Israel With Kids / Boating on the Yarkon River

Throw your kids an oar, so to speak, and take them out on the not-so-high seas of Tel Aviv's only river, where you can spend a day paddling about in the middle of a metropolis.

You're looking for a change of scenery but don't want to go very far. You want to get out, but don't have many hours to spare. Preferably, you'd like to do something outdoorsy. What better fits the bill than an afternoon of boating on the Yarkon River?

That's certainly what my family thought.

An oasis smack in the center of Tel Aviv, the Yarkon is Israel's longest coastal river, offering a nice alternative for water lovers fed up with the city's crowded beaches.

If you've ever taken a drive down Tel Aviv's main drag, Ibn Gvirol Street, at the intersection with Rokach Boulevard you're bound to have caught a glimpse of several colorful little boats, in various shapes and sizes, gliding along the river. And if you're like us, you've probably said countless times: "We should do that sometime." So, at long last, we did.

The first indication, however, that this might not be what the doctor had ordered came when we made our way to the boathouse and found the ticket booth empty. It was a late afternoon in the middle of the week.

Either we're in the wrong place, we thought, or this is surely the best-kept secret in the Middle East. Save for one lone rower, there was no sign of human life on the river, either. Since the ticket booth window was open, albeit unmanned, we yoo-hooed in the hope of catching someone's attention. After about a minute, a sleepy-looking clerk emerged and asked which option we preferred – a motorboat, a paddle boat or a pedal boat? Since I'd never operated a motorboat on my own (and I was the only adult in the group), we decided to pass on that one. I was also a bit hesitant about taking the paddle boat, having been known to get confused in the past about which oar to use for which direction. The pedal boat was an easy choice.

"Where is everyone?" we asked the ticket man.

"Sleeping," he responded. "If you want to see people, come on the weekends."

The pedal boats can fit up to four people each, so our group of three easily slid into one boat. A sign on the dock informed us that passengers are not allowed to get in or out of the boats without the assistance of the boat rental company staff, so we let the ticket man help us in.

"What about life preservers?" I asked him.

"It's fine," he replied as he pushed us off the docks. "You don't need them."

While both 11-year-old girls in the boat knew how to swim, I certainly didn't want to have them test their swimming skills in these murky waters. Like many who had witnessed it live on television, I was still traumatized by the 1997 disaster at the Maccabiah games, when a bridge over the Yarkon collapsed while the Australian delegation was crossing it and four athletes later died from ingesting the toxic waters.

Front-seat rides in the pedal boat are in charge of pedaling. Those who sit in the back can just sit back, relax and enjoy the ride. To break up the work evenly, we decided to have one of us manage the steering wheel while the other two peddled, and rotate every 15 minutes or so. Since the boats are pretty small, we had to stand up and walk around while holding onto each other while doing these rotations.

As if I wasn't jittery enough to begin with.

To be fair, the girls seemed to be enjoying themselves. They were not nearly as bothered by the heat (tip No. 1: if you haven't been discouraged from boating already, remember when you come to wear hats and pack water), and they definitely liked the feeling of being in charge of the boat. For me, the most enjoyable part of the excursion was being able to eavesdrop on the conversations of two chatty tweens, clearly oblivious to the presence of an adult even though we were all in the same boat, so to speak.

It would also be unfair not to mention that the boat ride offers a change of scenery from the usual urban landscapes of Tel Aviv. But don't expect to see any ducks or swans or exotic flora on the trip, simply because here on this urban waterway, there are none.

The peddling is pretty easy work, especially if you lean back in the seat, though the amount of energy you'll need to expend varies depending on the direction you take. Since there isn't all that much to see along the way, it does get a bit boring. So while on the one hand, NIS 95 is a pretty hefty sum for renting a pedal boat for an hour, on the other hand, you'd be hard pressed to find a good reason to spend more than an hour doing this.

As we made our way back, remembering that the sign had said not to get out of the boats ourselves, we called out to the sales guy. He was nowhere to be found, so we docked on our own. By now, we had figured why people weren't standing in line here fighting for tickets.

Basic Info:
Address: Yarkon River boathouse, near the Ibn Gvirol bridge

Telephone for information: 03-6420541

Hours: Open daily from 9:00 to 22:00.

Cost: NIS 95 for renting either a 4-seat pedal boat or a 5-seat paddle boat for an hour.

Getting there: Any bus that goes north on Ibn Gvirol Street will get you close. There's not much parking around, so taking a taxi is another option. Biking is also an alternative, and then you can even make a day of it continuing on the shady bike paths in the Yarkon Park.