Ride like the wind, under Mount Hermon’s eyes
With what is predicted to be Israel’s most unsteady winters in about 60 years, with significantly less rainfall than previous years on one hand and blustery periods with Barbara Storm unleashing its fury on the other, there is still a positive angle. With the days of constant blue sky and sunshine, touring northern Israel has numerous advantages. Under the eye of Mount Hermon, a magnificent cluster of picks, we were in a hurry to enjoy North Israel.
It was an enjoyable opportunity to visit the small village of Ghajar. It has long been a closed military zone, but last fall, after a decade, it was opened to visitors. It is the only Alawite settlement in Israel, a village with a long and troubling history. The Alawites are a minor part of a sect of Islam that originated from Shia Islam. Skipping the history and tradition, Ghajar is impressive with its stunning fountains, picturesque lovely roundabouts and the view of the Hasbani stream, a Jordan river source originating in a Hermon shoulder. But Ghajar is also an embassy to Syrian traditional gastronomy. I bet you that you never tasted burgul and veal meat with Samana in Schleich sauce. Or Shakaria (long-cooked veal in dry mint yogurt sauce) and rice aside. You will find them, together with other mouth watering delicacies, in the praised Blue Line restaurant, along the northern edge of the village. Ahmed El Hatib is the king of sweets here, with his Syrian origin delicacies at the village entrance. Certainly an adventure.
Not far visitors are able to visit another Jordan river source, originating from mount Hermon – the Banias, in the Nahal Hermon Nature Reserve. It presents the largest waterfall in Israel. Above the year-round flow of water there is a “hanging trail”, which allows visitors to enjoy numerous magnificent parts of the stream. Israel Nature and Parks Authority is certainly doing a great job here.
We ride like the wind south to experience more. The Agamon Hula Park constitutes one of the most important bird migration routes in the world. Over half a billion migratory birds fly over this area this time. Thousands of them stay at the Agamon during winter time. I must say that each time I visit the Hula valley I make sure to visit this natural wonder. A guided tour in a Safari wagon is the best option, preferably at sunset before their night sleep, as you feel you merge with the cranes. Flying with the cranes on virtual reality devices is highly recommended as well, in the newly inaugurated impressive visor center.
A must adventure for visitors in northern Israel is experiencing horse riding in the Ramot Ranch that boasts some of the most spectacular views of the Sea of Galilee. Situated 3 kilometers above Moshav Ramot, this ranch is the largest riding establishment in the area. 44 horses are standing ready for a ride you will cherish forever. We chose the 1 hour group ride from the ranch all the way up to the mountain picks, feeling nature with every breath of the friendly horses. The sunset ride with the view of the fading sun over the sea is breathtaking. Renowned for its well-trained Appaloosa horses, the ranch also offers a wide variety of activities for individuals, families and larger groups.
Meshushim Stream and its hexagon pool, part of the Yehudiya Forest Nature Reserve, is a must. Together with the “Majrasa”, where the Daliot Stream from the Golan heads down towards the Sea of Galilee and known for its wet route of 800 meters of walking through the stream.
Hamat Gader Hot Springs, surrounded by the Yarmuk River, is recommended during winter and even at dark. Separate fenced pools feature a home to different species of crocodiles. Alligators, Nile crocodiles and the Indian gharial crocodiles. The pools and the surrounding lawn provide a suitable habitat for them. Spending a relaxing time at the pampering Spa Village, enjoying the 42 degrees celsius thermo-mineral sulfur water pools, is recommended. The depth of the springs in this volcanic region produce the conditions for the hot springs. Hamat Gader is also a beautiful park with the famous thermo-mineral springs and wide pools for the entire family and is considered one of Israel’s most popular family attractions, as the entrance rates are relatively reasonable.
We were curious to discover a pampering guest house or a lodge in a Kibbutz. Israeli kibbutzim, intentional communities based on voluntary residential living, were traditionally based on agriculture in the previous century. Nowadays, due to economic and demographic changes, some turn to other industries and tourism is a leading segment. The necessary infrastructure like swimming pools, public spaces, lawns, and a dining room are there. Converting numerous spacious houses and construct new villas or chalets are relatively an easy options. However not many of the Kibbutzim members are in favour of seeing travellers and their families on their grounds. Regulations and bureaucracy are also a major difficulty. Numerous travelers seek to experience the rural way of life in a Kibbutz with agriculture. This is expected to be an accommodation at popular prices during weekdays, however weekends and high holidays reservations in advance are certainly needed. The rates are rising as well. A sign that the potential is definitely there.
The Etnachta Kibbutz Afik Lodge in the Golan is a recommendable rural experience and we turned it into our home away from home, under mount Hermon eyes. The lodge was definitely a wonderful experience. Our Chalé was specious and pampering, The environment is well maintained. We met the charming Marla Van Meter from the management team to learn more. “Here in kibbutz Afik we have 45 rooms. 15 are these lovely wooden challes 30 of them are premium rooms”, she says. “All of them are fully furnished with kitchenettes, the ability to do a BBQ, play areas for the children, greenery all around and lovely gardens. The kibbutz also has a lovely spa where you can order a massage and be in a Turkish bath. We also have yoga classes and bike rentals. In the summer we have a beautiful pool. I highly encourage any one who wants the feeling of being inside a Kibbutz but in lovely accommodations to come to kibbutz Afik and have an experience here at Etnachta”.
A lavish breakfast was sent daily to our Chalé. It was certainly the most generous room service breakfast I have experienced in a lodge in northern Israel. Guests can enjoy it inside the Chalé, or in the open air balcony and enjoy the singing of the birds. A challenging choice indeed.
After our final breakfast we walked a short distance to what used to be almost 60 years ago a Syrian Officers’ Club. Today it carries that unofficial name ‘Mt. Nebo Balcony’. Similar to Moses who was forbidden from entering the Promised Land gazed upon from Mt. Nebo, Eli Cohen – the renowned Israeli spy who was caught in 1965 and hanged in Damascus – stood here. Cohen gazed with tears in his eyes at the amazing view of the Sea of Galilee and ancient Sussita hill site, as he never went back to his country. The structure is planned to turn into a museum in his memory very soon. A story that reminds all that even when riding the wind to enjoy more and more sites, there are always people we owe a big thank you for making such travels possible.