Into the Holy Land

The mist ascending from the mountains along the city’s perimeter settled around the bridge and added to my traveler’s vertigo—that “where am I? when am I?” sensation that sooner or later gets the best of every jet-lagged traveler. The view could have easily been what you’d see from my apartment back home in Presidio Heights, but it wasn’t a San Francisco foghorn that roused me from slumber; it was the haunting sound of the day’s first Muslim call to prayer, a sign that things were coming to life in the heart of Jerusalem—and it wasn’t even 6 a.m.

I’ve never been particularly religious, despite a Bible Belt upbringing, so it’s ironic I found myself in the Holy Land, a destination more typical for Jewish Americans on heritage trips or church groups retracing the steps of Jesus along the Via Dolorosa. On my trip, though, I intended to get off the tourist track and do some outdoor adventuring, which may not be what the country is most known for, but breathtaking options do abound. Before leaving Jerusalem for the desert, though, I made the de rigueur stops in the city, visiting the powerful Holocaust memorial Yad Vashem and the Wailing Wall and trudging across town to see the 14 stations of the cross.

One of Israel’s biggest assets for travelers is its compactness. In 10 days or less, you can easily cover the majority of its land. Those less keen on rural escapes can pass the days in Tel Aviv, a cosmopolitan coastal city teeming with nightlife, avant-garde dining and ocean culture (surfing is a popular pastime) or in the ancient port of Jaffa. Historic Jerusalem, just an hour’s drive down the road, has a burgeoning foodie scene that could rival California’s.

I left urban life behind after a few days and made for the Negev Desert to go on a camel trek—something I do whenever I’m in a desert country. As much as I love the humped beasts, I learned a valuable lesson once during a three-day ride in the Sahara: opt for the shortest trip possible. Yes, being astride a dromedary is fun and makes for great photos, but the ride is bumpy and camels, to put it politely, emit a ripe scent. An hour’s ride is enough.

My knobby-kneed escort from Mashabey Sade, a kibbutz that has rural lodgings, transported me to a point overlooking a sandy panorama. After returning to camp, I spent the remainder of my afternoon in Ein Avdat, a national park featuring limestone formations located not far up a dusty road. A paved path leads down the Zin River canyon, which is full of springs and natural pools, perfect for a refreshing dip.

Nearby is the Ramon Crater, a sweeping, pink-tinged expanse of canyon that resembles the American Southwest. Surrounding valleys offer ample outdoor activity options, from ATV rides to rock climbing. I spent the night at the Isrotel Ramon-Inn, a popular stopover point for cyclists on long-distance rides, and woke early to catch a glorious sunrise over the crater.

An hour’s drive from Ramon are the shimmering turquoise waters of the Dead Sea. Coming over the hill, the lake spread out before me, I could see the hills of Jordan in the distance. Many spas provide access points to the water. I chose Neve Midbar, where I could store my belongings for a few dollars, change into a bikini and emerge from the locker room right on the sand. The Dead Sea is bathwater warm, with a notorious high salt content that tends to keep bodies afloat, and so visually alluring that as I strode in I thought I’d have a hard time removing myself. But here I learned another lesson: all that salt burns your eyes — a lot. I kept my head well above the surface and still couldn’t escape the errant splash here and there. Ten minutes later, I’d had my Dead Sea fun and checked that off the bucket list.

Afterward, I settled in at the Daniel Dead Sea, a boutique hotel on the waterfront. The following day, I hiked deep into the mountainous Judean Desert and climbed up Masada, the ancient fortress overlooking the lake and Jordan. The path was steep, I was sweaty, but the views were more than rewarding.

Before returning to Tel Aviv for the flight home, I had time for one more treat—a mud wrap, a rite of passage for Dead Sea visitors. As I sank into the cocoon of steaming mud, I thought: now, this is my kind of pilgrimage.

If You Go

Travel Info
El Al flies daily from Los Angeles to Tel Aviv.
Reservations 800.223.6700
Mamilla, Jerusalem
Dan Hotel, Tel Aviv
Isrotel Ramon Inn, Ramon.
Daniel Hotel,
Dead Sea
Negev Jeep
Geofun Biking Center
Day Trips