You’re getting ready for your Birthright trip or thinking about signing up for one. You can already picture yourself at Israel’s top touring sites, meeting Israelis and making new friends. Those 10 days are going to fly by.
So before you decide on a return date, think about spending an extra three days, a week or even 10 days seeing more and doing more of what you enjoyed best on the trip, or striking out in an entirely new direction. The following are a few ideas for the venturesome.
First, a few tips for seeing the country on your own. Public bus service is considered good in Israel, but only a few buses a day get to the out-of-the-way places. So consider renting a car with some friends. Make sure you bring your driver’s license.
Where to stay? The web and the various guidebooks advertise hotels and B&Bs. Three options that are fun and budget friendly are the Society for the Protection of Nature field schools, where up to six people can share a room (www.spni.org.il; call Drew Alyeshmerni at 052 368-9755 or email her at firstname.lastname@example.org). The Israel Nature and Parks Authority, which has a network of overnight campsites (www.campingil.org.il), and the Israel Youth Hostel Association, another good bet for budget accommodations (www.iyha.org.il; 02 594-5550).
You may have seen a few of the major stops on your Birthright tour, like Masada or Caesarea. But if nature is your thing, the Israel Nature and Parks Authority has plenty to choose from. You can save money by buying their green (six-site) or orange (unlimited sites) card, good for two weeks. These cards are available at the ticket office of the first authority site you visit.
If challenging sports are your thing, you’ll find zip-lines and opportunities for rappelling, diving, surfing and cycling. The Nature and Parks Authority is also the address for history buffs because Israel’s national parks are almost always heritage and antiquities sites.
The following sections provide some more ideas, starting with Eilat, Israel’s Red Sea playground, and Tel Aviv, voted among the world’s top 10 cities for great nightlife by the Lonely Planet.
If you love sea and sun and even decide on only a three-day extension, you can head to Eilat for the whole time. The ride down from Jerusalem takes at least four hours with stops, and you can spend two nights there between a day and a half of fun.
On the way down or back from Eilat, stop at Timna Park, a gorgeous geological desert where you can explore ancient copper mines, bike, rent paddle boats in the artificial lake, try a zip-line or do some rappelling. Timna Park is only about an hour from Eilat, so you can spend the night in their overnight campground and then head to the city.
Eilat is home to Coral Beach, a nature reserve where you can rent equipment to snorkel to the coral reef − one of the world’s northernmost reefs with hundreds of kinds of coral and thousands of species of fish and other creatures. There’s also parasailing, water skiing and jet skiing.
If you’re a licensed diver, bring your license and rent the equipment. There are also half-day courses for first-timers, and if you’re staying longer, courses lasting up to seven days. (Find out first from the diving company when you can fly after diving).
The mountains around Eilat are gorgeous red with breathtaking views of the sea, especially at sunset. The people at the Society for the Protection of Nature field school in the city will help you map out the best trail. There are camel and jeep rides into the desert, too. There are also several good budget hotels, rarely within walking distance of the beach (that’s a perk of luxury travel). There’s also a youth hostel and an overnight camping ground run by the field school.
As in Eilat, you could spend an entire three-day extension in Israel’s capital of fun, vegging out on the beach after days of touring and nights of club-hopping. The Israel Surf Club (03 510-3439; 052 259-1089), for example, offers a two-hour experience for first-timers, one of instruction and one of surfing. They also rent out boards and wetsuits. First-time surfers are in luck − Tel Aviv’s waves are usually pretty tame.
A great way to see the city is by bike. The municipality rents them out − there are stations all over the city where you can use a credit card to rent a bike for a day or more. They don’t rent helmets − though a bike and helmet can be rented from many bike shops around town, which makes more sense financially if you want to take a longer trip.
You can roam around the city on your bike, then head out for a day on a beautiful 28-kilometer route along the Yarkon River eastward to the Yarkon Springs, a national park. Or you can combine a bike ride along the Yarkon River in north Tel Aviv with time at the port’s shops and restaurants. For information on Israel’s national bike trail, write Hillel Sussman at email@example.com or call the Israel Nature and Parks Authority at 02 500-5444.
Your Birthright itinerary will take in all the capital’s major sites, but you can always explore new options or revisit interesting places. One site worth a return is the City of David National Park, where Jerusalem began in the days of the Canaanites. There’s an exciting 45-minute trek through the 2,700-year-old Hezekiah Tunnel (not recommended on a cold winter day). There’s also a walk through an ancient water tunnel that leads all the way to the Western Wall area.
Next door to the Western Wall Tunnel is another underground (to be precise, under-building) adventure − the Chain of Generations Center tells the story of the Jewish people using remarkable glass sculptures, sound, light and holograms in dramatically lit ancient chambers (English.thekotel.org; make a reservation by phoning *5958 in Israel).
Another great way to combine Jerusalem and nature is using the city’s Green Map − a system highlighting cities’ natural and cultural resources around the world. The capital’s Green Map is available at www.greenmap.org.il and includes information on bird and wildlife watching, spring blossoms and special gardens.
The past is present
Meanwhile, an hour’s drive from Jerusalem or Tel Aviv will bring you to Beit Guvrin National Park, where you can join an actual dig. The program is run by Archaeological Seminars. Call Heidi at 02 586-2011, even at short notice, and see if there’s a group available.
After the dig, the national park offers beautiful views from its mountaintops and lots of caves, including the dovecote cave, the beautifully painted musicians’ and Phoenician caves, and the Bell Caves. Other sites are Banias National Park up north, where you can combine the ancient finds with a nature walk to its waterfall, or take a two-kilometer hike from Nimrod’s Castle, a medieval fortress, to Banias (someone will have to forgo the hike, though, to drive your rental car down and meet you).
When you visit Banias or the nearby biblical ruins of Dan, you pass through the northern town of Kiryat Shmona. If you love challenging sports, stop to take the cable car up to the Manara ridge, where you can do some rappelling and rock-wall climbing, then head northeast to the Jordan River for kayaking.
The story of Israel’s Ethiopian Jewish newcomers is one of the most moving stories to come out of this country in recent years. You can use some of your extension time to learn more about this dramatic process and help make a difference by volunteering.
The Jerusalem-based Ethiopian National Project runs after-school youth centers in 18 cities across Israel, so you can combine volunteering with some of the other activities you’ve read about here. If you have a special skill − anything from juggling to rocket science, no joke − or just want to hang out and let the kids practice their English, ENP will match you up with a center that’s convenient for you. Or, if you’re a social media specialist, filmmaker or animation expert, for example, you can volunteer time at the center’s headquarters in the capital. Call Grace Rodnitzki at 02-6202843 (firstname.lastname@example.org).
You can also spend a two-hour stint volunteering with Project Leket, which partners with farmers to pick fresh fruits and vegetables, which are then distributed to feed Israel’s needy. Leket volunteers work two-hour stints Sundays through Thursdays between 8 A.M and 4 P.M at fields just outside Rehovot (Kvutzat Shiller) and at Moshav Nahalal near Haifa. You can reach Leket (Leket.org.il) by phone in Israel at 09-7441757.
Another outdoor volunteer activity that can be combined with a visit to the Haifa area is work in the Carmel Forest. This area was devastated by fire in December 2010, so a key task is to prune new growth to prevent future fires.
The work is done in two-hour stints, which means you have plenty of time to fit it in traveling to or from Haifa, the beach west of Mount Carmel at Dor, or Caesarea (see below). Call the Carmel National Park at 04 822-8983. They’ll put you in touch with the people at the park who’ll find a slot that fits your timing.
We’ve talked about diving and we’ve talked about archaeology − there aren’t many places in the world where you can combine the two, and Caesarea National Park is one of them. The dive club in Caesarea’s Old City offers a lesson and dive for first-time divers exploring the city’s 2,000-year-old port, and deeper forays for licensed divers. When you call ahead to make a reservation, make sure to ask about restrictions on flying after a dive.
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