Sometimes the best vacations are those taken in your proverbial backyard, even if Israel isn’t your particular back garden. Look beyond the archeological digs, ancient cisterns and tourist sites for some of the more vacation-y fare, frequented by Israelis, but not always that well-known. We’ve gathered some of our favorites.
Israelis like their food fresh and their produce local, a doable feat in this small country. Travel the the land-of-Israel food trail, visiting farms, orchards, and enterprises that grow, make, process and produce a range of delectable foods, from berries and chocolate to cheeses and olive oil.
In the Kinneret (Sea of Galilee) region, learn about the history of chocolate at Galita, with workshops for kids and adults. Leave room for stuffing yourself with luscious confections of all kinds (including ice cream)! Stop in at nearby Tamar B’Kfar at Moshava Kinneret, for dates and all their byproducts, including silan (date syrup) grown and made on the moshav.
For cheeses, head to the Ein Camonim to visit the goats, taste the cheeses and eat in the country-style restaurant. In the fall, the oil press is also open to visitors, and winter offers wild mushroom picking.
From November to mid-May, experience fruit-picking season in Israel, particularly in the northern reaches of the Galilee and Golan Heights. Pluck raspberries, blackberries, mulberries, cherries and all kinds of summer fruits by the bucket at a smattering of local farms.
Closer to Jerusalem, you can help with the summer fruit harvest at Melo Hatene, an organic farm near Latrun. There’s olive oil production from September until December, grape-stomping for the wine press in August and September, and honey-making in June.
Down the hill outside Jerusalem is Har Haruach, an organic goat farm near the village of Nataf. Run by Dalia and Haim Himelfarb, families can come to Har Haruach to learn about the goats, see what they eat in the forest and milk them. After making your own cheeses, you can take a pre-ordered picnic basket of treats for lunch.
Zak Family Farm, Western Galilee, open afternoons from Sunday through Friday, closed on Saturdays, 972-4-983-2539.
Landau Farm on Moshav Ben-Ami, from the end of May until the end of July, open all day Friday and Saturday.
Kibbutz El-Rom in the Golan Heights, 972-4-698-1294.
Bustan HaGolan in Kibbutz Ein Zivan, Golan Heights, from June through September, 972-4-699-3610, 972-50-725-4912.
Melo Hatene, 972-8-979-7039, 972-50-799-0097.
Har Haruach, 972-2-534-5660.
From Sea to Shining Sea
A famous rite of passage trek for many Israelis is known as the Sea-to-Sea hike, from the shores of the Mediterranean to the coastline of Lake Kinneret (Sea of Galilee), Israel’s largest freshwater lake. Some hike it, others bike it and many camp out on their adventures, although kibbutz hotels and bed-and-breakfasts are respectable options as well. This version is Sea-to-Lake-to-River (or stream), incorporating rafting on the Jordan River, kayaking in the Kinneret and swimming in the Mediterranean, in no particular order.
Depending on where you start your adventure, if you’re near the coast, take your Mediterranean dip first, then head west toward the Kinneret Lake and Jordan River. There are about four rafting and inner tubing outfits to choose from for sailing the Jordan River and about as many for the Kinneret. Be warned that Israelis often use the term ‘kayaking’ for rafts and inner tubes, although there are companies that offer real, one- and two-person kayaks on the Kinneret. The Jordan is very calm in spring and summer. For the best ‘white-water’ rafting, consider taking this trip in the spring, when the river is much fuller after the winter rains.
If you want to include hiking in water, consider one of several famous water hikes up north. Walk along and through the Amud Stream to the shores of the Kinneret; inside the waterfall of Ein Tina in the Golan Heights; or through the Hatzbani River in the Upper Hula Valley. There’s also Nahal Kziv nature reserve, a wonderful riverbed in the valley below the Monfort Crusader-era castle, where you can dip and hike in the spring itself.
Jordan RIver Rafting
HaGoshrim Kayaks, 972-4-681-6034.
River Jordan Rafting at Gadot, with real rafts and deep water access during the spring: 972-4-693-4622.
Kfar Blum Kayaks on the Jordan and Hatzbani Rivers, 1-700-50-6611.
Tropikayak at Beit Hillel, 972-4-695-0353.
No Wine Before Its Time
Israel is home to more than 250 boutique wineries. Wherever you drive on your vacation, you’re likely to find a winery nearby. There are wines for every palate and purse and we’ve chosen a select few.
Tulip Winery – A winery based in the northern town of Tivon, within Kfar Tikvah, a village for special needs adults, as winemaker and owner Roy Yitzhaki always knew he wanted to employ people with special needs in his venture. This is one of Israel’s largest boutique wineries and is winning accolades for its particular vintages.
Asif Winery– Vintner Ya’acov Oryah makes a wide selection of crisp white wines that are widely appreciated for their flavors, but not accepted as kosher by Israel’s rabbinate. While religiously observant himself, Oryah and his wines have been blackballed by the rabbinate because of his stance against the rabbinate’s treatment of secular Israeli vintners (a much longer story). However, his wines are well worth tasting, and visiting the winery is helpful for gaining a further understanding of Israel’s religious establishment.
Rimon Winery – Sure, there’s all kinds of grapes, but what’s cooler than wine made from pomegranates, known as rimon in Hebrew? These are wines that not only have a wonderful flavor but have medicinal qualities as well.
Wine tours are not generally thought of as a family-friendly vacation, but Israel’s boutique wineries are scattered from north to south, and a winery stop or two can easily be integrated into several days of general touring. There’s plenty of touring to be done near Tivon, Arad or the upper Galilee, the respective headquarters for Tulip, Asif and Rimon. In the Yoav Yehuda region outside Jerusalem, home to another 25 wineries, kids will enjoy recreating the ancient wine production process by stomping on fresh grapes in the nearby Melo Hatene wine press.
Some Like it Hot
The weather can always be counted on during an Israeli summer: Blue skies, blazing sun and temperatures of at least 80 degrees. That kind of heat demands water relief in more than one form, and thankfully, there is a bountiful supply. Try one of the six water parks throughout Israel.
Once the kids have had their fun, set off for Hamat Gader, the northern hot springs that have been in use since Roman times, but significantly renovated since then. Located in close proximity to the junction of the Israeli, Jordanian and Syrian borders, the springs are fun for all ages, with several spacious mineral pools, accented with water jets, jacuzzi beds,chairs and a waterfall. Book yourself a massage while the kids snack at the café. Open until late in the evening, it’s worth making a nighttime visit to the springs, especially during the winter, for the unique experience of cold air and warm water.
In the midst of a grove of olive trees, on the southern border of the upper Galilee, is a hidden pool that’s part of Kibbutz Moran. For another secret dip, take a ride on the Jerusalem-Tel Aviv Road to the Mesilat Zion pool located in a forest, where parents can sit calmly while the kids have fun in the pool as as well as in the fairground-like park that includes bouncy castles, bumper cars, and other kid-friendly attractions. Camp out and take advantage of night hikes and swims under the moonlight.
Hamat Gader, 972-4-665-9999.
Kibbutz Moran pool, via Road 85, 050-521-4978
Moshav Mesilat Zion pool, off of Route 1, between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, call 02-991-5836 for more information.