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The Wonders of IsraelAuthor: Carol Matthews
Date of Trip: October 2013
When you think of traveling to Israel you probably don’t think of birds and wildlife but my husband and I travelled there recently and had a truly wonderful experience in the Hula Valley, right beneath the Golan Heights.
Because of its position, Israel plays host to hundreds of thousands of migrating and over wintering birds that come down from Europe and Caucasia. The result is a true spectacle – the best of which is witnessing flocks of 46,000 plus Common Cranes. These cranes all come to roost at night on a lake in the Hula Valley and then, at day break they all take to the skies, calling as they go. The noise is incredible and they look like swarms of flies as they circle overhead.
At the same time there are hundreds of pelicans flying by and thousands of wagtails and larks, like ants in the fields around. It is a wonderful experience even for people that are not as ‘bird crazy’ as we are. And there is also so much wonderful history and scenery to see in the country as you go.
We flew into Tel Aviv and rented a car. We found getting around very easy and drove from the airport straight to Haifa, about 90 minutes to the north. This is a lovely town, home to the stunning Bahai Gardens and a number of other historical sites. We stayed in the German Colony area in the Colony Hotel. While it wasn’t the friendliest of places it is a nice hotel and has a fantastic location on BenGurion Boulevard.
We found 2 days in this area enough but if you are more into the history you could add a couple of days and not be bored. There is also Akko, 30 minutes to the north that would provide at least one good day out.
Because we wanted to experience the birds we drove straight from Haifa to the Hula Valley and stayed in a lovely B&B in Rosh Pina. This is a great location to explore the Valley, Golan Heights, Sea of Galilee and Mount Hermon. If it is the birds you want to see, I would highly recommend using a guide as they are in very specific locations and of course you have to be aware that you are in a potentially sensitive area and local knowledge is important in terms of understanding the current political climate.
We spent 3 days here and loved every second of it. Although there isn’t as much history to see up in this part of the country, the great thing with Israel is that nothing is very far away and the road system is excellent so it is easy to get around.
After our 3 days in the Hula Valley we headed south. We had a 2 nights of pure relaxation at Ein Harod Guesthouse and then drove through the Westbank, passed the Dead Sea to Eilat. This was possibly the most disappointing part of the trip. I have visited the Dead Sea on the Jordanian side which is quite lovely but the Israeli side is very unattractive and there is a fair bit of industrialization in the area. In addition, Eilat is like the Vegas of Israel, providing little more than food, alcohol and swimming pools! Not our idea of a good time so after 2 nights we continued driving up through Mitspe Ramon and then down to a magical location in the middle of the desert by the Egyptian border right near Nizzana.
For us the goal was to see some of the wonderful desert birds, McQueens Bustard and several species of sandgrouse – we weren’t expecting the overall experience to be so interesting.
We stayed in a tiny settlement called Ezuz. It only has about 14 houses and the restaurant is only open on request but it was like going back in time and it was absolutely fabulous. Before dawn the following day we hired a guide in an old jeep who lived in Ezuz and drove out into the desert.
The desert at sun rise is a wonderful place and there is a surprising amount to see. We were astonished to be told that the rows of rocks we could discern were actually from farms that were established here 2000 years ago.But for us finding the McQueen’s Bustard was magical.
These birds are globally threatened and finding them is like the proverbial ‘needle in a haystack’ unless you have a knowledgeable guide with you. We were lucky enough to see a flock of 7 of these strange looking birds and enjoy lengthy looks at them as they strolled through the desert.
Little did we know that an even more amazing sight was awaiting us as we left the area after breakfast (the restaurant had opened again for us!) and started driving the 2.5 hours to Jerusalem. A stop in some very specific field that our guide knew about, produced a flock of several hundred Pin-tailed Grouse. They circled around the field, grouping and regrouping while demonstrating the uncanny ability of birds to all turn at exactly the same time, and finally landed a few dozen yards from us. Wow!
It was hard to drag ourselves away but we finally completed the last few kilometers of our drive and arrived in Jerusalem. What a fabulous place! We spoiled ourselves by staying at the American Colony Hotel and then spent several days exploring this fascinating city. We found it best to do this by taxi and by foot as the traffic is quite busy and the parking challenging.
A great day for us started at the top of the Mount of Olives at the Church of the Pater Noster, then we walked down the hill which gave us a chance to enjoy great views and also go into the main attractions:- Church of Mary Magdelene; Garden of Gethsemane and the Church of the Ascension. We then hopped in a cab across to the Wailing Wall which is somewhat chaotic and, unfortunately for us the entrance to the Dome of the Rock was not open so we didn’t have a chance to see that but there was quite enough going on outside to keep us entertained. Lunch was in the souks just west of the Wailing Wall and just outside the Church of the Holy Sepulcher – these souks are fabulous (if a bit touristy) and worth enjoying. Then a visit to the Holy Sepulcher and a cab up to the Mahane Yehuda Market- which was fascinating and a great way to end our trip.
We loved Israel – although be warned it is very expensive!!! We found the people friendly and the history and political discussion fascinating – add it to your list!
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