Hustle, bustle, colour, vibrant culture, tourists, noise, open all hours – all words that can be applied to the cities of Israel. It is, of course, packed full of religious sites, deeply significant to the Abrahamic faiths and at the times of important festivals and celebrations, visitors arrive from across the world. However, not so far from the busy tourist spots, you can escape to nature and tranquillity.
The inland Dead Sea is the lowest place on earth, here the densely saline lake provides the ultimate flotation experience. Blissful. Its mud is full of cleansing minerals, reputedly fabulous for the skin and keeping wrinkles at bay! And its salt, unlike sea salt in many respects, is believed to have healing properties. Herod the Great is reported to have visited one of the world’s first health resorts here. So there’s little wonder that on the Dead Sea’s shores, beautiful luxury hotels have spa pampering to restore you: think Kempinski, Hilton and Movenpick. Along with the usual spa delights to promote well-being, you can benefit from climatotherapy, which uses natural resources or the local environment to treat various ailments. Coastal Eilat, Tel Aviv and Jerusalem all offer accommodation from ultra-luxury to budget conscious, where you can indulge yourself with exceptional treatments too, in calm surroundings.
And as a complement to spa experiences, try yoga, which is an Israeli passion. On the Mediterranean beaches, in the deserts, on Mount Masada and in city studios or rooftops, you’ll find locals and tourists practising together. Yoga retreats can be found across the country, some of them offshoots of Indian ashrams with spiritual practises too, others more physical, focussing on fitness and strength. Weekend retreats in the desert or mountains often go hand in hand with incredible vegetarian and vegan food, much produced locally.
Israel is often named as the most vegan-friendly country on earth! The combination of European, African and Asian foods gives the cuisine unique flavours and unexpected twists. If you are an Ottolenghi fan, you won’t be disappointed. The Carmel, Sarona and Port markets of Tel Aviv are perfect spots for discovering the diverse produce, delicacies and dishes available in this country where the locals have their roots from around the globe. Jerusalem’s Machane Yehuda shuk is a vibrant food market by day, with many street food vendors and by night, its popular bars and restaurants create a party atmosphere, on Thursday nights especially!
And if you fancy tasting the local wines, northern Israel offers boutique and larger commercial vineyards. How about staying in a small spa complex where your cabin, with its Jacuzzi, looks out at the magnificent views of the rolling green hills. With a glass of locally produced wine in hand, relaxation is almost guaranteed.
For walkers, hikers and cyclists, Israel’s mild climate and natural beauty afford great escapes. The Negev desert, covering over 50% of the country, has trails for all abilities on foot or bike, taking in remarkable landscapes including sand dunes and rocky cliffs. The Incense Route, centuries old, is a fascinating walk or ride, part of the ancient frankincense and myrrh trading route from Asia to the Mediterranean. The World Heritage listed Nabatean towns of Haluza, Mamshit, Avdat and Shivta, which flourished from the 3rd century BC until the 2nd century AD, along with associated fortresses and agricultural landscapes in the Negev Desert, are spread along this route.
The Israel National Trail goes north to south from Kibbutz Dan, near the Israel-Lebanon border, to Eilat on the Gulf of Aqaba. It was named by National Geographic as one of the 20 best ‘epic hiking trails’ in the world. The INT is approximately 1100 km (683 miles) long, so possibly select a just particular section for a week’s exploration. Although some hardy souls have taken the entire trail non-stop and found it astonishing, with geographical diversity and a unique population to meet en route.
The many Israeli National Parks and Nature Reserves, preserving flora and fauna, are peaceful places for outdoor activities. The harsh yet stunning desert landscapes of the Negev, Arava and Eilat are stark contrasts to Mount Hermon, where it snows, the Golan Heights and the Galilee, with its sea or lake and fertile agricultural land in the north.
This is a country for spa enthusiasts, foodies and those who love the great outdoors, as well as historians, culture seekers and the religious. A place not to miss!