In the middle of a desert, the country has blossomed, filled with fruit orchards, botanical gardens amidst the great historic and ancient history and one of the most important centres for hi tech and diamond cutting industries. It’s now a world presence in this often troubled small nation with just 7 million people.

1. METULLA

Israel
Canada Centre in Metulla

Metulla, a rural village at the foot of Mt. Hermon, and within view of the Lebanon border, was founded in 1896 with land purchased by Baron Edmond de Rothschild. At that time the economy was based on agriculture and vineyards. Today there are still fruit orchards but tourism has become an important product and the reason would usually be thought of as absurd.

Canadians are known for their cold weather, ski hills, maple syrup and hockey. But in this small Swiss looking town, our Canadian flag flutters next to the blue and white banner of Israel on a large modern looking building – the Canada Centre where above the door it states, “Canada Centre is a partnership between the people of Israel and the Jewish Communities of Canada”.

Above the entrance there’s a plaque recognizing various cities across Canada where money was raised from the Jewish communities for this centre.

“Canada Centre is a terrific example of Canadian support for Israel and the melding of two cultures”, John Allen, Ambassador of Canada to Israel, told me at a reception at his n residence in Herzalia Petuach.

Imagine with the temperatures around 32c outside, inside the chilly recreation centre, there’s a chilly reception… an ice rink. But that’s just part of the venue’s activities. Bowling lanes, tennis courts, table tennis, fitness centre, rifle range are others choices.

Kids were in line renting their blue coloured skates; others were already wearing the blades. Sitting in the stands, it was amusing to see a few of them struggling down the stairs to get to the surface while others happily glided across the ice ,some showing their skills at figure skating.

Out in the hall, there’s a photo of a hockey team but no medals to show for their efforts. “Canadian and Israelis play hockey together, a former NHLer coaches the Israeli National Team and the Center offers all Israelis and tourists a place to relax in Northern Israel” Ambassador Allen tells me.

In the pool area, youngsters were swimming lengths while at the rifle range, one of my colleagues was anxious for us to see his expertise. Instead, he had to be satisfied with being able to hold a rifle from the war of 1947.

Meanwhile on the main floor near the entrance, workmen were banging and drilling, hoping to stay on schedule with renovations that will include a new restaurant and souvenir shop The pride that the manager took in showing us the facilities emphasized the Israeli spirit that although so close to their foes, they have the strength, determination and courage to try to continue with a normal lifestyle and just like most North American kids, they want to learn to skate.

2. SAFED

Israel
Safed

It wouldn’t be a surprise to see Madonna, Britney, Demi and her husband

Ashton, and many other celebs walking down one of the shady maze-like streets; a world

apart from the Red Carpet.

Some have studied and converted to Judaism but all have studied the practice of Kabbalah. Safed is the world’s centre of the ancient religion also known as Zefat and Tsfat.

This small, quiet city is located in the north of Israel, the highest town in the country set in the mountains of the Upper Galilee, 900 metres above sea level. It seems the perfect place for this mystical and secretive religious sect which believes that the Messiah will come here on his way to Jerusalem. Safed is considered one of the four holy cities in Israel, along with Jerusalem, Hebron and Tiberius. Legend has it that Noah’s son and grandson lived here.

Part of the history of this small town with a population of only 27,000, is that it flourished when the Jews were expelled in 1492 from Spain and came here to live. And it was 700 years ago in Spain that the Zohar, the Kabalistic text was revealed. Each Hebrew word and line of the Torah, the holy scroll, is believed to have a higher hidden meaning.

In a small somewhat cluttered office, a fan creating the only breeze on this particularly hot day Eyal Riess, director of the International Center for Tzfat Kabbalah takes a call from his cell phone telling the caller he’ll call back.

“Here we have peace, quiet and harmony,” the heavily bearded Riess states. There’s certainly a sense of well being since not a soldier or guard is in sight.

“Kabbalah is to work harmoniously with the soul and the body. Think of it as a lifestyle.”

“People of all religions come to Safed from around the world. They come to learn about Kabbalah literature and for meditation,”

After our conversation we visit an ancient but unembellished, Caro Synagogue where one of the Torahs is said to be over 400 years old. After leaving we walk down the main and narrow street with market-like shops, art galleries, fruit juice stands, private homes and guest houses with joyful noises from the playful small children.

“Kabbalah has become mainstream,” he mentions before we leave this charming, quiet city, inviting us back. ( The International Center for Tzfat Kabbalah). 17 Alkabetz St. Tel 972 682 1771. email: infor@tzfat-kabbalah.org)

3. HAIFA

Israel
The Bahai Gardens in Haifa

‘Tel Aviv is for playing, Jerusalem is for praying and Haifa is for sleeping’…a phrase often repeated during my stay. But it’s no laughing matter. Getting to know Haifa is to

find a city with variety and soul and disputes the fact that co existence of Arabs and Jews is impossible.

Starting early morning, we made our way to what I would imagine the Garden of Eden to have looked like. It could easily be mistaken for a Hollywood movie set. Mount Carmel is the site of the Bahai’s Shrines, terraces, gardens and it’s here that the Baha’is have their spiritual and administrative centre (the Baha’i World Centre is located in Acre and Haifa). It’s a sight to behold and obviously for those who don’t believe that any site could be so outstanding, a must- do for proof is to take photos as evidence.

Eighteen monumental terraces, designed by Canadian architect Fariborz Sahba, of perfectly manicured shrubs and large plots of exquisitely thought- out patterns for flowers stretch about one km up the mountain and slope down towards the city.

As for maintenance, over 700 gardeners take immaculate care of this green and colourful area.

The Shrine of the Bab, the Martyr-Herald of the Baha’i religion is probably Haifa’s greatest attraction. And the soft spoken, contemplative and helpful guides are testaments to their faith which is the most recent of the world’s religions with its birth in 1844.

The essential message is teaching there is only one God, one human race, full equality between the sexes, elimination of poverty and wealth, compulsory education, to name just a few of the principles. The Shrine of the Bab with its colonnade and golden dome over the mausoleum were completed in 1953 and designed by Canadian architect William Sutherland Maxwell and a place for quiet prayer and meditation without any religious services.

From here, walk through the German Colony district towards the harbour and the Arab area where there are always busy shoppers.

But for coffee lovers, Morwan, the owner of Arabico Café roasts and blends beans from around the world. My java had five types of beans with a dash of Hel (Cardomen). And it was one hell of a great cup of coffee. Morwan will mix the coffee to your specific liking and it’s probably the lightest and best gift to take home. It’s in Haifa that you’ll find three religions, Jewish, Baha’i and Muslims co existing in a most peaceful and stunning city. (Admission to the Gardens is free)

4. DEAD SEA

The spas in the Dead Sea area of Israel, the lowest point below sea level, are world renowned and many who suffer from skin disorders are probably familiar with the rare qualities’ of the mud. Although I am luckily not afflicted with a skin disorder, the mud wraps are what guests of the Dan Hotel have to book an appointment when they reserve their hotel room. With luck and preplanning I was able to procure a session.

Once undressed down to my birthday suit, I was given throw-way paper panties. Anna, my aesthetician asked me to climb up onto a massage bed covered with a huge plastic sheet and various other layers. From a big bucket of hot mud on a bench near by, she suddenly took a huge glob and before I knew what was happening, my arms were the first to be covered with this dark brown purified mud. Then the rest of my body was attacked becoming unrecognizable and very slimy, warm and black with this Dead Sea’s by product. The plastic was then wrapped over me, leaving just my head popping out. This was followed by a few other coverings ending with a blanket. I was beginning to feel like a sardine. The lights were dimmed and out she went. Suddenly I had my first ever claustrophobic attack. After about 20 minutes, and no sign of Anna, I jumped off the bed, onto the towel -covered floor only to have Anna enter and startled to see this vision replicating a big black abominable snowman.

After the serious and strong hosing down in the shower area, I felt I could breathe again. So a warning, for those who don’t warm up to hot mud in a dim room, instead take a dip in the Dead Sea itself and pop around like a cork in the concentrated salted waters. But be aware, that standing up can be impossibility but definitely an experience that will give you great conversation around the table at a dinner party.

While there, take an hour tour of the moonscape- like Judean desert with a 4 wheel drive over bumpy and sandy roads. However, it’s here that you see the real desert.

5. AKKO

Israel
Recreation of the Hammam in Akko, israel

Each year over 1 ½ million tourists visit Akko, the Jewel of the Mediterranean. Akko is in northern Israel located on the Mediterranean Sea, the oldest continuously inhabited city in the world. It’s hard to think that it was in existence in 3500BC.

Akka also known in English as Acre, sits on 23,000 hectares and was one of the most important cities of ancient times. There was such a stew of invaders that it would be impossible to describe all the conquests and defeats in this space. Canaanites, Jews, Greeks, Romans, Byzantine Empire, Crusaders, Mamelukes, Turks through to the British and even Napoleon tried their hand, unsuccessfully to conquer the fort.

A tunnel leads to the 13th century fortress of the Knights Templar and is just one of the many important archeological finds. Within the walls are the “Refectorium”, Prisoners Hall, the fine courtyard, churches, mosques, temples – it’s a journey for history buffs.

And one of the clever features for sightseers is the renovated but kept as original as possible – The Hamam al-Basha, (Turkish Bath). There’s a series of hot rooms leading to an extravagant hexagonal stream room, featuring a huge marble fountain centrally placed and decorated with ceramic tiles. Animated statues tell the story of the history of Akko during the Ottoman Period. It had been the entertainment meeting place.

Today Akko’s population includes the highest proportion of non Jews of any Israeli city and an important community for the Baha’i faith.

And just outside the major exit is a famous fish restaurant, Uri Buri, where the heavily white beaded owner, Uri, is a most charismatic character who loves to talk about his simple but differently prepared and spiced marine dishes. With the sea just on the threshold, you know that the meal is as fresh as possible. (tel. 04 9552212)

6. EIN GEDDI

Located on the shores of the Dead Sea at the foot of the Judean Hills and 417 metres (1,373feet) below sea level is a modern day miracle in a country with tales of endless numbers of miraculous events.

Kibbutz Ein Geddi has history. The bible says that over 3000 years ago, it’s at Ein Geddi that David hid from King Saul.

Kibbutzes are communal settlements dedicated to mutual aid and joint ownership of property. Their dictum was, “From each according to his ability to each according to his need”.

The first kibbutz pioneers started to arrive in the Holy land from East Europe in the early 1900s and in 1909, Degania, the first kibbutz was started. The area was desolate and one wonders how they could have imagined a future in this hostile environment that lacked agriculture and had been neglected for centuries. The land had been purchased by the Jewish National Fund. Then, the living quarters were humble and totally unrecognizable today as they have been replaced with modern villas. Now it’s an oasis not to be missed

What a traveler sees has no similarity from that barren land but instead there are luscious colourful blooms, even water and as with all kibbutzes, they have become industry oriented, a long way from the collective community which was their starting point.

The lush botanic garden has over 800 unique and rare species of trees and flowers. All this against the backdrop of a desert and dry mountains. It also has biblical plants such as myrrh, frankincense, baobab trees and 1000 species of cactus plants located at the Cactus Park just south of the kibbutz. Today it’s rated as one of the top hotels with 120 rooms all containing modern conveniences.

And a point not to be missed is that it’s at Kibbutz Ein Geddi where the world famous Ahava Cosmetics were founded. These products have a unique blend of minerals from the Dead Sea/ But perhaps an even greater success was the development of a hair remover for women. Epilady is known throughout the world and brings in a huge amount of money, about $50 million each year. Ein Geddi, the kibbutz, is an example of the unbelievable possibilities that are possible in this small often troubled nation.

7. TEL AVIV

Israel
Tel Aviv skyline

It would be hard to find a more thriving, hip, cool city with the great expanse of sand beaches, months of sunshine, fashionable restaurants and out door cafes, trendy shopping malls, indoor jazz clubs and a hub for great hotels and in a city of only 700,000. In fact, Tel Aviv is compared to Barcelona.

It’s also known as the White City, since there are more Bauhaus (Modernist) buildings than anywhere else in the world and now these buildings are on the UNESCO World Heritage List. Many can be seen on tony Rothschild Blvd.

And even more to entice a traveller is the added attraction of colourful Jaffa. The old Arab port now considered part of Tel Aviv, is where there are dozens of artisans and art galleries and a bustling Arab flea market.

Although Tel Aviv will be celebrating its 100th year anniversary in 2010 like so many things here, there’s also a contradiction since the majority of the population is under 40.

Shopping is a major distraction or maybe an attraction and one of the original shopping streets that went out of fashion for a while is Dizengof Street, reborn again with top label international and local talent designers. On cheeky Sheinkin Street, in the first neighbourhood when the Jews decided to leave Jaffa, now you’ll find edgy boutiques juxtaposed to religious centres.

On several of the side streets, there are plethoras of small to large cafes and restaurants/ Israelis have a passion for food but you’d never know this since the bods on the beaches are as trim as those on Rio’s Copacabana. It’s like Marrakech meets Venice Beach.

Having it all for me while in Tel Aviv was dining in my favourite on the beach restaurant , Manta Ray, sipping a cold glass of Rose, nibbling at the always served messis, wearing a newly purchased Israeli designed casual chic outfit and jewelry by Vered Laor, waiting for the dazzling sunset to dip into the Mediterranean. It’s a hard show to beat.

8. JERUSALEM

Israel
Modern Jerusalem

Naturally, one can’t visit Israel without going to the holy city of Jerusalem. The Via Dolorosa, the Wailing Wall, Yad Vashem Museum, the Children’s Museum, churches, synagogues, temples, hidden tunnels. But the old city has new style. There’s a pedestrian mall just outside the Jaffa gate and another contemporary addition is the soon to be opened, over the top Mamilla Hotel, a 5 star hotels designed by architect Moshe Safdie. This establishment will raise the bar for all the other hotels in the country. And the location is special with places to walk about in the early morning or an evening stroll. It also boasts of a rooftop sun terrace, a gym, the important up to the minute business centre, and for those who love to count threads, their sheet are all by Italian manufacturer, Freete. Sales@tdchotel.com

Then there’s also the newly opened Mamilla shopping centre.Not only does it have some of the best shopping in Jerusalem in one easy stop but also overlooking this fabulous city, are several restaurants and the perfect perch after a day of sightseeing..

9. THE GALILEE AND THEIR WINES

The Galilee area has a most varied landscape with valleys, separated by mountains ranges of plunging peaks and stony ridges. And no matter where you may go in the Galilee, there are archaeological sites and ancient ruins and with each year archeologists find more fascinating surprises.

Unexpected is the fine wine industry which has become a great success in both the Golan and Galilee.

Baron Edmond de Rothschild reintroduced grape growing in Israel over 100 years ago. Once the main production was sweet kosher wine but in the last decade there are now 20 wineries which produce non kosher, world class wines in both the Galilee and Golan.

Our wine tasting took place at Galil Mountain Winery, Kibbutz Yiron, in a state of the art complex just facing the vineyards. The sophisticated design of the winery and the tour of the stainless steel container room, new press and oak barrel room was an eye opener in this fairly new industry.

The variety of grapes of different characteristics is due to the topography and mesoclimate. It was in 1997 that the first vineyard was planted in Kibbutz Yiron and by 2000 the Galil Mountain Winery began operations.

We started our wine tasting segment with a fine Chardonnay aged in oak, and then went to a Rose, Pinot Noir, Shiraz Cabernet and Galil Mountain Yiron 2002 which won the Golden Cluster 2005 Gold Meal. Production is approximately 1 million bottles with 25% of production exported to 7 countries including the US, Europe and Asia.

Other vineyards in the Galilee area include Malkiya know for their Cabernet Sauvignon, Yiftah, Misgav Am, and Meron.

www.galimountain.co.il
Tel 972 4 6868 740

10. FALAFEL

Israel
A great place for falafel

The hunt was on. Which city has the best falafel? Weird but wonderful, this pursuit was not only fun but also a tribute to a Middle East food that is certainly a favourite amongst the Israelis. Falafels are usually round balls made out of chickpeas, fried in oil and then with a lot of veggies put into a pita bread pocket. There is a choice of toppings – tachina, pickles, cucumbers and many different ones usually left on a counter to help yourself.

Starting in Haifa, we were already in the Arab section of the city when our guide suggested that the best falafel is Vadi Nisnas, (18 Havadi Street) just diagonally across from Arabico Coffee shop. The line had already formed and it wasn’t even noon. We waited with the other hungry souls, and then chose our topping of hummus, tachina, tomatoes, pickles. My only objection as I gulped down this wonderful Israeli type fast food is that we had to stand – no tables or chairs. So without having any comparison, this was the best so far. However, our next stop, Tiberius, created a conundrum. There on the busy main street, we were lucky to grab the last available table at a popular outdoor eatery. Finding the name was even more difficult so looked for the main street with a shop the size of a shoe box, and a constant line of eager eaters with signs above the door advertising Coka Cola and Sprite. While one of us guarded the outside chairs and table, the two others patiently stood in line. The service was fast and terrific and again there was a counter with even more toppings than I had seen in the previous falafel stands. This quickly became a close first.

When we left t the Canada Centre in Metulla, it was lunch time and about 20 minutes away is a small Druze village, Masade. Druze are Arabs who have integrated with the Israeli communities and here in this town, many young Israeli soldiers were enjoying their meal at Village Nidel. The Druze owner kindly helped us with our other choices. Of course, the falafel was a triumph, again with several condiments.

Finally, our last search ended in Old Jerusalem’s Arab market. Abu Shukri is truly an Israeli experience worth trying (63 Al Wad Rd next to Damascus Gate.). To show the popularity, inside every table was filled. With the encouragement of our guide, we acquiesced and waited.

Finally seated with a fan gratefully blowing onto us in the 40c heat, we forgot about the weather after our first taste of the king of the falafels. It was a really difficult decision, but someone always has to win and certainly this light and not heavily breaded brownish ball, stuffed into the lightest pita won my ‘best of’ award. However, after saying that, I’d return to any of the above falafel favourites for even a nibble of this lovely dish.

None take credit cards but the average price for a falafel is between $2.50-$3.50 and worth every shekel.

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