Israel's unexpected treasures
Judean Desert, Israel – Here are just a few phrases that you never thought you'd hear yourself say:
"The off-roading in the Judean Desert is breathtaking" or "I tried a lovely cabernet-merlot on a recent wine-tasting in Israel," or "The bird-watching safari I went on is a marvel of eco-tourism."
It's not an easy job in a country where political battles continue to dominate headlines and where tourism is so intricately linked to a rich religious heritage.
Nonetheless, this tiny nation's less obvious attractions are putting themselves out there, extending a warm welcome and encouraging visitors to explore the "new" Israel.
The Pink Floyd blasting from Gil Shkedi's Land Rover suits both the man and his surroundings perfectly, mixing a taste for adventure with a decidedly laid-back vibe.
Shkedi was a pioneer in turning the harsh yet striking environment of Israel's Judean Desert into a tourist attraction. He first launched his desert jeep tours 15 years ago and now boasts three Land Rovers, a hostel-style tented campsite on the southern tip of Israel's famed Dead Sea and excursions that range from two hours to several days and include camping under the desert stars.
Taking a hard – very hard – left off the comfort of the highway that runs alongside the Dead Sea, we are plunged onto a swath of dry seabed.
Star among the eerie salt peaks is the 230-metre-high "Lot's wife formation," a biblical reference to the woman who disobeyed God by turning to look back as she fled Sodom and was turned into a pillar of salt.
Rappelling inside the dark, cold caverns of Mount Sodom was halted after the number of visitors getting lost or injured became too much for the local mountain rescue volunteer unit, of which Shkedi is a member.
"You have to respect the desert, you have to take your water, you have to prepare yourself and yet, still, some people will cross the limits."
Anyone who watches the History Channel will know the story of Masada, the tragic tale of how 960 Jews chose death by their own hands over slavery after a long siege by Roman conquerors in 73 A.D.
The 450 metre-high mountaintop fortress of King Herod, where the Jewish zealots resisted the Romans, is considered the best-preserved example of a Roman siege camp.
While already a popular tourist stop on the Dead Sea, Masada opened a new museum last year at the base of the fortress that puts the battle and subsequent archeological finds into perspective using life-sized statues and settings that invite the visitor to be part of life in Masada.
The exhibit concludes with a moving statue of Yigael Yadin, the famed archeologist who led the teams of thousands of young volunteers who excavated the site in the 1960s.
He is pictured hunched over his desk drawing his clues from ancient writings of Jewish struggle by Josephus. The three-minute cable car ride, or one-hour hike to the top via the Snake Path, is worth it, if only just for the sweeping views of the Judean desert and the Dead Sea.
The history of Galil Mountain winery sounds like a joke. What do you get when you mix an Israeli kibbutz looking for a new business venture with a winemaker trying to bolster the reputation of Israel's wine industry?
The punch line is an amusing little wine known as Galil Mountain Yiron, which has been putting grins on the faces of wine critics ever since it was first bottled back in 2000.
The winery's most acclaimed creation is a kosher blend of cabernet, merlot and syrah grapes, but Galil's Carmit Ehrenreich says it's about more than accolades and awards.
"We want to sell wines, but we want to sell Israel too," she says of the venture that borrowed from the established winemakers of Golan Heights Winery in partnership with the local Yiron Kibbutz.
Nestled high in the picturesque hills above the Sea of Galilee, Galil Mountain is just steps from the border with Lebanon and was a grape-growing area 1,000 years ago.
The new, young vines growing on hills steeped in so much history is just one of the motivations that drive the winemakers of Galil, says Ehrenreich.
Dispelling the myth that Israeli wines are sweet, unsophisticated concoctions only to be brought out for religious holidays is another key aim.
"We have so much to offer and we are very eager to grow," she says of the plans to establish a food, wine and music festival along with some of the smaller, boutique wineries already operating in the area.
We are roaming around one of the world's best restaurants – in a golf cart.
Nir Aspis tells us that if only we were migratory birds, we would be feasting in the equivalent of a Michelin-star establishment.
"Up to 500,000 birds stop in Israel twice a year," he explains of the migratory patterns of 400 species of birds that make the long journey from countries such as Finland and Russia to northern Africa every fall before returning home again each spring.
"For them, the Hula valley is like coming to a very good restaurant," he says.
"For some, we are also a good motel for a few days."
The Agamon Hula Lake Ornithological Park, which lies in northwestern Israel on the edge of the Golan Heights near the border with Syria is viewed as a world leader in accommodating the needs of migratory birds, their natural predators and even local farmers while providing a unique attraction for visitors.
"We are not a nature reserve, this is a working farming area," Aspis stresses of the eco-tourism venture which has been open to visitors for four years.
Visitors can choose from golf carts, bicycles, pedal-powered carts, a guided mini-train or even a camouflaged trolley that lets you get up close and personal with thousands of visiting cranes. You are also free to roam on foot.
We are visiting Agamon at a special time for bird-watchers. In anticipation of the Beijing Olympics, each country was asked to submit information on their national bird.
"We didn't have one," Aspis tells us of the dilemma that prompted an ongoing national competition for Israel's official bird.
Among the contenders is the spur-winged plover, which Aspis points out and says he thinks might just win the contest, to be announced as part of Israel's anniversary celebrations in May.
"The spur is a bit like the people, a bit aggressive, a bit loud and looks like it's ready to protect itself," Nir laughs as he points out the bird's wing shape. It appears to be armed. (Source)