Editor’s Note: Airways Destinations is a new, occasional feature series highlighting unique travel destinations, often in connection with special flights. This feature is unpaid content unless otherwise noted.
From Sea to Sea: A Day of Holy Waters
We continue apace from Masada and the Dead Sea for an extended jaunt bound for Tiberias, a historical resort town on the Sea of Galilee and one of Israel’s four holy cities.
We drive through a Palestinian town in the West Bank in the Jordan Valley on the way to the Sea of Galilee. Not much to see here, but we sure get a sense of the disparity between this disputed area and other parts of Israel. Much of the first part of the drive is spent gazing at the mountains of Jordan, rising from the banks of the Jordan River and the Jordan Valley.
In the Jordan Valley, an electrified fence equipped with motion sensors separates the actual border from the road in the form of a No Man’s Land. Trespassers will be stopped or worse. Though Jordan is one of two of Israel’s neighbors actually to recognize Israel (the other being Egypt), there is no love lost between most of the general public of these countries
Feeling famished, we stop for lunch. The lunch choices are somewhat sparse; the café’s a bit sketchy with flies outnumbering the customers. We find an oasis of a grocery store but the group opts against eating, and we left even more famished.
When entering the West Bank the day before, there was no checkpoint but exiting the West Bank was an entirely different story. All vehicles are required to stop at a security checkpoint as we cross the border from the West Bank into the pre-1967 border of Israel with Jordan.
The border security forces are all packing some serious weaponry, thoroughly checking our passports to our faces. A stark reminder of the tight security that is ubiquitous and a basic fact-of-life in Israel.
Here’s a question: When is a sea, not a saltwater ocean, but instead a freshwater lake? Answer: When it’s the Sea of Galilee — The lowest freshwater lake on earth. It’s the only freshwater lake in Israel. Until eight years ago, it supplied 20 percent of Israel’s drinking water.
The lake level is now down 14 feet from normal and falling. The Golan Heights border it. Syria once controlled it, but since 1967, it is within Israel’s borders.
The Sea of Galilee is where Christians believe that Jesus walked on water. Today, it’s used for recreational purposes like skiing on the water, instead of walking on it.
Our voyage on The Sea of Galilee is anything but a booze cruise. The only drink offer onboard is holy water, seriously. Nor is it a Jews Cruise. This sailing on the Sea of Galilee is particularly patronized by Christian making pilgrimages to this sacred sea, owing to the holy locations for Christianity around the lake. Including where Jesus walked on water.
As long as we’re on the subject of Holy Waters, our next stop is Yardenit, a hub of baptisms on a canal of the Jordan River.
There are Baptisms by Fire, and then there are Baptisms by water! At Yardenit there are Baptisms by the busload! Ironically, the song blaring in the gift shop is Europe’s 1980s glam rock hit “The Final Countdown.” A sign of things to come? A “Revelation” to me? Sorry, I will stop with the wordplay now.
A TASTE OF ISRAEL (IN FACT, MANY!)
Don’t get me wrong. I love food. I am not a food writer. I don’t Instagram my meals. Describing and photographing meals just isn’t my jam, though I do like jam too!
It’s best left to palettes more advanced than mine. Frankly, the cuisine of our trip to Israel could be its own ten-thousand-word story. The country is a foodie heaven, but our meal in Tiberias was so memorable, I’m going to give it a go.
Food porn alert!
Offsetting the culinary catastrophe of filet ala flies in the West Bank from earlier in the day, our dining went from worst to first. Our most delicious meal thus far is at Magdalena, an Arabic restaurant in Tiberias.
The Meza appetizers include the finest tabouli and hummus I have ever tasted. My taste buds delight in the spicy lamb kabob stew followed by shrimp bathed in a green pea risotto. Ok, see what I am talking about? Food reviews aren’t my jam, onward!
The Galilee region is Israel’s fertile agricultural growing region. You name the veggie, they grow it here and export it too: avocados, bananas, lemons, olives, oranges, corn, melons, etc.
We are at the tail end of the dry season, so the hills are golden brown like California, but when the soaking winter rains arrive, this region is as verdant as Ireland.
Attention hedonists and winos: Finally a little day drinking! Or as its more legitimately called wine tasting.
Our intrepid team of Vino-venturers arrives at Zichron Yaakov, a town in the heart of Israel’s wine country, founded by Baron Edmund de Rothschild in 1880. It is home to the famous Carmel winery.
Our tasting is set at the Tishbi Winery, which was founded in the nascent days of Israeli vineyards, back in 1984. Our host, Golan Tishbi, is a 5th generation vintner who is an epicurean renaissance man and then some.
He runs not only a winery but also a remarkable bakery. They prepare their own flour, grow their own grains, and bake their own bread under the supervision of a French pastry chef/food scientist.
It turns out Tishbi is a heavy smoker – as in barbecue! There’s an unexpected surprise behind the tasting room. A hickory pit BBQ food truck with a smoker imported from Missouri.
Tishbi was inspired by Danny Meyer’s eponymous Blue Smoke in NYC. This Golan Grillmaster specializes in beef ribs and brisket and is readying for a pilgrimage to the Mecca of ‘cue: Memphis and Chicago to further hone his craft. Tishbi is the first to import BBQ rubs into Israel.
This epicurean renaissance man seems to know no bounds. His Restaurant Tishbi is known for fish, cheese, and pasta with an Austrian master chef in the kitchen.
And as if this passion isn’t enough, Tishbi is an Israeli Willy Wonka. His passion for chocolate motivated him to import a chocolatier, Jeremy Aspa, who not so much makes chocolate but engineers it.
Why this pursuit of so many passions? Tishbi replies in Wonkaesque fashion “I specialize in making dreams happen.”
And oh yes, what did we come for? The wine.
Putting all Mogen David and Manischewitz jokes aside, Israel has become a haven for world-class wineries over the last 30 years. The soil & climate lend themselves well to growing the grape.
At Tishbi Vineyards, they have a real L’Chaim approach to wine. With their vineyards, they can cover much grape ground due to the diversity of the microclimates. They were the first boutique winery in Israel, opening in 1984.
“We intentionally plateaued at one million bottles as we branched out into other culinary adventures. I don’t specialize in any vintage or grape. I chose creativity,” proclaims Tishbi.
Behind this galloping gourmet is a savvy business Israeli. Tishbi tells us: “We don’t work for the money. We work for the profit.” Oh, and he restores vintage Willys Jeeps too. One thing he doesn’t get much of is sleep.
All Hail Caesarea! A Roman Holiday in Israel?!
Our next to last day in Israel finds us taking a detour on the Appian Way to Rome; well, kind of!
We drive to Caesarea National Park, remains of this former Roman occupied “Crusader City” to visit the Roman Theater, Hippodrome, bathhouse and Herodias port.
Caesarea is a historic port city, nestled on the Mediterranean Sea founded by King Herod the Great. Herod had high affinity for Rome and was also trying to curry favor with the all-powerful Romans, so he named it after Augustus Cesar and modeled it after Rome.
Caesarea features many Roman influences and architectural artifacts: remains of the former Roman Theater, Herod’s Palace, Hippodrome, bathhouse, Roman and Augustus Temple (currently under restoration and excavation), a Roman aqueduct, and Herodias Port.
The King’s blatant flattery didn’t work out so well as the Romans ended up invading Jerusalem and destroying it anyway. Besides the Romans, Cesarea has been occupied by many groups of Christians during the Crusades to the Turks. As we all know, Israel has historically been an occupied land. Not surprisingly, the delicious al fresco restaurant is called The Crusader.
Bright Lights, Big City: Tel Aviv – Jaffa
After a quick check in at our Hotel Carlton in Tel Aviv, it’s time to explore Israel’s most cosmopolitan and second largest city and its historic city Jaffa. We don’t have much time to waste as we have just twenty-four hours here.
Our first excursion of the day is a hot air balloon ride over Tel Aviv, with the inflated sphere festooned with Nickelodeon characters Shimmer & Shine and Paw Patrol.
This tethered over-sized birthday balloon ascends to 350 feet, affording panoramic 360-degree views of the city and Yarkon Park below. Our balloon pilot tells us she flies up to thirty trips per day but didn’t disclose how many trips she took back down. As cute as it is, and incredible its views, vertigo is not my thing, so I was happy when we’re back on terra firm.
Next, we jaunt over to Jaffa, Tel Aviv’s much older sibling city. Jaffa city, sitting adjacent to Tel Aviv, is 4,000 years old but together they form one single city known as Tel Aviv-Jaffa.
In the biblical times of King Solomon, it was an active port extending well into the 19th century. Many Jewish groups arrived here at the end of the 19th century. It fell into disrepair over the century as Jews established and settled in Tel Aviv. Jaffa has since rebounded somewhat. Jaffa retains a large Arabic population.
There are now numerous galleries and artist residences populating the narrative streets, along with an artistic allegiance to the color blue.
Why is this? Doors and windows are painted in blue to convince visiting the angels that they are behaving and loving virtuous lives. I am not making this up. Jaffa city has been controlled by Egyptians, Romans, Turks, Israelites, and Arabs. Remains of Ra’amses Egyptian gate is the oldest part of Jaffa.
A wishing bridge traverses a small ravine. Visitors are beckoned to place their hand on their zodiac sign located on the railings, gaze out at sea, and make a wish. As a bonus, spectacular vistas of the Mediterranean coastline of Tel Aviv can be viewed from here.
Tel Aviv is the second largest city to Jerusalem, but it’s the beating high tech heart of the Israeli economy!
It’s a relatively short distance from Jerusalem, but this cosmopolitan city of the future might as well be on another planet. Its crackling vibe is befitting of its youth as a city, only dating back to the nineteenth century.
It really warrants its own post, but alas with our brief sojourn here we are only able to scratch the surface of the surface of the surface.
This largely secular city is where Israel lets its hair down. Known as the city that never stops, this Metropolis displays a Miami like vibe with its gleaming high rises, dazzling beaches, party culture, liberal attitudes, and pulsing energy.
New York is not the only city known as the city that never sleeps. Tel Aviv shares the same moniker. The glistening skyline ever reaches for the skies, asserting the city’s place as a world city.
In contrast to the mind-bending skyline stands Sarona Village — architecturally more Bavaria than Bethlehem. Sarona was first settled by German Lutherans in the late 19th century when Tel Aviv was a tiny backwater.
They settled here in the Holy Land so they could be the first to experience the second coming of Christ. Unfortunately for these hapless people, their timing was premature. And as of this writing, it still is.
Ever patient, they continued to wait until they were evicted by the British in 1940 in the early days of WWII out of fear that they were Nazi sympathizers. This was ultimately unfounded.
The neighborhood then went into a multi-decade decline. About ten years ago, Sarona re-emerged gentrified as a pedestrian street that’s home to hip boutiques, trendy bars, a cafe society, buzzy restaurants, and a food hall that is every bit the equal of New York’s Chelsea Market.
Sarona is Israel’s version of Miami Beach’s Lincoln Road or LA’s Santa Monica Promenade but not nearly as started out with chains and crowds. Though Tommy Hilfiger and Diesel Jeans stores suggest, retail chain creeps.
The German influence is very prevalent here. Rothschild Boulevard in Tel Aviv boasts the most extensive collection of Bauhaus architecture in the world. These buildings were primarily designed by Jewish architects who fled Germany in the 1930s.
This neighborhood, known as “The White City,” is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. If I could make one improvement, I wish the authorities could bury the power lines that mar the photography of these impressive edifices.
Situated discreetly on Rothschild is Israel’s Independence Hall: This rather unassuming building belies its importance in Israel’s history. It was here that David-Ben Guirion, The founder of Israel and its first Prime Minister signed the Israeli Declaration of Independence on May 14, 1948.
Free mobile libraries based on the honor system may be relatively new to America, but they’re a long time staple of Israeli life. Street hammocks in the median lining Rothschild Blvd In Tel Aviv are a sweet touch which provides a respite from the bustling street life. I could use a siesta after all this touring, but our time is running preciously short now.
Tel Aviv is a foodie heaven and the restaurant/bar Vao is wow! I gulped down the most marvelous Vietnamese meal ever! Beef Banh and the le Dim Cha we’re off the hook. Phuc Yeah, this place is spicy good!
As we began our trip to a market, we booked our trip on another market: The Nahalat Binyamin Pedestrian Mall with the Arts and Crafts Bazaar and Market.
With dozens of stalls selling fresh meat, fish, fruit, and vegetables, and tchotchkes galore, the organized chaos of this place has its perfect charm. Bargaining in Israel, as you can imagine is a national sport.
With just a few hours remaining until our flight home, I take a long walk down the Tel Aviv’s world famous beaches of the Mediterranean Sea.
I’d like to say I used this rare break to reflect on these last six awesome days. But I have to admit I was still in a state of trance with what lay in front of me.
Though its early November, these stretches of sand pulsate with sun worshippers, surfers, kite surfers, and even swimmers. All situated against a backdrop of high-rise condos and office buildings.
As a Miami guy, this feels very much at home. That’s been the running theme of my short, but packed visit to Israel. It’s not only my homeland, but it honestly feels like home.
I genuinely love airports, and I am rarely if ever sad at them. But as we arrived at Ben Gurion International Airport, this time was different. I was a little sad. Sad to leave some new friends, sad to leave the engaging and warm people of Israel, and particularly melancholy about saying farewell to Amos.
Yes, I was excited to be going home, but I was leaving a newfound home as well. I can’t wait to bring my family here where they too will discover there’s no place like home.
Israel, you had me at Shalom. Toda & Lehitra’ot!
Disclosure: The Israeli Ministry of Tourism provided lodging, transportation, food, and tours. All opinions, however, remain those of the author.
Special Thanks to Amos Baron, Dana Shemesh and Sheryl Stein for their invaluable assistance with this story. To contact Amos Baron, email Amostours@gmail.com.