Israel - Experienced Quickly

I joined a group of top travel consultants for an educational, or familiarization tour of Israel with Abercrombie and Kent. We began in Tel Aviv, journeyed north along the coast to Acre, cut east to the Sea of Galilee then south along the east coast of the Sea to Jerusalem. We took a day trip south of Jerusalem along the Dead Sea to the historic rugged fortress of Masada and ended up back at Tel Aviv airport.

I came away realizing that Israel is one of the most interesting, complicated, multi-layered countries I have ever visited--a combination of many cultures, religions and historical sites.

We arrived at Ben Gurion airport in Tel Aviv, where a VIP meet-and-greet had been arranged.  This service is pretty amazing.  I was met at the gate, taken to a limo and driver, then to customs, where I was whisked through and put into a car to the Dan Tel Aviv.  This hotel is situated right on the waterfront.  My room had a beach view with access to the Executive Lounge, which was great.  The hotel is good, but in need of a facelift.  A better option, and what I’d choose on a return trip is the Intercontinental David, a brand new luxury high rise.    As our one free day in a packed itinerary was Saturday, the Sabbath, everything was closed down, locked up and we didn’t get to see much of Tel Aviv .  I had wanted to do a Hop On/Hop Off tour—my favorite way to get oriented in a new city--but it doesn’t operate on the Sabbath either. A quick visit to the old port of Haifa was interesting.

The next day we headed up to Caesarea, north of Tel Aviv about an hour’s drive. Caesarea was built by Herod about 25 BC as a port city to honor Augustus Caesar.  The city is well preserved with an amazing Roman ruin on the ocean – a very important stop and fascinating. Interestingly, it is the only Israeli city managed by a private corporation, which is half owned by the state, and half by the Rothschild family, which held vast tracts of land at the time of the formation of the state of Israel.

From Caesarea we travelled on to Acre, a UNESCO World Heritage site, and an ancient Phoenician and Crusader seaport. This is a charming town, which I wish we had had longer to explore.  We toured the Crusader fort and were supposed to see the old covered market, but by then it was late in the day and everything was closing. This type of educational or “FAM” trip always feature grueling, packed itineraries.

We headed east to the Sea of Galilee, an important site as the center of Jesus’ teachings, miracles and interaction with the apostles.  There are a lot of important religious sights visited by pilgrims.  I wish I had brushed up on Bible studies – we raced through a lot of this area and it got pretty confusing.  We overnighted at Scots Hotel in Tiberius, which is a good choice for sightseeing.  I understand there are some excellent spas in this area, which would be a good choice for lodging.  We were really rushed and on return I’ll definitely plan more time here, as at other locations. We made a quick visit Nazareth, which is actually a fairly large city—the largest in the North District of Israel. Nazareth is a center of Christian pilgrimage, as it’s believed to be the childhood home of Jesus.

The next day we moved on to the Golan Heights, which overlooks Syria and was captured in and has been occupied by Israel since the 1969 Six Day War – it’s very eerie battle country.

One of my favorite stops was Beit She’an, another city with amazingly well preserved Roman ruins that actually dates as far back as 5-6000 years BC. Bronze Age, Byzantine, Egyptian and Roman artifacts have all been excavated here.

Finally we journeyed to Jerusalem, which is a most amazing city.  Our base was the King David, a wonderful, historic luxury hotel overlooking the old city.  This hotel is probably the best in Israel and worth any money to stay there.

We did a full day in the old city of Jerusalem – the Western (wailing) Wall, which is remarkable, the Dome of the Rock and a private visit of the Tunnels in the Western Wall, built by Herod (that man must have been the Donald Trump of his time).  The tunnels are by private appointment and fascinating – a full underground city, which is still being excavated. As usual on this trip, we didn’t have enough time. There is so much to see in Jerusalem that I would advise a good 3 to 5 days here.

The next day we made the drive along the Dead Sea to Masada, a sumptuous palace complex again built by Herod, and again, astonishing!  This is a place of majestic beauty, reached by a gondola to its perch high over the Dead Sea. It is also a place of sad history, as the last remaining center of Jewish resistance to the Romans.  A group of almost 1000 Jews held out against Roman siege as long as possible, and in the end decided that "a glorious death is preferable to a life of infamy” and took their own lives rather than surrender.

That day we also visited the Israel Museum, which is one of the best museums I have ever seen.  The museum is home to the Dead Sea Scrolls, but also collections that include Muslim, Asian impressionist and modern art, antiquities, and much more.  This really needs a full day just to get an overview.

The next morning we visited the Holocaust museum Yad Vashem – very moving and beautifully done.  I now have a real understanding of what really went on and was covered up by the Nazis – far worse than one can imagine.

We drove to Bethlehem, which is on the Palestinian side and very different from Jerusalem.  Because it was January, we only had to stand in line about 40 minutes to see the Nativity – in season the wait can be hours.  For true believers this is one of the most important religious sites in the world. We had dinner at the Mamilla Hotel with a site inspection – very high-style “design” hotel just outside of the Old City.  Best for those under 40 – a lively scene, with everyone looking slim and beautiful.

Our farewell dinner was held at the American Colony Hotel – a romantic, historic hotel. I loved this hotel, but one has to be careful: rooms vary in size; some of the rooms/suites  have the bathroom on the entry level and the bedroom/sitting area down a flight of stairs. Some rooms have terraces.

To sum up – we basically saw pretty much all of Israel in 7 days, which is just too rushed—but that’s the nature of FAM trips. If one only had 5 days, I would recommend going straight to Jerusalem and spending the whole time there with a side trip to Masada. Also, there were 24 people on this tour (not unusual on organized group tours) but which is far too many in my opinion.  I strongly suggest that Israel should be done as a private FIT (fully independent tour) and should take 10 days to two weeks.

One airport note – the airport is pretty much equidistant from Tel Aviv and Jerusalem – about 45 minutes.  Having the VIP meet-and-greet is really helpful.  It’s worth whatever additional cost it adds to a journey to Israel.