Dolphin Beach, Eilat - where you can swim, or dive, with dolphins
The Western Wall, Jerusalem
The spectacular Ramon Crater in the Negev Desert
Anyone planning a relaxing break somewhere warm could do far worse than consider Israel for their next holiday.
I’ve just returned from ten days out in the Holy Land, and was overwhelmed by the warm welcome, wonderful hospitality, warm climate and baffling mix of cultures, religions and races one encounters in this sparkling gem of a country.
A stay overnight in Jerusalem’s Old City is a must for any visitor to Israel. Entering the ancient walled city via Jaffa Gate, I walked along the city wall ramparts, starting in the Armenian quarter, walking around to the Christian and Jewish quarters, ending up at the famous Western Wall with the Dome of the Rock behind. Truly a baffling city, Jerusalem is almost sensory overload – heated and noisy arguments between Jews, Christians, Muslims, Orthodox etc etc are prone to start without warning. It’s incredible street theatre!
From the Western Wall I walked into the sprawling Arab suq marketplace, a medley of colour, smell and sound. I stayed overnight at the Christ Church guest house inside Jaffa Gate opposite the Citadel (recommended – it’s basic but it’s very clean and reasonably priced for the excellent location – email firstname.lastname@example.org). Be prepared, however, for the noise from prayers at all the various mosques continuing well into the night, followed by early morning bells from the orthodox churches around – all part of the rich tapestry of the place!
Located in the lush north, the port city of Haifa is not normally on every visitor to Israel’s must-see list, but it’s one of my favourite places in the country. Worlds away from Jerusalem in terms of outlook, Haifa is laid back, green and pleasant. The Bahai gardens are a fantastic place to walk, and there’s a cable car which takes you to the top of Mount Carmel, overlooking the port area. Here you can survey a truly spectacular vista over Haifa’s port or enjoy a leisurely dinner at one of the many fine restaurants in Upper Carmel.
I stayed in the port area of Haifa just off the bustling, commercial Ben Gurion street with its open fronted restaurants, bars and nightlife at the excellent Port Inn. I can’t recommend this hostel highly enough – I don’t usually expect too much of hostel accommodation, but upon arrival I was greeted with the warmest of welcomes, found the staff to be friendly and helpful, rooms cleaned every day, excellent communal areas and a fantastic daily Israeli breakfast prepared fresh (see www.portinn.co.il).
When staying in Haifa, don’t miss a trip to the Druze village of Daliyet el Karmel at the top of Mt Carmel. Here, you are presented with a colourful array of woven Druze blankets, ceramics, Jerusalem glass and other souvenirs. There’s no shortage of Middle Eastern fare on offer if you’re peckish, with the dozens of falafel sellers bidding for your business.
From Haifa I drove the length of the country down South through the Negev desert. Israel is really several countries in one – the desert landscape is truly incredible. I recommend taking Highway 40 if planning on driving to Eilat as I was. This takes you through the Ramon Crater – the largest crater in the desert – which affords an amazing view from the top. Camels and Bedouin settlements can be seen – but I was struck at how well geared up for tourism the south of the country was. There’s no shortage of petrol stations and cafes on the trip through the desert, rendering my ‘Desert Survival’ guide rather irrelevant!
Arriving at the gorgeous Red Sea resort of Eilat, I checked into the Hotel Adi (very reasonably priced 3-star tourist hotel with balcony views of the sea and Jordanian border – see www.adi-hotel.co.il). Eilat offers everything one would expect of a desert tourist resort and much you wouldn’t. It never rains, it’s always warm, the beaches are fantastic, the sea is clear and clean – in addition to coral reefs, the proximity of two other countries- Jordan and Egypt, and to me the icing on the cake – scuba diving with dolphins! I even walked over the border to Taba in Egypt – don’t bother, there’s no one there- Eilat’s really got everything.
Driving back up North again, the Dead Sea is really a place of extremes – as well as famously being the lowest point on the planet, it’s also one of the hottest. It’s impossible to swim in the Dead Sea due to its salinity – but you can simply float and enjoy the supposed health giving benefits!
All in all, what I was most surprised at during my stay in Israel was a feeling of safety. Some of the usual tourist sites were rather quiet, suggesting people have been put off by recent events. Don’t be – the old cliché ‘It’s safer than London’ has never been truer in this case. Whether Arab, Israeli, Jewish or Christian, the over-riding atmosphere was simply one of welcome, with people offering fantastic hospitality and assistance wherever needed.