It’s not been an easy period for tourism anywhere in the world and particularly in Israel. Since March 2020 non-citizens have not been allowed into the country (except if they meet special conditions). But I did still manage to do some tours and also made some online presentations for people overseas.
So it’s very special to be recognised by the Luxury Travel Guide as the Private Tour Specialist of the Year for Israel.
I understand that this year the awards have taken into account past performance given the drastic reduction in numbers of tourists, together with how travel businesses have adapted to COVID regulations and restrictions.
I’m grateful for the award and look forward to welcoming many tourists on private tours to Israel as soon as the government allows!
A couple of weeks ago I decided to take a couple of days to explore some more of northern Israel. One of the amazing things about this country is that despite the fact that it’s very small and despite the fact that I’ve travelled around it so much, there’s always something more to discover. It’s really quite remarkable.
Day One: The Galilee Panhandle
I left Tel Aviv early in the morning and after a brief stop at a delicious bakery in Rosh Pina (which specialises in only baking from spelt flour), arrived in the area of the Galilee Panhandle, the area of Israel which sticks up into the north and is surrounded by Lebanon on one side and the Golan Heights on the other. I began at the Yiftach Crevices, some small fissures in the ground which you can clamber through with the help of some metal handholds that have been helpfully left in the rocks for that very purpose. I was also able to catch sight of a whole bunch of rock hyraxes that were enjoying the peace and quiet until I showed up.
From there I ventured further north, hugging the border with Lebanon, until I arrived at the Hunin Fortress. Built around 800 years ago as part of a series of Crusader fortifications in the area, it’s largely unexcavated, but what is visible is still pretty impressive and you also have stunning views into the Hula Valley.
The next stop was in Metulla, Israel’s northernmost town which is almost entirely surrounded by Lebanon. I visited the area that was known as “The Good Fence”, a border crossing from when Israel occupied southern Lebanon. It was so called because Lebanese would cross over to work in Israel, and it was also a point at which Israelis could meet their friends and family who were serving in Lebanon. When Israel withdrew in 2000, the crossing was shut, leaving behind a set of now-ruined buildings, next to a beautiful and touching memorial to members of the South Lebanon Army who helped Israel fight the PLO and then Hezbollah.
Then it was time for something of an adventure. A friend had advised that it was possible to find the entrance to one of the tunnels that Hezbollah had dug underneath the Israeli border, and was later sealed by the IDF. I followed his instructions, driving past numerous warning signs (“border ahead”, “no entry” etc), but was reassured by the fact that plenty of the local farmers were doing the same. I eventually found the tunnel entrance and it was quite remarkable to see it in person – and consider what the results would have been had the IDF not discovered it.
It was time to head east towards the Golan heights. After a brief stop to cool off in the refreshing spring waters at Horshat Tal National Park, I went for a short walk to the ancient Roman ruins at Horvat Omrit. This was a really remarkable site, consisting of 3 partially excavated and very impressive temples from around 2000 years ago. It was a lovely way to cap off the day.
The sun was now setting. I headed further east into the Golan Heights and towards the Syrian border; I had booked accommodation in a kibbutz called Ein Zivan. But I couldn’t resist stopping off in Merom Golan for a pilgrimage to HaBokrim, one of my favourite steak houses, for a delicious dinner en route.
Day Two: The Golan Heights
It’s still pretty hot in September so I got up early to grab a hearty breakfast and then head off on my first hike of the day: Nachal Meshushim. This trail takes on a walk through beautiful scenery down into a valley where you can see the remarkable hexagonal formations in a large basalt rock pool. It’s normally a good opportunity to cool off in the waters but the Ministry of Health had reported the waters had been temporarily polluted (probably by cows upstream) and had warned against swimming – this did not seem to stop other locals from plunging into the water but as warm as it was, I didn’t want to risk it.
Some water did await though at the next stop, Ein Tina. This is a full-on water hike, wading through fast flowing water and clambering over stones in the river bed. It was very refreshing indeed and very popular with the locals (probably also because there is no entry fee!).
Feeling refreshed, I checked out a very interesting spot for lunch called Bell Ofri. It’s hard to describe…part farm, part winery, part ceramics workshop and more. The couple who run the place are lovely and served up a delicious homemade lunch while recounting their quite fascinating life story.
As a final stop for the day, I headed to Tel Saki. It seemed appropriate in the lead up to Yom Kippur, given that it was the location of a particularly vicious battle at the beginning of the 1973 Yom Kippur war. The site contains a moving memorial and a good view into Syria as it’s right next to the border.
There was just time to stop at my old favourite, De Karina, for some chocolate to take home for the family. For dinner, I tried out a restaurant called Suzana. I was tempted to try their wagyu burger (kosher wagyu beef is something of a novelty) but when in the Golan…you need to go local, and their sirloin steak was truly excellent. A great way to end another great day.
Day Three: Reality Bites
I had another full day of adventure planned but woke up in the morning to a message from my daughter’s nursery that there had been a COVID case – Israeli law meant that the nursery had to close and all the kids had to isolate at home. The adventure had to be put on hold as I headed swiftly home to help out with the family…but I’ll be back – there’s still so much to explore and discover.
When we had an opportunity for a day off for all the family, we headed south for some desert scenery, flavours and wildlife.
I love the desert. Actually, I should probably refine that. I love the Israeli desert. I haven’t been in enough other deserts to compare.
Growing up in the UK, there were not really any opportunities to get to know desert scenery other than from TV. And because most deserts that I had seen on TV were of the Saharan variety, with huge sand dunes and not much else, I thought that’s what deserts were.
But it turns out that a lot of desert is not like that at all. Israel has two deserts, the Judean Desert in the east, the Negev in the south. And you’ll be hard pressed to find sand dunes in either. They do exist in the Negev, but you have to look pretty hard for them.
So instead, you have a rocky landscape, and a lot of it is spectacular, the results of millions of years of shifts in local tectonic plates and erosion from flash floods and other geological processes. It’s easy to disappear on hikes into this scenery where you won’t see another soul for hours and can enjoy the sound of absolute silence — apart from your own footsteps.
With tourism drying up, I hadn’t been to the desert for over a year, and my daughter had never been at all. I was excited to share this new landscape with her. Hiking with a 3 year old is challenging, so I opted to plan a day that she would love in and around Mitzpe Ramon.
Perched on the edge of the stunning Ramon Crater, Mitzpe Ramon is a small town that was originally founded with the idea that people would stay overnight on a drive to/from the Red Sea resort town of Eilat at Israel’s southernmost tip. That doesn’t happen so much these days (and I’m not sure it ever did), particularly as the most direct and quickest road to Eilat now bypasses the town, but there are a few fun things to do to grab the attention of passing tourists (and also one of Israel’s most luxurious hotels — Beresheet).
First things first though. On arrival, we wanted to get some food, and made a stop at Lasha Bakery. It’s a place with an interesting backstory, founded by someone who left the city to follow their passion in the desert, and everything we tried was absolutely delicious.
Bellies filled, we headed off to the local alpaca farm. Alpacas are native to South America, not the Middle East, but the owners of this farm have been tending them here for years. Our daughter loved feeding the alpacas and also seeing the other animals on the farm.
Next, we headed down into the Ramon Crater itself. This type of crater is technically known as a makhtesh and is only found in Israel, the Sinai and I believe one or two in North Africa. The Ramon Crater is the largest, at 40km (25 miles) in length. These craters weren’t formed by meteor impacts, but by complex geological processes over millions of years. One of the by-products is lots and lots of beautifully coloured sands.
The crater is a nature reserve and you can’t just wander around taking the sand, but there is a specific area where it is allowed. Note: come prepared with your own bottle/jar and spoon/spade. We went around the different colours of sand and added different layers to our bottle. It was a huge hit with our daughter and a lovely souvenir to take home.
It was time to scope out more wildlife. One of the most beautiful animals that can be found in the desert is the nubian ibex. And there’s normally a few of them hanging around Mitzpe Ramon. It’s not a big place, and after driving for a little while, we found some. We passed a good amount of time just observing these graceful, nimble creatures.
For a final stop, we popped over to the Hai Ramon nature reserve. This little park contained a host of small desert creatures and critters and a nice movie about the surprisingly large amount of animals that do live in the desert. It’s not a place that you’d spend a huge amount of time in, but again our daughter loved it, and many of the animals were very cute. Nearby is the Ramon Visitors Centre, which was closed because of the current restrictions, but is well worth a visit when open.
It was time to head home. I was thrilled to have got back into the desert scenery, and a super time was had by all. A fabulous day out all round.
When a heatwave hit, a lazy day relaxing by natural springs in northern Israel was just what the doctor ordered.
The area known as the Beit She’an Valley, more recently rebranded as the “Valley of Springs”, is, on the face of it, not an ideal place to live. It’s the hottest part of Israel—a combination of its altitude (over 100m, or 300ft below sea level) and its basalt rock, which absorbs the heat.
Kibbutz Tirat Tzvi, a farming collective located in the valley, holds the record for the hottest recorded temperature in Asia for a year-round settlement, clocking in 54C (129F). And yet, throughout history, people have lived and thrived in this area. In fact, under Roman rule, Beit She’an (or Scythopolis, as it was then known) was the regional capital.
What made this possible? The ready supply of fresh water. In addition to a couple of year-round streams, the geology of the area contributed to the formation of a plethora of springs. Combined with the fertile soil, it became a place where people could flourish.
Last October, after a gruelling few months of lockdown, and during a harsh heatwave, my wife and I decided to take a day to ourselves and drove up to the area to cool off in nature. We specifically chose to go during the week—during the weekend these places are normally packed.
We began our day in the appropriately named “Park of Springs” site. While many of the springs require a bit of work to find, this is an organised site that collects together three springs and associated streams, with trails connecting them and helpful signage and facilities. Entry to the site is free, but you can pay to hire bicycles, golf carts or to deposit valuables in a locker.
Given the heat, we splashed out on a golf cart and spent a wonderful few hours in the park. We drove between springs, alternatively dipping ourselves in the refreshing water, cooling off in the shade, and enjoying the picnic we’d picked up from one of our favourite bakeries on our drive north.
There are fish pools in the park, owned by the local kibbutz. October is the beginning of the big annual bird migration across Israel, with half a billion birds flying in from Europe and Asia to head down to warmer climes on the African continent. We were able to spot a whole flock of pelicans in the pools, quite majestic animals.
One thing we didn’t have time for was the Kibbutzim Stream water hike. It’s located in the park, and with the water going quite deep at parts, can become more of a swim than a hike. I’ll have to get back there to give it a go.
Having enjoyed the park, we set off on our way home, via a stop at a different spring, in the Jezreel Valley. The Harod Spring is mentioned in the Bible, in one of my favourite stories. Detailed in Judges 7, Gideon takes his Israelite warriors to the spring ahead of a major battle with the Midianites. In what I sometimes jokingly refer to as the first HR assessment centre, he invites them to drink, and then selects his fighters based on the result. You can read the full story here.
Today, the Harod Spring is a national park in a beautiful setting. There is an entry fee, but the advantage is that it was even more peaceful and relaxed than the Park of the Springs. We spent another good couple of hours relaxing in and out of the water, and just enjoying nature after so long stuck in the city. You can read more about the Harod Spring from when I visited it on the tour guide course.
Sadly, it was time to head home, but we made time for a couple of culinary stops. First, for a yummy early supper at Maklot Vanil in Afula, and then to pick up some crisp, fresh and very reasonably priced veggies from the Carmelim farm shop in Yogev.
All in all, a wonderfully relaxing day in nature, with some delicious treats to boot.
Mt Hermon is the highest peak in Israel, reaching 2 040m (6690ft) above sea level. It’s a perfect location for a summer hike, providing you can plan a bit in advance.
A couple of months ago, in the middle of the summer, I suddenly found myself with a completely free day for myself at short notice. With all the Corona-chaos I hadn’t had an opportunity to do any guiding for some months, and was missing being in the field. I thought it would be a great opportunity to do a hike.
I really enjoy hiking, and although you might think I do a lot of it as a tour guide, it’s actually quite unusual with the type of visitors I normally work with. Most of my clients are coming for no more than a week and they want to pack in as much as possible – so taking a few hours from the schedule for a hike is not normally an option. It does happen here and there, but also tends to be the same trails that are close to other sites of interest or perhaps have some specific historical or religious context.
So, this was an opportunity to do a hike for me. Unfortunately, the Israeli summer is not best-designed for walking outdoors. Temperatures easily hit the mid-30s (that’s the mid-90s for our American friends) even in the cooler parts of the country. And certain areas can be extremely humid. I’d have to start quite early in the morning for a hike to even be feasible. There were other restrictions – I was on my own so would need to do a circular trail (it’s quite common to walk in one direction and then hitchhike back to where you parked your car – but in Corona times I didn’t think that was sensible). Additionally, on some trails there’s no guarantee your car will be there when you return. I needed to get some advice.
So I turned to Steve of Finjan. Steve and I did the tour guide course together, and became good friends. Although he guides general visitors like I do, together with another member of our course he’s also developed a successful business specialising on off the beaten track travel in Israel, with a particular focus on hiking. I told him my criteria and he suggested that I hike the Hermon – the highest mountain in Israel, on the Syrian and Lebanese border.
I hadn’t thought of travelling that far, but he really sold it to me – particularly because it would be a lot cooler than anywhere else in the country due to the elevation, which in the peak of the summer is a major incentive. I’d been up the Hermon a few times, but never on foot, and the challenge was appealing. It’s not simple to do – you need to get permission from the army because of its proximity to the border. But Steve talked me through the process, my permission came through, and all was set.
So, a couple of days later, at 6.30am I was driving out of Tel Aviv and heading north. It was a wonderful drive, against the traffic, and just under three hours later I was driving through the Druze town of Majdal Shams on the Israel/Syrian border, and on the slopes of the Hermon. At this point, my heart began to sink. The town was enveloped in thick fog. Had I come all this way to hike in the mist? But I was there now, and I was rewarded for pushing on as I continued to ascend towards the beginning of the trail, eventually bursting through the fog to enjoy a stunningly clear view over the Golan Heights, the Hula Valley and the Bekaa Valley in Lebanon. I literally shouted for joy! It really was quite remarkable.
I arrived at the beginning of the trail and the soldier at the gate let me through thanks to the approval I’d secured. I began to climb, pausing every now and again to enjoy the beautiful scenery, the solitude and also because it was quite a steep ascent – so I need to catch my breath! The trail was well marked and in about an hour I was at the top. It was glorious, and thanks to the relatively early time of day, almost completely empty. I had the views to myself and it was a very pleasant 24C (75F), so much nicer than the relentless humidity of Israel’s centre.
The Hermon is mentioned on multiple occasions in the Bible (sometimes by its other names: Mt Snir, Siryon or Sion). It stands out from a distance and clearly commanded respect and a sense of mysticism. Indeed some (minority) opinions identify it as the real Mt Sinai or even the site of the Transfiguration of Jesus. Whether or not this is the case, both on the approach and from the top, the mountain emanates a sense of awe. It felt very special to be there.
You don’t have to hike to enjoy the views from the top – there is also a chairlift and, more recently, a cable car – neither of which require army approval. The Hermon is the only place in Israel that you can ski (at the right time of year) and these mainly serve the skiers – there’s not a huge amount to do up there in the summer other than enjoy the views. Only 7% of the Hermon is in Israeli hands (taken from Syria in 1967) – the majority of it is in Syria and a small part is in Lebanon. So the areas you can explore up there are quite restricted.
Steve had suggested that I hike up and take the cable car down, but there was some rather disturbing news awaiting me at the top of the mountain – the cable car was broken… They were trying to fix it and “hopefully” it would be working soon. Fortunately, I did have a way to pass the time – there is a further trail at the top of the mountain, requiring separate army approval, that allows you to wander a bit further.
I took this trail, exploring the area of a major battle in the Yom Kippur war, and reaching the symbolic start point for the Israel Trail – a renowned hiking route that all the way from Israel’s north to its south. When I originally ascended the Hermon, I had views into Israel and Lebanon, from this side I could see deep into Syria. I wandered as far as I was allowed (the army only approved me to go on part of this trail) before enjoying a picnic lunch and venturing back cable car with fingers firmly crossed. Fortunately, they had fixed it and I was able to avoid punishing my knees by attempting to descend the way I came.
By now it was around 12.30 – and it seemed a shame to already head home. I then remembered that it was berry season in the Golan, and so headed to the Bereishit orchards to do some fruit picking for the family. I left with boxes full of fresh blackberries, blueberries, plums and nectarines. Delicious.
And there was still time, so I popped into an old favourite – the De Karina chocolate factory in Ein Zivan, for one of their famous milkshakes and to pick up some treats to take home.
I got back around 4.30pm, exhausted but exhilarated. When guiding, there’s so much to think about all the time – some logistical thing, some calls you need to make, answering questions – you don’t have that much time to enjoy the places you’re visiting as the tourists do. This was a day where I sort of guided myself, and was able to really appreciate the scenery, the sights, sounds and smells, in a much more personal way. It was wonderful!
If you’re ever looking for a great hike in the Israeli summer, I can’t recommend the Hermon enough. Here’s what you should think about when planning your trip:
– As with any hike: bring appropriate footwear, hat, water, a trail map and particularly sunscreen – the elevation on the Hermon means the sun’s rays are much stronger. Bring enough water to hike in both directions in case of another cable car malfunction.
– Even in the summer it can be cold at the top depending on the winds and cloud cover – so have a jumper/sweater in your bag.
– Make sure to get permission from the army enough in advance – this is a lot easier to do with a tour guide.
While the COVID-19 pandemic continues to challenge a lot of the world, we are seeing a slow but gradual return to travel for tourism globally. At the time of writing, Israel still is not letting visitors in who do not hold citizenship, but there are more and more conversations happening about reopening the skies.
So, I thought it could be helpful to share some tips and thoughts for anyone thinking about coming to tour Israel in the near future, while we’re still in the shadow of the Coronavirus. There are pros and cons in travelling at a time like this, and ultimately everyone has to make an individual choice on the risk/reward ratio. While prices for accommodation and touring services are likely to be cheaper, and sites less crowded, none of us want to become unwell or forced into isolation. I hope that this blog can help that decision process a little.
And of course — an important disclaimer. In case it wasn’t obvious, I’m not a medical professional. So I’m basing these tips and pieces of advice on what I’ve read and heard from those who are much more learned than I am. Don’t take it all as gospel — read around and do your research.
1) Make a Plan and Stick to It (with a Backup Plan Just in Case) Because of limitations on visitor numbers, you now have to reserve a time slot before visiting many sites and attractions in Israel. This means that it’s a lot harder to be spontaneous — whether it’s deciding to suddenly change route and stop at a new attraction (they may not have space), or spending more time than you intended at a site (you may miss your slot at the next one).
Spontaneity is not necessarily impossible — because there aren’t as many tourists as normal, if you’re coming outside of school vacation dates there are likely to be spots free. But you can’t be as flexible as before.
However, having said that…if you do need to cancel a planned activity or stay, it’s good to have a sense of options of what you may be able to do instead. I don’t think you need to have a whole backup itinerary planned, just have a shortlist of backup options for activities and accommodations by area and, if you need to, you can quickly rearrange your plans.
2) Be Prepared to Be Flexible But didn’t I just say you couldn’t be as flexible as before? Indeed you can’t — at least you can’t choose to be. But you may be forced to be flexible as the conditions around the country fluctuate. A site or hotel may be forced to close temporarily because of a confirmed case of COVID-19, or an area may be locked down because of a spike in infections. As long as you come with the mindset that this may happen, and embrace it, you should be ok.
3) Avoid Places When They’re Likely to be Crowded Try to plan to avoid being in places when they’re likely to be crowded. I’d personally suggest staying out of the big cities during the weekend (Thursday evening until Sunday morning). Don’t go to holy sites during service times and visit markets early in the morning before footfall increases.
Israelis don’t normally eat dinner before 8pm and sometimes even later. So if you’re happy to eat early, you can reduce your risk when dining out by being in restaurants when they are quieter (and also should get better service as a result!). Nearly all restaurants have outdoor dining areas which are recommended as lower risk of virus transmission than being inside.
Alternatively, particularly in cities, there are many great options for getting food delivered. In Tel Aviv, the Wolt app is particularly good as it works in English (although not all menus are translated) and offers a contactless delivery option.
4) Consider Apartment Rentals Over Hotels The vast majority of hotels in Israel are taking things seriously and following the guidelines of the Ministry of Health. I’ve actually been quite impressed. However, there’s only so much they can control. And they can’t control all the behaviour of their guests. It’s difficult for a hotel as a service provider to force their paying guests to follow the rules. There have been incidences of people who were supposed to be in isolation going to stay in hotels.
So, I’d consider staying in an apartment rental. You won’t get the service of a hotel, but you’ll be reducing your risk of exposure by the simple fact that you’ll be walking past fewer people.
5) Communicate with Your Accommodation Whether you decide to stay in a hotel or an apartment rental, take the time to communicate with them in advance before booking. Understand the precautions that they are taking in terms of cleaning, distancing, meals (in the case of a hotel) and look into reviews to see if what they tell you is actually happening. Some review sites offer the opportunity to contact the person who made the review, so consider reaching out to them to hear more.
And if you’re communicating anyway, you may want to see what can be done on price. On the one hand, these businesses have suffered a lot because of the drop in tourism, and if you can afford not to negotiate then I’d suggest it would be a nice thing to do. But if the price is the difference between you coming or not coming, there’s no harm in asking.
6) Check Cancellation Policies Before you book anything, understand the cancellation policy. Until when can you cancel if for some reason your trip can’t go ahead? What are the penalties
for doing so? Is it possible to move your booking if needed? At times like these, understanding the policies becomes even more important.
7) Get Travel Insurance I’m constantly surprised by how many people I’ve guided don’t come with travel insurance. It was always a given growing up that we had it. Now it is more important than ever, although also more expensive than ever. Good travel insurance will cover any health care needs, help you get home if your flights are cancelled and also cover you for cancelling your trip or parts of your trip if needed. I would not fly without it at the moment.
8) Look but Don’t Touch This may seem obvious but I think it’s worth stating. For many people, particularly those coming to Israel for religious reasons, touch can make up an important part of the trip. Whether it’s touching the smoothness of the stones of the Western Wall to connect to the millions of people who have done the same, or touching places where it’s believed that Jesus performed miracles, for example. I am not an expert at all on the possibility of virus transmission through touching these places — but I would suggest that it’s not worth the risk of ruining your trip.
9) Consider a Private Guide You could save yourself a lot of this hassle by hiring a private guide to do it for you — making the bookings, staying on top of which areas are lower and higher risk, adjusting your itinerary if needed and being able to speak the local language to help out in case of any emergency.
Additionally, doing a private tour will reduce your exposure to other people (for example on a bus tour) and keeping the same guide with you for the whole trip as opposed to getting different guides in different places will reduce your risk further.
Obviously I’m biased, but I think that a private guide can add even more value at times such as these, although it will increase the cost of your trip.
10) Consider Your Travel It pains me to say this, but this is not the best time to come on a trip to Israel. Yes — there are the advantages of lower pricing and significantly less crowded sites. But some places are not open, and depending on your character, possible anxiety re contracting COVID-19 may mean the trip is not as relaxing as you would like. So if you do have a way to delay your trip, I’d very much consider it.
But not everyone chooses their time to visit Maybe it’s a family occasion that has been planned for ages and you don’t want to miss it. Maybe you don’t know if you’ll be able to come in the future because of potential changes in your lifestyle. Maybe you have a work trip and will be here anyway, so it’s a shame not to explore. If you are planning a visit to Israel, I hope that these tips are helpful, and I and the rest of Israel’s tourism professionals are here for anything you may need.
I’m delighted to have been awarded a Travellers’ Choice Award (formerly known as the Certificate of Excellence) from TripAdvisor for 2020! I’ve now one this award five years in a row.
These awards from TripAdvisor mean so much as they are based on real reviews from people I have guided on tours around Israel. I’m very happy that people continue to have such a great time exploring Israel with me.
Thanks so much to all who took time to write a review and I look forward to guiding even more fantastic travel experiences in Israel in the year to come.
I’m thrilled to announce that the Luxury Travel Guide has awarded me with the prestigious title of Tour Guide of the Year for Tel Aviv, Israel in 2019. I received feedback from the awards committee that a significant contributing factor in the award was feedback from people whom I’ve guided about the fact that my tours are truly personalised and that I have a unique guiding approach.
I feel truly honoured to have received this award and look forward to maintaining the same high standards moving forward!
I’m very proud of this award and grateful to those who nominated me. However the award that meant the most to me was to receive a Certificate of Excellence from TripAdvisor for the third year in a row. This is an award that is made based on the reviews I have received from the people I have guided and so I know it is directly as a result of people having a positive experience touring with me.
I look forward to another great year of building fantastic experiences in Israel!