Israel and Jordan as a winter break, Pt. 2

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Nov 24th, 2013, 03:37 PM
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Israel and Jordan as a winter break, Pt. 2

My first day in Israel, (Tel Aviv on a Saturday), was pretty quiet. A lot of the city was shut down due to the Sabbath. Once I woke up and ate the absolutely delicious breakfast at Eden, I wandered around a bit. The hotel was in a beautiful section of the city made up of residences in a warren of alleyways. It was near a market (which was closed that day), but eventually I found the beach. Wow! It seemed like all of Tel Aviv was there, and it was an amazing day, sunny and in the 70's F. There were people fishing, paddle boarders, swimmers, bicycle riders, and one couple doing a cross fit session in the park.

As I walked around, I would discover numerous buildings that had been given over to street art, and actually had some amazing work on them. It seemed that some of these were official, or at least privately funded projects, and they made for some wonderful photography. I'd later find out that this was characteristic of the "Yemenite quarter" where I was housed. Another highlight of the day was the discovery of Rothschilds Street, which despite the Saturday closures was hopping with bars and restaurants. After walking up and down, I found a delightful place that served breakfast all day--actually breakfasts from all over the world, tweaked by the chef. It was excellent and they had little tables in the front of the restaurant where I could watch the street life and was quite comfortable.

I quickly found that the gelato in Israel was excellent. And, for an American, it was a great discovery that they sell ALL the flavors of the Magnum ice cream bar, rather than the one or two we get in the U.S. I resolved immediately to work my way through every variety, a resolution that I would find impossible, even with my capacity for eating ice cream, to uphold by the end of the week.

Sunday was the beginning of the three day tour of Northern Israel. I'd decided on the positively-reviewed Shalom Tours. On meeting the driver, I was (1) delighted to find that there were only six of us on the tour. Perhaps because it was low season, and (2) a little unsettled that the guide was actually from a company called "Rent-a-Guide", and after talking to the others, found that not all of them had booked through the same tour company. Our guide turned out to be quite good, but it seemed to me that he was contracted out and not an employee of Shalom Tours. Perhaps this is normal, but it wasn't quite what I'd expected.

I want to point out the pros and cons of the tour in an honest way. Keep in mind that this is all from my very personal point of view, which may be very unique.

I liked being part of a group. My tour-mates were quirky and fun and intelligent (with an emphasis on the quirky side), and having company was great. It's really luck-of-the-draw, though, how big a group you get and what their personalities will be. This tour can be large enough to require a regular-sized bus rather than the van we got, and this would have been quite a different experience. Our driver was very knowledgeable about Israeli and Biblical history, and overall added a lot to the sites we saw. Unlike my later experience in Jerusalem, many of the places we visited were churches, ancient synagogues, or archaeological ruins which had limited signage, so the talks he gave added a lot to my understanding of each place. Generally we had adequate time in each place but sometimes I regretted not being able to stay longer.

In the three days, we saw Ceasaria, Meggido Park, the Bahai Gardens, and Mount Carmel; Nazareth, Tzfat and the Golan Heights, and then the Sea of Galilee, Mount of Beatitudes, and the Beit Alfa Synagogue. It was all fantastic and amazing to me. I liked driving around, seeing the variety of farms and orchards, the desert, the landscapes, the Druze villages, the Golan Heights. I LOVED Haifa and thought it was a shame we took a look at the Bahai Gardens and drove right back out. I'm putting it on my list of places to stay next time I visit. It astonished me how big the Dead Sea was, and I'll talk more about it from the museum I saw on the Jordan side later in my trip. A big high point for most of us was the Jordan River, where many people go today to get baptized. Watching these was quite a special experience, and all around the site were plaques with a particular quote from the New Testament, translated into just about every language of the world and donated by various organizations. All in all, we saw a mix of Jewish and Christian holy places, and I found this a rewarding way to examine this part of Israel, since there is so much history here. And our tour guide really enhanced the experience; he even made the driving part interesting as he would share history and talk about some of his personal life (for instance, he is a volunteer policeman. In Israel this is a real job, and you can give tickets and stuff. In fact the number of jobs filled by volunteers there is incredible; and this is a side of Israeli life you might not know about as a tourist, so it was great to hear his anecdotes.)

But I have to address what was for me the downside of the tour. SHOPPING. It took a few days to catch on to the fact that every day brought a substantial shopping opportunity. Were there historical sites in the beautiful, religious village of Tzfat? Maybe. I don't know. We spent our time shopping, and I later learned that our guide most likely got a commission on each sale. Indeed, the shopkeepers all seemed to know him, and were aware that we were in his group. Was there stuff to see in the Golan Heights? Maybe we could have hiked around a little? I don't know. We spent a LONG time at a winery there, and when the tour finally wound up, we were given the opportunity to buy wine. Which of course everyone did! By the last day, I was getting really tired of this, and when our guide shoehorned in a trip to a diamond finishing 'factory' in Tiberias, zipping past monuments I would have liked to stop and see, I staged a minor rebellion. I slipped out and took a small walk around the neighborhood, re-joining the group when they finished. After all, I was paying for the tour, and I didn't see much point in spending time on activities that didn't interest me.

Of course we didn't have to buy anything, and of course there were times when I did want to get souvenirs. But I would have tilted the balance of sightseeing-to-shopping differently, maybe spending one of our collective hours at a shop out of the total three days. If I take another tour someday, I will raise this question before signing up.

Our hotel throughout the tour was at Kibbutz Lavi, in Galilee. After the amazing Eden Boutique hotel it was a little generic and boring, and the reception staff a touch rude. The tour guide had booked it for us, and it turned out I and the other person who booked through the same tour were in the oldest, cheapest section of the hotel, in the basement. Other members of the tour who had booked through alternative vendors were in the newer wings. My basement room seemed clean but at one point a large bug (cockroach? beetle?) ran up my wall and I had to decide which guidebook was least precious to me so that I could use it to smash the creature. (Yes, I cleaned and kept the guide, but knowing it had bug parts on it made it less appealing to use for the rest of the trip).

And the food! The kibbutz had a strictly kosher cafeteria that brings the ultra-religious to vacation there. Let me just say that I was raised Jewish, on kosher food, and I hate it. For some reason it is bland and boring, though there is nothing intrinsic to the kosher rules that say it has to be this way. It just is… I found the meals disappointing, but certainly edible and substantial in quantity. There was little that seemed fresh, all very different from all my other experiences in Israeli dining before and after the stay at the kibbutz.

So I would not have chosen this hotel, but all-in-all it is the kind of safe bet you can expect to get on a tour and I have no serious complaints. Had the choice been up to me I would have looked around in Tiberias for other options, and then we would have been within walking distance of cafes and restaurants.

Hotel aside, it was a good tour and I was glad for the experience. I didn't really want to rent a car and drive myself, and we certainly saved a lot of time because we moved very quickly from place to place with our experienced guide and driver. If I had to do it over again, and I was with family or friends, I would hire our own guide rather than choosing a pre-packaged tour, so that we could have more control over dining and lodging choices.

To put my negative comments in perspective, there was never a point at which I was unhappy. Hey, it's vacation, and all my quibbles were about small things; annoyances, not problems. Overall the tour was everything it promised to be. There were no scams or deceptions. We were well taken care of. It's more a matter of deciding how I might do things differently next time.

Some in my tour were continuing on with the same guide for the Jerusalem portion. At this point, I was relieved that I was now solo. In a city like Jerusalem I'd much rather be on my own than be ushered around and zipped in and out of sites, particularly since it is a very conducive environment to walking and taking public transportation rather than fighting city traffic in a vehicle. I wanted street food, hole-in-the-wall hummus shops, to get some wear on my still-pristine shoes, and the freedom to linger at each place and take in the street life.

In Jerusalem, I was also staying with a friend, actually in a nearby village, so the accommodations were taken care of. OK, part three, soon.
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Nov 24th, 2013, 04:07 PM
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By the way, in the sentences where I wrote 'driver', I was referring to our driver/guide for the three-day tour, since the same person was doing both jobs. I didn't mean to be derogatory; I should have used the word 'guide'. Wish it was possible to go back and edit these.
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Nov 24th, 2013, 05:55 PM
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Was this your first tour? Because your complaints are standard for many tours, especially less expensive ones. Too many shopping ops (with kickbacks to the guide), hotels out of the center and boring food are the norm. There are tours that don't operate that way, but you have to know where to find them.
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Nov 24th, 2013, 09:18 PM
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The all-day breakfast restaurant on Rothschild (corner Allenby) is called "Benedict":
http://goo.gl/maps/oopXj
They also have a branch on Ben-Yehuda corner Jabotinsky in north Tel-Aviv.
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Nov 25th, 2013, 01:55 AM
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@thursdaysd: Yes, this was my first tour, with the exception of a week on safari which was quite different. How do you find the alternative tours? Word of mouth?

@mbgg: I believe it was the Benedict. Thanks!
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Nov 25th, 2013, 03:39 AM
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How do you find "alternative tours" ? You post questions on the various travel forums ! You can also ask the tour companies directly whether they stop for shopping ! You can speak up on the tour - and organize the other participants - and say to the guide that the shopping stops weren't listed on the itinerary and that nobody wants to stop, then refuse to get out of the bus !
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Nov 25th, 2013, 07:05 AM
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The best way to find tours without shopping ops is to ask the company how they pay their guides, and/or whether you are expected to tip them. Non-US companies may also be better - Americans seem to be very keen on shopping...

Some examples: Rick Steves for Europe - he pays his guides a salary, no tipping, some demos that could be shopping ops if you wanted that, but most people like the demos.

Intrepid - budget Aussie cmpany. I did run into some shopping ops on their Morocco tour, but that was unusual.

In general, small group budget tours - i.e. tours that set a max count of 12-16 - or high-end tours if you get the right answer to your questions.

I still take a few tours when public transport looks iffy, but I really enjoy traveling on my own. If you find you're on a tour with too many shopping ops you're going to have be aggressive in going off on your own, if that is even possible - read the itinerary with care!
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Nov 25th, 2013, 01:41 PM
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Thanks for the answers about tours!
I had no idea what questions to ask, but next time I'll be better prepared.
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Nov 28th, 2013, 11:40 AM
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Really enjoying reading your report! Your style is evocative and friendly.
(You didn't see the Dead Sea with the guide, though, did you? That's a long detour from the Galilee..... I'm guessing that came later on in the week...)
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Nov 30th, 2013, 04:17 PM
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Many years ago our tour group stayed at Kibbutz Lavi. Brings back memories of Galilee area. It gave us a taste of life in a kibbutz. Yes, you might expect residents to be a little gruff because this is not an average hotel like a Holiday Inn but more of a day to day cooperative with some tourists.

You were evidentally directed into some shopping places (read tourist traps?) but of course Israel is a wonderful land of ancient sacred sights. Sea of Galilee is lovely and glad you got to Golan Heights and then also Dead Sea.

I am guessing an Israeli guide not Arab? In our two trips we had one and then the other which makes some difference as to what you see and do. I wonder if Israeli gov't even allows Palestinian Arabs as guides.
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Nov 30th, 2013, 09:42 PM
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<< I wonder if Israeli gov't even allows Palestinian Arabs as guides.>>

And I wonder why after two trips to Israel you would even ask such an ignorant question. Any Israeli citizen (or permanent resident) who takes the two-year course and passes the exams gets a licence from the Ministry of Tourism. Search for 'Arabic' in the 'Language' option and you will see how many Israeli Arabs are licenced tour guides:

http://goisrael.com/Tourism_Eng/Tour...ideSearch.aspx
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Dec 1st, 2013, 11:05 AM
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My "ignorant question" comes from visits having been so long ago and what I have heard about government policies. And what comments the guides themselves made. It so happened that in our two trips having an Israeli and an Arab guide meant two different experiences, what we saw or didn't see in each case. For example, Golan Heights for one, Hebron for the other. So many marvelous sites in any case.
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Dec 1st, 2013, 04:57 PM
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Great report, beth! Looking forward to reading more. Thank you for taking the time to post.
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Dec 1st, 2013, 09:32 PM
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Your "ignorant question" was "I wonder if Israeli gov't even allows Palestinian Arabs as guides", when even you admit that you had an Arab guide on one of your trips. So you had different experiences and saw different sites with different guides - what a revelation !
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Dec 2nd, 2013, 01:52 AM
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@Hannah_reads_for_fun: Thanks for correcting me. You are right that I didn't see the Dead Sea at that point -- it was when I was driving to Eilat, and then on the Jordan side, both of which happened later. I went to so many places that I got a little confused.

@Ozarksbill: LOL. Yes, our guide was Israeli. An Israeli Jew. There are Israeli Arabs, of course. I would have been perfectly happy with anyone who knew their history and conveyed it well. One of my goals during the two weeks was to seek out a diversity of opinions and listen respectfully to gain a broader understanding of the situation in that part of the Middle East. The itinerary was already set anyway in this pre-packaged tour. OK, that's all the politics I'll get into on this forum since I'm focusing on the travel aspect of this trip. And yes, the sacred sites we saw were beautiful and quite meaningful to me.

Thanks for all the positive comments and encouragement.
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Jan 1st, 2014, 04:15 PM
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Looking forward to the rest of your report!
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