A couple of weeks ago, my wife and I had the opportunity to embark on a tour of the Holy Land in Israel. Our 10-day adventure included many wonderful religious and historic sites, as well as visits to several cities, including Tel Aviv, Jericho, Nazareth, Jaffa, Cana and Jerusalem.
While our tour was sponsored by a Long Island-based Christian Ministry, there are many options available to would-be visitors, including Muslim and Jewish focused packages. You can search for them or contact a travel agent for a recommendation. Our tour covered many popular Christian sites, including the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, Mount Tabor, Magdala and the Sea of Galilee.
Our tour company, 206 Tours, provided some surprising extras. In the city of Cana, couples were offered the opportunity to renew their wedding vows. If you’re familiar with Cana, this is where Jesus attended a wedding, and performed His first of many miracles, changing water into wine. So naturally, as the site of a biblical wedding, many couples come to Cana to renew their wedding vows. Several couples participated, including my wife and myself. 626 Tours also surprised us one night, when instead of the usual buffet at the hotel, we were taken to the Notre Dame Hotel in Jerusalem, and treated to a sit-down dinner in their lovely rooftop restaurant, which overlooks the sites of Jerusalem.
What a lovely experience.
Almost everyone you would need to communicate with in Israel speaks English, such as hotel personnel and waitstaff at restaurants. Although the official currency is the shekel, dollars are accepted as well. If you use dollars, ask if you will be receiving change in dollars or shekels. It’s fine to have some shekels in your pocket for tips, gift shopping and toiletries.
My favorite city was Jerusalem. It is a clean, safe city, that one can easily explore on-foot or by taxi.
The Old City is found here, which is surrounded by a two-and-a-half-mile stone wall. The old city itself is divided into quarters, Muslin, Christian, Jewish and Armenian. This is also where the famous Western Wall is found in the Jewish quarter, typically a popular attraction.
Also from Jerusalem, you can visit the Yad Vashem – The World Holocaust Remembrance Center. It’s a short ride by taxi or light train. Although you have to reserve a spot in advance, it’s well worth a visit. Expect to spend at least a few hours here.
Israel is a relatively safe place to visit if you travel as part of a tour. By doing so, you can easily pass through the occasional check points when entering territory that is controlled by the PLO (Palestine Liberation Authority). Such areas include Jericho and Bethlehem. The tour guides know the regions firsthand and most speak Hebrew.
We visited Jericho, known to be the oldest city in the world. Archaeologists there have unearthed the remains of more than 20 successive settlements, the first of which dates back 11,000 years, to 9000 B.C. Today, Muslims and Christians live there in relative harmony.
The State of Israel has done a good job of allowing the various religious sects to preserve and even rebuild their respective historical sites and manage them accordingly. This includes the many temples, churches and mosques that dot the landscape.
Our tour guide explained that Israel is a leading technological country. An example of this is their desalination process. Since Israel has limited fresh water, they had to develop desalination plants to convert seawater into drinking water. They have mastered the process, and can now even provide fresh water to their neighbors in Jordan. The Israel Government is planning to build more plants.
Another popular location is the Dead Sea. It’s considered the lowest place on Earth, at 423 meters (1,387 ft) below sea level. It is also 10 times saltier than ordinary sea water. People flock here to float on the water, and even cover themselves in sea mud, which is known for its therapeutic properties. Cleopatra was known to use minerals from the Dead Sea as part of her beauty regimen. Although we visited in January, it was in the high 60s. However, if you visit during the summer, expect temps to be over 100 degrees.
We had the opportunity to dine at many local restaurants between the city of Tiberius, located in the North, to Jerusalem, which is based in the south. The cuisine is Middle Eastern/Mediterranean and served family style. Expect to sit down to fresh pitas, salads, corn, humus, beats, eggplant and falafel. The wait staff would then bring a main dish such as grilled chicken, beef kebab or fish, and then complete the meal with a dessert dish, such as baklava or fruit. El Al Airlines has direct flights to Tel Aviv, which depart daily from JFK.
However, be aware the flights are long (9-10 hours), and if you have claustrophobic tendencies, as I do, then it’s a real challenge. If I went again, I would consider an upgrade to first class, or at least more leg space. You do get two meals on board, the food is good, but the coffee not so much.
While our tour package included airfare, hotel accommodations, three meals per day and the tour itself, other packages may vary. Gratuities for the tour guide, spiritual leader and driver were extra. We thought it was an excellent value.
If you book a tour of the Holy Land, be aware it can be physically challenging. We were on and off the bus several times a day, and had to negotiate steps, uneven surfaces, inclines, hills and other surfaces with or without handrails. If you have rain, then slippery conditions will be a factor.
Bring good quality walking shoes or boots. Shalom!