Golan Heights

After the 6-Day War in 1967, Israel conquered the part of Syria known as the Golan Heights.  There are even remnants of tanks still scattered alongside the road... to make sure people remember their history.  

We spent a few days driving through and checking out the sites in this region.  The drive was so scenic and a complete contrast to the dry, lifeless Negev Desert.  The land is very fertile and lush... perfect for growing food and making delicious wine!

Our first stop was the Church of the Beatitude.  This, supposedly, is the site where Jesus delivered the Sermon Of The Mount.  Now the site is a tourist attraction with a church and a nice view of the Sea of Galilee (which is actually a fresh-water lake...).

From here we went near the Northern tip of Israel and visited the Nimrod Fortress, named after a brave biblical hunter who, according to legend, "could sit on the summit and reach out his hand to take water from the Banias stream...".  

The fortress was built by the Muslim ruler, ElMalik El-Aziz Uthman (that is is short name... his long name takes a few lines, so we'll skip it), in the early 13th century.  Since it's location is of strategic importance, controlling the City of Banias and important road to Damascus, the fortress has passed hands back and forth between the Muslims and the Crusaders.  

We also decided to visit a small town called Amirim where everyone in the town is vegetarian.  As we slowed to turn the corner and proceed up the hill, an older hitch-hiking couple approached the car and got in the back.  They seemed really nice and it turned out that they were from Amirim, so we decided to give them a lift up the hill.  To thank us, they invited us in for tea.  They were really nice and had many interesting stories about Israel's history and their lives, so we stayed and chatted with them for a couple of hours before heading out to wander the town and see the view.  We were planning to try out one of the vegetarian restaurants in the area but it was closed and showed no signs of opening anytime soon... so we returned to our hotel in Tiberias.  

Just as we were about to leave the hotel for dinner, we heard the sudden sounds of missile sirens screaming out through the city.  It lasted for several minutes and we looked at each other wondering if we should be doing something.  We looked out the window and people didn't seem particularly alarmed... and the hotel seemed quiet as usual.  We just shrugged it off and figured they must just be testing the alarms.  As we went to find a restaurant, we noticed that everything was closed... restaurants, shopw, grocery stores, etc..  Odd since it wasn't late and it was Sunday, which, by the way, is actually considered a week-day in Israel (their weekends are Friday and Saturday).  Luckily, we managed to find one restaurant (just about to close) and managed to sneak in a take-out order.  We asked why everything was closed so early and learned that it was a holiday called Holocaust Day... ahhh... hence the missile sirens, as a symbolic gesture of remembrance.

To end off our tour of the north, we also wandered through the old town in Nazareth, and lastly, checked out two wineries for a tasting (Rimon and Dalton).  Rimon was the most interesting as their wines and ports are made from pomegranates instead of grapes.  Surprisingly, the pomegranate taste was really subtle, but the port was really good so we had a bottle :).  

Negev Desert

We decided to rent a car and do a road-trip through Israel.  We started in the Southern beach town of Eilat, and made our way up to the Golan Heights in the North.  It sounds like a lot of driving, but Israel is only around 424km North to South and 114km between the widest East to West borders. 

The first part of our trip was through the Negev Desert, which encompasses most of South Israel.  We stopped in Mitzpe Ramon, a town overlooking the Ramon Crater.  Although referred to as a crater, the formation was not actually caused by a meteor impact or volcanic eruption.  The 500 meters deep, 40 km long and 10 km wide formation is a result of natural erosion.  

The area has several hiking trails, so we checked out a couple and got to see some unique formations like the Ammonite Wall (a wall with many ammonite fossils), and the Sawmill (an area where the rock formations look like a big pile of wooden planks).

Continuing North, our next stop was Masada - an ancient fortification built on top of a mountain, overlooking the Dead Sea.  The Roman emperor, Herod, fortified the area and built himself a palace.  A group of Jewish people later overtook the fortification and turned it into a Jewish settlement... what made Masada famous came several years later.  

Toward the end of the First Jewish–Roman War, the Romans succeeded in taking Jerusalem, where they ransacked and torched the entire city and survivors were taken into slavery.  The last group of Jewish rebels retreated to Masada where they would make their last stand.  

The Romans held Masada under siege and built a ramp to reach the summit.  After finally breaching the gate, they rested for the night.  

Knowing that the situation was hopeless, and determined to never again become slaves, the Jewish people decided to commit mass suicide.  They used a lottery system to select 10 men to kill all of the others.  Then 1 man was chosen to kill the remaining 9.  Finally, the remaining man killed himself.  When the Romans entered the city the next morning, they found 960 dead bodies.  Only 2 women and 5 children (who had gone into hiding) had survived. 

This is an important event in Jewish history, as it was the last time that the Jewish people lost political control of the promised land.  It is so important that it is now part of their military's basic training swearing-in ceremony.  The ceremony ends with the declaration: "Masada shall not fall again". 

In order to reach the site you can walk up the snake-trail, or, like we did, save time by taking a gondola.  There's not much left but ruins, but it's enough to allow you to appreciate the grandeur of the city and the amazing story hidden in the walls.  Not to mention the view from the top is quite stunning.  Since we took the gondola up, we decided to walk back down using the snake path.

We also made a quick stop at the Dead Sea for a second time (http://beyondthemapletree.com/dead-sea), before heading to our hotel in the North.

Driving through the Negev desert was pretty cool with its lunar-like scenery.  If you're lucky, you might even see a tank ;)

Diving in the Red Sea

One thing that we really wanted to do on this trip was to dive the Red Sea in Egypt.  Due to a travel advisory in the Sinai region of Egypt, we decided not to travel there but still booked a boat trip from Eilat, Israel.  We walked across the Israel/Egypt border to Taba, then went 500 meters to our boat that took us to a couple of dive sites off the coast of Egypt.. 

We dove two different sites: "Marsa Elmugabila" and "The Aquarium".  The Aquarium was the best one of the two as we saw the most fish, and even an Octopus :)  The pictures from these dives are more blue than our Bali dive pics because this time we used our new GoPro camera, and it doesn't have a flash to bring out the colours of the coral.

Here's a pic of the octopus…can you spot it? :)

After our two dives we also did a quick stop near a small fortress island to do some snorkelling.

While we were having lunch, one of the ship crew actually spotted a whale shark swimming by our boat!!  Dom grabbed GoPro, aimed it off the back of the boat, and hoped for the best.  Seeing a whale shark is a really rare occurrence in the area, so we were extremely lucky!!!


In the Lonely Planet, one of the highlights of Israel and Jordan is actually Hummus... we had our doubts at first, but after eating it more than 20 times... we are now convinced!!  Not all are created equal, but none of them were ever bad... even the stuff that they sell at the grocery store was good!  Our favourite was from a place called Hashem, in downtown Amman, where we went multiple times to have hummus, falafal, and fatteh.. yum!

The falafel was a bit more hit&miss, but the good ones were super addictive - definitely the best we've ever had!

The Dead Sea

One of our best and most unique experiences in the Middle East was to float 400 meters below sea level… in the Dead Sea.  We enjoyed it so much that we went twice!  

Our first trip was a day excursion from Amman.  Our driver brought us to a private resort on the North Eastern side… it was a nice resort, but it came at quite the price!  We had to pay 16 JOD ($24 CAD) per person to enter the resort… it seems that our driver conveniently forgot to mention this before we left..!  We stayed for about 3 hours and had a great time playing with the oily-feeling water and weird buoyancy.  Jen still had some eczema/allergy rashes that burned like crazy from the salt, so she spent lots of time in the resort's cold fresh water pool.  On the plus side, the Dead Sea seemed to really help her skin!

Dom also dug up some Dead Sea mud from under the salt crust, and buttered himself in it to make his skin super soft ;)

We loved the Dead Sea so much (especially Dom) that we went for a second visit from the Israeli side.  During our road trip through Israel, we stopped for another dip at Ein Bokek on the South-West side of the lake (we learned our lesson and found a free public beach :)).  Jen's rashes had mostly healed now, so it was even more enjoyable.  

There are many beach areas all around the Dead Sea.  Of the two we visited, we prefer the Dead Sea on the Israeli side as it was a lot cheaper (free!), cleaner, calmer, and had better facilities.