We were in Israel for just over 2 weeks, in June. The primary purpose of the trip was our younger son's bar mitzvah, at the Kotel. I have been to Israel 5 or 6 times before this trip. My wife had been twice before. For the kids, this was their second trip. Many of you were very helpful to us in preparing for this trip, so I thought the least I could do is to post a report.
We began in Jerusalem. We arrived late afternoon, on Friday. We took a taxi to EXP/Windows. We had a 2 bedroom apartment, on a high floor, with an outstanding view. The apartment was bright and airy and large, and well-equipped. Having a washer and dryer was particularly convenient. We did not need much from the office staff, but they were very helpful when we did need them. The location of the Windows building is very good -- right near the light rail, about a 20 minute walk from the Jaffa Gate, and about a 2 minute walk from Machane Yehuda market. Staying in an apartment won't be everyone's choice. You need to be willing to do without the services of a hotel, and be slightly more independent. But the trade off is you get much more space for a lower price than a hotel. For us, it was a good trade. (On our prior trip, we stayed at Harmony, in Jerusalem, which was a good hotel, but even the "family" room was very small).
When we arrived at Windows, we dropped our bags in the apartment and rushed off to the Kotel, for the beginning of Shabbat. We did this by taxi to the Dung Gate. Friday night at the Kotel was awesome and very festive. The combination of prayer, Jews from all over the world, singing and dancing, and lots of ruach. It was a perfect way to begin our trip.
Afterward, we walked to the Jaffa Gate (following the crowd) and had dinner at Café Versavee, near the Jaffa Gate. Whomever on TA recommended that place deserves our special thanks. The food was very good and it was an island of calm in a busy place.
The next morning, we did the free Sandeman's walking tour of the Old City. We had done this on a prior trip, but it was a good reminder. The guide we had this time was not quite as informative as the guide we had the last time we did this tour, but he was good -- and every time you have a different guide, you get a slightly different perspective and some different insights. So it was worthwhile. It is a useful orientation, and gives an idea of places you want to come back and see in more depth.
After the tour, we took a taxi to the Israel Museum. Saturday is a good day for this, as kids get in free. The museum is really terrific. There is a ton to see, and something for everyone. We saw the model of Jerusalem from the Second Temple Period, the Dead Sea Scrolls, the Archeology section, and the Jewish Art and Life Wing, which I found particularly worthwhile. There was also an exhibit of Synagogues from different Jewish communities around the world, which I think was separate from the Jewish Art and Life wing, but maybe part of it. In any event, it was very interesting. The kids also found some outdoor contraption that they could climb on. And we saw the sculpture garden. The restaurants there were closed for Shabbat, but we got some food at a coffee shop type place at the Museum, which was open.
After the museum, we cabbed to the Tayelet, had a walk, and saw the great views. (We tended to use cabs rather than public transportation -- for 4 people, it seemed more efficient). For dinner, we went to the Wine & Cheese place on top of Notre Dame Center. The food was good and the views are absolutely amazing.
The next morning we got breakfast in the Shuk and then walked up toward the Geula neighborhood where we bought a tallit for my son for his bar mitzvah. The store is called Ha-Sofer. They were very helpful, spoke fluent English, and had a lot of nice Jewish merchandise in addition to the tallit we bought.
After that, we did a tour of the Hurva synagogue, which I had pre-arranged. This was worthwhile not only for the information and to see the beautiful shul, but also for the views one gets from the roof. That afternoon, we spent walking around the old city, including going up to the roof of the Austrian Hospice - another great view. We also walked the ramparts. We had done the long way on our last trip, so we did the short walk, that ends near the Kotel, this time. Dinner was in the Shuk. After dinner, one of the baked goods merchants was having a "blue light special" -- screaming (in Hebrew, of course) a kilo for ten shekels. So we got our kilo. We had to move fast; at that price, he was going to sell out quickly! Lots of chocolate pastries, etc.
Monday morning was the bar mitzvah, at the Kotel. We arranged this through the Western Wall Heritage Foundation. We had separately arranged a photographer. It is an amazing experience. If anyone wants more information, feel free to PM me.
After the bar mitzvah, we got some food in the Jewish Quarter (which seems much cleaner than the rest of the old city) and then met our driver who took us to the Cave of Machpela and to Rachel's tomb. On the way, he pointed out various Jewish settlements and Arab towns, and the places where some events took place. This was a day or two after the kidnappings, so a tense time to be there. But we did not feel at all unsafe, and it was a unique experience and an honor to be able to visit the resting places of our Patriarchs and Matriarchs, following the bar mitzvah. Dinner that night was at Lavan, at the Cinemateque. The kids like that place and it has a good view. (Before dinner, I visited Elias Photo Service in the Old City, and bought some old photos of Jerusalem -- I had been there on a prior trip so I knew the place -- he has amazing photos and I highly recommend stopping in his shop to have a look -- even if you don't buy anything, you will learn things from talking with him and looking through his hundreds of photos).
The next day, we went off to see the Chagal windows, at the Hadassah Hospital. The explanation was very good and (unlike in prior trips) they allowed us to photograph the windows. Then, we went to Ein Kerem. It was hot that day, but we got to see the Spring from which Mary drank and some of the Christian churches, including the Church of the Visitation and the Church of John the Baptist. The kids were not so into this. They were getting tired and not so interested in Christian places. But Israel is holy and important for more than just the Jews, and visiting some Christian places is one way to understand that. The kids did enjoy the Chocolate shop in Ein Kerem!
I feel like maybe this report is getting too long, and I am still on the first few days. So for the rest of Jerusalem, just a few highlights: The Museum of Underground Prisoners was really interesting. I had never heard of it; we just ran into it. Well worthwhile. Another highlight was Yad LaKashish -- a store that sells Jewish ritual items and crafts made by needy elderly people. It gives these people a dignified way to earn some money, and something meaningful to do, and a social experience of sorts. And the merchandise was very nice. We bought several items. There are lots of places you can spend your money. Why not try some place that also has a mission? http://www.lifeline.org.il/index_en.php
On Wednesday evening, I rented a car from Eldan, on King David Street. I enjoyed a beverage on the terrace of the YMCA, before picking up the car. Very nice place to sit, with a drink, under an olive tree, and watch people. Then I had the challenge of finding my way from the Eldan office to the parking lot near the Windows building, where I had decided to park overnight. I got lost in Mea She'arim. Not a good place to get lost, with all the crowds and narrow, one-way streets. But for all the talk about people there not welcoming visitors, the people I asked were perfectly friendly and gave me directions. Eventually, I found my way back to Agripas. (How far is Mea Shearim from Agripas? About one mile, and maybe three hundred years!).
Next morning, we drove to Mitzpe Ramon. On the way, we saw David Ben Gurion's (and his wife's) resting place, and the surrounding park, with nice dessert views, walked through Ein Avdat (gorgeous scenery!) and saw the Nabbatean ruins at Avdat. These were all VERY worthwhile stops. I would not have missed any of them, even in very hot weather.
Then we checked into the Beresheet Hotel. This place is fabulous. It was very expensive, especially with kids (which means you need two rooms or the family suite - we did the latter). But it is stunningly beautiful and I thought worthwhile. That night we did the star tour with Ira Machefsky. His tour involves a fair amount of shtick, which the kids liked. But the adults also enjoyed it. The next morning we had Beresheet's unbelievable breakfast and then did a jeep tour with Adam Sela. That tour was a highlight of the trip and it would make no sense to be down there and not tour with Adam. Next time, I would do an even longer tour with him, or maybe even an overnight one. Otherwise, we spent our time there enjoying the hotel's facilities, and walking along the crater. We had dinner one night at HaHavit, in town, which is a pub sort of place. I liked it a lot. Excellent beer selection and big portions. The other night, we had dinner at the dairy restaurant at Beresheet. (This was Friday night, so the menu was limited). They have a terrace with a very attractive view. We avoided the main (meat) restaurant at the hotel, because it was expensive and got mediocre reviews. There are also a couple of decent falafel shops in Mitzpe, and a grocery store from which we bought water and other beverages and snacks at much lower prices than at the hotel or other tourist places.
From Beresheet, we went to Rosh Pina. Our plan had been to leave Beresheet early so we could stop at Tzippori, on the way. But nobody wanted to leave Beresheet so early, so we stayed until mid day. Our one stop en route to Rosh Pina was for an early dinner at Ein Camonim, a goat farm that serves an "all you want to eat" meal of salads, cheeses, and wine. It is served outside, in what looks a bit like a very large sukkah, with peacocks and other animals roaming around. It is a beautiful setting and the food and wine were great. The prices were good too -- 88 NIS for adults; half that for kids. We all liked it and I HIGHLY recommend a stop here.
Then we checked into the "Cottage" owned by Pina Barosh. This is a small house about a ten minute walk from the Inn. It shares a big private pool with one other house. The pool is shaded by olive trees and is lovely and quiet. The cottage was very comfortable and well equipped, and they included breakfast at Pina Barosh, which is excellent, and is served on their gorgeous terrace. We had dinner one night at their restaurant, Shiri Bistro, and it was a very nice meal. They also have an outstanding Israeli wine list. Unfortunately, only the abbreviated list is translated. They full list is Hebrew only. My Hebrew is good enough to deal with that, but if you did not read Hebrew, they would help you select a wine. They are very friendly at Pina Barsoh and offer excellent service. I would stay there, and dine there, again. Rosh Pina is a good base for touring in the Golan and the Galil, as well as being a nice town. (I told my wife I would like to move there).
Some highlights of our time in the North (keeping in mind that we have been there before, so we skipped many of the places that are most often recommended, so as to see places we had not been before): First, the tour with Ilan Shulman, from Merom Golan. Several of you recommended him. It was the single best thing we did in Israel (other than our son's bar mitzvah). He brings the place to life, in a way that I doubt anyone else could and provides unique access. We also did horse back riding, at Merom Golan, and enjoyed it. That is a different way to see the scenery. After that, we went to Café Anan, on Mount Bental. The view from there is very good and it is yet another way to appreciate the strategic significance of the Golan, and just how close Syria is! Because a trip with kids much include a fair amount of chocolate, we visited De Karina too. We did not do the tour but instead just ate chocolate and drank chocolate beverages. For dad, there was a wine shop next door, where I had a nice chat with the owner and drank some wine.
We also visited Gamla and I thought it was very worthwhile. We did not find the walk down and up too challenging. We ran into a woman who was studying to be a tour guide and she showed us around (at no charge) and gave us a lot of interesting and useful information, and really hit it off with our older kid. After Gamla, we did the walk at Majrasa. That was ruined a little bit by a very large group of school children who seemed to have little or no adult supervision. They were splashing without regard to other visitors, throwing things, littering, etc. It is a nice place, but our timing was not perfect.
Since we did not get to Tzipori on way to Rosh Pina, we did that as a side trip from Rosh Pina. It is a fascinating place and we enjoyed it. The signage could be better, in some places, and they initially ran out of English brochures (later, they found some). But it is worthwhile to visit. The mosaics are the best I have seen in Israel. After that, we wanted to go for a swim in the Kineret. We found our way, by accident, to a place called Bora Bora beach club, where we enjoyed a swim, some food and beverages, in a comfortable environment (nice chairs, a bar, shaded areas, etc.): http://www.borabora-beach.co.il/
On our last day up north, we drove to Peki'in. We saw the synagogue there (after searching around for the one person in town who has a key), visited the cave of Rabbi Shimon Ben Yochai, and bought a pile of soaps from Safta Jamilla. We also ran into a Druze guy who owned a café. He showed us around a bit, gave us some interesting information and background, and we had a nice lunch with him and some members of his family. We over-paid for this lunch, given what we ate, but the Druze food was good and it was worthwhile for the interesting experience. He was very proud of his (and his son's) service as an officer in the IDF and he explained to us about the Druze loyalty to Israel. He did not speak much English, so I translated for the rest of the family. I know some tour groups organize "Druze Hospitality." Not being with a tour group, we had our own private, impromptu Druze experience. My son was impressed with the Druze people's emphasis on peaceful co-existence of diverse groups, as they were talking with us. I would like to learn more about Druze people. Can anyone recommend a good book?
After Peki'in, we went to Netanya. We checked into the Island Suites hotel. It is a nice hotel with beautiful water views. There are some ways it could improve (I may write a review), and it is not walking distance from town, but we liked it. We had a big two bedroom suite. That night, we went into Netanya town, had dinner at a café, and watched part of the world cup game on a giant screen set up in the middle of the town. Netanya is more attractive than I remember it being, and the down town area was very alive and vibrant.
I wanted to get to Zicrhon Yaakov, to see the Museum of the First Aliyah and to visit Schwartzman Dairy and perhaps Tishbi Winery. We did not get around to it. Next time.
From Netanya, we went to Tel-Aviv. We returned our car and went to our hotel on HaYarkon, the Lusky Suites. We had stayed there before. It is not a luxury hotel, but it is one of the few places we could find that has real two-bedroom suites, and the location is good, and they have some nice features, like free coffee and espresso and tea and cold water and snacks all day, and various newspapers. The breakfast was OK but not great. The price was fair, for Tel-Aviv. The things we did in Tel-Aviv that we had not done on prior trips were: Palmach Museum, which I highly recommend. We met a guy who had fought in Palmach, before our tour, and he spent some time brining it all to life. The exhibition is very well done and interesting both for kids and adults. The Ayalon Institute (Bullet Factory). I found this not quite as interesting as the Palmach Museum, and it is further from Tel Aviv, but it was still worthwhile. The young people who did these things had such courage! We also walked around Neve Tzedek neighborhood, which I loved, and some other areas in Tel Aviv, and Jaffa, and visited several of the outdoor markets (Carmel, Nachalat Benyamin), and of course went to the beach! We also got to visit some friends who live near Tel-Aviv. I would like to spend more time in Tel-Aviv.
On the flight home, we met some kids who were returning from Birthright. They said it was an unbelievable and life-altering experience. I look forward to the time when my kids can do that.
A few closing observations:
1. This board is really useful and I am grateful to those of you who spend your time providing advice.
2. We got our SIM card from Snapir. It was a good deal, worked perfectly, and his customer service is great. When we had questions, he answered within a few minutes. I recommend him.
3. Israel is expensive, for visitors (and probably residents). Plan on spending some money.
4. The food in Israel is wonderful. Everything from high end restaurants to street food. The quality and variety is superb. In particular, the fruits and vegetables and baked goods are amazing.
5. People were very friendly. Many people went out of their way to be friendly and helpful. Not just people in the tourism industry, but ordinary people on the street.
6. The diversity you see in Israel is beyond what I have seen anyplace else in the world. Old and new. Religious and secular. Jewish and Christian and Muslin and Druze. Mountains and vineyards and rivers and desert. All in such a small place.
7. I like wine, and I found some really good Israeli wines, from Negev, Judean Hills and the North.
8. Israel seems to have a sense of community that goes beyond what I am accustomed to. For example, when the boys were kidnapped, I felt like people thought of them as "our boys" and cared deeply. It was not just a news item. There is something of a "common experience" in Israel that goes beyond what I am used to in the US, and a national identity that is different than what I know. I thought maybe as Israel had more and more immigration, and became more "modern" and technological and capitalistic and part of the world economy, the national identity would be less evident -- covered up by the struggle for economic success and the fast pace of modern life. But I don't think that has happened. Sure, the modernization has happened. Not much socialist-Zionism around. But the national identity and the sense of community still seem to be there.
9. The "guided tour" versus "independent travel" is a tough question. Guides provide a ton of useful information and do a lot of the coordination that we -- traveling independently -- had to do ourselves. But I like the independent travel, and the flexibility that comes with it. And of course it is less expensive than a private guide. So for us, doing independent travel, while hiring guides for tours in some cities and places, is best. But then again, I have been to Israel a number of times before and I speak some Hebrew -- however imperfect it is. For someone on their first trip, a private guide or group tour might be best.
10. We felt perfectly safe at all times, and I can't wait for my next trip.Edited: 07 July 2014, 21:51