We finally made it to Israel after a very long two-year delay.
Our group of 12 met up in Jerusalem at the Inbal Hotel on April 26. Everyone had their lab-based PCR Covid tests taken 72 hours prior to travel and a second rapid test taken at Ben Gurion Airport in Tel Aviv prior to exiting. Ten of the 12 were original participants and hung in there with us until we were eventually cleared for travel. It was so good to see each other and all were anxious to begin our Israeli adventure.
We were greeted at the hotel by Eli Meiri, our guide for the next ten days. I have known Eli for over 25 years and was very happy that he would be leading our group. After a late dinner, we were more than ready to go to sleep in our very comfortable beds. The next morning we had our first taste of the extensive Israeli breakfast buffets served daily. No one ever went hungry! So many choices including wonderful breads and pastries and a made to order omelet bar. The day began with meeting our bus driver, Dudi, and getting situated on his 60 passenger lift-equipped motor coach. We had more than enough space for our mobility equipment and room to spread out in comfort. First stop was Mt. Scopus for an unforgettable view of Jerusalem and a blessing. On to the Old City where we passed through the Jewish and Christian quarters. The sights and sounds were a feast for our senses. We stopped at the Church of The Holy Sepulchre. Some of our able-bodied guests ventured inside but none of our wheelchair users were brave enough to attempt using the very steep ramp. From there, we visited the Western Wall and had an opportunity to pray, men on one side and women on the other. Then it was back to the hotel for dinner and rest.
Day 3 of our trip was Yom HaShoah, Day of Remembrance. This made it extremely special to be visiting Yad Vashem, Israel’s National Memorial to the Holocaust on this day. We had an opportunity to tour this Memorial that depicts the darkest moments in the world’s and Jewish history. Our personal guide was outstanding and everyone was overcome with emotion after learning the story of victims and survivors. Later in the day we visited the world-famous Hadassah Hospital to view and hear about the Chagall Windows which are situated in a small Synagogue within the hospital. This was followed with dinner on our own at the Mamilla Mall. From here we could walk/roll back to the Old City to see a Light & Sound Show at the Tower of David. A long and fulfilling day was enjoyed by all.
We had an early start to Day 4 as we were headed south to Masada and the Dead Sea. Arriving early, we ascended Masada by cable car and toured King Herod’s private fortress which, following the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple in in 70 BCE, became a base for a small band of Jewish zealots in revolt against the Romans. Although the rebels held their own, they were eventually overcome and, according to historian Josephus, chose mass suicide over surrender. The weather was quite warm so we were looking forward to the afternoon of relaxation at a spa hotel situated on the shores of the Dead Sea. We enjoyed lunch and a few hours of free time. Some of us swam in the large resort pool, some ventured to the Dead Sea comprised of 33% salt where everyone can float and some experienced the water of the sea in an indoor pool. It was quite enjoyable! Afterwards, we headed back to Jerusalem for our last night at the Inbal Hotel and a special Shabbat Dinner.
The next morning we said goodbye to Jerusalem and headed north along the Syrian-African Rift with a stop at the River Jordan where Jesus was baptized by Matthew. It is also associated with the site where Elijah handed over the prophecy to Elisha and rose to heaven on a fiery chariot. We then stopped at Beit She’an National Park which was one of the main pagan towns during Roman times. It contains a magnificent theatre, Roman bathhouses, mosaics and more. The terrain was not easy to navigate and the weather was hot so we did not spend too much time there. After a lunch stop, we drove on to Tamat B’Kfar to learn about date growing and spent a little time in the store where we could purchase different date products. We were now headed to HaGoshrim Nature, a Kibbutz Hotel. The grounds were beautiful, filled with trees, shrubs and flowers that produced amazing scents. This was everyone’s favorite hotel. The accessible rooms were spacious and worked well for all. Part of our group stayed at Pastoral Kfar Blum Hotel and gave the same rave reviews. These properties were in the North.
After another delicious breakfast, day 6 began with a visit to Tel Dan National Park. Tel Dan combines a lush nature reserve with a biblical archaeological experience and includes a wheelchair accessible trail. This soon became a trip favorite…the beautiful foliage and streams with small waterfalls were breathtaking. We came upon a small, natural pool with very cold water. As we were relaxing and taking photos, a group of eigth graders from the Hebrew Academy in Montclair, NJ joined us. They all took off their shoes and ventured into the icy water but quickly came back to dry land. We started talking to the group leaders and were impressed hearing about their experiences. The kids then sang Hatikvah, Israel’s national anthem, followed by Jerusalem. What a touching experience to have in this very lovely setting. It was magical and enhanced by the spontaneity of the moment. We stopped for lunch at a Kibbutz and then continued driving through the Golan Heights a geological and biogeographical region on a plateau formed by volcanic action. The Golan Heights is the area captured from Syria and occupied by Israel during the Six Day War which Israel effectively annexed in 1981. This is a very beautiful region and filled with agriculture and farming. We finished our day with a tour and wine tasting at the Golan Heights Winery. This was very enjoyable and it turned out the several others shared my fondness for Moscato which we were able to try. Very nice! Back to our Kibbutz Hotels in the North for dinner and relaxation.
In the morning we traveled through the Carmel mountains to Emek Hashalom, an ecological farm where the Land of Israel from ancient times comes to life through sight, smell and taste of nature. We learned about the important work of Lotem, an organization dedicated to making nature accessible to all. We learned about olive growing and making olive oil in ancient times and had a fun time making pita bread.
Lunch followed at the home of a Druze couple. We had a home cooked meal and learned about the Druze people and their beliefs. It was extremely interesting. After lunch we stopped at Caesarea Maritima also built by King Herod the Great. Caesarea preserves values of nature, landscape and historic legacy and cultivates them for future generations. A magnificent Visitor Center has been built there since my previous visit. Everyone enjoyed some gelato or coffee prior to making our way to Tel Aviv and the beautiful Royal Beach Hotel situated across the street from the Mediterranean Sea.
We are now on the last part of our journey and looking forward to our time in Tel Aviv. What a contrast to Jerusalem! Day 8 brings us to the Peres Center for Peace and Innovation in Yafo (Jaffa). This was definitely a “fan favorite”. What an amazing establishment. The Peres Center showcases how Israel is on the cutting edge of science and leads the world in all types of technology including medicine. We could have spent many more hours exploring but it was time to move on. We spent some time at the Carmel Market which was filled with vendors selling mostly food items but other items as well. The produce was large and inviting. We then went to the Palmach Museum which tells the story of the Palmach strike force of the Haganah defense organization that operated prior to the establishment of the State of Israel. We experienced an immersive audio visual exhibition that was both fascinating and informative.
Day 9 found us at the Port of Tel Aviv where we enjoyed lunch on our own and time to explore the shops and waterfront. Unfortunately, many shops were closed due to the upcoming Israel Independence Day celebration. After our time at the port, we visited the Yitzchak Rabin Center. The center had a riveting exhibit contrasting the life of former Prime Minister Rabin who was assassinated at a Peace Rally in 1995 with the development of the State of Israel.
Day 10. Our final day in Israel and time to go home. Prior to breakfast we all had to have a rapid Covid test in order to depart that evening and fly back to the United States. Unfortunately, one member of our group tested positive and had to remain in Israel for 9 additional days. This was very disappointing but the hotel and our tour company did an excellent job of accommodating him and his wife who also tested positive the next day. They had Covid coverage through the travel insurance they purchased prior to the trip. This again points out the importance of travel protection. The rest of the group spent the morning on the seaside promenade across from our hotel where everyone was celebrating Israel Independence Day. Lots of people and an abundance of security. The day was glorious with an abundance of clear skies and sunshine. We then took a ride to Sarona, a newly renovated complex in the heart of Tel Aviv. Originally a German Templar Colony, it is now comprised of restaurants, food shops, art galleries and more. However, due to the holiday, most venues were closed. We returned to the Port of Tel Aviv for our farewell dinner where we were treated to a scrumptious meal at an Italian restaurant. We ordered our entrée of choice but appetizers and deserts were served family style. Very delicious! Then it was off to the airport for our flights home.
Our group was exceptional. Everyone was very compatible, no one was ever late and no one complained. I could not ask for more! Accessibility was very good for an old and ancient country like Israel. We visited many bathrooms and, for the most part, access was very good. The Kibbutz hotels had the best accessible rooms followed by the Inbal. The Royal Beach Hotel was our least favorite as the rooms were quite tight and the attached shower seats were not great. I took a chair from our balcony and used that instead. Everyone managed the rough terrain in the Old City and other venues. Our mobility equipment consisted of a folding scooter, a small folding power wheelchair, an average sized power wheelchair rented in Israel, a very large power wheelchair with all the bells and whistles and a small Whill power wheelchair which I used on this trip. I was very happy with it. We did have an issue with the large power chair as the combined weight was too much for the lift on the motor coach. So another chair was rented for the guest to get on and off the coach and then she was able to use her chair for sightseeing.
Everyone had a fantastic time. Thank you to Eli whose knowledge and love of Israel added so much to our experience. And thank you to Dudi whose expert handling of a large motor coach and his ability to safely load and unload all of us several times a day allowed us to visit places we never thought we could. A special thank you to my sister, Laurie Part, for joining me on this journey and for all her help bringing food, scouting out the accessible bathrooms and assisting anyone else who needed a little extra help. Most of all, thanks for all the laughter!