A host of sights within easy reach make Israel perfect touring territory, says Jeannine Williamson
Although it takes only seven hours to drive the length of Israel from north to south, travellers will need a lot longer than that to see even a fraction of the sights this fascinating land has to offer.
Visitors will want to see the desert and the Dead Sea, experience Tel Aviv’s legendary nightlife and explore Jerusalem, the city that is home to three religions – so seven nights, rather than seven hours, is a more practical proposition. And an escorted tour is the most efficient and hassle-free way to pack them all in. Whether it’s a general tour taking in all the major sights – a perfect option for first-time visitors – or a special interest itinerary, there are a wide range of options.
“Israel is a small country that offers visitors of all ages a variety of holiday experiences,” says Naama Oryan-Kaplan, UK and Ireland director of the Israel Government Tourist Office.
“Tel Aviv and Jerusalem are our epicentres. They offer everything – from the award-winning beaches to world-class nightlife in Tel Aviv, and cultural discoveries in Jerusalem. Further out, visitors can float in the Dead Sea, explore the Negev Desert on foot, by bike or jeep, swim with the dolphins in Eilat or head north to explore the beautiful Galilee region.”
Tel Aviv: A buzzing 24-hour city, Tel Aviv boasts fantastic nightlife, beautiful beaches and a laid-back cafe culture. It’s called the White City after the distinctive buildings in the Bauhaus quarter built between the 1930s and 1950s.
Jaffa: The ancient Arab port nestling at the southern end of Tel Aviv’s sweeping golden beach has a maze of winding streets lined with small shops and art galleries and a quirky flea market near the clock tower.
Jerusalem: 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. Highlights include the Western Wall, Via Dolorosa and Church of the Holy Sepulchre, and the markets.
Dead Sea: The lowest place on earth at 417 metres below sea level, the salty waters of the Dead Sea make it impossible even for non-swimmers to sink. Visitors can smother themselves in mineral-rich black mud on the public beaches or visit one of the many spas in the area.
Masada: The impressive ruins of King Herod’s mountain-top fortress overlooking the Dead Sea can be reached on foot along the winding ‘snake path’ or by cable car.
Galilee: This picturesque region is famous for its biblical connections and is also home to Israel’s wine industry.Avdat National Park: Recently reopened after a three-year £1.3-million restoration programme, the Unesco World Heritage Site is situated on an ancient spice route in the Negev desert. A new film in the visitor centre shows what the city would have looked like 2,000 years ago.
Eilat: The cosmopolitan Red Sea resort, cut off from the rest of Israel by the Negev desert, provides a contrast to Israel’s historical and spiritual sites.
Sightseeing: The birthplace of Judaism, Christianity and Islam, Israel is a compelling and unforgettable destination with unique sights. All the escorted tour operators take in the main highlights, including Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, Galilee and the Dead Sea. There are many week-long itineraries such as Travelsphere’s The Holyland (from £1,359) and Leger’s Highlights of the Holy Land (from £1,099). Longer options include Collette Worldwide’s 10-day A Journey to the Holyland (from £1,974).
Historic: For those who really want to focus in detail on Israel’s history, Cox & Kings offers a tour in association with The Royal Academy of Arts. Led by an expert archaeologist, it follows the path of the crusades and features exclusive access to the roof of the Church of Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, by special arrangement for this tour only. The eight-day Israel & The OPT: Crusaders in the Holy Land tour starts from £1,975 and departs November 3.
Cultural: Any tour will give clients a taste of Israel’s culture, but some are more immersive than others. Explore’s eight-day Holy Land (from £1,451), and Trafalgar Tours’ nine-day Best of Israel (from £1,465 land-only) both feature a stay at a traditional kibbutz, where guests can enjoy community life. G Adventures’ eight-day Israel Explore (from £960 land-only) has a one-night stay in a traditional Bedouin tented camp in the Negev Desert, and also visits a Palestinian refugee camp.
Gourmet: Israeli food is extremely varied, with cuisine that’s fresh and healthy, and a wine-growing culture dating back 3,000 years (see picture above). Abercrombie & Kent provides a real taste of the country with its nine-day Gourmet Israel tour (from £3,795), which includes visits to food markets, an agricultural kibbutz, specialist food producers and a cookery lesson.
Active: With more than 6,000 miles of marked hiking trails, Israel is a paradise for walkers, and Ramblers Worldwide offers an 11-day Biblical Footsteps tour (from £2,099) that includes walking in the lush Galilee and Golan regions and a sunrise trek to Masada.
Gay: Tel Aviv is known as the gay capital of the Middle East and its annual Pride Week is a highlight of the LGBT calendar, with street parades and the city’s famous nightlife to enjoy. Encounters Travel has a five-day small group tour to coincide with this year’s gay pride festival (from £749).
Multi-destination: With neighbours including culture-rich Jordan and Egypt, suggest clients beef up their holiday by booking a twin-centre or multi-destination break. On The Go Tours offers the 18-day Pyramids, Petra and Promised Land tour (from £1,449), with excursions to Jordan’s legendary rose-red city of Petra and vast Wadi Rum desert, and the Egyptian pyramids. For a twin-centre trip, Insight Vacations has a 12-day Israel & Jordan itinerary that can be further extended by adding a two-night Dead Sea extension for relaxation and spa treatments.
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