Visiting Israel – There’s no place quite like it!

After renewing and establishing ties with several Middle-Eastern countries, Israel has been in the news more than ever. As a tourism destination, its popularity is expected to soar. With seas to float in, deserts to camp in, delicious food to gorge on, religious sites to be amazed by and archaeological sites to explore – it’s easy to see why.

Words by Srishti Jindal

I have had a bee in my bonnet about visiting Israel for quite some time now. Unfortunately, I was always warned against it. I could not blame the incredulous look my family gave me when I announced I had finally decided to visit the country. After all, the media always portrays Israel as an area of constant strife. However, I knew better. Tourism is one of the main sources of income in Israel. The country hosted around 4.55 million tourists in 2019 and if the COVID-19 pandemic hadn’t put global travel on halt, 2020 was slated to be a record-breaking year in terms of tourist arrivals. If a holiday in Israel were truly dangerous, visitors would not be zealously trying to visit the holy land. Nonetheless, I have to admit I had my own apprehensions about visiting this stunning country. I was sceptical that once I enter the country I could forget about any shopping expeditions to Indian shopping havens like Dubai and Abu Dhabi. At the time, I did thorough research and after reconfirming with many reliable sources I was assured that metropolitan countries in the Middle East don’t deny Indian tourists visas simply because they have visited Israel. Of course, given the diplomatic ties, Israel has recently cultivated these apprehensions have now proven absolutely frivolous. In fact, in August 2020 a historic direct flight from Israel landed in Abu Dhabi, making it official that Israel and the Middle East are serious about being friends.

When I finally reached Israel my first stop was Jerusalem. For someone who has grown up on religion, visited the temple every Monday and believes almost every mythological tale with religious fervour, being in Jerusalem was incredibly heady stuff. Here I was in the very city where three of the world’s great religions- Judaism, Christianity and Islam- had roots. Jerusalem, with its hundreds of churches, mosques and synagogues scattered across the city, was like an open-air museum. I touched the very grave Jesus was buried in and the cross he was crucified on. I saw where Muhammad ascended into heaven and also visited the famous first temple Dome of the Rock. Each site was more unbelievable than the other. No amount of words can do justice to the significance of the place. I could feel the deep enduring spirituality in the very air of the city. For the local residents and those travelling for pilgrimage, prayers punctuated daily routines. At any given time, I could see hundreds of devotees leaning on the Wailing Wall or performing other such rituals and it is these very traditions, even more than the spectacular sites that make Jerusalem such an alluring, authentic, and utterly singular destination.

My next stop was Tel Aviv, which was standing in complete contrast to Jerusalem. A thoroughly modern city, with its record number of designer shops, nightclubs, hotels, restaurants, and bars, it is the cosmopolitan heart of Israel. And it is this contrast and co-existence of two antipodal worlds under a handful of the sky that makes Israel so special.

On my first night in Tel Aviv, the people were celebrating a special annual event called White Night (Laila Lavan). This is Israeli army slang for a night of continual activity with no sleep. Everything from restaurants to offices, to museums and clubs, were open all night and special free concerts were organized throughout the city. The energy was amazing and it is safe to say the nightlife

was comparable to the likes of places like Ibiza and Miami. The next day I shopped till I dropped in the trendy Kikar Hamedina area. The area was brimming with chic stores, art galleries and cafes. At night we decided to eat at the world-renowned Messa Restaurant, which brings me to the topic of food. Of course, the food at Messa was brilliant; it’s one of the top restaurants in the world. But what needs to be noted is that food all over Israel is superb. Israel is a gastronomical paradise! Even the most humble places offering nothing more than hummus, tahini and pita are never less than excellent. What is considered an average restaurant in Israel will serve food that would be considered remarkable in any other part of the world.

After our time in Tel Aviv, we drove to the Mizpeh Hayamim Spa Hotel that overlooks the magnificent Golan Heights and the Sea of Galilee. The journey itself was an experience; there was a picturesque landscape at every turn. The hotel estate was spread over a sprawling 37-acre area and was surrounded by forests and flowing gardens. I enjoyed a delicious and healthy meal at the hotel’s vegetarian restaurant with its appetizing and creative dishes made solely from the fresh produce grown in the organic farm within the hotel complex. The next morning I took a tour of the organic farm, herb garden, soap factory and bakery. Even though I started as early as 5 am, the wonderful surroundings made me feel in perfect harmony with nature and kept me energetic and revitalized. Finally, I decided to enjoy the renowned spa. Anyone who knows me knows I am a spa buff. Since I am eternally hunched up in front of my laptop I suffer from chronic neck and shoulder pain and massages temporarily relieve me of my woes. I tried the traditional body massage at the spa. It was so relaxing I could barely stay awake for the first five minutes. For those of you who love trying new treatments, the spa menu was one of the most extensive I have ever seen, there were a host of options for spa, beauty and cosmetic treatments.

After leaving the quaint resort I had a hectic day ahead of me. I had to visit Tzora vineyards, an olive pressing factory and a cheese farm. I immensely enjoyed each activity and was left feeling more culturally enriched. But what surprised me was is how compact Israel is, we drove from the north to the south in about two hours, and within this compact space there is everything a tourist could want- sun, sea, sand to fun, food and culture. Another thing that astonished me was that driving around I did not see any soldiers or policemen. In fact, the only time I became aware of the unrest at the borders was when I drove to the Dead Sea, which is close to the borders, and saw a few security checks.

Put succinctly, Israel is unlike any other country you’ve likely ever visited. It is a pint-sized delight, with diverse landscapes ranging from scenic mountains and breathtaking deserts to deep valleys and an abnormally buoyant ocean. No matter your tastes or interest, you will have much to do, see, and eat here.

This is why TnH has anointed it as ‘The Must-Visit Destination of the Year’—a bold statement, perhaps, but one we believe in.

 

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