For Body And Soul

Faith-based travel gets a lot of attention, but Israel also offers earthly delights

By: Jamie Wetherbe

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City life in Old Jerusalem.
A few years ago, newly divorced and seeking a spiritual experience, my mother set out on a faith-based trip to Israel with a group of travelers from several different churches with participants ranging from retirees to college students.

“It was one of the most significant trips of my life,” she said, “as a journey and as a vacation.”

While she was seeking to learn more about her faith, she returned with stories of the country’s five-star hotels in Jerusalem and along the Sea of Galilee, fine dining and shopping spots, spa treatments like mud baths and body wraps, along with more active adventures like hiking and kayaking.

Millions of people from around the world look to Israel as a spiritual center, as the country offers clients myriad historical and archeological attractions many within short distance of one another. In fact, some 600,000 North Americans visited Israel last year, almost 30 percent of the total number of tourists, and officials aim to double that number by 2010 by promoting “real” people in some of their favorite spots throughout the country.

“Our goal,” said Arie Sommer, Israel tourism commissioner, North and South America, “is to deflect the constant barrage of negative news images of Israel, and to show the country as it really is: sophisticated, hip, ancient, modern, friendly, spiritual and beautiful.”

Despite the occasional negative news, many tour operators continue to see travel to Israel grow as more clients want to explore not only their faith, but to also have an adventure in the country’s diverse landscape of mountains, deserts and beaches, as well as indulge in the country’s deluxe resorts and spas. In the past, according to many tour operators, Israel often drew retired travelers seeking faith- or history-based tours and a more educational trip than a vacation. Although these types of tours continue to be popular, tour operators are extending their offerings to accommodate increasingly younger and more active clients.

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Beach-goers play along the
Tel-Aviv shoreline.
Adventures in Israel

In addition to offering customized and FIT tours, which have dramatically increased in popularity in recent years, tour operators are combining faith-based and educational tours with adventure and leisure activities.

IsramWorld offers clients the 15-day Amazing Israel Adventure that includes stops in Tel Aviv, Safed, Tiberias, Jerusalem and the Dead Sea. Along with a professional tour manager, deluxe hotels and special lodging and meals, clients can rappel or zip-line at Manara Cliffs, kayak down the Jordan River, hike Zavitan Falls and at Ein Gedi, climb to David’s Waterfall and experience a spa treatment near the Dead Sea. Tour dates are available through November 2008 and prices start at $3,270.

For clients wanting a high-end Israel experience, Isram offers a 12-day Discover the Holy Land by Car tour starting at $2,650. The tour includes all transfers by private car; sightseeing in some of Israel’s most historically significant spots via private car or microbus with a private guide; meals; and a commemorative gift.

King Tut Tours which specializes in escorted trips to Egypt, Morocco, Jerusalem, Jordan, Greece and Turkey allows clients to create their own personal, family, group or corporate tour, as well as offering more adventurous tours like exploring the Jordan’s Rose Red City by horseback or on foot. Friendly Planet Travel offers those clients looking for a little adventure an Eilat and Red Sea post-tour extension as an add-on option to its Classic Israel (nine days from $1,739) and Jerusalem Express (eight days from $999). Israel’s southern tip is home to warm, calm waters and has become one of the country’s most popular vacation destinations. Here, clients can explore coral reefs, scuba dive, snorkel and dive with dolphins or opt to stay dry with an evening camel safari into the desert.

In addition to offering popular Jewish and Christian faith-based tours, Ya’lla Tours, which has been selling Israel since 1993, offers clients more vigorous options like hiking and rafting activities popular with families.

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Mount Scopus, outside Jerusalem,
is the home of the Mount of Olives
and Hebrew University.
Coming of Age

Bar and bat mitzvahs in the Holy Land have also received much attention from religious travelers and those looking for a meaningful celebration abroad. For example, Fullerton, Calif.-based Bound to Travel has been selling the destination since 1979, and allows clients to celebrate their “coming of age” in the land of the Bible.

A 16-day sample itinerary offers a mix of historical sites, as well as leisure and adventure activities. Highlights include a boat cruise across the Sea of Galilee; kayaking the Jordan River; touring Jerusalem’s synagogues, art galleries and underground Soreq Caves; participating in an ongoing dig with archeologists; camel rides; mud baths and massages near the Dead Sea; and a snorkeling cruise along the coral reefs of the Red Sea.

Certified Vacations, a tour operator that pioneered the outsourcing of airline-branded vacation packaging, also offers itineraries that emphasize Jewish tradition. The 11-night Grand Jewish Heritage Tour includes visits to the Diaspora Museum in Tel Aviv, a stop at Mount Scopus for a blessing and overnights in Kibbutz guesthouses. Also available through the tour operator is a bar/bat mitzvah add-on option at the Western Wall with a Rabbi, all organized by Certified Vacations.

Clients can also find four-, seven- and 10-day family interest itineraries via the Ministry of Tourism’s Web site, with highlights including a walking tour of Jerusalem, floating in the Dead Sea, hiking through a nature reserve and sights of Tel Aviv and Jaffa.

Group tours to Israel have remained fashionable with travelers. Bound to Travel specializes in a variety of group tours, including the eight-day Holyland Highlights and the 10-day Holyland Days of Discovery. Both tours can accommodate 30 or more clients and include a climb to the top of Mt. Carmel to visit the Stella Maris Carmelite Monastery, a boat ride on the Sea of Galilee and stops in Jerusalem and Bethlehem. The tour operator also offers three- and seven-night cruises, as well as a Holyland Study Tour, a unique travel-study program for groups.


Bound to Travel

Certified Vacations

Friendly Planet Travel

Israel Ministry of Tourism


King Tut Tours

Ya’lla Tours