A Place for All Seasons
Visiting the Galilee and the Golan Heights accentuates the tremendous climactic and topographical differences between various parts of a very small country. If the predominant color in central and southern Israel ranges from dusty brown to faded green, it turns brighter and brighter green heading north — even during the long, dry Israeli summer. The landscape is a patchwork of farmland, streams and waterfalls, thick forests and rolling hills.
The North has its fair share of historical and biblical landmarks, and other ingredients for a great holiday as well. Some of the possibilities, particularly those connected with nature, vary with the seasons. Galilee and Golan experiences can be vastly different, depended on whether you go there in the warm, blossoming spring the hot and humid summer, the cooler fall and the downright damp and chilly wintertime.
Winter: Mount Hermon, located at the northeastern edge of Israeli territory and the frontiers with Syria and Lebanon, is the tallest mountain around, standing 2,814 meters above sea level at its summit. It’s also the site of Israel’s one and only ski resort.
You might be surprised that Israel has a ski resort at all — even one that’s not world class and no comparison to, say, Zermatt in Switzerland or Aspen in the United States. But the slopes around the Neve Ativ site have snow for most of the winter, plus a magnet-like attraction for Israelis (a total of about 300,000 a year) who come rushing to the North with the season’s first snowfall and keep coming to ski, snowboard or slide down the slopes on their bottoms all winter long.
The Hermon resort, with 14 ski runs and five chair lifts, is open on an average of about 50 days in the season. Ski lessons are available, people who just come to watch can use the lifts, the Rimonim Resort at Neve Ativ village rents out A-frame chalets, and the word is that there’s a little apres after dark. Those in the know head out for the Hermon early on wintry weekends, before the narrow road up to the resort has traffic jams that are worse than Tel Aviv’s Ayalon Freeway at rush hour.
Spring: When the weather’s warmer, Mount Hermon loses its snow, but not its popularity. One major attraction is Bike Park, offering three mountain bike trails of various degrees of difficulty, jumps and other special features along a 4.5-kilometer course. There are also guided tours featuring local flora and fauna, and recounting the dramatic story of the Hermon’s loss, and recapture, in the 1973 Yom Kippur War. And riding the ski lift, to enjoy the spectacular views of Israel and its two neighboring countries.
Down by the Riverside
Spring and summer: Rafting down the Jordan River has become a popular pastime both for tourists and for locals on a constant lookout for new ways to beat the scorching heat of the Israeli summer. And though the waters remain pretty much as they have been for decades, the way people sail downriver has undergone a revolution since it suddenly floated into the public eye some four decades ago.
Jumping in an inflated rubber tire tube, the preferred method not so long ago, has given way to more sophisticated vessels as kibbutzim and moshavim along the river’s course have turned what was a very simple pleasure of getting the feet — and the rest of the body — wet into a sophisticated mini-industry. Many riverside localities now offer what’s often called kayaking, though it’s also done in large inflated rubber rafts rather than conventional kayaks.
Be it a kayak, a raft or a simple tube, the trip down river can have very different qualities. It all depends on location of the starting point, and on the time of year. Water at the northern end of the river, where the Banias and Hatzbani rivers intersect, the Jordan is young and brisk, fed by the cool waters running down from the Hermon range and the Golan Heights. It stays that way as it passes through the area that used to be the Hula swamp to the site of the Bnot Yaakov (Daughters of Jacob) bridge, located at a crossing-point on the Roman Via Maris to Europe.
Potential rafters should not expect the extreme conditions found in places like the Snake River in Wyoming and Idaho, rafting routes in Israel have different degrees of difficulty. (An expert guide can help you pick the right ride for you and your family.) Families with small children should opt for places where the river is wider and the current is slower, non-swimmers should steer clear of routes featuring rapids, and everyone — that means everyone — should put on a life jacket before climbing into the raft.
Winter: The 4-kilometer walk along the path of the Banias stream is impressive in summer, but even more so when the Jordan River tributary is nourished by abundant water running down from Mount Hermon. The marked trail down to the Banias Waterfall takes about 90 minutes of mostly easy walking, through luxuriant greenery with some fascinating bits of history along the way. The trail starts out passing ancient ruins – a remnant to the Temple of Pan (the name should be Panias, but Arabic doesn’t have a “b” sound) a Roman bridge, the reconstructed Matroof flour mill and a hydroelectric power station. Along the way is the Officers Pool, where Syrian officers ate fish before Israel captured the Golan in 1967. The waterfall is the largest in Israeli territory, and there’s a spectacular but sturdy hanging bridge where you can wet your feet.
There are lots of other good hiking venues in the North, many of them along the Israel National Trail, an excellent way to see the country with their boots on the ground. The Trail, inaugurated in 1995, traverses a total of 950 kilometers and taking around three weeks to cover its entire length from Dan in the North to Eilat on the Red Sea. In 2012, National Geographic called the Trail “the Holy Grail of hikes” — in tribute to its facilities and maintenance, and not just because it happens to pass through the Land of the Bible.
It’s also possible to pick and choose manageable stages for one-day walks, with beauty spots, historical sites and rest areas along the way. Especially interesting segments, many of which can be previewed virtually on the Google Maps Street View gallery, include a mountainous trek from Menara to Kfar Giladi in the Upper Galilee, Ein Ulam to Lake Kinneret along the slow-by-there-flowing Jordan River, and Mount Tavor to Kfar Kisch in the Jezreel Valley. The Society for the Preservation of Nature in Israel, which maintains the trail, has provided almost everything needed for a pleasant hike, including clear multilingual signs to mark the way and railings where the footing might get tricky.
Off the Roads
Spring and summer: For those not quite so interested in getting to know the territory with boots on the ground, the North offers a variety of off-the-road motorized adventures. One such opportunity might be a Jeep tour/safari over the fascinating landscape of the Golan, venturing far off the beaten track along dirt roads, over and through running streams and the orchards where Israel’s best domestic apples (try the Pink Lady, it’s delicious!) are grown, around outcroppings of the black basalt rock of extinct volcanoes.
Along the way, you’ll almost certainly pass through some of the landscape where monumental battles took place during 1973’s Yom Kippur war, and some tours head right up to the frontier for a look over to the Syrian side and of the ruins once-thriving Quneitra, the Golan’s main town under Syrian rule.
Off-track vehicle tours of the Galilee offer a different topography, and vastly different scenery. You can, for example, rumble along the banks or the Jordan river, up and down the hills around Safed (taking a break to breathe in the crisp air and mystical atmosphere through dense Mediterranean flora surrounding us on all sides, the tour will stop at a grove of “strawberry trees” distinguished by their red bark. Finally, the tour will return to Yehiam via Moshav Ein Ya’akov. This jeep tour, with its focus on history, archaeology and the flora and fauna of the region is suitable for the whole family.
The Hula Valley — For the Birds
Israel’s location at the intersection of the Asian, European and African land masses constitutes a major rest stop and refueling station for hundreds of species of migrating birds. Nobody’s actually ventured to count, but the number of winged “tourists” headed south in winter and back north in the fall clearly runs into the hundreds of millions.
One favorite stopping point on the feathered trail is the Hula Valley in the Upper Galilee, stuck between the Golan Heights to the east and the Naftali Mountains to the west. The area was a swamp until the 1950s, when a major national effort drained much of the marshland, leaving a lovely lake in the middle. A decision to leave the flooded areas alone resulted in what is now called Agamon Hahula, a major attraction for birdwatchers from around the world.
The best-known feathered visitors are probably the Eurasian cranes and white pelicans, who drop in every January-February on their way to their nesting grounds in Africa. Other species passing through include the long-legged buzzard, imperial eagle, peregrine falcon, and even some blue-cheeked bee-eaters and white plovers, if you’re really lucky.
The migration goes on for most of the year, peaking again in the autumn, when birds who’s flown north for the summer head back to warmer climes. One of the year’s highlights, the Hula Valley Birds Festival, takes place in November, but almost any month is a good one; the sights and sounds are sure to impress even those who thought that they had no interest in ornithology.
Right off the tree
Half a century and more ago, thousands of volunteers from Europe and North American came to Israel each year, spending time on kibbutzim and moshavim and mostly engaging in picking fruit. Though there are fewer volunteers these days, the lure of Israeli fields, groves and orchards to visitors from abroad apparently has not declined.
Fruit-picking has now become a business for many agricultural villages in the Golan and the Galilee, who now invite visitors to pay a relatively small fee per person in order to spend a few hours picking fruit from their trees. The season for cherries and apricots runs from mid-May to the end of June, a variety of berries mature in the northern Golan in June-August, varieties of nectarines, peaches and pears are ready for picking over most of the summer and citrus fruit, once the mainstay of Israeli agriculture which many of the 1950s volunteers remember coming here for, are available around October. In addition to encouraging visitors to take what they’ve picked home with them, most of the places offer other attractions, ranging from karting tracks and pony rides, to playgrounds and off-track vehicle rides suitable for family fun.
Making a splash — the Sahne, Kinneret and more
Ein Yizrael: Ein Yizrael, the Spring of Jezreel, is mentioned in the Bible, at 1 Kings 21. The verses come to life in the shade of the eucalyptus trees around a 35-by-25-meter pool, where the cold spring waters flow near the site of King Ahab’s Iron Age palace.
Ein Hanatziv: Inside the gates of the kibbutz of the same name. Its crystal-clear spring water is especially invigorating, considering its location in the Beit She’an Valley where temperatures in the mid-40s (Celsius) are nothing unusual. There are benches in the shade, and inflatable mattresses in the water.
Sahhne/Gan Hashosha: Set at the foot of Mount Gilboa lies one of the most renowned and touristic resort in Israel. In the center of the park there is a spring gushing below a natural pool, decorated with beautiful waterfalls and stone bridges. The warm pool water (28 degrees) enables pleasant bathing all year round. The pools are surrounded by spacious shaded lawns, trees and water slides for children, grills, picnic areas, a fine restaurant, snack bars, changing rooms and toilets — and, with all those attractions, very little solitude.
Banias: The Banias Waterfalls are most impressive during the winter and spring when the water is most plentiful, on its way down to the Sea of Galilee. The waterfall is 10 meters (33 feet) high and during the winter and spring, the water crashes and mists down on those standing close on the
Hamat Gader: A place to warm up, not cool down. Since their discovery by the Romans almost two millennia ago, the Hamat Gader geo-thermal hot springs have been attracting visitors from all over the world. Many people come to the springs, located in the Yarmuk River basin on the eastern side of Lake Kinneret, for the medicinal qualities of the waters. At a constant 42 degrees C, they’re also a great place to warm up on a cold winter’s day.