Halfway through my 20-hour flight from Los Angeles to Tel Aviv, the man to my left said, "I wonder if I will be able to stop myself from kissing the ground?" He was with a church group that organizes trips to Israel about every 18 months or so, and this would be his first time in the Holy Land. The group was smaller than usual this time. Only 12 instead of the usual 30 or so.
"Do you feel brave for coming here?" I asked him.
He shrugged. "The media makes more out of it than there is," he said.
But I wasn't so sure. While I'd jumped at the opportunity to take part in the week-long "Women in Israel" press tour organized by the Israeli Ministry of Tourism, I did feel brave. After all, as everyone kept saying, this wasn't the ideal time to be visiting the country.
But then again, I reasoned, when would be an ideal time to visit Israel? Given the circumstances, this trip seemed like it: The theme of the tour was "Women of the Bible," but what the itinerary really offered was a "women's" tour of Israel. That meant getting to meet and interview top Israeli women like Dr. Sharon Einav, an ICU physician at Hadassah Hospital Ein Kerem; Reform Rabbi Na'amah Kelman of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion; and Capt. Sharon Feingold of the IDF press office. It meant day trips to biblical sites like Dvoriya in the Lower Galilee. It also meant luxury accommodations, gourmet cuisine and getting pampered at two Israeli spas.
Of course, there is a certain amount of guilt involved in considering a trip of this sort, while terrorism and unemployment crippled the country. But, on the other hand, Israelis need our support: The drop in tourism has much to do with Israel's suffering economy. So, while it may have seemed somewhat perverse, we journalists would be on a solidarity mission of our own. We would see all that Israel still has to offer and remind people that it is more than the terror target you see on CNN -- that it is still the Land of Milk and Honey, delectable food, beautiful sites and peaceful retreats. And so, while I did not kiss the ground like some members of the church group next to me, I eagerly anticipated being spoiled, Israeli-style.
"Come back -- and bring your friends," the flight attendant told the man from the church group as we deplaned. My own small group -- five female journalists (myself included) and a representative from the ministry's public relations firm -- joined our tour guide, Ruth, and our driver, Nachshon.
First stop: Tel Aviv.
Aptly named, Tel Aviv's Hotel Dan Panorama sits right on the city's promenade, offering a spectacular view from its many balconies. A box of dates stuffed with nuts and a fruit basket (apples, oranges, bananas, kiwis and persimmons) awaited me in my room, which had a balcony overlooking the Mediterranean, the promenade and a minaret with a police car parked in front.
That first night, after a brief exchange with the guard at the entrance, we were ushered into Lilit, an elegant fish and dairy restaurant where we met veteran Israeli actress Gila Almagor, who played Deborah in "A Woman Called Golda" and wrote, produced and starred in "HaKayitz Shel Aviya" (The Summer of Aviya). Between bites of her cheese soufflé, Almagor told us, "The contradictions in this country, it's unbelievable." We nodded through our own savory bites of green salad with roasted figs, brie and olives. The guard was peripherally visible through the glass window.
The next morning, we gluttoned ourselves on the delicious excess of the Israeli breakfast buffet, a matter of pride for most fine Israeli hotels: think Vegas with more class, and choice dairy products, fresh produce and exotic additions like various kinds of olives, as well as date, fig and eggplant concoctions. (Israeli produce is far superior to much that we see here: Red bell peppers that bleed when you cut into them, and pears that taste like pears -- instead of potatoes.) Indeed, the spreads continued all week, as each hotel, from Mizpe Hayamim in the north to Jerusalem's Sheraton Plaza Hotel, worked to outdo the other and put its unique stamp on this cultural tradition.
Our bellies full, we headed to Mizpe Hayamim, a Relais and Chateaux rated resort hotel and spa complete with private organic farm and vineyard. Paths wind through the small gardens and fountains that surround the ivy-covered stone buildings. Scents of jasmine and lavender and a mysterious something else in the air greeted us upon arrival. A man and woman sat languidly in the courtyard, dressed in unofficial spa uniforms of white terrycloth robes and slippers. Ironically, in this pristine, healthful atmosphere, they both were smoking.
We'd arrived at tea time, in time to enjoy an herbal tea and hot chocolate buffet in the lobby. Then it was back in the van again, to descend toward Tiberias for dinner at Decks. Nestled on the shore of the Sea of Galilee, the airy restaurant was draped in soft white billows of fabric and was largely open to the water, thanks to its high ceiling and tall glass doors, which opened onto a deck. Decks specialized in meat, cooked in biblical tradition over bonfires of locally harvested olive, eucalyptus and citrus wood. A slushy drink they called "The Nectar of the Gods" was worthy of the title, consisting of lemon juice, mint, sugar and ice, all blended
On Day Three birds sang outside my window as I dressed for another decadent breakfast, and a road trip to Safed, considered one of the four holy cities and the former center of Kabbalah.
Perched high on a mountain, the mystical city draws a combination of artists and religious Jews. We toured the old city, with its ancient synagogues, and the artists' colony, where we met artist Lana Laor (known as Laor). In the past year, she'd departed artistically from painting in blues, her focus on love -- like a blue-hued painting of two pears sitting side by side on a ledge -- and substituted vivid red pomegranates. "The red is very violent," she said. "If you look inside, you can find, like a heart beating."
From the heavy beauty of Safed, we returned to the haven of Mizpe Hayamim for our spa treatments: you can choose from more than 20 kinds of massage and treatments from acupuncture, to face and body mud and seaweed masks, scrubs and peels, to manicures and pedicures.
On Friday, we headed south to Jerusalem, to arrive before the start of Shabbat. The lobby of the Sheraton Plaza Hotel bustled with black-hatted men, modestly (and smartly) dressed women and their children, a severe change of pace from the placid north.
On Shabbat morning, we learned of the Shabbat attack on security forces in Hebron, as they escorted settlers returning from the Tomb of the Patriarchs. Other reality checks followed in the next few days, as we toured the Old City and Jerusalem's main hospital, Hadassah Hospital Ein Kerem. The upcoming Thursday, Nov. 21 (the 16th of Kislev), they told us, would be the Hebrew calendar anniversary of the Ben Yehuda bombing, which killed 11 people.
Except for Jerusalem, we were largely insulated from current events in Israel: We'd spent much of our time eating in gourmet restaurants (sometimes empty and sometimes full), lounging in spas and sleeping in five-star hotels. After three days in the country's capital, I couldn't help but release a small sigh of relief. Heading for the Dead Sea and the Negev, I was really ready for a mud-pack treatment. After a quick dip -- or rather, float -- in the Dead Sea, we slathered up properly, covering ourselves completely in the black sludge. My skin felt smoother, I noticed, as I relaxed in the steam room of the Crowne Plaza Dead Sea.
Leaning my back against the warm wood wall of the room, watching the swirling steam, I realized my trip was nearly over. I recalled the Christian tourist I'd met on the plane, and I wondered what he thought of his first visit. I could have envied his fresh outlook in that moment; but instead, I felt as lucky as he. Despite my many previous visits to Israel, it had again found a way to teach me something I didn't know, and to expose me to a world I hadn't before experienced. I couldn't speak for my Christian friend, but I knew I'd be coming again -- and bringing friends.
For information on Mizpe Hayamim, visit www.mizpe-hayamin.com .