border and the Golan Heights. Meals served buffet style was plentiful and kosher but nothing to write home about.
The next day we toured the Dan Nature Preserve, which includes the one of the headwaters of the Jordan River and Tel Dan, an extensive and important archeological site once settled by the Jewish tribe of Dan. Much of the Preserve is green and fed from active underground springs with the historical site located on higher, dryer ground with views into Syria. The most important find at the site is the only archeological reference to King David and the House of David. The site also has a temple built by the King of the Northern Kingdom that featured a golden calf and was intended as an alternative to the Temple in Jerusalem.
The following day we toured the Golan Heights, visiting a memorial to defenders who resisted the attacked of nearly 1,500 Syrian tanks long enough for reinforcements to arrive and Mt. Bental Volcano where you can see old fortifications and look into Syria. We also visited the Assaf Family Estate Winery and Kibbutz Ortal where we stopped for lunch. What turned out to be one of the highlights of our trip was dinner in the home of a Druze family in the Golan Heights village of Majdal Shamss. We had an excellent meat and learned about the Druze religion and culture, which is a offshoot of Islam.
On Tuesday, June, 11, 2019 we visit Tzfat or Safed, the center of Jewish mysticism and a community filled with synagogues and yeshivahs along with galleries and artist studios. In Tzfat, like in Jerusalem, you can feel the religious spirit of the place.
Continuing south from Tzfat with had lunch at a Arab schwarma restaurant on the shore of Lake Kinneret (the Sea of Galilee) and visited a historic synagogue in Beit Alfa with a 5th century mosaic floor. In the evening we entered Jerusalem where we stayed at the Mamilla Hotel, which adjoins a large shopping mall of the same name and is close to the Jaffa gate into the Old City. We had dinner at Eucalyptus, which was highly rated but where we found the food so so and the service dreadful.
On out first full day in Jerusalem, we received an overview of the Old City from an overlooked on the Mt. of Olives and toured on foot. It was a long, exhausting but rewarding day. We saw the reported site of the last supper, yeshivahs and synagogues, walked through the Jewish quarter where the old Roman road, the Cardo has been excavated, visit the Western Wall and Western Wall tunnels and walked the Via Dolorosa and toured the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. In the evening we dined a Satya, an excellent restaurant.
The next day we toured new Jerusalem with a docent led tour of the Yad Vashem museum, a visit to the Mehane Yehuda market and the Kennesset. We were impressed by the Moshe Safdie designed museum at Yad Vashem. That evening and a light supper in the Mall, we saw a light and sound show in the King David town in the old city, which was technically impressive but which lacked much of a storyline.
On Friday June 14th we visited Masada and the Dead Sea. Masada, the castle and fortress complex built by King Herod on top of a stone monolith is where 960 Jewish zealots who revolted against the Romans chose to commit suicide rather than be captured after a long siege. The remains of Masada and of the fortifications and siege lines built by the Romans are still visible today.
The Dead Sea, where we covered ourselves with mud the cleanse our skin and floated in the salt-thickened waters on a private beach was fund for all.
On Friday evening we returned to our hotel and said goodbye to our guide, Avi Cohen, who did a great job explaining what we saw and putting it in a historical and geographic context. We dined at Chakra, another excellent restaurant.
We were on our own in our final day in Jerusalem and spent much of it at the Jewish Museum, where we toured the archeological and Jewish collections, had lunch, saw the Dead Sea scrolls and a large model of Jerusalem. We had a light supper at the rooftop lounge in out hotel watching the sun set over the Old City of Jerusalem before heading to the airport for our 12:20 am flight.