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Trip Report Israel and Jordan as a winter break, Pt. 2

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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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