Region: Israel and Jordan
Length: 2.5 week trip
This extraordinary region hadn't really been on my radar screen to visit until a good friend's marriage and move to Tel Aviv. I go on here in such detail about its highlights in an attempt to persuade those who have any appreciation for culture, history, and natural beauty to consider a future trip to this part of the world! It was an incredible experience.
- swam in the Mediterranean and Sea of Galilee, snorkeled in Red Sea near Egypt, mud-coated-and-floated in Dead Sea
- slept in friends' homes, convent, Bedouin tent, rural zimmer [bed-and-breakfast], empty Field School, and 5-star hotel
- walked from Tel Aviv to Jaffa along Mediterranean beach and boardwalk; reward: a bowl of famously delicious hummus and fuhl and visit to warehouse-sized art gallery
- witnessed political protest in Tel Aviv on national housing/class issues-- over 1,000 people calmly discussing solutions at literal roundtables in a huge open-air square, and sharing their responses real-time in digital format
- visited beautiful Rosh HaNikra caves at the Lebanon border (steepest cable car in world from mountain to water, they say). Sat at bus stop for 50 min contemplating a quick attempt at land crossing, but resisted :)
- hiked 22 miles in one day, including through riverbeds and up 2 of the 3 tallest peaks in Israel, in stultifying heat. Sadly, I decided NOT to hike the rest of Israel's "Sea to Sea" walk (see below), since the heat was crazy-intense
- walked 12 miles around Galilee visiting famous sites: Mount of the Beatitudes (where Jesus gave the Sermon on the Mount), Church of Loaves and Fishes (thought to include rock where Jesus laid 5 loaves and 2 fishes to feed 5000 hungry people-- I followed that with a feast of my own local "St Peter's fish" (tilapia)), Church of the Primacy of St Peter, and the ruins of Capernaum (thought to be home base of Jesus)
- ate 25% of a 15-dish vegetarian tasting menu in Amirim, a vegetarian-only village of 250 residents in rural Galilee
- visited Tsfat (also spelled throughout the city as Tefat, Safed, Safat, Zfat-- the phoentic translations from Hebrew are very confusing to tourists like me!), which is home of "Madonna's" Kabbalism and thriving arts galleries
- shared bus seats with 22-yr old Israelis carrying machine guns
- toured and tasted at Tzora Winery in Judean Hills-- lovely winery, lovely wines
- sat in on part of mesmerizing Trappist monk service
- after winding my way thru medina-like, mob-scene Muslim quarter of the Old City, and colliding into the weekly Via Dolorosa procession, entered the Ecce Homo convent on Via Dolorosa, across from Second station of the Cross (which features amazing nighttime views from the terrace). Hopped in the shower, upgraded my outfit, and in an attempt to find quickest exit somehow ended up in a byzantine maze of roman ruins in the basement! Was like something out of a dream
- explored other subterranean tunnels in Jerusalem: walked the length of original Western Wall via tunnels; in City of David waded through knee high water in unlit 500 meter tunnel dug by hand 2700 years ago by Jebucites
- attended Palestinean wedding reception in Ramallah
- fell in love with my friend's 4-year old son while watching his horseback riding lesson in Jericho, the lowest permanently inhabitable site on earth
- watched worshippers at the Western (Wailing) Wall, walked through Garden of Gestheme (with its 2000-year old olive trees), bought grandma rosary beads from Tomb of Virgin Mary, viewed Jerusalem from across ancient Jewish cemetery, and witnessed nightly 800 year old ritual of Muslim family member bolting door of Church of Holy Sepulchre (where Christ is believed to be crucified). Christian denominational squabbles left outsourcing this important duty to the same Muslim family
- rented car to drive down coast of Dead Sea while listening to Arabic pop music
- hiked in Qumran cliffs and caves where Dead Sea Scrolls were found; in Ein Gedi mountaintop oases with caves and waterfalls; in serene, enormous, empty, multi-colored Maktesh Ramon crater... and up to massive and majestic Masada fortress (where Roman siege 2000 years ago led to mass suicide) in time to see sunrise over Dead Sea (left by 10am as it was already 36 degrees Celsius)
- sat around campfire in bedouin tent in Negev Desert while listening to guitar, recorder and songs, before walking 2 minutes away to lay on desert floor and see an astonishingly bright Milky Way
- learned that Bedouin camp manager had 35 siblings (1 father, 5 mothers); and Jordanian taxi driver had 14 siblings (1 father, 1 mother). Read earlier that Palestinean women have an average of 7 children
- entered the marvelous ancient city of Petra via candlelights winding along the 1-mile Siq; returned over the next two days to marvel at the mix of natural and man-made wonders, relentlessly explore temples and tombs-- including the famous Treasury, Monastery, Place of High Sacrifice, and Little Petra-- scramble up rocks and neglected cliffsides, gape at vistas, dodge donkeys, hunker down in the shade to rest, cavort with camels, and revive at my wonderful hotel's rooftop bar
- relaxed, restored, rejuvenated at the Dead Sea, where I slathered on the salty mineral mud and suspended reality by effortlessly floating three times in a single day. Splashed around in the infinity pool. Sat on resort terrace overlooking Dead Sea, enjoying breezes, a glass of Jordanian wine, and live jazz/Arabian music
- bid adieu to my trusty, reliable hiking boots (which have peeling soles, frayed laces, and dust-coated exteriors), which took me up Mt. Kilimanjaro, through mountains from Maine to California, and around and about Israel and Jordan. I take with me the memories, and left behind the footwear that made so many of them possible
- US passport holders don't need to arrange an Israel or Jordan visa in advance in order to enter at most border crossings. Be aware that an Israel passport stamp can impact entrance to certain middle eastern countries (e.g., Lebanon and Syria) when using that same passport.
- The Israel bus system is extensive, reliable, and comfortable-- thank goodness for the air conditioning! I used the blue Palestine public shuttles to get from Jerusalem to Ramallah.
- The Israel train system seems only to operate on the western coast, though it is inexpensive and efficient.
- I rented a car with Avis for US$11/day (via online booking), which-- though the fuel prices are sky-high-- made for terrific flexibility in getting from Jerusalem to Eliat. What I saw of the main roads in both Israel and Jordan seemed well-paved with names in English/roman letters for key destinations.
- In Jordan I took omnipresent taxis from the Eliat border to Petra (JD$55), from Petra to the Dead Sea hotel (JD$60), and from the Dead Sea hotel to the Amman airport (JD$45).
- Lodging Recommendations
- Jerusalem: Ecce Homo Convent Guesthouse. Priceless panoramic views of Jerusalem from rooftop terrace, fascinating exploration of 2000-year old remnants and lithostrotos in basement, inexpensive, kind staff, compact but clean ensuite rooms. Only downside is 11pm curfew.
- Galilee: Campbell Guesthouse. In Amirim, the "vegetarian village" with killer views of the Sea of Galilee. Brit Phillip Campbell and his Israeli wife are warm and lovely people who have lived in Amirim for decades.
- Masada: YHA Masada Guesthouse. At the base of Masada, a great launching point for pre-sunrise climb to Masada... or to the cable car. Features simple but clean rooms, a great outdoor pool, and impressive breakfast buffet.
- Maktesh Ramon, Negev Desert: Be'erot Camping. Bedouin-run bedouin campsite with electricity and plumbing, with added bonus of being the only legal accommodations within the crater-- so a convenient place for skygazing and for launching exploratory hikes. Only downside: women traveling alone should be on guard for unwanted attention.
- Petra, Jordan: Moevenpick Hotel. Stellar, castle-like resort with super-kind staff, enormous breakfast buffet, and phenomenal rooftop restaurant and bar. Closest hotel to Petra entrance. Well worth a splurge!
- Dead Sea, Jordan: Marriott Hotel. If you accept the concept of an all-inclusive resort, this resort and spa is well worth entering. Three outdoor pools-- including an infinity pool stretching to Dead Sea, and beachfront access to Dead Sea mud and swimming. Multiple restaurants and bars, some with lovely outdoor terraces. Huge breakfast buffet. And a fully equipped spa with sauna, steam room, jacuzzis, 2 indoor pools, and massage therapists.
Israel Sea to Sea (Yam el Yam) Trail
The trail is approximately 55 miles (89 kilometers), stretching from the Mediterranean in the west to the Sea of Galilee in the east. The total elevation gain/loss is 5,250 feet (1600 meters). Though the high-90s temperatures in mid-September thwarted my attempt to walk across Israel in 3 days, I managed to hike 22 miles in one day, including climbing 2 of the tallest peaks in Israel, before concluding that it would be better to be sane and quit the death march.
You must have the Society for Protection of Nature in Israel (SPNI) Hiking Map #2 (see above left images-- click to enlarge them), which is only available in Hebrew and is sold at main SPNI offices and some major bookstores in Tel Aviv. The interconnected trails are well marked by the SPNI staff, and for the second half of the hike you will just follow the orange/blue/white striped marks (see above right image), which symbolizes the Israeli National Trail that runs north to south across the country. Often this trail overlaps which other ones, which is why you'll often see more than one trail mark along a route.
There are occasional faucets along the trail (these are marked on the SPNI map), and villages and towns close to the trail to restock on water and food. However, you should plan on carrying at least a couple of liters of water at any given time. The last section of the trail, leading to the Sea of Galilee, has a steep, narrow, and dangerous descent, and dry and hot canyon passageway (try to reach intersection with Hukuk/Livnim by 10am).
Accommodations-wise, most walkers are part of youth groups that camp along the way (see More Information below for campsites; SPNI's map also identifies them). It's possible to avoid carrying a tent and stay in shelters, though the B&B/zimmer/hotel accommodations are usually off the trail and are hard to find using the SPNI map, so factor that into your daily mileage. If you're looking for a roof and a bed, try to plan your walk around the following towns/villages: Nahariya (I stayed at Hotel Frank, which was fine); Abirim or Fasuta; Meron; Safed (also spelled Tsfat, etc., though be forewarned that it is on the third highest peak in Israel and a long way up from the valley by foot!); etc... see the SPNI map for population-denser areas and aim towards those. SPNI provides trail angels and Field Schools that offer accommodation, though few are on the trail route. The Mt. Meron Field School is-- though I only recommend it if you like desolate, dilapidated former military barracks.