Ever since discerning cruise goers began demanding ports of call beyond Caribbean has-beens and the more predictable Mediterranean medleys, Israel (goisrael.com) has topped Celebrity cruises’ hot list as the highlight of select Mediterranean and all Holy Land voyages. While a few days in Israel surely doesn’t substitute for a recommended two weeks immersed in the nation’s experiential endeavors, it definitely offers ample time to whet your palate for the heart of the Holy Land and dish out a sampler platter of the globe’s most sacred places.
More than an epicenter for historical and religious reverence, Israel is a land of amazing eats, sensational beaches, superb wineries, big city sophistication, and iconoclastic multiculturalism. Its diverse and eclectic vibe is infectious and will surely ambush your senses.
Given the turmoil in Egypt, the Celebrity Silhouette changed course to overnight three nights in Israel instead of two, giving time for intrepid overzealous travelers, such as myself, to see and do as much as possible. Stationed in the north of the country in Haifa, all of the country’s major sights and cities are surprisingly easily accessible by bus and train (e.g. the train from Haifa to Tel Aviv is 50 minutes). And though it would have been more cost beneficial to explore by the country by day and camp back on the ship by night, I skipped any unnecessary “toing and froing” in my mad quest to traverse vast tracts of the holy landscape.
My partner enrolled to complete this mission – the one and only Ms. Ruth Yelking. Like all official tour guides in Israel, Ruth has completed years of training to assume her prestigious title; and it took less than five minutes after meeting to realize that Ruth truly knew everything and anything about Israel… from the intimate details on Jerusalem’s importance to the three monotheistic religions of Judaism, Christianity and Islam to where to get the best falafel and shakshuka in the entire country.
After arriving in port, Ruth began our Israel cram session with a morning tour of Haifa, Israel’s third largest city. Of particular interest, we ambled through the Baha’i Gardens and stopped for a number of Kodak moments overlooking the city on the slopes of Mount Carmel. Next on the agenda was the ancient Phoenician and Crusader seaport of Akko (www.akko.org.il/English/main/default.asp), a U.N.E.S.C.O. World Heritage Site that teems with the modern sights and sounds of an Arab marketplace while standing tall as one of the oldest continuously inhabited sites in Israel. Towards the afternoon, we drove to the Sea of Galilee to tour some of the Christian historical and holy sites, including Capernaum, the “City of Jesus,” and the Mount of Beatitudes, site of the Sermon on the Mount. After the religion overload, we spent the night in Tiberias, the capital of the Lower Galilee, at the Scots Hotel, and gorged on platters of divine fresh seafood with hand cut fries and onion rings at the waterfront Decks restaurant (www.israel-guide.com/lido-galilee/decks/index.html).
The following day we ventured south through the West Bank to Jerusalem, beginning our day with the picture-perfect panoramic views of this ancient city from the Mount of Olives. Once inside the walls of the old city, Ruth introduced me to all four quarters of Old Jerusalem, exploring every major historical and religious site like Via Dolorosa (Stations of the Cross), the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, and Judaism’s most sacred site, the Western Wall (pictured at top) We checked into the posh Mamilla Hotel, (mamillahotel.com) where eclectic modernist interiors prevail behind a splendid façade that camouflages with the old city. The new Mammilla Hotel is the country’s most design savvy, with a few surprise elements I’ve yet to see anywhere else in the world – like the tri-partitioned colossal glass bathroom, which turns from contemporary peepshow to private sanctuary when you push a switch to release liquid crystals to frost the enveloping glass walls.
Before leaving Jerusalem on the third day of my “Intense Israel” itinerary, we spent the morning at Yad Vashem (yadvashem.org), the National Memorial and Museum of the Holocaust – definitely heavy on the soul but beautifully and artistically presented. By mid afternoon, we had arrived in Tel Aviv, Israel’s bustling cultural center, ripe with a beachfront buzz, world famous nightlife, and its NYC–style frenetic pace. It was a Monday night, but there was no shortage of party options (and eye candy) to keep me going until the next morning.
Throughout my visit, Ruth always made it a point to explain Israel’s importance in world history, far more than its current role as a religious and political puppet. She introduced me to religions and peoples I knew little about – like the Baha’i and Druze – and how these groups prosper in modern day Israel. She also made it a point to show me the Israel we never see or hear about – Muslims, Christians, and Jews working together, eating in each other’s restaurants, and living in their own world of mutual respect. She showed me an Israel so different than I had imagined – one which quickly instigated an insatiable desire to return and explore further.
The Dome of the Rock on Temple Mount, as seen from the Mount of Olives