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Odem U-Pick in the Golan Heights. Photo: courtesy ISRAEL21c

Odem U-Pick in the Golan Heights. Photo: courtesy ISRAEL21c

Do-it-yourself day trips in the land of milk and honey that will capture your heart and also satisfy your stomach.

By Jessica Halfin

Israel is blessed with endless options for interesting day trips. North, south or center, there is always a new hike, nature reserve or historical site to discover, and nothing is ever too far away. But as stomachs start to grumble, you have to consider what you’re going to eat and drink after the main event.

In our opinion, an artisan food-related item is always in order, especially after a difficult hike or long haul. So have fun, support local producers and create your own DIY day trips filled with sights, hikes and gourmet items that will entice you everywhere you roam.

Here are 10 paired suggestions to get your creative juices flowing.

  1. Yechiam Fortress National Park and Buza Ice CreamUpper Galilee
Yechiam Fortress photo by Jessica Halfin

Yechiam Fortress photo by Jessica Halfin

Spend time at this preserved Crusader castle and fortress passed down through a series of Holy Land conquerors and used as a strategic battleground by Kibbutz Yechiam members in the 1948 war for Israel’s independence (bullet holes still remain in the stone walls). Watch the movie, wander around the site and take in the incredible 360-degree view overlooking the Upper Galilee coastal plain, more distant Acre and the Carmel Mountains.

Buza ice cream after an Upper Galilee hike. Photo by Jessica Halfin

Buza ice cream after an Upper Galilee hike. Photo by Jessica Halfin

What could be better after sightseeing than a mid-afternoon cone? Even better if it is a handmade cardamom or chocolate gelato treat from Buza’s famous original location in neighboring Maalot-Tarshiha (Buza is on the Tarshiha side). Buza (Arabic for “ice cream”) is a partnership between Jewish ice-cream fanatic Adam Ziv from Kibbutz Sasa and Arab restauranteur Alaa Sweetat of Tarshiha. It won a 2017 United Nations Flourish Prize for promoting coexistence in Israel.

2. Stalactite Cave Nature Reserve and Katlav Winery,Judean Hills

Soreq Stalactite Cave. Photo by Jessica Halfin

Soreq Stalactite Cave. Photo by Jessica Halfin

The 5,000-meter Soreq Stalactite Cave Nature Reserve was discovered in the 1960s purely by accident. A routine quarry explosion exposed the rare cave developing for millennia deep within the mountainous hillside. Soft limestone and rainwater mixed to create stunning geological formations beneath the bedrock. Today it is the only cave of its kind in Israel that can be visited, and it is quite an otherworldly site. The visitors’ center features an explanatory film. A guided tour, from which you are free to deviate, takes you along a planked path with railings. Colorful lights illuminate the natural structures.

Katlav Winery in Nes Harim. Photo: courtesy ISRAEL21c

Katlav Winery in Nes Harim. Photo: courtesy ISRAEL21c

A mere 10 minutes’ drive down the road will find you in idyllic Nes Harim at the doorstep of Katlav Winery. The venture was started by Yossef Yitach, who left his own prestigious architectural firm to become a boutique kosher winemaker. The winery was built on biblical-era soil overlooking the Judean hills and Jerusalem in the distance. Yitach has even dug five wine caves to let his wines develop and age with grace. Tasting the different varietals, while admiring the view, is the perfect way to honor the unique land on which the winery was built.

3. Ein Gedi Nature Reserve and Kfar Hanokdim Bedouin Hospitality, Dead Sea/Arad

A hike at Ein Gedi Nature Reserve in the Dead Sea area is always a good choice because it is easy enough for the entire family to enjoy, yet close enough to nature that you could find yourself a finger’s length away from an ibex. But don’t be tempted to pet any of the wildlife. Instead, immerse yourself in nature by stopping to dip in the desert waterfalls and springs that line the trail.

Kfar HaNokdim photo by Jessica Halfin

Kfar HaNokdim photo by Jessica Halfin

Following your hike, head west toward the desert city of Arad and continue down the mountainous road past the shores of the Dead Sea, up through the Judean Hills to Kfar HaNokdim. There you can experience the desert in the comfort of a custom-built village that makes the famous hospitality of Bedouin desert-dwellers accessible to the general population. The camp provides various levels of comfortable accommodation, authentic Bedouin-style meals, camel and donkey rides, desert bike and jeep rides, and guided hikes in the surrounding canyons.

4. Lake Ram (Birkat Ram) and The Witches Cauldron and the Milkman restaurant, Golan Heights

Follow the witch-shaped signs along the route leading up to the Druze village of Majd El Shams at the southern base of Mount Hermon and eventually you will reach this restaurant in neighboring Nimrod. Even more intriguing than the view and the romantic wood-burning stove in the wintertime is the gaggle of witch dolls and decorations hanging from the ceiling as you dine on fine yet hearty dishes served in sizzling cast-iron skillets. The restaurant celebrates local specialties such as Golan-raised steaks, artisan cheeses, locally pickled olives and area boutique wines.

The Witches Cauldron and the Milkman restaurant near Lake Ram. Photo: courtesy

The Witches Cauldron and the Milkman restaurant near Lake Ram. Photo: courtesy

Following your meal, drive down toward Lake Ram. Park in the lot and follow the Golan Trail to the water’s edge. Continue on the green trail to circle the lake, which according to Talmudic legend is a remnant from the biblical flood and is the product of an ancient volcanic eruption that caused a 10-meter-deep hole filled with rain and groundwater. Although swimming is not recommended, the lake makes a worthy backdrop for a lovely walk among the fruit trees that dot the area.

5. Snorkeling at Eilat Coral Beach Nature Reserve and Eilat Wines

This reserve along Israel’s Red Sea Gulf allows people of all ages and abilities to enjoy and help sustain the world’s most northern coral reef. Wading pools allow children to get close to the reef without entering the deeper waters, as do observation bridges, where one can admire the fish while remaining dry. Adventurous souls can rent snorkeling or diving gear on the beach.

Following a refreshing dip, Eilat Wines — the official southern outpost of the Golan Heights and Galil Mountain Wineries — is a must visit. Located in an industrial zone in the northern section of the city, it is a gourmet hotspot for wine and cheese lovers. Wines from all over the world are stocked here. On “free Fridays,” four wine tastings and accompanying gourmet snacks are offered. Any time you come, your purchases are tax-free due to Eilat’s special zoning status.

6. Shivta National Park  and “Path of Knowledge” at Ramat HaNegev Agricultural Research and Development Tour, Negev Highlands

Negev Center for Agricultural Research and Development. Photo by Jessica Halfin

Negev Center for Agricultural Research and Development. Photo by Jessica Halfin

Located 20 minutes northwest of Sde Boker, in the middle of the Negev Desert, is the Ramat HaNegev Center for Agricultural Research and Development. Call ahead to book a tour of the greenhouses to learn how the center has realized first Israeli Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion’s promise to make the desert bloom. During the tour you will pick fruits and veggies fresh from the vine to sample and even receive a whole container to take with!

Also visit the attached memorial to a group of French soldiers who served in the Negev Brigade during Israel’s War of Independence. The hill on which the memorial sits gives a vantage point over the Megalim experimental solar power project across the street.

Shivta National Park photo by Jessica Halfin

Shivta National Park photo by Jessica Halfin

From New Age to ancient, off the road heading further west toward Nitzana, near Israel’s Gaza border, is the ancient Nabatean city of Shivta. Now a national park filled with spectacularly preserved ruins, it was once a largely populated town along the famous Nabatean spice trading route. Taken over by Byzantines and later by Muslim Crusaders, the site also features ancient churches and a mosque, and was a functional town all the way up until the mid-seventh century.

7. Amud Stream Nature Reserve and Ein Camonim dairy, Upper Galilee

If there ever was an Israeli hike meant to connect you to the ancient history and nature of the land, Nahal Amud (Pillar River), between Mount Meron and the Sea of Galilee, is it. In this one site you will find antique flour mills, the famous pillar for which the river is named, a blossoming orchard filled with the famous biblical fruit species, caves and freshwater pools and springs. The 4-kilometer trail takes three to four hours, and includes a steep incline or decline, as well as dipping pools, depending on which route you choose.

Fresh cheese at Ein Carmonim dairy. Photo by Jessica Halfin

Fresh cheese at Ein Carmonim dairy. Photo by Jessica Halfin

Found among the breathtaking hills of the Upper Galilee close by, the Ein Camonim goat farm and dairy is a tranquil outpost that produces and sells more than 30 varieties of cheese from the milk of its grass-fed, free-range herd. Step inside the shop to taste more than a few cheeses free of charge, as well as Ein Camonim signature wine produced for the farm by Haifa’s boutique Vortman Winery. Other specialty products include homemade fig and walnut jam, and single serving sorbets. For a more elaborate experience, dine in the outdoor restaurant next to the goats and treat yourself to an all-you-can-eat cheese platter accompanied by gourmet salads.

8. Hula Nature Reserve and Habayit Bektze HaNofUpper Galilee

Walking in the Hula Nature Reserve. Photo by Jessica Halfin

Walking in the Hula Nature Reserve. Photo by Jessica Halfin

Located in the Hula Valley in the Upper Galilee, Hula Lake serves as a natural rest stop for birds migrating to and from Europe, Asia and Africa. But the reserve is much more than just a world-class bird observatory site. A visitors’ center with a movie and museum explains the area’s remarkable ecosystem, and from the wooden plank trail around the lake and the covered wooden bridge you can observe the active wildlife in the water (gigantic catfish, freshwater turtles, frogs and beaver-like rodents) and surrounding wetlands.

Overlooking the Hula Valley, Habayit Bektze HaNof, or House on the Edge of the Landscape, is a rural restaurant at the edge of the Birya Forest. Floor-to-ceiling windows, observation points and a deck make it a prime spot for nestling in and chowing down, while appreciating an unobstructed view. A prime spot for anything from a quick bite to a wedding party, the light and fresh Galilean café fare make it ideal as a lunch stop for day trippers.

9. Mount Tabor Nature Reserve and National Park, Shaked Tavor Visitor’s Center and Tabor Winery, Kfar Tavor, Lower Galilee

Mount Tavor in the Lower Galilee. Photo by Tamir Peled

Mount Tavor in the Lower Galilee. Photo by Tamir Peled

Drive past the agricultural fields of the Jezreel Valley in the Lower Galilee, and you will notice Mount Tabor (Tavor) peeking out of the horizon. The perfectly round mountain is filled with green trees year-round, and can be climbed by foot or vehicle. Whatever path you choose, you will find more than just a beautiful view. The mountain is the location of several significant battles and events from biblical time and so is home to churches including the Church of the Transfiguration Franciscan monastery (open to visitors) and the Church of the Prophet Elijah.

In neighboring Kfar Tavor, you will find the culinary treats and surprises that make up the area’s livelihood — the valley’s much sought-after almonds and wines.

What was once referred to as the Marzipan Museum has since transformed into Shaked Tavor Visitors Center, a store selling the neighboring factory’s flavored marzipan and almond specialty products. The name “shaked” (pronounced shah-ked) is drawn from the almond trees that blossom with delicate pink and white flowers each spring at the mountain’s base. In the same complex, Tabor Winery welcomes visitors for a tasting, tour and other events such as Family Harvest Day each summer.

10. The Big Juba walk and Odem U-Pick fruit picking, Golan Heights

The Big Juba. Photo by Jessica Halfin

The Big Juba. Photo by Jessica Halfin

Drive through the Golan Heights and you may wonder how it came to be a raised platform, and the story behind the many volcanic rocks strewn about. Take an easy walk on the paved pathway through the Odem Forest at the Big Juba, and you will learn about some of the geological oddities of this unique forest habitat. For those looking for more than just a view of the crater, you can venture down into the hole. Expect a run-in with a grazing Golan cow or two, and know that the path is not officially marked.

Odem U-Pick in the Golan Heights. Photo: courtesy

Odem U-Pick in the Golan Heights. Photo: courtesy

Continuing down the road into Moshav Odem, you will find a quaint family-run fruit orchard that allows you to pick your own in the summer months. In June it is a prime spot for cherry picking. July ushers in the season of the more rare raspberries, blackberries and gooseberries. Grab a cup of coffee, and buy jams, jellies, locally sourced olive oil and honey in the shop. With other jewels of the moshav such as the Odem Mountain Winery and the Deer Forest Petting Zoo and camping ground, there’s plenty to keep you busy in this historically significant Golan settlement in the off season as well.


    10 Perfect Days Out in Israel


    Manta Ray is a local favorite in Tel Aviv. With its glass-walled interior and tables outside in the sea breezes, it capitalizes fully on its setting, a few yards from the Mediterranean. Manta Ray’s specialty is of course fish: sea bream, croaker, tuna, sea bass, calamari, shrimp, scallops, crab—you name it—served in any number of ways: in a risotto; with a fennel and kohlrabi salad; in a stew of coconut milk, lemongrass, and curry paste. 

    This pièce de la résistance is a cauldron brought to your table, overflowing with seafood claws and tails and emitting intoxicating whiffs of shallots, white wine, and the sea.

    One item on the menu is called simply “Fish in a black cast-iron pot.” This pièce de la résistance is a cauldron brought to your table, overflowing with seafood claws and tails and emitting intoxicating whiffs of shallots, white wine, and the sea.

    Owner Ofra Ganor and chef Ronen Skinezes ensure Manta Ray is a “grabber”: it has the beach, the sunset, excellent food, and a comfortable feeling of home.

    But in fact, there are few restaurants in Israel that don’t feel homey—even the most elegant are warm and easy, with a lack of pretension that seems distinctly local. Some customers may dress for dinner, but others, inevitably, will show up in jeans and T-shirts.

    Food is the central focus—often served, it must be said, in huge quantities (we have learned to share portions whenever possible). There is a pervasive air of generosity, and a genuine desire on the part of the restaurant staff for you to sample and appreciate what they have to offer. (Echoes of the classic Jewish mother’s exhortation: “Eat!”)

    Manta Ray >

    Manta Ray restaurant. Photos by and courtesy Avi Ganor

    Enjoy the Best Beachside Dining at Manta Ray Restaurant

    Morning on the boardwalk in Tel Aviv–Yafo. Photo by and © Vision Studio

    We are on well-cushioned bicycles, rented from Tel Aviv–Yafo’s new bike-share system, heading south on the sleek boardwalk that lines the Namal, or waterfront, from Tel Aviv into Jaffa. Although it’s pretty early, the sun beams down on the water—as ever—and we pedal along, rarely picking up much speed, but occasionally stopping to catch our breath and look out at the sparkling shifts of the sea. It is early morning, and the water is dotted with swimmers of all shapes and sizes, out for their daily ablutions.

    As ever in Israel, the old and the new, myth, faith, and contemporary reality are mingled together.

    We will ride for miles here, on the sturdy wooden boardwalk that dips and rises, mimicking the swelling of beach dunes. Designed by husband-and-wife architect team Udi Kassif and Ganit Mayslits Kassif, the handsome wide walkway won them the award for outstanding landscape architecture at the European Biennial of Landscape Architecture in 2010. It meanders through the Tel Aviv Port, which is packed with boutiques, cafés, and food markets; already visitors are heading here for their morning coffee, enjoying the proximity of the water. At night, the port glitters with the lights of restaurants, nightclubs, and performance spaces, and hums with the chatter of crowds and the jangle of street music.

    Our ride takes us through upscale neighborhoods of stark white hotels and stylish beachside cafés shaded with gigantic, colorful parasols, an area where refreshing arak-and-grapefruit-juice cocktails are delivered by natty waiters to your place on a rented beach chair. Here, if you close your eyes, you can try to count the languages being spoken within earshot: Hebrew, Arabic, Russian, English, French, Italian, Spanish, and a few others that you might not be able to identify.

    We pass funkier areas where beachgoers bring their own sandwiches and umbrellas, where children flop into shallow waves followed by slightly worried mothers, and elderly men are not shy to reveal ample naked bellies, bronzed from decades of basking in the Mediterranean sun. Out beyond the shore, a group of youngsters is trying to catch enough wave-swell to surf. We see a group of schoolgirls, buttoned up in traditional Orthodox tzniut outfits—elbows and knees modestly covered by their simple uniforms—as a gazelle-like male jogger, sporting only a black Speedo, sneakers, and reflective sunglasses, hurtles by them.

    We ride by the Tel Aviv Port’s farmers’ market, already beginning to pulse with curious tourists, knowledgeable foodies, businesslike housewives. Inside this warehouse-sized space are vendors selling meats, fish, cheeses, wines, olive-oil products, cooking accessories, and more, as well as coffee shops where you can enjoy an espresso in the midst of the throng. This morning, happy shoppers are exiting the building with bags filled with fresh, ripe strawberries and savory bourekas, which many will tote down to the beach for snacking.

    As ever in Israel, the old and the new, myth, faith, and contemporary reality are mingled together. As we continue toward Jaffa, our path winds through more harbor-like terrain. Fishermen lean on a wall above the plashing waves, waiting for their dinner to tug at the lines: fish that live nowhere else, with exotic nicknames like spinefoot and guitarfish. Against the old walls opposite sit ancient street monarchs, fully focused on games of backgammon and chess. Some distance into the water, a boulder juts upward: Andromeda’s Rock, named for the princess of Greek mythology who, it is said, was chained here as an offering to a sea monster, but was saved from its jaws by Perseus. A shapely rollerblader in a top hat weaves through the crowd, adroitly sipping pomegranate juice through a straw as she sails by. Buskers play a Middle Eastern hybrid of klezmer and bluegrass, a battered banjo case on the sidewalk filling up with shekels from appreciative passersby.

    As we ride into Jaffa, we pass old warehouses now spiffed up into chic, cavernous restaurants, gallery spaces, organic-coffee shops, and bookstores. It’s almost impossible to imagine that just a few decades ago this area was so dilapidated that major parts of it were an environmental hazard. What was once a fifty-acre landfill of rubble by the shore has recently been cleaned out, smoothed, and made green and useable as Midron Yafo Park, or Jaffa Seaside Park (also known, less poetically, as Jaffa Landfill Park). The shoreline was reclaimed by the Municipality of Tel Aviv–Yafo, which removed and recycled the detritus and built a promenade along the shore with links to the port, the Givat Aliyah Beach, and the Bat-Yam area. The park, designed by Tel Aviv’s Braudo-Maoz Landscape Architecture, rolls with green lawns (irrigated with desalinated seawater) and neat paths, and is studded with playgrounds, shaded benches facing the sea, an amphitheater, and the bike lane along which we are riding. Its success is clear: on this beautiful day, the park is thronged with visitors from the city’s full spectrum of people.

    Nearby, down Kedem Street, is the stunning striated box of a building that is the Peres Center for Peace, founded by Shimon Peres as headquarters for peace-building initiatives between Israel and its neighbors, and between Jewish and Arab citizens of Israel. Here, we veer inland, onto the cobbled lanes of Jaffa’s alleyways, in search of hummus. As the streets narrow, we gingerly disembark, return our bicycles to their rental spot, and walk, slowly regaining our land legs after ten or so kilometers of riding, which have taken us in one morning through so many layers of history and the vivid reality of the present.

    Tel Aviv Port >

     Tel Aviv Port Farmers’ Market >

    Tel-o-Fun Bicycle Rentals > 

    Peres Center for Peace >

    Bicycling Tel Aviv to Jaffa

    Matkot on the beach. Photo by Lina Nagano, courtesy Creative Commons

    Tok-tik tok-tik tok-tik. At a certain spot on the boardwalk between Tel Aviv and Jaffa, the tok-tiks cannot be ignored: a crowd of people in pairs—all ages, mostly men, a few women—whacking small rubber balls back and forth with wooden paddles.  Matkot is this onomatopoetically named activity, played lazily on some American beaches, but in Israel approached with all the passion and intensity of an Olympic game (it is often referred to as Israel’s national sport).

    There are no winners and no losers. Which is good because no one likes to lose.
    — Matkot player

    What sets matkot somewhat apart from other games, however, is that it has no official rules; as one player notes: “There are no winners and no losers. Which is good because no one likes to lose.” The principal objectives are absolutely basic: move fast and keep the ball in the air. Play hard. Have fun.

    The Israeli National Sport

    Herzliya Beach. Photo by Ron Almog, courtesy Creative Commons

    Adjacent to Tel Aviv to the north is the elegant city of Herzliya, which stretches up along the Mediterranean and operates at a somewhat more stately pace than its hopping neighbor. This is the home of many ambassadors, foreign diplomats, business moguls, and others from among Israel’s well-to-do population, and it is a magnet for Tel Avivians who want to slow down, stroll the marina checking out yachts, or succumb to the temptations of the chic Arena shopping mall.

    A magnet for Tel Avivians who want to slow down.

    Mornings on the Herzliya beach begin precisely at dawn, with one or two determined walkers or joggers taking their daily constitutionals; by 9 or 10 a.m. the numbers have grown to the hundreds and include swimmers, sunbathers, breakfast picnickers—and if the wind is high and the waves indulgent, even a few surfers. The beach and the sea accommodate all of this so easily.

    The district of Herzliya Pituach is home to the headquarters of many major high-tech firms; their glossy modern office towers line the nearby highway, advertising the future. This is a central hub of what is now commonly referred to as “Silicon Wadi.”


    Work and Play in Beautiful Herzliya