Larry Luxner

Rosh Hanikra to Tel Aviv: A solo hike along Israel’s coast

A hundred miles of some of the most interesting archeology and people and beautiful vistas and random adventures in the world? Cross that off the bucket list!
The author stops along the Israel National Trail south of Shefayim. (Photos by Larry Luxner)
The author stops along the Israel National Trail south of Shefayim. (Photos by Larry Luxner)

It was to be the adventure of a lifetime, but by the time my epic hike finally got underway, the late afternoon sun was already low in the western sky, shimmering over the Mediterranean beyond the chalk white cliffs where Israel’s border with Lebanon meets the sea.

For awhile — actually ever since moving here in January 2017 — I had toyed with the insane idea of walking, alone, from Rosh Hanikra all the way back home to our apartment in Tel Aviv, a distance of roughly 100 miles. But something always seemed to get in the way: work schedules, deadlines, coronavirus lockdowns, Hamas, Hezbollah, more deadlines. Now, however, with my 60th birthday only a month away, I was determined to scratch this one off the bucket list while I still had the energy.

On October 28, the weather was ideal: not too hot, not too cold, and not a drop of rain in the forecast for the next five days. I had been training for this challenge by walking at least 15,000 steps daily for a month, though this would be three times as hard. Following my routine gym workout and a mid-morning interview in Rehovot, I took the train home to Tel Aviv, grabbed the backpack I had arranged the night before and boarded another train for the two-hour trip north to Nahariya.

From there, a gregarious taxi driver named Avichai­, who’d been wounded by shrapnel during a 1982 ambush on IDF troops just over the border in southern Lebanon, drove 15 minutes north to that very same border. He dropped me off a few hundred meters from the heavily guarded checkpoint at Rosh Hanikra that ever since a 1949 armistice has separated the two nations still technically at war.

Plaque at Rosh Hanikra describes the Israel-Lebanon Armistice Agreement of 1949.

Tourists flock to this site to visit the famous Rosh Hanikra grottoes via cable car and dine at a restaurant with spectacular views. But with only two hours of daylight remaining, I had no time for either.

Touching the barbed wire-topped gate just so I could later claim “Lebanon-to-Tel Aviv” bragging rights, I drew a deep breath, gazed southward at the coastal panorama spread out below me, and took the first of what would be 228,052 steps in a journey that tested my endurance like nothing I had ever done before.

But that first leisurely afternoon, my destination was Nahariya, a pleasant two-hour stroll passing Achziv National Park and a rusting seaside shrine to clandestine Jewish immigration to Palestine during the British Mandate. The abstract sculpture by Yehiel Shemi of nearby Kibbutz Kabri consists of parts from an old ship; it was just one of dozens of monuments I saw commemorating the triumphs and tragedies of modern Jewish history.

Northern terminus of the Israel Sea Trail at Rosh Hanikra.

Shortly after, a second such monument, Yad Le’Yad, came into view: this one commemorates the 14 Palmach troops who died on the night of June 16, 1946, while blowing up a bridge over the Kziv River to disrupt British army movements.

It was dark by the time I arrived in Nahariya — a town of 30,000 founded by German Jews in 1934 — via its meticulously landscaped promenade. Elderly couples strolled arm in arm, many of them speaking Russian. On a park bench facing the sea sat Shimon, a bearded local fixture in a straw hat, playing old Johnny Mathis tunes from a portable stereo perched on a plastic chair.

My happy mood abruptly ended when I saw a nearby plaque in Hebrew and English marking the spot where, on April 22, 1979, a group of Arab terrorists came ashore in a rubber dinghy at midnight, mounting a home invasion that ultimately left five Israelis dead, including two children. It was too upsetting to enjoy Shimon’s 1950s dance music pouring forth from the radio after reading those words.

Yad Le’Yad monument commemorates the 14 Palmach troops who died on the night of June 16, 1946, while blowing up a bridge over the Kziv River to disrupt British army movements.

As for overnight accommodations, I never even thought about camping or schlepping a tent on my back. Carrying a five-day supply of clothing, toiletries and snacks (including four foil packs of Star-Kist tuna for extra protein) made my backpack heavy enough, not to mention three liters of water thanks to a “3L hydration bladder system” given to me by a close friend the day before.

This ingenious plastic water bag, complete with an external drinking tube, proved to be one of the most practical birthday gifts ever.

AirBNB helped out too, linking me with reflexology therapist Ahuva Ozeri. A private room at this kind woman’s Nahariya apartment, decorated with mosaics and shells, cost me only NIS 175. Ahuva’s one-hour shiatsu massage was well worth the extra NIS 150, not to mention the tasty matbucha snacks she prepared at no charge, energizing me for the difficult day ahead.

AirBNB hostess Ahuva Ozeri and one of her artistic creations, Nahariya.

Day 2: Nahariya to Haifa

I left the next morning while it was still dark, watching the sunrise just south of town. Passing Shovei Zion, GoogleMaps guided me around the edges of a giant crop circle, and I found myself walking through solitary pastures — the sharp smell of freshly turned manure hanging in the air, and the distant sound of traffic zipping along Highway 4 way to the east.

My dreamy solitude was interrupted by dozens of IDF soldiers in uniform shouting as they ran past me, an army Jeep behind them kicking up dust. Apparently, I had stumbled right into a military drill, though no one seemed to care — even when I discreetly snapped a few pictures with my iPhone.

Two more hours of walking brought me to the ancient Crusader port of Akko — just in time for a 9:00 meeting with Michal Shiloah Galnoor, CEO of Western Galilee Now, a boutique tourism association that promotes culinary tourism, organic produce and traditional handicrafts in this unique corner of Israel.

Fishing boats in the harbor of Akko’s Old City.

We met at Café Neto overlooking the sea, just across HaHaganah Street from Akko’s main police station. Michal invited me to an enormous Israeli breakfast (needless to say, I devoured all of mine, and half of hers too).

She’s been working out of temporary quarters behind the café ever since the tourist information office she ran in Akko’s Old City was demolished by rioting Arab mobs this past May, at the height of Israel’s 11-day war with Hamas in Gaza. Since then, tensions have cooled and tourists have been trickling back, but not quickly enough.

“In 2019, before COVID hit, about 2.2 million tourists visited Akko, out of the 4.6 million foreigners who came to Israel,” said Michal, whose agency is almost entirely financed by Jewish National Fund-USA. “This year, Israelis are discovering Akko because they can’t travel abroad much, but it’s not the same kind of tourism. They don’t spend as much as foreign visitors, they don’t stay in hotels—and some people just don’t want to come after what happened here.”

Fresh fish for sale at the market in Akko’s Old City.

Michal’s welcome center is being rebuilt with JNF-USA’s help and will re-open in early January 2022, she told me as I left Café Neto, heading south on Salah-e-Din Street. Half an hour later, Frank, a.k.a. “Effie,” an old friend from my Florida college days who now lives in Jerusalem, showed up to accompany me for a few hours, and we walked together along Akko’s seawall promenade, greeting the lonely pomegranate-juice sellers and spice vendors, past colorful fishing boats bobbing in the marina, and shopkeepers at the Khan El-Omdan waiting for customers who may or may not return next year, when COVID is hopefully behind us all.

Leaving the Old City along gently curving Akko Bay, Effie and I trudged toward Highway 4 and the distant northern suburbs of Haifa. At a traffic circle I spotted an abandoned Israeli license plate — my first “roadkill” of the trip — and then, barely 60 seconds later, another one, elevating the spirits of this lifelong plate collector.

At Qiryat Motzkin, we said goodbye, and I continued alone once again towards my destination for the evening: an AirBNB room in Haifa’s upscale Ahuza district, so chosen because at NIS 205 it was a bargain, and because making a beeline over the Carmel instead of hugging Haifa’s curving coast would shave many extra kilometers off my route.

Evening traffic whizzes by along Highway 4 just north of Haifa.

As it turned out, my idea wasn’t the smartest. The last three hours were all uphill—and in the dark. Hiking along a deserted highway through Haifa’s industrial zone was not my idea of fun, especially when, towards the end, I had to stop every few seconds just to catch my breath. I arrived well after 10 pm, completely drained.

Day 3: Haifa to Jisr az-Zarqa

My reward came shortly after sunrise, with the realization that from here on out, it would be mostly all downhill. An easy descent brought me to the gleaming Neot Peres science park — home of Qualcomm Israel and other high-tech companies –meaning I had completely bypassed downtown Haifa. After several hours of hiking southbound along Highway 4’s dangerously narrow shoulder, I cut through the banana plantations of Kibbutz Hahotrim and emerged on the other side of a pedestrian underpass at Galim Beach, finally reunited with the Mediterranean.

Off in the distance was the crusader castle of Atlit, and way beyond that, just barely visible on the horizon, the Hadera power plant. That smokestack became my beacon, inspiring me to keep on walking all afternoon — past the windswept beaches of Dor Habonim and Nachsholim — its blinking lights orienting me long after the sun went down and I lost my way along the sometimes poorly marked Israel National Trail.

Sunset along the Israel National Trail.

Suddenly, a security barrier blocked my path in the darkness, its only gate locked. Had I inadvertently wandered onto some top-secret government site? I began walking east, paralleling the fence and hoping for a way out, when all at once, lights began flashing and a loudspeaker came on, warning me in Hebrew that I was trespassing on private property. It took a minute or two to realize that this was a recorded message. It was then that I saw the sign: this was a control room belonging to the offshore Leviathan gas drilling project, its illuminated platform clearly visible out on the Mediterranean, some 10 kilometers away.

My only option was to call the emergency number listed on that sign and pray someone would answer. A friendly voice at the other end instructed me to ping him my location via WhatsApp, which I did. “Hang on, a patrol is coming to get you,” he texted back in English, and 20 minutes later, a private security guard with a big gun pulled up in a pickup truck and somewhat nervously asked why I was there and what I had in my backpack (the plastic drinking tube had apparently aroused his suspicions). “Water,” I said, smiling. Satisfied I wasn’t a bad dude, he eventually unlocked the gate, wished me “shabbat shalom” and used his flashlight to illuminate the rocky path down to the sea.

For two hours, I did not see another living soul as I plodded south on the hard-packed sand, often only inches from the water lapping at my feet. Yet there was more adventure in store for me that evening.

On the trail somewhere between Caesarea and Ma’agan Michael. The lights of the offshore Leviathan gas rig are clearly visible on the horizon.

Turning from the sea, I came upon the vast aquaculture ponds of Ma’agan Michael—one of Israel’s largest and wealthiest kibbutzim. But when I tried to find my way out, GoogleMaps became confused, so I flagged down a passing security vehicle. The driver asked where I was headed. “Jisr az-Zarqa,” I told him, naming the nearby Arab village where I had reservations at the town’s only guest house.

It was the first time since Avichai’s cab in Nahariya that I’d stepped inside a vehicle. The guard explained that after 8 pm, the kibbutz — whose name is forever linked to the March 1978 Coastal Road massacre that killed 38 Israelis — locks the passage underneath Highway 2 for security reasons. We drove about half a kilometer to the gate, which he opened, assuring me it was an easy 20-minute walk from there through the open fields to Jisr az-Zarqa.

Only it wasn’t. Unmarked and erratic, the path eventually brought me to Road 6531 and a nondescript bridge over the highway that could not be accessed from my  location. Tired, hungry and filthy, I scrambled up a very steep embankment covered with thickets, frantically using my iPhone to illuminate the path forward. Ten minutes later, out of breath, scratched and bleeding, I emerged onto the bridge and walked into town. It was a Friday night, and here I was, most likely the only Jew in a poor Arab Muslim village of dusty streets and chaotic traffic. I checked into Juha’s Guesthouse, took a shower and promptly fell asleep.

Local enjoy their morning coffee in the Arab town of Jisr az-Zarqa.

Day 4: Jisr az-Zaqra to Netanya

The next morning, eager to get back to the coastline, I left at sunrise, stopped at a neighborhood kiosk for some fresh pita and cheese, and refilled my plastic bag with three liters of ice-cold water. Ten minutes later I was enjoying a little picnic at the water’s edge as the fishermen of Jisr az-Zarqa — the last remaining Arab town on Israel’s coast — headed out to sea for the day.

The contrast between rundown Jisr, 80% of whose 13,000 residents live in poverty, and the wealth of nearby Caesarea only 200 meters to the south — with its shopping malls, private swimming pools and 18-hole championship golf course — couldn’t have been more jarring. But then again, Caesarea had always been a place for the privileged, even in ancient times.

Ancient Roman aqueduct at Caesarea is one of Israel’s leading tourist attractions.

The 5-km-long ancient Roman aqueduct, built by Herod the Great more than 2,000 years ago and improved upon by the Emperor Hadrian, is one of Israel’s leading tourist attractions and a favorite spot for picnics.

At the entrance to Caesarea National Park, I spotted a bright yellow 1972 Volkwagen Beetle in the parking lot. Zvi, its proud owner, waved me over and asked if I knew how to drive a stick-shift — and if yes, would I like to take his hipushit for a spin. “No thanks,” I told him, content just to take a selfie with this classic.

The Hadera power plant, now looming large on the horizon, beckoned me south. By now, it was clear that Orot Rabin — as the coal-burning complex is known — consists of four smokestacks, not one. The tallest measures 300 meters, making it Israel’s second-highest structure after the 400-meter Dimona radar tower in the Negev.

Author poses with a ’72 Volkswagen Beetle at the entrance to Caesarea National Park.

Passing the facility at last via a slight inland detour on the National Trail, I crossed a bridge over the Nahal Hadera, walked east for a few minutes and soon found myself face-to-face with the four smokestacks towering over Arab and Jewish families enjoying Hadera River Park and the completely restored 50-km waterway.

After Hadera, I enjoyed some of the most beautiful scenery of the trip while walking barefoot along the water’s edge, my ratty sneakers tied to my backpack. Chief among those sites: Gador Beach Marine Reserve, with its dramatic sandstone ridges and sheer drop-offs, and Beit Yannai — a favorite of kitesurfers and softshell turtle watchers —further south.

As night fell, I continued along the lonely coast, bypassing the occasional fisherman and signs in Hebrew warning of possible avalanches. The lights of Netanya came into view — civilization! — and it was 7:30 pm when I climbed up the steps of the Shaked Promenade, huffing and puffing, and saw my Mexican friend Jorge patiently waiting for me at the Café Nitza with a brand-new white T-shirt and Old Spice deodorant (I got the hint).

View of the four smokestacks of Orot Rabin power plant from across the Nahal Hadera.

Day 5: Netanya to Tel Aviv

Jorge, a seller of Judaica — and a fellow license plate collector — had graciously offered to pick me up and drive me to the spacious home in Kadima he shares with his Guatemalan wife, Monica. The idea was that I’d resume my hike the next morning from the same place — but a heavy downpour shortly after sunrise put the kibosh on that plan. Accepting Monica’s offer of a lift back to rainy Tel Aviv, where she was driving anyway, I resolved to finish exactly where I had left off, one way or another.

That opportunity came four days later, on a sunny Thursday morning. Grabbing the first train to Netanya at 5:32 am, I hailed a taxi to Café Nitza — described by one online reviewer as “a hint of France on the Netanya seashore” — and immediately began walking south. Endless promenades, gazebos and park benches soon gave way to the expanse of the 100-acre Argaman Iris Reserve, the last refuge of the indigenous wild purple iris in Israel.

Unfortunately, a high-rise hotel and shopping mall complex threatens to fill in that remaining space; it’s currently the focus of an ongoing court battle between developers and environmentalists.

Unusual rock formations along the coast at Kibbutz Gaash.

Just after Kibbutz Gaash — founded in 1951 by idealistic Jews from Latin America — would be Shefayim Nude Beach, according to GoogleMaps, though I didn’t see a single naked person; maybe it was still too early in the morning. On the other hand, plenty of fully clothed folks were exploring the Hof HaSharon beach reserve and its famous Cliff Trail, which offers spectacular panoramas from 40 meters above the sea, by the time I got there.

Further down the coast is the bizarrely beautiful Green Gallery, a 350-acre expanse of land at Arsuf Kedem that’s dotted with dozens of whimsical stone sculptures and other examples of “nature art” ranging from wooden cellular towers to a giant broom. Walking through this open-air gallery, situated right along the Israel Trail, my mood picked up considerably since I knew my final destination was within reach.

Beach at Mikhmoret, with the coal pier of Hadera’s Orot Rabin power plant on the horizon.

At Apollonia National Park, which contains an impressive collection of Roman, Byzantine and Crusader ruins, I took one last look back up the coast from where I had come, and could still make out the Hadera power plant — though with considerable difficulty — some 42 kilometers to the north.

Entering the wealthy suburb of Herzliya Pituach through Wingate Street, with its diplomatic villas, luxury apartment towers and manicured shrubs shaped like galloping horses, was like crossing into another world. I stopped for a rest at Kikar Moshe de Shalit (named after a real-estate developer) and promptly fell asleep for nearly an hour, sprawled on a yellow picnic table.

When I woke up, it was already afternoon and time to get moving. At the Dan Accadia Herzliya Hotel, I descended a wooden staircase to the sea, stopped for a frozen lemonade at the beachside Flora bar and without any further distractions walked all the way home.

Fisherman along the coast north of Herzliya waits for something to bite.

From Rosh Hanikra to our front door in north Tel Aviv, I had walked 228,052 steps, covering a distance of 157.6 km, or 98 miles, in four and a half days. As the online blurb for Martin Fletcher’s 2010 book, “Walking Israel: A Personal Search for the Soul of a Nation,” attests, “with its dense history of endless conflict and biblical events, Israel’s coastline is by far the most interesting 100 miles in the world.”

Having seen nearly all of it the hard way, I can certainly vouch for that. But now, it’s time to find a new challenge — and next time, I won’t do it alone. Anyone up for a stroll to Eilat?

About the Author
Miami native Larry Luxner, a veteran journalist and photographer, has reported from more than 100 countries in Latin America, Africa, Eastern Europe, the Middle East and Asia for a variety of news outlets. He lived for many years in San Juan, Puerto Rico, and the Washington, D.C., area before relocating to Israel in January 2017.
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