It's admittedly tough these days to get kids excited about something as mundane as nature. So like most parents, we've learned that when heading into nature, we'd better come up with something more exotic than a walk in the woods.
Anyone up for a trip to a cave? The shoulder shrugs do not bode well, but we're not giving up just yet.
Not just any cave, we press on, but an absolutely gorgeous one – trust us. "Sure," they reply, not exactly brimming over with excitement. "Whatever."
It's been quite a few years since our last visit to the Soreq Cave (known in Hebrew as "Mearat HaNetifim"), a small, but spectacular stalactite cave located on the western slopes of the Judean mountains not far from Beit Shemesh. We had promised ourselves that as soon as our younger ones were old enough to appreciate its beauty, we would take them for a visit (having learned the hard way that dragging along a cranky barely-able-to-walk toddler is not the optimal way to experience this national treasure). Ignoring the sullen faces of our two tweens, we did just that.
The "wows" they could barely suppress once they got their first sight of the magical wonderland inside made it all worthwhile. It also proved that as jaded as kids tend to be these days, they are not completely immune to the beauty of nature.
The Soreq Cave was discovered by chance in 1968 while nearby quarry workers were gathering up pieces of limestone following a controlled blast in the area and happened to wander into an opening in one of the mountains. It was declared a nature reserve in 1975.
Stalactites are mineral deposits that resemble icicles and hang from the ceiling of a limestone cave (not to be confused with stalagmites that rise up from the floor). They're formed when water seeps through the cracks in a cave, releasing carbon dioxide that causes the limestone to crystallize. The stalagmites take shape when drops of water that fall off the stalactites crystallize on the floor. When the stalactites and stalagmites connect (and this can take millions of years), drape-like walls are formed. As we learned from our guide, it takes between 50 to 100 years for such formations to sprout a mere centimeter.
The skinner stalactites are known as "macaronis," the thicker ones as "carrots" and "elephant ears." The stalagmites coming out of the ground tend to look more like coral reefs or heads of broccoli. What makes these caves so beautiful is that these formations come in all different shapes and sizes and under dim lights create the allusion of another planet.
A big part of the fun is letting the imagination roam and allowing yourself to see different things in these formations, kind of like the game you play with clouds. Our guide pointed out a monkey, a lion, a dancing couple, and the Capitol building in Washington, D.C. Roaming around on our own, we discovered a village of dwarfs, a mother holding a baby, and slice of pizza with cheese melting off of it. The kids also enjoyed finding stalactites and stalagmites that were about to connect, doing rough calculations in their heads of how long it would take for the two ends to meet.
While there are bigger and more famous stalactite caves outside of Israel, the local version distinguishes itself in having an unusually high concentration of these weird-looking formations (70 percent of the cave is still active), giving it a particularly eerie, otherworldly feel. According to our guide, the only changes that were made in the cave since it was discovered almost 45 years ago were the introduction of lighting, a proper entrance and exit and walking paths. Nothing else has been touched since.
Visitors cannot enter the cave on their own but must register for a tour. Advance reservations are unnecessary, however, since tours leave the site about every 15-20 minutes. Tours in English are available upon request.
Before entering the cave, visitors are shown a short film, (with English subtitles) which explains how the cave was discovered and how stalactites and stalagmites are formed. The problem with the film is that it shows footage of the inside of the cave, which means that visitors are not really seeing it for the first time when they step inside a few minutes later. In a way, this detracts from that initial “wow.”
Unlike most caves, the Soreq Cave is not particularly chilly inside, so we had no need for the heavy sweatshirts we had dragged along. Visitors should be aware that getting from the parking lot to the cave and back requires walking up and down many many steps, so this may not be a suitable excursion for all ages.
Telephone for information: 02-9911117
Hours: Open seven days a week, from October-March -- 8:00-16:00, and from April-September -- 8:00-17:00. (Weekends tend to be much more crowded.)
Cost: NIS 27 for adults, NIS 14 for children.
Getting there: You'll need to take a car. It's about a 30-minute drive from Jerusalem and a 45-minute drive from Tel Aviv.
Parking: free on premises.
Amenities: Drinks and snacks can be purchased at a refreshment stand located near the entrance to the cave.