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Thursday, 14 March 2013 09:41

Israel’s Northern Splendor

Written by  Monique Burns

With world-class museums and storied biblical sites, bustling markets, and restaurants offering everything from hummus and falafel to gourmet Mediterranean fare, Tel Aviv and Haifa draw thousands of visitors to Israel each year. Beyond these cities lie historic sites like Caesarea, Herod the Great’s ancient port, and the Galilee region, whose lush beauty inspired Jesus as well as the early Jewish rabbis and mystics who created the Kabbalah. En route, travelers relax in grand hotels and resorts, including a luxurious organic farm nestled in the hills.

“Ideally, an itinerary should be a mix of big cities and the countryside,” says Haim Gutin, Israel Tourism Commissioner for North and South America. “We have wine routes, bicycle routes, the Jesus trail. You can go to farms. You can go to kibbutzim. There’s a little bit of everything in Israel.”

To begin your Israel adventure, fly to Ben-Gurion International Airport, southeast of Tel Aviv, and pick up a rental car or van. Israel’s second-largest city, Tel Aviv (www.visit-tlv.com) is a vibrant culture and nightlife capital, an international diamond center, and a UNESCO World Heritage site known as “The White City” for its 1930s Bauhaus architecture. More than a dozen luxury hotels-including the Crowne Plaza Tel Aviv (www.crowneplaza.com) and the 280-room Dan Tel Aviv (www.danhotels.com) grace Tel Aviv’s stylish Mediterranean beachfront. For an early start the next morning, check into the stylish Crowne Plaza City Center (www.crowneplaza.com) on Tel Aviv’s east side. In the Azrieli Center, with its many boutiques and restaurants, the high-rise hotel has a gourmet restaurant and espresso bar. 

Visit Old Jaffa, the charming port where Tel Aviv began 3,000 years ago. Beyond the landmark Clock Tower, narrow streets climb a knoll to stone houses filled with art studios and shops. Art Nova sells “soft art” paintings made with colored wool and acrylic threads. Frank Meisler Galleries displays beautifully crafted silver and gold sculptures, as well as mezuzahs, that open several times like nesting dolls. For dinner, choose Herbert Samuel, overlooking Tel Aviv’s seaside promenade, where Israeli star chef Yonatan Roshfeld prepares trendy Mediterranean “tapas.” 

Leave Tel Aviv the next morning and head an hour north to the ancient Roman port of Caesarea, now a national park. Within 13th-century Crusader walls are well-preserved ruins, including Herod the Great’s palace, a Roman theater, and a vast hippodrome where horse-drawn chariots once raced along the beach. A complex of eateries, bars and shops curves around the ruins. At harborside Helena, feast on specialties like shrimp and scallops in ouzo sauce, and spring chicken in silan, Israel’s sweet date syrup. In Binyamina, elegant, family-run Tishbi Estate Winery (www.tishbi.com), one of Israel’s 10 largest, offers tours and tastings. The 114-room Dan Caesarea (www.danhotels.com), set amid acres of gardens, borders Israel’s only 18-hole golf course. 

After breakfast, drive an hour north to Haifa (www.tour-haifa.co.il), Israel’s third-largest city and second-largest port, rising up Mt. Carmel’s slopes in three tiers. At the Baha’i Gardens (www.ganbahai.org.il), a UNESCO World Heritage Site, 19 terraces of manicured, flower-bedecked lawns surround the gold-domed tomb of the faith’s founder. In the former home of the Technion, Israel’s highly regarded Institute of Technology, Madateh (www.hms.org.il) has more than 600 hands-on science, technology and space exhibits, while the Haifa Museum of Art (www.hms.org.il) displays contemporary works. High atop Mt. Carmel are the Hecht Museum (www.mushecht.haifa.ac.il), housing important archeological finds on the Haifa University campus, and the Tikotin Museum of Japanese Art (www.tmja.org.il), the only museum of its kind in the Middle East. Don’t miss the Clandestine Immigration and Naval Museum (www.amutayam.org.il) tracing the often deadly struggle of Jews immigrating to Israel by ship. 

In the afternoon, go north around Haifa Bay toward the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Acre, a legendary Crusader town that, by the 13th century, was one of the richest cities in Christendom and boasted one of the world’s most influential Jewish communities. Visit the 18th-century Rahmal Synagogue, the Al Jazaar Mosque, and the palaces, or Knights’ Halls, built over the ruined fortress of the Knights Hospitaller of St. John of Jerusalem. 

From Acre, Route 85 stretches east across much of the Galilee region (www.gogalilee.org). The Galilee inspired such holy men as the Jewish “Men of Deeds,” who performed miracles in early Roman times, Jesus and the prophet Elijah, and the rabbis and mystics who developed the 16th-century Kabbalah. 

At the southern end of the Hula Valley and Rosh Pina, the Mizpe Hayamim Organic Farm & Spa (www.mizpe-hayamim.co.il) has 96 rooms, an on-site farm for vegetables and livestock, a cheese-making shop, a bakery and even a coffee-roasting operation. Dine at the resort’s gourmet Muscat restaurant. 

In nearby Safed, early center of Jewish mysticism, visit about 30 synagogues, and a cemetery where the prophet Hosea is interred along with 16th-century scholars like Rabbi Isaac Luria, “The Ari,” considered the Kabbalah’s founder. In Amuka in the Biriya Forest, lovelorn pilgrims flock to the tomb of Rabbi Yonatan ben Uziel. The second-century sage who translated the Bible into Aramaic was also a renowned matchmaker. Searching for a soul mate? Light a candle, and circle the tomb seven times in
the moonlight.

From Rosh Pina, go south to the Sea of Galilee. Here, according to biblical lore, Jesus walked on water. At Capernaum, he reputedly taught in a synagogue. A few miles south near Tabgha, at the Mount of Beatitudes, Jesus intoned such verities as “Blessed are the pure of heart for they shall see God.” Farther south, in Tiberias, the Maimonides Heritage Center pays homage to Judaism’s great medieval physician and philosopher. Also in Tiberias, the Dona Gracia Museum (www.donagracia.com) honors the 16th-century Portuguese woman who rescued Jews escaping the Spanish Inquisition. From there, you can detour southwest to Nazareth, boyhood home of Jesus. 

Otherwise, continue south to the Sea of Galilee’s southern tip and the beautiful, tree-shaded Yardenit Baptismal Site (www.yardenit.com) on the River Jordan. Don a white robe and bathe in the same waters where John the Baptist baptized Jesus. 

From Yardenit, backtrack to Tiberias, then about 50 miles west to Zihron Ya’akov to Route 2 for the 55-mile drive south to Tel Aviv’s Ben-Gurion Airport and the flight home. 

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