Israel

IsraelIsraelDo not believe everything you see on the TV news. Israel is a safe country in which to travel. Although it is small—it takes about six hours to drive from the northernmost point at the Lebanon border to the southern tip in Eilat—Israel is packed with more history, beauty and geographical variety per square mile than just about any other place on earth. Its topographical features are enough to fill an entire continent—forested mountains, fertile plains, sandy beaches, desert and the lowest point on earth—the Dead Sea. Sunshine will greet you most days of the year.

Most ancient civilization have left their mark on this land from the Babylonians, Greeks and Romans through the Crusaders and Ottomans.

Pack a bible in your suitcase along with a regular guidebook. Even if you are not religiously inclined, it is inspiring and fun to read the appropriate passages when you are standing at the Sea of Galilee or at King David’s tower.

Jerusalem of Gold

The best place to begin is in one of the most enchanting cities in the world, Jerusalem, the city of kings and prophets, generals and dreamers. According to the Babylonian Talmud: “ten measures of beauty descended to the world, nine of them were taken by Jerusalem, and one by the rest of the world.” Perhaps the rabbis who wrote that passage some 2,000 years ago exaggerated, but Jerusalem can certainly inspire. Whenever I take the one-hour drive from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, just as the car begins to climb up through the Judean Hills, I begin to feel uplifted. It is a feeling difficult to put into words.

Plan to spend at least three to four days if you hope to begin to understand this city with its myriad of mosques, churches, monuments and ethnic neighborhoods. In this city, you may see a Hasidic Jew walk past a Catholic nun and a few steps later a Russian Orthodox priest may walk past a young girl in shorts her arm covered with tattoos. You can spend days just wandering the alleys of the Old City with its ancient bazaars and fortified ramparts. Jerusalem has some 226 monuments, some sacred to three religions.

Western WallWestern Wall Holy sites

I like to visit the Western Wall and watch the people at prayer, especially during a Jewish holiday or else on the Sabbath. Almost every time that I have visited, I have been lucky to witness a Bar Mitzvah ceremony, which is when a 13-year-old boy is called up to read from the Torah scroll. Often families travel from various places in the world to hold the ceremony in this holy place. Be sure to bring some writing paper and a pen so you can write a missive to God, fold it up as tiny as you can and stuff it into one of the crevices in the wall. It cannot hurt.

The Church of the Holy Sepulcher in the Via Delorosa is one of the most sacred sites for Christians, the place where many believe Jesus was crucified and buried. Six different denominations run the church, who over the centuries have peacefully worked out different prayer times. Your best way to get to the church is to follow the half-kilometer route of the Via Delorosa, the walk Jesus took while carrying the cross. With 14 stations along the way, the route begins near the Lions’ Gate in the Muslim Quarter and ends at the church. You may join a weekly procession each Friday at 3 p.m., approximately the time and day of the original events, led by Franciscan monks. The procession begins at the Pilgrims' Reception Center, about 300m inside the Lions' Gate. This is your best bet to experience the special atmosphere of the pilgrimage.

The Muslims revere the beautiful Dome of the Rock, with its golden dome, Jerusalem’s most visible landmark. You can get a good view of the mosque and of the entire city from the Sherover Promenade or from mount Scopus. Both offer different angles on the city that will take your breath away. Due to a municipal law that stipulates that all buildings must be built from the cream-colored Jerusalem stone, the entire city becomes golden at sunset when the last rays reflect off the stone buildings.

One interesting experience I recommend visitors is the “Rampart Walk,” which begins at the King David Citadel, a worthwhile monument in its own right. You climb up some stairs and then walk along the city’s walls, which were built in 1536 by Suleiman the Magnificent at the time the city was ruled by the Ottoman Empire.

Jerusalem is home to some important museums, including the Yad VaShem Holocaust Memorial Museum and the Israel Museum with the Shrine of the Book that houses the famous Dead Sea Scrolls.

Tel Aviv - a city that never sleepsTel Aviv SunsetTel Aviv Sunset

This year is a good time to visit Tel Aviv as the first Jewish city in modern times celebrates its centennial. Founded in 1909, Tel Aviv was built in a hurry to provide housing for the refugees and immigrants that flooded the country after its establishment in 1948. City planners hastily put up many of the buildings in the 1950s with utility and speed in mind rather than beauty. However, the UN has namedTel Aviv as a World Heritage Site due to the large number of Bauhaus buildings, some 4,000 that were erected beginning in 1933 by Jewish architects who fled Nazi Germany.

Tel Aviv is the country’s center of commerce, finance and culture. One of its attributes is the nine miles of sandy beaches where almost every day you can see swimmers, sunbathers and surfers. One of the city’s mayors had the sense to build a promenade along the beach and it makes a wonderful place to stroll, catch the Mediterranean breeze and watch people.

JaffaJaffaTo its south, Tel Aviv has the old port of Jaffa with its Biblical roots. This is the place to open your Bible to the book of Jonah and read how he got on a ship at this port and was later swallowed by the most famous whale in history, (other than Moby Dick.) Jaffa’s winding streets are home to an artist colony, an antique bazaar, a flea market and some funky restaurants along the water’s edge.

Many outdoor cafes, serving some of the best coffee in the world, line the streets of Tel Aviv. The coffee is as good as in Italy, if not better. Tel Aviv is a culinary capital and a restaurant considered average here would be considered upscale gourmet in the U.S.

Tel Aviv is vibrant, energetic with non-stop nightlife and culture. Tel Aviv’s young people venture out to pubs and clubs well after midnight and crowd the concert halls and theaters every night. Tel Aviv is safe and a woman can feel comfortable walking alone at night.

The Dead Sea - don't drink the water

Floating on the  Dead SeaFloating on the Dead SeaYou do not want to take a mouthful of the Dead Sea, which has eight times the salt concentration of regular seawater. Nor, do you want to get it in your eyes. But, it is a lot of fun to float on it. Because of the high salt concentration, it gives you buoyancy and you can lie in the water, float without effort and read a newspaper. The Dead Sea lies 1,292 feet below sea level, making it the lowest point on earth. The best time to come here is in winter, or else in spring or fall. Summer is too hot. The trip to the Dead Sea is beautiful as green yields to the ochre desert. You will see white islands in the blue sea and as you get closer, you will realize they are salt deposits that have dried out in the sun.

Many resorts are offering spa packages, indoor thermal sulfur pools, mudpacks and other indulgences. The water of the Dead Sea is actually good for you and draws arthritis, rheumatism and psoriasis sufferers, who come here for healing. (When you go into the water, you will discover cuts and scratches you didn’t know you have because they will sting slightly.)

You can doseveral things in the area, including visiting the mountain fortress of Masada, an isolated rock plateau on the eastern edge of the Judean Desert, where Jewish zealots committed mass suicide in 70 A.D. rather than fall into the hands of the Roman soldiers. Due to its remoteness and arid environment, Masada has remained largely untouched for the past two millennia. The Roman ramp built using thousands of tons of stones and beaten earth, still stand o the western side. You can climb it on foot.

While a hike at night up the Snake Path on the eastern side of the mountain in order to arrive at the top in time for sunrise is considered part of the "Masada experience," a cable car operates for those of us who are not in shape.

Many of the ancient buildings built by Kind Herod have been restored, as have the wall paintings of Herod's two main palaces, and his Roman-

Today, Israel’s elite troops hold their swearing-in ceremony by torch light at night vowing that Masada shall not fall again.

The Green North - where Jesus walkedThe Hula ReserveThe Hula Reserve

Here, in the green hills of the Galilee, you can find many sites that figured in the life of Jesus and his disciples. You can walk the 65- kilometer Jesus Trail, which winds its bucolic way from Nazareth through Sephoris, Cana, the Arbel Cliffs, then to Capernaum, the Mount of Beatitudes, Tiberias and finally to the Jordan River. The well-marked trail is supposed to take three or four days to walk in its entirety. You can do it in smaller segments, depending on your fitness and how much time you have. Free walks, guided by volunteers, leave Monday-Friday at 8:00 from Nazareth’s Church of the Annunciation, where according to tradition, God told Mary she would give birth to a son. The Galilee region is filled with breathtaking scenery, charming bed and breakfast inns and wonderful restaurants.

The Hula Valley is the place for bird watchers who flock here each year along with the migratory birds that make their way from Europe to Africa in the fall and then back to Europe in the spring. The Hula Valley is their favorite pit stop.

There are many other places and hidden gems to visit in Israel. Allow for at least ten days and if you make it south to the resort town of Eilat, you can plan a day trip to Jordan to see Petra, a World Heritage site and one of the new wonders of the world.

Make sure to visit Israel's Red Sea Coast

Make sure to visit the beautiful southern region - there's lots to see and do in and around the Red Sea city of Eilat, in the Gulf of Aqaba. I recommend the Dan Red Sea Hotel if you fancy treating yourself to a luxury stay.