“Thank God Israel is now a 21st century destination!” our hotel manager gushed. “I’m so glad that people now come to Israel for its beaches and restaurants – not just for pilgrimages or politics.”
I couldn’t argue. Israel is most certainly full of world-class food and natural attractions. But trying to overlook a 5,000-year human history that includes momentous sites for Judaism, Christianity and Islam, proved impossible during our two-week family vacation last year. That said, you don’t have to be super religious to appreciate Israel’s amazing offerings.
Adam and I honeymooned in Israel 20 years ago. We had long planned to return with our kids – Jonah (13) and Asher (9) – and finally made the journey in 2014. We found it to be a safe, varied, fascinating family destination. Our 2014 trip itinerary was very geared toward being together as a family. The fabulous wineries, cool mountain bike rides and chic resorts we experienced last time were left to memory.
This time we dove head first into the past and cherry picked spots that appealed to each of us: an archeological dig, Roman ruins, a Dead Sea float, the Temple Mount, a Crusader fortress – there was truly something for everyone (see “The Good Stuff” below). To top it off, all Israelis love kids: Everywhere we went, locals asked, “Can we please have Asher?!”
Yet there is no doubt that Israel is one of the world’s most complicated places. The country is home to many different factions who firmly believe they belong there. The Israeli people coexist – sometimes well, sometimes not so well – in a way that makes for a certain level of constant tension bubbling below the surface.
Our tour guide carried a laminated printout of the map of Israel everywhere we went. It was coded in a dozen colors, crisscrossed with borders and shapes, and tagged with names and years identifying who was in charge, who built what, and who fought who. It was amazing to think of all these cultures marching through Israel, conquering, building, and burning – all in the name of trade, taxes and God.
Today, the political situation in Israel is very different than it was even twenty years ago. The country is now almost completely surrounded by nations embroiled in political, social and civil crises. Yet Israel seems to thrive. There are world-class hospitals, universities, and businesses alongside medieval and biblical sites. Army tanks pass mosques, Hasidic schoolchildren, Christian pilgrims, swishy fashion models and Rasta dudes mixing on the streets.
Of course, some of this 21st century success was lost on our kids who had to agree with the hotel manager: “This is a very cool beach…”
The ROAM Report : Israel
Date : June 2014
Itinerary : Rental car to northern Israel (3 nights in Galilee), Tel Aviv (3 nights) and Jerusalem (7 nights)
Budget : Israel is not super expensive but nor is it cheap. It is safe to budget what you would to travel around the U.S. We had some splurge days and some budget days. There are high taxes on many goods, especially gasoline.
Travelers : Debra Nelson, Adam Belsky, Jonah (13) and Asher (9)
The Good Stuff
- Dig for a Day – This is the very best thing we did in Israel hands down. In the Beit Guvrim National Park (drivable from both Tel Aviv and Jerusalem), Archeological Seminars Institute allows kids and adults to dig up real relics from 2,000 year-old sites. On a million-degree-day, they take you underground to caves and catacombs from the time of King Herod. You sift through the earth and find shards of pottery, bones and other evidence of human inhabitation. And although the lady in charge did her best to set expectations with my youngest (“Asher, I love you but you are not going to find a coin…”), he proved her wrong, brushing the dust off a tiny, ancient coin after sifting through just a few scoops of earth. You don’t get to keep the good stuff but you get to pick souvenir shards of pottery to take home from the piles they can’t match up. We all loved it – even Jonah, our tough-to-impress teen, who asked, “Can we do this again?”
- Roman Ruins – Just an hour’s drive from Tel Aviv, the ruins of the Roman city of Caesarea sit on the Mediterranean Sea. The site is evidence of an amazing civilization, replete with historical re-enactments. It is a massive place – almost a full city with reconstructions and ruins, an amazing coliseum and much more – well worth a day of exploring.
- Stand Atop the Mount – Many visitors assume you can’t visit the Temple Mount – but you can and you should. The mount is home to the foundations of the first two Jewish temples and is currently site of the al-Aqsa mosque, the third-holiest site in Islam. Jews are forbidden to pray on the mount – and some still believe it is disrespectful to walk there – and non-Muslims may not enter the mosque. Yet it is an amazing feeling to stand on the most contested plot of land on the planet. Some guy who was apparently affiliated with the mosque came up to Adam, told him he was improperly dressed, and said he would need to pay $10 for fabric to cover his legs. Our guide was clear, “If they say you need to buy a cover-up, you buy one.”
- The Old City – Of Course – Our tour guide took around for the day, visiting the sights and buildings of Jerusalem. We loved the Mount of Olives, the highest part of Jerusalem. It was a fantastic vantage point. (It can be closed for security reasons so check before heading up.)
- The Great North – The vistas are wide in Israel’s north – not unlike the natural expanses of the American West. We stayed near the Sea of Galilee at Nof Ginosaur and followed the “Jesus Trail” to see where Jesus lived, prayed and worked. We then continued up to the Golan Heights, which fully lived up to its reputation as an emotionally compelling slice of land.
- Mysterious Safed (Tzfat) – Wandering the narrow alleys and breathing in the atmosphere of this ancient, mystical town kept us all captivated.
- Eerie Acre (Akko) – As one of the world’s oldest continuously inhabited cities, Acre boasts amazing Crusader walls and Ottoman mosques. But the most moving memorial for us was the noose still hanging in the gallows of the fortress (now the Underground Prisoners Memorial Museum). When the British controlled Palestine, the citadel served as a prison for Jewish revolutionaries who wanted them out. It’s a moving tribute to their memory.
- Israel’s Miami Beach – Tel Aviv exudes the energy of a new, happening capital, replete with fabulous restaurants, city beaches, high-fashion shops and even a free bike-rental service a la The Netherlands. We lazed on the beach, gazed at Bauhaus architecture and people-watched constantly. The old port city of Jaffa is only a couple of miles down the strand and a great destination for a morning jog.
- A Most Fabulous Place – On a particularly lazy day in Jerusalem, my family refused to join me for a trip to the Israel Museum. It was their loss: In my opinion, it was the most amazing museum I’ve ever visited and the most fabulous place on the planet! The galleries contain not just fine art but artifacts from 5,000 years of Israeli history – and they are gloriously air-conditioned!
- Masada/Dead Sea Day Trip – Rather than uproot for a weekend, we decided to drive to Masada from Jerusalem for the day. Masada is an amazing place: an elevated plateau in the desert where, most famously, a group of Jews took refuge and then committed mass suicide rather than be captured by the Romans. It’s a compelling history to be sure. We remembered our visit 20 years ago when we had to decide between a crazy hike up or a packed cable car in 108 degree-heat. Now Masada also sports a new underground parking lot, air-con mini mall, gift shops and restaurants!
- Dead Sea Float After Masada, we headed for a swim in the Dead Sea – you can actually recline on the uber salty water! It felt a bit weird though so I for one was happy to shower and swim at an all-inclusive hotel before heading back to town.
The Not So Good
- Simmering Tension – Israel is a tense place – not unlike walking through parts of any major metropolis. And even if you’re not a Jew, you probably look American, and that means you’re assumed to be a Jew by most locals. There’s no question that it is absolutely possible to have an enjoyable, conflict-free vacation but as much as the Israel tourist board would like to reframe Israel as a blissful beach vacation destination, Thailand it isn’t.
- Explaining the Holocaust – Some kids will have trouble understanding why Israel exists and why its assorted people live there. The specter of the holocaust hangs over the country – why the Jews escaped Europe and the Middle East – as does the history the countless wars that led to Israel’s establishment. It is a pretty tragic topic.
- Poor Web Presence – Web sites for Israel’s travel destinations are not up to American standards. The English versions are generally poorly written and leave much to be desired in the way of photos. Most smaller spots are not keen to do reservations over the Web or email, saying “Just call us!” which can be tough if you’re still at home.
- The Northern Frontier – The upper part of Israel doesn’t seem to have the tourism thing down quite yet. There are not a lot of great places to stay. All the accommodations are quite basic and fine – just don’t get your hopes up.
Good to Know
- Avoid the Inferno – Israel is hot in the summer. Don’t even think of going to Israel in August. Even the Israelis think that’s crazy. The south is too hot even in early summer: Eilat was 120F while we visited in June.
- Consider a Car – We rented a minivan to drive north and back; we also took day trips from Jerusalem. No problem. All road signs are in Hebrew, Arabic and English and all the highways are very modern, well kept and easy to drive. Gasoline is very expensive, however. And be certain that liability insurance normally included with some credit card-based reservations is valid in Israel (ours wasn’t.)
- Remember Shabbat – The Jewish holy day takes place from Friday at sundown to Saturday at sundown. Try to plan to be in a larger city on Shabbat because many businesses will remain open while a small town might close entirely.
- Dress Modestly – Visits to religious sites and ethnic neighborhoods require appropriate dress. Be sure to have the right shirts, pants, skirts and headwear for the destination.
- Get a Guide – Whether private or shared, guided tours are a must in Jerusalem (and not a bad way to go elsewhere in Israel.) With 5,000 years of history, you want to be with a person who knows what they are talking about. Israeli guides are trained by the government and really know their stuff. As an added benefit, our guide kept us on our best behavior and prevented us from murdering each other while we recovered from jet lag on the first few days of our trip.
- Save Time to Shop – Fashionistas rejoice! The creativity of the Israeli people translates to awesome boutique shopping. I especially loved checking out the shops in both the new and old cities of Jerusalem, including Turquoise, a very cool jewelry store.
- Stay in the Colony – Where to stay in Jerusalem is a big decision: Old or new city? Hotel or apartment? Lots of my friends had stayed in one of the luxury hotels but I wanted something more authentically local. I was also afraid the lure of a big hotel pool would keep us all tethered to its lounge chairs instead of seeing the sights. After much research, we settled on an Airbnb apartment in the German Colony and realized we picked the winning location. It is a very hip neighborhood within walking distance to the Old City. And it has a public pool! The unit cost approximately $300 per night. It had three levels so we could spread out and get some personal space. Everyone loved it!
- Go Out! – My friend Nita told me, “I’ve traveled all around the world and the place I partied most like a rock star was Tel Aviv.” Other friends recommended amazing restaurants around the country. Adam and I became determined to have a few nights out during our stay. We made it happen by simply posting a note on Facebook: “Does anyone know a babysitter in Jerusalem? Tel Aviv?” The responses were fast and furious, “I know someone!” “I know someone!” We had several great date nights and dinners with friends.
- Proxy Internet Service– Screens are a necessary evil for our family trips to keep my nine-year-old occupied at “boring” times. To my horror, Netflix and the Disney Channel are blocked in Israel. Our salvation? I paid $10 for “Hide My A**” a service which allows you to log in to blocked sites via virtual private network. So when Asher woke jetlagged at 3am, “Dog with a Blog” was there to keep him company.
- Phones are Easy – We rented simple flip phones from Israel Phones. Picked them up and dropped them off at the airport – very easy!
- Asher bringing his guitar and sitting in with the band at a beautiful, bar mitzvah garden party.
- Jonah and Adam cruising Tel Aviv on rented bikes.
- Asher falling asleep at dinner every night during the first week of our trip
- Jonah catching the eye of young female Israeli soldiers.
- Asher happy to get the “Beatles”-in-Hebrew shirt he wanted.
Good Family Trip?
Three days after we left Israel in 2014, the bodies of three missing high school boys were found in the north. And Israel responded. It was heartbreaking. So would I go again? Yes, without a doubt. There is always conflict in Israel. I guess if the U.S. State Department advised against travel then I wouldn’t attempt it. But the benefits of experiencing Israel’s remarkable historical and cultural offerings– both religious and non religious – far outweigh the risks.
by Debra Nelson, February 2015
© ROAM Family Travel 2015 – All rights reserved
Keywords: family travel, family vacation, Israel with the kids, family vacation to Israel, Mediterranean sea with the family, Dead Sea with the kids