Israel by Sea

Cruise ship visits highlight the ancient as well as the modern in this historic country

By: Ana Figueroa

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Cruise lines will call at Israel’s port
of Haifa in 2008.
Israel is in the midst of a tourist resurgence, and tour operators are reporting a brisk business in land tours of varying length for 2008. But, there’s another way for your clients to experience Israel next year: by cruise ship. The country does, after all, lie on the Mediterranean’s southeastern shores. Israel is once again attracting major cruise lines to its ports. Both Crystal Cruises and Princess Cruises visited Israel in 2007. Princess will return in 2008, joined by Holland America Line and Azamara Cruises.

“The Azamara Journey is an exciting addition to the many cruise ships that call at Haifa and Ashdod on the Mediterranean,” said Arie Sommer, Israel commissioner for tourism for North and South America.

Israel’s relatively compact size means that the country’s primary tourist sites are accessible from the key ports of Haifa and Ashdod. The latter is the country’s largest port and a gateway to Jerusalem, while Nazareth and the Galilee region are the most common excursions from Haifa. Cruise lines also offer overnight excursions, in which passengers disembark in one port, overnight in a principal location such as Jerusalem and then return to the ship the next day in the second port.

Jerusalem is by far the most popular destination for cruise passengers, especially since they have a limited amount of time in the country. An hour’s drive from Ashdod, the ancient walled city is sacred to the world’s three monotheistic religions. Shore excursion tours typically cover landmarks, such as the Jewish quarter, home of the Western or Wailing Wall. Nearby, Temple Mount is dominated by the El Asqa Mosque and the Dome of the Rock, sacred to Muslims. The Via Dolorosa traces the 14 Stations of the Cross up toward the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, the site where Christians believe Jesus was crucified. Other points of interest often included in shore tours are the somber Yad Vashem Memorial Museum, dedicated to Jewish victims of the Holocaust; the Knesset building; and the Shrine of the Book, which houses the Dead Sea Scrolls.

Another option for cruise passengers is to take an overnight excursion from Ashdod to the Dead Sea. At 1,276 feet below sea level, the Dead Sea is the lowest point on Earth, with waters that boast much-lauded therapeutic qualities.

After spending the night in one of the many resort hotels in the Dead Sea area, passengers can continue the next day to the mountain fortress of Masada. A luxury hideaway for the elite of its time, Masada is famous as the place where 950 Jews chose to take their own lives in 73 A.D., rather than submit to Roman captivity. Today, passengers can ride a cable car to the summit, which still houses ancient ruins.

A tour to Tel Aviv and Jaffa is yet another shore excursion option. Tel Aviv is Israel’s second most populous city, a cosmopolitan enclave known for its skyline, museums and architecturally significant buildings. Jaffa is the oldest city in the region, a good choice for anyone interested in strolling through quaint streets, museums and artists’ quarters.

From the port of Haifa, the most popular shore excursions include the biblical towns and villages of the Galilee and Nazareth. The childhood home of Jesus, Nazareth’s highlights include the Church of the Annunciation and Church of St. Joseph. A drive from Nazareth to Tabgha takes passengers to the site where Jesus is said to have performed the miracles of the loaves and fishes. Tours also typically include a stop at Yardenit, a baptismal site at the Jordan River. Lunch on the shores of the Sea of Galilee usually rounds off the tour.

“I think it’s a great sign that cruise companies feel confident in Israel as a tourist destination. [Cruise lines] only choose the best ports of call for their ships places that are safe, culturally interesting and inviting and their business shows Israel is on the same footing as any other major tourist destination,” said Sommer.


Holland America Line’s ms Prinsendam sails to Israel on a 14-day Ancient Mysteries itinerary, from Piraeus, Greece, to Civitavecchia (Rome) Oct. 2, with calls at both Ashdod and Haifa. And, the ms Rotterdam sails a 12-day Black Sea, Egypt & Holy Land cruise roundtrip from Piraeus on May 14 that calls in Haifa.

Princess Cruises offers two itineraries calling in Israel in 2008. Four 12-day Holy Land sailings between Athens and Rome depart May 20, June 25, Oct. 23 and Nov. 4. Four 12-day Holy Land sailings between Venice and Athens depart May 8, Sept. 5, Oct. 11 and Nov. 16.

Azamara Cruises will sail two 14-night Holy Land itineraries between Barcelona and Athens that call at Haifa and Ashdod. The cruises depart Aug. 30 and Sept. 13.