Off the beaten track: A safe, different way to tour Israel

JERUSALEM — In today's virulent political climate, Israel might be the destination farthest off the tourist's radar. However, for those who want to support Israel by traveling there, or want to see the country despite the turmoil — especially for those who have already visited — a round-about path could lead to some safer and interesting discoveries.

From the tip of the Negev in the Red Sea resort town of Eilat to the forests of the Judean Hills, Israel offers much to see in a mere 7,992 square miles. Its diversity in geography, flora and fauna, culture and climate provides a plethora of activities and sights — even for the veteran Israel tourist.

Traditionally, tourism has been Israel's No. 1 industry, but the numbers are slumping and continuing to drop. Not only will a visit at this time help the economy and lend moral support to its people, but Israelis will personally thank you, offering genuine gratitude for going against the grain and coming regardless of the headlines.

The Negev

Half of Israel is located in the southern desert region, the Negev. Driving along the desolate highways, visitors can see Bedouin tents and villages dotting the sandy hills. Birds of prey soar overhead and the antelope-like ibex wander free, staring at visitors. Several days could easily be spent exploring all this vast desert has to offer.

Beersheva, the gateway to the desert and biblically linked to Abraham, boasts a booming university and growing population. Ben-Gurion University, with 17,000 students, has its arms spread not only throughout Beersheva, but in the rest of the Negev as well. A major solar energy project is under way about 31 miles south of Beersheva for a prototype that may eventually wean the entire country off fossil fuels.

The Ben-Gurion National Solar Energy Center, not far Kibbutz Sde Boker, spawns from a vision of David Ben-Gurion who saw solar power as "the largest and most impressive source of energy in our world."

Physics Professor David Faiman began the project 25 years ago and, with his team of craftspeople and scientists, has built a 412 square-meter solar dish called PETAL.

"This is going to be the big breakthrough," said Faiman, who has also discussed his project in California as a possible solution to the state's energy woes.

Faiman and his team are using the dish to analyze the economics of producing cost-effective solar power for commercial use. The desert provides the best environment for catching the sun's powerful rays, and the dish moves along its path. If successful, each dish could produce enough energy for 25 families.

Visiting hours are 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. Sunday to Thursday. Reservations required. Information: (972)(7)555-057/9.

Kibbutz Sde Boker hosts the home where Ben-Gurion and his wife, Paula, spent the last 10 years of his life. The spacious home is nestled within the kibbutz's modest cabins and lawns. Visitors can find a chronological description of Ben-Gurion's life as well as the home left just as it was when he died in 1973. Touring hours are from 8:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. Sunday through Thursday; 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday and holidays, and 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. Friday and before holidays. Information: (972)(7)655-8444.

Sde Boker offers a glimpse into the communal lifestyle of kibbutzim, which are scattered around the country. Its cafe is a cheap and tasty lunch spot for locals and tourists, and its gift shop is a nice place to pick up some inexpensive hand-made jewelry, picture frames and other trinkets.

Ben-Gurion's gravesite is also located on the kibbutz complex, perched on a cliff overlooking the vast Valley of Zin, which was once part of the ancient spice route.

About an hour's drive south of Sde Boker lies Mitzpe Ramon, a burgeoning community of artists and visionaries. The town is nestled on the edge of the Ramon crater (Makhtesh), and is the launching point for many desert activities like jeep excursions and cliff rappelling. A short tour of the visitor's center can give direction on how to enjoy the area. It is open daily from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.

The alpaca farm, which raises these animals of the Andes, is next to the Ramon crater. Visitors can pet, ride and feed the alpacas, whose soft, warm wool is prized. Hours are 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. Information: (972)(8)658-8047.

Between Mitzpe Ramon and Sde Boker is Avdat National Park, a smaller version of the famous Masada ruins. The old fortress dates back to the fourth century BCE, when Nabatean travelers along the spice route passed through the Negev. Visitors can take a self-guided walking tour of the site, which takes about an hour and a half and offers expansive views of the surrounding desert. The visitor's center provides information and a video presentation about the ruins. Information: (972)(7)658-6391.

The Elah Valley

For hikers and nature lovers, the Elah Valley, biblically known as the place where David slew Goliath, is about 12.4 miles southwest of Jerusalem.

Forested hills and a special creek offer some interesting sight-seeing. Artist Shai Zakai hosts hikes and workshops to a place she calls "Concrete Creek." Visitors can also go at it alone with some guidance. The creek is an example of eco-art, which is gaining popularity all over the world as a means to draw attention to ecology and revitalization.

Zakai's creek was damaged by concrete and cement poured into it by a nearby quarry and cement factory. As part of her campaign, she has posted concrete flags along the creek to beautify and bring awareness to the pollution problem. Visitors can hike inside the creek bed during the dry season and come across her artwork titled "The Last Supper," an old trough filled with cement and various articles of trash she found discarded in the creek.

Information: (972) (02) 991-2101, www.ecowave.org.il or e-mail shai-stu@inter.net.il

The Old City of Jerusalem

Inside the ancient walls of Jerusalem lies a haven of history, culture and religion. Entering the city from the west, however, can catch even a regular visitor off-guard. Blue statues climb an outside wall, and upon entering the Tower of David Museum, more statues dot the interior. These are part of an exhibit called "Beyond the Blue" by Israeli artist Ofra Zimbalasta. The life-size human figures are reading, singing and playing the cello, among other activities, and are scattered throughout the tower. The contrast of ancient and modern clashing in color and form adds a sense of playfulness to the environment.

On a Saturday morning, visitors can see observant Jews walking home from synagogue, and the streets are calm and empty. Though the famous Cardo shopping complex is closed, the trip can be meditative and relaxing.

At the eastern end of the Jewish quarter is the Western Wall, where a prayer can be slipped into a crack or said at Judaism's holiest spot. Be prepared for a thorough baggage check and screening before entering the site.

Just to the south of the wall is the Ethan and Marla Davidson Exhibition and Virtual Reconstruction Center, and the Jerusalem Archaeological Park. The outdoor museum is bounded by the Temple Mount to the north, the slope of the Mount of Olives and the Kidron Valley to the east and the Valley of Hinnom on the west and south. Sites include ancient mikvaot, where Jews bathed before entering the Temple. Relics date back 5,000 years through the Roman, Byzantine, Islamic and Crusader periods.

The Davidson Center offers visitors an in-depth look at the archaeological park. It sits inside recently excavated foundation vaults of a seventh-century building and offers a high-tech virtual tour of the ruins and what they looked like at various points in history. Information: (972)(2)627-7550. The interactive Web site at www.archpark.org.il/virtual1.shtml is wonderful, if you have the proper software to access it.

Judean Hills

The Jewish National Fund is proud of its contribution to the forestation of the Judean Hills, near the Green Line outside Jerusalem and the West Bank. It is deemed the "green lung" between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv.

Visitors can plant a tree in Ben Shemen Forest Tree Planting Center and then travel westward toward the (Nahal) Alexander River on the Mediterranean coast. With the help of the nearby Kibbutz Maabaroth, the JNF has plunged into a river restoration project, which includes cleaning the water and landscaping.

The 20-mile river and its surroundings were once rich in vegetation, fish, waterfowl and mammalian life. During the 1950s, however, urban and industrial wastes from the nearby settlements began seeping in and damaged the habitat. The river became a wastewater canal and most of the wildlife died out.

Since 1995, JNF has helped create a river park, which not only has helped to clean up the water, but also includes a bridge, a pedestrian path and planting of ecologically compatible flora along its banks. This is a great place for a picnic, or just a relaxing stroll. JNF information: www.kkl.org.il

The Weizmann Institute

One of the premier academic campuses in the world, the Weizmann Institute of Science is on the cutting edge of technology and scientific achievement. Its lush campus in Rehovot is a break from the more arid climate of the surrounding area.

Visitors can tour the home of its founder and the first president of Israel, Chaim Weizmann. The home is a fine example of German Bauhaus architecture and is decorated in restored versions of the Weizmanns' furnishings.

The visitor's center offers a glimpse into the many aspects of research going on at the institute, offering a 17-minute multimedia presentation explaining the research and the school's history.

The institute's Clore Garden of Science is an outdoor science museum, where visitors can get a hands-on experience with interactive exhibits designed by the Institute's scientists. Guided tours are offered every hour. Information: (972) (8)934-4500.

The Carmel Market and Nahalat Binyamin

Though these pedestrian shopping areas of Tel Aviv are somewhat crowded, going to an outdoor market is one of the great treats of Israel. This one is mainly for produce and fresh meats and fish, though one can also find CDs at a good price as well as socks and underwear. Since the intifada erupted, locals generally do their daily shopping here in the morning — which, in general, is a good plan.

Like the Israelis, as a tourist in these difficult times, you learn to use your common sense, keep your eyes open and above all, savor the wonders of an incredible country. Life cannot stop.

Shoshana Hebshi
Shoshana Hebshi

Shoshana Hebshi is a freelance writer and former J. copy editor living in the North Bay.