© Gary Cralle
Israel on two wheels and a prayer
A bike tour of the Holy Land
Israel enthrals in a myriad of ways, but here’s one you may never have considered: the small nation has an astonishing 1,000 km network of cycling trails. They stretch from the Golan Heights in the north to the Gulf of Eilat in the south and, given the country’s penchant for impeccable planning, the trails are divided into 25 neat one-day sections. That, of course, is just the beginning. The dramatic landscape and the sites it embraces are imbued with the long human struggles and spiritual seeking that has gone on here since Abraham. For Jews, Christians and Muslims, this is biking on an entirely different level.
As you would hope given the lofty history, I found Israeli bike tour companies to be most professional. There’s an infrastructure for sightseeing and dining and lodging, guides are skilled, equipment is good, tour organization is coordinated and safety is looked after. Of course, you still might fall off your bike.
I’m a leisure cyclist, someone who regards culinary and cultural breaks as essentials to a balanced itinerary. Throw in this exotic mix of times past and astonishing present scenery and I’m dancing on the handlebars. I took six short tours interspersed with tourist attractions and I highly recommend this approach to touring for anyone with a moderate level of fitness.
Best time to cycle? You can do it any time that takes your fancy, of course, but in summer it’s very hot in the south and humid along the coast. The best times in the north and centre are April to October, in the south, November to April.
A Mediterranean breakfast at the old Roman port of Caesarea is an easy transition from West to Middle East. On leaving airport Tel Aviv Ben Gurion Airport, our guide, Ali Abu Rabia (deadseatourguide.com), makes a first stop here, just an hour’s drive north, to give us a chance to catch our breath and stretch our limbs. Augustus Caesar gifted the site to King Herod who developed it into a thriving harbour. It’s now part of Caesarea National Park, with an amphitheatre and stadium and is much more peaceful than it must have been in the days of the Roman capitol.
Mitzpe Hayamim Spa Hotel
A 1½ hour drive northeast of Caesarea into the Golan Heights, the Mitzpe Hayamim Spa Hotel (mitzpe-hayamim.com) is an oasis onto itself. Plants adorn the roof and atrium of the building, defying separation of interior and exterior. Rooftop decks provide a panoramic view. My room is spacious. A swatch of herbs and a small card have been placed at the edge of the bed. On the card is written "Wellness: a balanced lifestyle that includes care for body, mind and soul." The hotel restaurants support this very well with an array of fresh produce and an outstanding Israeli breakfast buffet.
Forty-five minutes north from Mitzpe is the Agamon Ha'Hula (agamon-hula.co.il), a station on the Great Rift Valley migratory route for birds from Europe and Asia to Africa. It’s an appropriate home to one of the world's leading ornithology centres. Eleven kilometres of flat, paved circular pathway are easily navigated on foot, bike, golf cart or “bird train,” with stops for lookout points and slow moving turtle traffic.
There are Canadian connections too with a Memorial of Understanding between Agamon Hula and Manitoba’s Oak Hammock Marsh regarding shared wetland research. More recently, Stephen Harper set the cornerstone for a new bird sanctuary.
One hour north of Mitzpe, almost at the current border with Syria, the 62 kilometre route winds downhill from Mount Hermon to the Sea of Galilee. We met the Genesis Cycling crew (genesiscycling.com) in the village of Neve Ativ and were soon whizzing along a two-lane road that spiralled through the hills and Odem Forest, named for the colour of volcanic rock in the area.
Along the route, Bazelet HaGolan kosher winery (bazelet-hagolan.com) in Kidmat Zvi offers tastings from a surprising range of wines by vintner/owner Yoav Levy. Montreal native Yechiel Luterman poured samples while describing the winery. Capernaum was our final destination for the day’s ride. There, on the shores of Galilee, we ended up soaking our feet to celebrate our feat.
In marked contrast to the countryside, Tel Aviv is a swirl of activity. From the InterContinental David Hotel (ihg.com/intercontinental/hotels/gb/en/tel-aviv/tlvha/hoteldetail) I sauntered over to the beach where I was blown a kiss by a young woman. “Yes,” I thought. “I like it here.” The city’s sand necklace is a featured jewel much appreciated by citizens who sunbathe by day and party by night.
Old Jaffa gave birth to the now much larger Tel Aviv, Israel’s first modern city. The only way to explore Jaffa is on foot. Artists’ quarters maintain an Ottoman architectural charm and there are great views of Tel Aviv.
Namaltours (tlvbiketours.com) pulls Tel Aviv together with its urban bike tours. Setting off from a mobile location at the beach boardwalk near the repurposed port, we did a three-hour circle tour of the main sights within the city core. Tel Aviv is wonderfully bike friendly. Dedicated cycle paths blend seamlessly with sidewalks, streets and promenades for a delightful excursion through various neighbourhoods. In contrast to North American cities, traffic is minimal.
Just one hour east, Jerusalem is noticeably more pious than its secular big brother Tel Aviv. Biblical sites from Christianity, Islam and Judaism are the nuclei around which daily life revolves for both residents and visitors alike. During the day, walking is the best way to tour within the Old City walls, take to a bike for a wider view of New Jerusalem. We pedalled for two days with guide Yonni Simmons, storing our machines at our hotel, the David Citadel (thedavidcitadel.com).
Bikes are convenient and quick transport in the city. However, you’ll need leg muscles to handle some extended distances and minor hills. It can be a bit hairy navigating Jerusalem traffic, but Israelis seem to have a spirit of adventure. The pièce de résistance is a night tour when even the Old Town is navigable using mountain bikes – as long as you don’t mind the occasional steps. Before setting out, we fuelled up with an ample dinner at the Colony Restaurant (rol.co.il/sites/colony).
The Judean Hills are a 45-minute drive south of Jerusalem. On a 17 kilometre tour organized by Gordon Active Bike Tours (bit.ly/1ILaPis) and Trailhead (bit.ly/1DbBC5i), Yanay Cohen guided us over isolated trails, past vineyards and through an underground cavern. We stopped beneath an olive tree to hear him tell the familiar story of David and Goliath who fought near that very spot. Stunning to contemplate.
Ninety minutes south of Jerusalem, Ein Bokek is a health and tourist resort on the Dead Sea in the Negev desert. A visit to Masada, site of the Jewish revolt against the Romans in 73 CE, precedes a spa treatment and leisurely float in the sea’s buoyant salt water. Capping off our tour is a moonlit bike ride led by expert cyclist and Botzbike (botzbike.co.il) founder Arnon Shadmi first to the summit of Mount Sodom (lowest mountain in the world!), then through gullies and plateaus in the dark before celebrating with hot dogs and beer around a campfire at midnight. Bed at 2am. What a rush!
Our final stop, 75 minutes south of Ein Bokek, is Mitzpe Ramon, a village in the central Negev highlands. We check into iBike (ibike.co.il) a classy boutique hotel for cyclists. Owners Aviva and Menachem left Tel Aviv to create this unique lodging and to provide excellent meals over which cyclists share their stories. Ramon Crater is just a short walk from the front door. The Mitzpe Ramon-Han Be’erot segment of the desert bike trail is technical which means that some skill is required...or luck.
I nearly fell off my machine several times, but never did, because I have “a good sense of balance,” according to expert cyclist Rammy Gold. I noticed that he didn’t say “skill” but “balance” will do.
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