South Israel boasts iconic and unsung sights, as Jeannine Williamson discovers on a fly-drive tour.
It’s renowned for a rich history going back thousands of years – and more recently the Red Sea holiday playground of Eilat – but now Israel is inspiring an even wider audience.
The country that saw UK land-based and cruise visitors increase by 10% to 221,000 last year is making its mark as a destination for food and wine, soft adventure and activities, birdwatching, festivals, nightlife and generally exploring the road less travelled.
This has been spearheaded by the Israel Government Tourist Office’s Hidden Gems campaign highlighting everything Israel has to offer.
The first in a trilogy of booklets covering the north of the country, sent to selected tour operators and available to consumers, was published last year and reprinted due to high demand. The second and third volumes, focusing on central and southern Israel, came out earlier this year.
A big selling point is that it’s easy to pack plenty into a week-long holiday. From Tel Aviv it’s a one-hour drive to Jerusalem, another half an hour to the Dead Sea and a one-hour internal flight or five-hour drive to Eilat on Israel’s southernmost tip.
Visitors are never far from desert adventure, with the Judean Desert adjoining the Negev Desert, which covers more than half of Israel.
Being such a compact country visitors can add excursions to mainstream itineraries or venture off the beaten track on fly-drive tours. They can also stay on a kibbutz, the rural communities for which Israel is famous.
Specialists such as Superstar Holidays, Longwood Holidays and Kirker Holidays can tailor-make tours, and agents can dynamically package Israel by booking flights, hotels and adding excursions through providers such as Attraction World.
With more than 3,000 years of history Israel’s capital, largest city and spiritual centre of the Jewish, Muslim and Christian religions is an incredible destination.
The historic and spiritual core is inside the walls of the Old City and most visitors enter through the Jaffa Gate, which leads to all the main sights including the Western or Wailing Wall, the most important religious shrine for Jewish people.
For different views of the city agents can recommend the tour of the Western Wall tunnels.
Opened in 1985 and with further excavations revealing new areas, the tour reveals vast stretches of the wall and ancient Jerusalem hidden underground.
Back at ground level an exhilarating way to see the city is on one of the Segway tours run by the Zuzu company at the Jaffa Gate.
DEAD SEA DELIGHTS
The Dead Sea, on the border with Jordan, makes Israel a natural spa destination.
The big hotels all have spas offering treatments using mineral-rich Dead Sea mud. And who can resist striking the classic pose floating on the water reading a newspaper?
Visitors to the shores of this salt lake can also enjoy the novelty of standing on the lowest place on Earth, at 416m below sea level.
From here tourists can take trips into the Judean Desert and visit Masada, the impressive ruins of King Herod’s mountaintop fortress, which can also be booked as an excursion through Attraction World for clients staying in Tel Aviv.
Energetic early birds can hike up the winding path for stunning sunrise views or leave it until later in the day and take the cable car and visit the new museum at the foot of the mountain.
DESERT SHIPS AND HIDEAWAYS
The Ramon Crater is a unique geological phenomenon in the heart of the Negev Desert. The largest of three craters, it was formed millions of years ago by water eroding the mountain that once dominated the area.
With hiking and mountain biking trails, it’s a paradise for outdoor enthusiasts. Accommodation options include the stylish Beresheet Hotel, opened last year and part of Isrotel’s Luxury Collection.
Overlooking the crater, the 111 chalets have been sympathetically designed to blend in with the desert and facilities include an infinity pool and tranquil spa. Operators selling the property include Superstar and Longwood.
Another nearby gem for independent clients is Carmey Avdat where Hanna and Eyal Izrael have established a farm and winery on the remains of a 1,500-year-old agricultural settlement.
Accommodation is in six simple but well-equipped cabins inspired by the surroundings. Guests can sample the fruits of the couple’s labours, including fruity red and rosé wines and a delicious port, which come with the territory.
Nearby attractions include the ruined hilltop city of Avdat founded by traders in about the 2nd century BC as a caravan station on the spice route leading from Petra in Jordan to Gaza.
And no visit to the Negev would be complete without a camel ride, the historic mode of transport used to take goods back and forth.
Bedouin tribes have lived in the desert for thousands of years and tourists can visit villages to trek on a ‘ship of the desert’ and enjoy a meal of fresh bread, dips and salads followed by a strong coffee and sweet tea, traditionally drunk one after the other.
Fly-and-flop holidays are an enduring part of Eilat’s appeal, and with its chic shops, waterfront bars and resort hotels it would be easy to stay put.
But even in Eilat you can find two very different experiences at nearby Dolphin Reef. The obvious attraction is in the name and families can snorkel, dive and help feed the eight dolphins that live in a natural environment.
Adults can also take the plunge in the indoor relaxation pools, including one that mimics the salty content of the Dead Sea and another where therapists provide a relaxing and slightly surreal floating massage complete with underwater music.
The geological wonderland of Timna Park, the site of ancient copper mines considered to be the first mines on Earth, is just 20 miles north of Eilat in the rocky Negev Desert.
Guided jeep tours provide a fascinating insight into the towering sandstone columns of Solomon’s Pillars, giant mushroom-shaped rock formations and ancient cave art, and visitors can fill a bottle with the region’s multicoloured sand to take home as a souvenir.
Desert archery, hiking, horse riding and quad biking are among the other activities on offer, and being situated on a main bird migration route Eilat is perfectly placed for birdwatching in spring and autumn.
There will be flight paths of a different kind when Eilat unveils its new international airport, 11 miles north of the city.
Scheduled to open in 2014 it will give a major boost to the region, which currently has only weekly direct flights from the UK in winter.
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