Diamond Travel is part of The Travel Network Group and back in 2020, they were going to have their annual conference in Israel. Well, obviously that never happened but the Israeli Tourist Office kept in touch and invited agents to visit when it was safe to do so. I was lucky and got a place on the trip. The plan was to go exploring Israel over a few days. We flew into Tel Aviv on a Thursday and by the time we reached the hotel, it was late afternoon. No time to waste, we went straight into a presentation with representatives from Tel Aviv hotels, luckily, they also provided us with drinks and snacks! They describe their city as an alternative Barcelona and as we got to know the area over the next 24 hours, I definitely agree. After this, we had time for a quick refresh in our rooms. Mine overlooked the beach and I could see people enjoying themselves in the early evening sunshine. Our dinner tonight was at Messa Restaurant and was delicious. https://messa.co.il/en/restaurant_en/ Only downside was that the news broke while we were on our first course that the Queen had passed away – but we toasted her with respect.
On our return to the hotel, most of us still felt wide awake so time to find a bar. A little misunderstanding led to the group splitting. Some found a bar with lots of noise, football on the TV and a great atmosphere. The others found a bar on the beach which is where we all found ourselves until the early hours. The sand was still warm, and some brave souls went for a paddle. Definitely a good end to the day (I found my way back to the hotel at midnight, leaving the others to relax with more drinks and hookah/shisha pipes.
The next morning (Friday), I opened the curtains to see a busy seafront with joggers, cyclists, dog-walkers and generally lots of people enjoying the early morning on the beach. After a delicious breakfast at the hotel restaurant https://www.danhotels.com/telavivhotels/dantelavivhotel there was time for me to explore the beach. The sand was warm already and very silky to the touch, the sea was warm for a quick paddle. I could see that the beach was warming up for a busy day – lots of beach volleyball courts were filling up and families were arriving to claim sunbeds.
Our day started with a quick tour of the city, there’s a lot of Bauhaus influence in the architecture and the older buildings looked very interesting. The city of Tel Aviv is relatively new, only being established in 1909. A lot of the original city was planned out by a Scottish architect, Sir Patrick Geddes so there’s good links with the UK. In the city, you’ll find lots of coffee shops, markets, art, concerts, as well as beach time. We had a meeting with Israeli tour companies and found out more about what tourists can experience in the various parts of the country.
Next stop was Jaffa – this ancient city dates back to the Old Testament – in fact, Jonah set off from here before his adventure in a whale. Here we did a walking tour of the old city. Souks and passageways, mosques and synagogues and of course, cafes everywhere! Lunch was on the run as we had a lot to cover!!
On our way to Jerusalem, we stopped at a vineyard for a tour and lots of wine tasting, with local produce (all absolutely delicious). It’s not far between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem – about 90 minutes or so on the direct route by car or by train. As we were arriving in the late afternoon, we noticed how quiet the roads were – from sunset on Friday to sunset on Saturday, the Jews observe Shabbat, no cars, no electricity etc. This really doesn’t affect tourists as hotels and restaurants remain open for everyone else. Our hotel for the next 2 nights was the Orient Hotel – spectacular public spaces and comfortable rooms. https://orientbyisrotel.com-israel.com/ Not much time to relax however as we were off for dinner at the Cheese and Wine rooftop restaurant at the Notre Dame Centre which has been welcoming pilgrims for over 100 years. The restaurant has some great views over the city, I’d love to have seen it during daylight hours! Once again, delicious food that just kept on coming – lots of salads and more Middle Eastern dishes than we’d had. https://www.notredamecenter.org/cheeseandwine Back at the hotel, it was too early for bed, so quite a few of us found a bar across the road from the hotel which seems to stay open until the last people leave! Warm enough to eat outside at the restaurant and to drink outside at the bar, although we were kind of undercover.
Saturday was our really busy day! Our guide started our tour of Jerusalem at the Mount of Olives – you can see the incredible view from the header photo. This overlooks the city and is a great viewpoint to see the history. It was quite amazing to see these places I’d heard about all my life. As you look towards the city from the Mount, you can see the Gardens of Gethsemane where Christ was arrested (towards your right). Straight in front in the middle of the city is the Al-Aqsa Mosque, one of the most important mosques in Islam. The Mount of Olives viewpoint is a crowded place due to its position. Once we’d got used to the geography and history of the city, we then set off back to the city. We did a walking tour of the Old City; the coach dropped us close to our start and met us at the end as roads are narrow and mainly pedestrianised. Our first stop was at the site of the room where the Last Supper was held. Obviously not the original site, but researchers over the centuries are happy that this was the location. The hall seen to be the venue was actually built in the Middle Ages, by the crusaders. A 10–15-minute walk through the Old City brings you to the Western (Wailing) Wall. From there, we walked through the narrow streets and souks. Lots of little souvenir shops and a very lively atmosphere, despite it being Shabbat. After a short while, we realised we were following the Stations of the Cross. Narrow, busy streets that have probably been like this for thousands of years. Our final stop was at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre – said to be situated on the site of Calvary where Christ was crucified. TBH, I was expecting a quiet place of prayer – what we got was a busy church, full of queues. Not too noisy but just not what I expected.
Once back in our lovely, air-conditioned coach – we set off out of the city. Our first stop was lunch – definitely needed at this time. Getting out of the city was straightforward and once out of the city, you’re into the desert. There are still Bedouin who live there – some settlements can be seen from the road, and they move regularly. Our drive took us past a city that has been continuously inhabited since around 11,000 BCE – not enough time to stop in Jericho to see more unfortunately. Lunch was a tasty shawarma at a service station. We drove through orchards – yes, in the desert! Israel has some sophisticated methods of farming on small amounts of water.
Our next stop was Masada – water, hats and sunscreen were definitely needed here. This is a former fortress built by King Herod and the site of the Jews’ last stand against the Romans in 70AD. You reach it by cable car – just a short steep ride. You can walk however you’d need to start walking during the early hours of the morning due to the extreme heat. The fortress is located on a steep mountain making it almost inaccessible. This is why 1000 defenders were able to hold off a Roman force of 15,000 soldiers for nearly 2 years. When the Romans eventually took it, they found only a few survivors (a couple of women and some children) – the rest of the defenders had killed themselves rather than be taken as prisoners. It is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site and is still being investigated by archaeologists.
Next stop was the Dead Sea, we stopped in the resort of Ein Bokek. This is a purpose-built resort with sanatoriums and health spas. Lots of people come from the city to the resort for a long weekend as there are good facilities here, with shops, restaurants and hotels. It’s just 2 hours’ drive from Jerusalem. We just had time for a quick dip in the Sea – the recommendation is that you don’t spend longer than 15 minutes at a time in the water. It looks oily on the surface, but this is the minerals in the water. I have extremely dry skin and it took weeks for my skin to dry out again, the results were excellent, and I’d recommend a few dips in the sea if you have skin issues. The border with Jordan goes through the centre of the sea and you can see the other side easily. We had an early dinner after this at a restaurant in Ein Bokek – it was called Taj Maahal, so we expected an Indian meal, but it was Bedouin food, on low seating. Not great if you have dodgy hips like me!! There are normal chairs as well though! Again delicious food. https://taj-maahal.co.il/
After this, we headed back to Jerusalem, a journey of about 90 minutes – it was a very quiet coach, I think most of us were dozing. However, the evening was not over. Time for a quick shower and change when we got back to the hotel, but time to go out again for the Night Spectacular, a son et Lumiere show at the Tower of David in the city. It starts late at night so you can get the best benefit of the beautiful light show, which runs through the history of this ancient city. It’s a very popular show with a sell-out crowd. https://tod.org.il/en As we came out back to the coaches, we saw the city walls lit up with a Union Jack flag alongside an image of the Israeli flag – we took it as a tribute to the Late Queen. Back at the hotel, I headed for bed but many others in the group headed for the bar across the road.
The following day was our last. A leisurely breakfast (huge choice of items in the breakfast buffet BTW) and we loaded our bags on the coach for the last time. We only had one stop today and that was at Yvel. This is a company that makes jewellery from natural resources, especially pearls. over 90% of Yvel’s more than 100 employees are immigrants hailing from 23 countries. Once you’ve finished the tour, watched the film of the company’s history and philosophy and bought the jewellery – then it’s time for a wine tasting in their 19th century wine cellar. https://www.yvel.com/
Next stop was the airport – here you can see how tight security is – the first queue is for the initial security check, before heading to bag drop, more security then finally you find yourself in the departure lounge. A big area, but very few places to eat before our mid-afternoon flight back to Luton.