By Abhik Dutta
Israel has always been an enigma. While the pint-sized country has always been admired by Indians for reasons historical, scientific and political, traveling to Israel for purely leisure tourism purposes was never really on the cards for us. Trips were primarily undertaken by religious, agricultural and medical groups from India. For some reason, it wasn’t considered politically correct to flaunt a trip to Israel when previous Indian Governments were in power. Now, not only are government to government interactions at an all-time high but travel by groups other than those listed above are also seeing a sharp rise. Companies are not shy anymore to announce trips to Israel for “incentive” purposes. Individual travellers are showing a great deal of interest.
I am often asked about my travel experience to Israel by friends and clients, so here are a few of them that I thought of penning down.
1. Which places did you visit?
I travelled to Israel in the month of November and had the wonderful opportunity of visiting the vibrant ‘non-stop’ city of Tel Aviv (including Jaffa & Herziliya) on the shores of the Mediterranean, the ancient city of Jerusalem, the Dead Sea and the resort city of Eilat on the Red Sea. En route to the Dead and Eilat, we took detours into the Judean desert and the Negev desert.
2. What is the best time to travel here?
Being on the Southern coast of the Mediterranean, it enjoys a typical Mediterranean climate. While it does get cold in Jerusalem for a month in Dec/Jan (it could even snow there), one can still take a dip in the Red Sea resort of Eilat in end Jan. But I would recommend the months of March, April, May, June and Sep, Oct and November. July & August are hot months, specially around the Dead Sea and the desert area of Negev.
3. What is the best way to travel around the cities?
In Tel-Aviv, its easy to cab it to any of the main centres and then just walk around. In Jerusalem, you have to walk in the Old City and get lost in its labyrinthine lanes and by lanes of the Muslim, Christian and Jewish quarters. Eilat is chiefly a walking town and its great to just walk the promenade from one end to the other. It’s the most vibrant stretch in Eilat, filled with pubs, cafes, shops and restaurants.
4. What do you consider to be the 3 highlights of your trip? And why?
Walking through the old streets of Jerusalem. Here time stands still. Wandering along the old cobble stoned walk ways of the city leading through the various quarters, past curio shops and galleries right up to the open view of the Temple Mount and the Western Wall is a delightful experience. To visit the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, where Lord Jesus Christ was crucified and laid to rest is one of my life’s most poignant moments.
Wine tasting in Tel Aviv: There are many kinds of wine tasting that takes place around the world. But none as rewarding or humbling as that offered at the BlackOut, the pitch-black restaurant with its staff of blind waiters. This is part of the Nalaga’at Center at Jaffa, located near the wharf. The Center – the first of its kind in the world, seeks to promote interaction between deaf-blind, deaf, and blind individuals and people able to hear and see, regardless of cultural or social distinctions. At BlackOut, we were escorted by blind waiters to our seats in total darkness and over the next one hour taken through a session of wine tasting that left an indelible impression on my mind.
Floating on the Dead Sea: We have all grown up reading books about floating on the Dead Sea. Floating here is made possible because of its high salinity (34%) which is almost 10 times more saline than Ocean water. It was an amazing experience to tread into the still waters of the Dead Sea at dawn in November, the water temperature mild even this early during the day, so late in the season. And for the next hour, I floated quietly on the ‘oily’ water chatting away with my other ‘floating’ friends, smearing my body with salt from the sea bed in what is one of my life’s most surreal experiences. Needless to say, this is perhaps the only Sea in the world where nobody even tries to swim!
5. What are the must do sightseeing when you travel to Israel?
If you have a week in hand, you must visit Tel-Aviv (and Yaffo), Jerusalem, Dead Sea and finally party away in Eilat. En route from Dead Sea to Eilat, you will pass the Negev Desert. You can experience a jeep safari in the Judean desert, visit the Timna Park in Eilat or snorkel in the famed reefs of the Red Sea. For those interested in the Holyland tours, a visit to Bethelhem, the Sea of Galilee etc are a must.
6. What are the best places to eat local cuisine?
I can heartily recommend the following places where we tried our luck:
Tel-Aviv: At Vicky Cristina at the Old train station or sea food at White Pergola at the Port area. Or you can just walk through Carmel open market and pick up food from the local stalls. In Jaffa, you could try Dr. Shakskuka restaurant. Its been featured in a few travel channels as well and seems like a favourite with the locals.
Jerusalem: Try the seafood at Adom restaurant in the Old train station area (yes, Jerusalem too has one!). The food is delicious and the atmosphere of the area is electric!
Eilat: If you want to try Asian fusion cuisine, try Ginger Asian Bar and Kitchen. I heartily recommend whatever the chef throws at you. The Bar beach restaurant cooks up great sea food menus.
But no matter, where you are, you MUST try Israeli wine. Its great stuff. I heartily recommend the Galil Mountain red wine made from Syrah grapes.
7. Can you name a few flea/famous markets where one can pick up souvenirs?
Don’t miss the great atmosphere of the Carmel market in Tel Aviv, an open air market selling everything from food to locally made (innovative) window cleaning equipment, curios and flowers. On Tuesdays and Fridays, you are in for a treat as the next door Nahlat Binyamin Pedestrian street comes alive with local craftsmen lining the street with their exceptional crafts that range from miniature rice paintings to stone paintings, sculpture etc. It’s a feast for the eyes.
8. Can you recommend a few ‘watering holes’ to be at post 7 pm?
Tel-Aviv is known as a Non-Stop city! With a reputation to live upto, its no wonder that the city is full of bars and pubs that stay open well past the break of dawn. Unlike other large cities in the world, the cities pubs are small but allow for a great pub hopping experience. Its best to see a few and then return to the one you like best. I would recommend that you head for Lilienblum Street and then take it on from there! In Eilat, my favourite was the “Three Monkeys Pub”.
9. Can your company organise incentive tours for groups?
Yes of Course. The Wanderers can offer unique programmes for corporates in Israel. Including visits to companies to understand the innovation culture in Israel, or to a local farm to get an insight into latest “innovations” in agriculture or to a state of the art medical centre to share latest medical advancements.