Nestled in the grounds of the Ashkelon National Park, the so-called Columns Beach – named for the archaeological remains surrounding it, was absolutely empty. The fitness watch I was wearing showed I had walked precisely 1,000 steps from the parking lot. I stopped, laid my belongings on the sand, took off my shirt and went to soak in the water; couldn’t have been better. I got out and sprawled blissfully on my towel.
The search for the perfect beach never ends, but this is a good time to embark on it, when the Mediterranean is sparkling clean, relatively calm and not yet infested with jellyfish. At the southern beaches I visited in recent weeks, I saw no trace of the oil pollution that attacked Israel’s seashore four months ago. The water is still cool (around 26 degrees Celsius) – a perfect delight.
A few rules guided me when selecting these 10 beaches; I made most of them up as I went along, driving south on Route 4. First, I would go only to places between Jaffa and Zikim. Why? Because the beaches going north from Tel Aviv to Rosh Hanikra are better known (I intend to write about them in a different context). I went in search of a quiet seashore, where it is hopefully still possible to evade the maddening crowds. Of course that is an easier proposition on a Wednesday than on over the weekend.
I also decided to adhere, inasmuch as possible, to the “1,000 step rule.” The basic assumption is that we’re all a little lazy, especially when it’s hot and there’s something to schlep. The idea behind this number of steps – about 700 meters, or 770 yards – is that to leave the competition behind you, you have to put at least some distance between yourself and your car (or other mode of transportation). Folks going to the beach usually balk at a long walk, but a trudge in the sand of 1,000 steps takes 15 minutes. And it’s worth it.
While I drove by car, I also wanted to consider urban shorelines, accessible by public transport, and “pristine” beaches, devoid of any services and well off the bus routes. I gave up in advance on the attempt to find only designated beaches with lifeguards. The following group contains a few of those as well, but there’s a limit. I admit – and repeat – that it is dangerous to bathe at an undesignated beach, where it is clearly prudent for some to avoid plunging into the depths.
Israel’s coastline covers approximately 190 kilometers (about 120 miles). About 60 kilometers of that are closed to the public due to the proximity to marinas, ports, power stations, various kinds of infrastructure and security-related facilities. Of the remaining 130 kilometers, only 53 are open natural coastline. The rest are in built-up areas. Last but not least: The total length of shoreline designated for bathing (with a lifeguard) is only about 17 kilometers. That is far too little.
The stretch of coastline I traveled, between Zikim and Jaffa, is about 70 kilometers long. There is not one spot along it from which industrial development is invisible – power station chimneys, docks full of tankers and the like. Of this stretch, at a conservative estimate, half is off-limits. That half contains army firing zones, such as in the sands of Rishon, Yavneh (Palmachim) and north of Ashkelon, as well as the commercial ports of Ashdod and Ashkelon, the Ashkelon marina and the power station south of that city, the Eilat-Ashkelon Pipeline compound north of Zikim, and the area adjacent to the border with the Gaza Strip, southwest of that kibbutz. After subtracting all these, we’re left with 30 kilometers, full of surprises and joy.
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One of the most pleasant surprises is that the following list contains quite a few stunning archaeological sites right by the beach. There’s something magical about an ancient site on the shore. Israel is quite blessed with a number of these locations – Atlit, Caesarea, Acre and Jaffa – but the southern expanse also boasts some gorgeous coastal fortresses, at Yavneh, Ashdod and Ashkelon too, each proving the historical staying power of a veranda overlooking the surf. The Philistines clearly had good taste in chill-out spots with a refreshing sea breeze.
Zikim, Shikma Stream estuary
Zikim, between Ashkelon and the Gaza Strip, is the beach that is both the farthest south and the farthest west in the country. Just an hour from Tel Aviv and you’re at the edge of the state. The interminable friction with the Strip, the fires from incendiary balloons or rockets, the effects of which can be seen on the road bypassing the kibbutz en route to the seashore – all of these affect one’s visit to Zikim Beach. And yet even with all that, it’s still one of the most pleasant parts of Israel’s coastline.
Massive development work is underway these days at the beach, which will apparently end with a large, orderly parking lot there. I suppose that’s a good thing, but remembering what this beautiful unspoiled shoreline once looked like, I can’t help but wince. It’s best not to walk south here, so I turned north. The best beach (within the 1,000-step limit) is the one right after where the Shikma Stream drains into the sea. There’s a pretty stretch here between the lagoon, created by the rising groundwater and the estuary; to the north are pristine and inviting dunes to settle on. This spot can also be reached by a slightly longer walk, if you leave your car before the bridge that crosses Shikma Stream and walk along the northern bank. The local power station’s piers and smokestacks are admittedly close, producing a less-than-dreamlike vista, but there’s virtually nowhere along Israel’s coastline where such eyesores are avoidable.
Waze location: Zikim Beach. Free of charge. No camping (sleeping out). Bus: Route 19 from the Ashkelon train station to the Zikim military base, about a mile from the beach.
Columns Beach, Ashkelon National Park
Columns Beach (Hof Ha’amudim) lies at the southwestern edge of the Ashkelon National Park. Walking 1,000 paces south from the parking lot along the designated beach will bring you to a wall. This is a section of the park that boasts Fatimid-era (10th century C.E.) Muslim and subsequent Crusader city (12th century). The imposing granite columns were built into the wall here, to fortify it against the battering waves and winds, which cause incessant erosion. The wall has been rebuilt/restored several times and it’s good to see that it’s still there, casting pleasant morning shade over a narrowing strip of beach.
Waze location: Ashkelon National Park. Entrance to the national park: 28 shekels per person. Camping arrangements available at a pleasant camping ground (55 shekels per person). Bus: Route 13 from the Ashkelon train station, and then a 15-minute walk.
Bar Kokhba Beach, Ashkelon
Bar Kokhba Beach north of the Ashkelon marina is designated a “Blue Flag Beach” – an internationally recognized badge of honor denoting the cleanliness, proper services and overall excellent quality of such a site. Blue Flag Beaches are an exclusive club with clear and precise criteria, chief among them being water quality. The Blue Flag sign always encourages me to take a dip. Bar Kokhba is an excellent municipal beach. It has lifeguard services and everything you could need. Even the lifeguard huts, in a shade of turquoise, are a treat to look at. Sometimes a city beach is truly a convenient pleasure. Higher up, before reaching the beach, I got a cup of coffee at a minimarket that calls itself “Coffee Shop.” I sat on a bench above the waves and in a moment of weakness, I thought to myself that all the hassle about the search for a “natural, pristine beach” is unnecessary. What’s better than to stroll down a paved path to the waterline, to take a dip in an azure bay created by artificial breakwaters, to take a shower a few feet away and to walk back up to the car, without wasting my precious 1,000 steps?
Waze location: Bar Kokhba Beach. Entrance is free, camping is prohibited. Bus: Route 18 (Dan South) from the Ashkelon train station, all the way to the beach.
Octopus Beach, Ashkelon
At Octopus (Hatamnum) Beach, the eight-armed creature takes the form of a weird yellow sculpture standing in a traffic circle at the north end of the Barnea neighborhood, at the end of Rafael Eitan Street, corner of Arieh Tagar. The city is building a never-ending boardwalk to the north here, and there’s a pleasant feeling of being out of the city although we’re still in it. The beach itself is clean but offers no lifeguard or other services. This is as wild and unspoiled as it gets in Ashkelon. I recommend that you walk 1,000 steps north to the beach called Hofit and perhaps a bit further north to Bar Yam – the northern edge of the city.
Waze location: Rafael Eitan, Ashkelon. Entrance is free. No camping arrangements. Bus: Route 12 from Ashkelon train station to Yerushalayim Blvd. and then a 10-minute walk.
When Zmira Chen wrote the popular Israeli song “Yam Shel Dmaot” (“A Sea of Tears”), she wasn’t thinking of Nitzanim, but since Ninet’s iconic performance of it in the finals of the first season of “Kochav Nolad” (the local version of “A Star Is Born”), the two are inseparable in the national psyche. Tears indeed flow of their own volition upon seeing the beach in its current state. “Without you, the world is so orphaned,” is the appropriate line. Nitzanim is the only designated bathing beach between Ashdod and Ashkelon. A gigantic paid parking lot was paved there; to meet demand another parking lot, this one free, was built 300 meters to the north. The general impression is that someone is trying to prove that when paying an entrance fee was unavoidable – the beach looked better. Let me be clear: Nitzanim is still a wonderful beach, but the 1,000-step limit is insufficient here. South of the public beach is a four-kilometer-long, army firing zone, still in use and stretching almost to Bar Yam in Ashkelon. So you have to walk north here. It takes more than 1,000 steps to reach gorgeous, clean, empty stretches of shoreline, but it’s possible. Even the line “There’s no refuge from other people,” which rhymes so prettily in Hebrew, loses its meaning for a moment here. But there is a refuge, between Nitzanim and Ashdod.
Waze location: Nitzanim Beach. Entrance is free; parking is not. It’s not clear whether one can camp/sleep out here. A year ago an injunction was filed against the company operating the beach (under the auspices of the regional council), to the effect that it is prohibited to hold private events or use the camping site at this location. Bus: Access is difficult. Take Route 152 from the Ashkelon train station to the military base, then a 15-minute walk.
Yam Fortress Ashdod Beach
The shoreline stretching south of Ashdod Yam Fortress (Metzudat Yam) is delightful, and one of the prettiest on this list. I recommend that you park by the fortress and walk south from there to this new eco-park. There you will find a few shady lean-tos, overlooking both sea and park, from atop the dune. The trees have informative plaques. (There are a few enormous fig trees growing here, so those with a taste for the sweet fruit should come back again in August.) Narrow paths descend to the shore. From here till the so-called Tet-Vav Beach, some 500 meters to the south, stretches a wonderful, clean and lovely strip of sand. There are lifeguard huts on the beach near the fortress and at Tet-Vav, but the expanse between them is empty. The fortress – Minat al-Qal’a (the harbor of the fort, in Arabic) – was built in the seventh century C.E., following the Arab conquest of the region; during the Fatimid dynasty it was further expanded and fortified. It was damaged in the 11th century by an earthquake but restored by the Crusaders and named Castellum Beroart, after a knight from Ramle. In recent years the fort underwent a comprehensive restoration, which was heavily criticized by local residents. Something of the place’s former wild charm is forever lost, but the beach is still lovely.
Waze location: Metzudat Ashdod Yam (in Hebrew). Entrance and parking are free, camping is prohibited. Bus: Route 22 from the Ad Halom train station to Mota Gur, then a 12-minute walk.
Palmachim/Yavneh Yam Beach
Palmachim is a rather vexing, emotional subject. Parking at this popular spot is not free, it’s still run by the Parks and Nature Authority and it’s still very crowded on weekends. The proximity to the nearby kibbutz (which allows only pedestrian traffic to the beach beyond it) intensifies already-heated up passions. The solution: to enter the designated part of Palmachim with its imposing clifs and then to walk 1,000 steps south, to Yavneh Yam Beach. Yavneh Yam was an important port city in antiquity and boasts a tel overlooking a magnificent bay; it is protected to the west by sandstone reefs and there are two capes to the north and south.
Waze location: Palmachim National Park. Parking fees apply. Full beach services on site, camping is prohibited. Upon passing the checkpoint I recommend driving to the southern end and parking there. Bus: Route 12 from the Rothschild stop in Rishon Letzion to Kibbutz Palmachim, then a 15-minute walk.
Blue Beach, Rishon Letzion
The Blue Beach is located at the northwestern end of Rishon Letzion, on the border of Bat Yam. Like other beaches in this city, it has earned the globally recognized Blue Flag designation. It is a convenient municipal beach, not very distinctive perhaps, but clean and well-maintained. It has shaded lean-tos, sport courts, restrooms and a lifeguard.
Waze location: Blue Beach Rishon Letzion. Parking fees apply (to nonresidents). Full beach services, camping is prohibited. Bus: Route 3 from Rothschild in Rishon Letzion to Sha’ar Hayam, and then a 10-minute walk.
Tayo Beach, Bat Yam
Tayo Beach is the southernmost beach in Bat Yam, right at the end of the boardwalk. It gets its name from a fish restaurant there that looks pleasant enough (I haven’t tried it). At no other beach in the country is parking so close, plus access for the disabled is excellent here. One should take one’s 1,000 steps southward – toward the little no-man’s-land between Bat Yam and Rishon Letzion. The Blue Beach lifeguard’s hut seems pretty close, but between the two beaches there’s a lovely, empty stretch of sand.
Waze location: Tayo Beach, Bat Yam. Parking fees apply. Full beach services. Sleeping is prohibited. Bus: Route 25 from Tel Aviv to the Komemiut/Hamarina station in Bat Yam, then a 15-minute walk.
Givat Aliyah Beach, Jaffa
Givat Aliyah is the southernmost beach in Tel Aviv-Yaffo, touching the border of Bat Yam. The beach is very attractive and a lot of money has been invested in it over the past few years. I’m not certain all those stone archways there are necessary, but the overall atmosphere is nice. At the northern end of the beach is a park; on the beach are lean-tos and there is convenient parking. Sitting at the lovely Cassis restaurant, which has been operating at the beach in recent years, is a pleasant, tasty, but not very cheap experience. Givat Aliyah enjoys a Blue Flag certificate. I recommend walking a bit south, to quieter and less crowded parts of the shoreline.
Waze location: Givat Aliyah Beach. Parking is free. Full beach services, camping is prohibited. Bus: Route 46 from the Hashalom train station in Tel Aviv.