Where we’re at: I’m recapping my travels in 2019, including this retreat research trip to Israel in September. There are more details about our Israel retreats, postponed to 2021, at the end of this post.
It’s a weird time to write about travel, as the world both emerges from COVID lockdowns and faces a larger, more crucial conversation about race, power, and privilege. After a week-long pause of respect, while I continue to reflect on how Alex in Wanderland can grow, I am back to publishing my previously scheduled blog content. Wishing all of you love and peace as we march forward.
By now, you all know I love Tel Aviv. In fact, one of my biggest Israel travel hurdles is that I love it so much, I struggle to find the motivation to leave!
But there are other parts of this region that I’m really excited to visit, too. And on this particular trip to Israel I had the opportunity to do something wonderful: go on a surprise trip that I didn’t plan, to a place that I as a tourist from another country would most likely never ever would have found myself.
I mentioned in a previous blog post that the main objective of this particular trip had been covering the media preview of a yoga festival, an event for which the dates were abruptly changed at the last minute. So when I was invited to be spontaneously whisked away for the weekend, I kind of had no excuse not to.
And so I did.
I was told a time and place to meet to leave Tel Aviv, and not much else. It wasn’t until we pulled on a highway heading north that I had any idea where we were going. And if you’re thinking hey Alex, this sounds like an excellent way to get murdered with no record of where your body could be found, I will reassure you that a mutual friend had introduced me to the guy in the drivers’ seat, and thus I felt very good about my odds of remaining not the victim of a grisly crime.
It turns out we were headed to a zimmer in remote Abirim, population 227. A zimmer is a unique form of Israeli accommodation — generally small rural rentals that are somewhere between a quaint bed and breakfast and a modern Airbnb. They are usually family-owned, super-private, and mega-romantic.
I was in for a treat for my first zimmer experience. The owner of the adorable cottage gave us an enthusiastic tour that I understood not one single Hebrew word of, and then left us a bottle of local wine. If you’re interested in the particular zimmer we stayed in, you can find it here — and while the site is in Hebrew only, their Facebook page reveals that the name translates to Fairy Cabins, which I was thoroughly smitten with. “Going to a cabin up north” is such a cliche among Israelis — there’s even a Hebrew song that makes fun of trying to save a dying relationship by doing so — but for this star-struck American, it was the most charming thing ever.
When I finally pulled out my phone and looked at my Google Maps to see where we were, I was amazed that we were so close to the Lebanon border, the blue dot that represented our location straddled the two. In fact, we were about thirty minutes from where fire was being exchanged that very weekend between Hezbollah and the Israel Defense Forces — though you never would have known it from our peaceful perch. I texted my girl Jess in Beirut, hey, I’m waving at you.
While when I hear the name Galilee, I think of the famous lake — ya know, the one where Jesus walked on water and all — it actually refers to an entire region. And from our first evening stroll around Abirim, I concluded it’s a beautiful one.
On my first trip to Israel, one of my dive guides explained to me the importance of the Seven Species, or Shiv’at HaMinim. These seven foods — wheat, barley, grape, fig, olive oil, dates, and pomegranates — are listed in the Hebrew Bible as being special products of The Holy Land. Abirim was bursting with pomegranate trees, prompting another lesson on one of my favorite fruits: in Jewish tradition, the righteous pomegranate is said to contain exactly 613 seeds, the same number of commandments in the Torah.
The next morning, we moved onto another fruit: grapes.
While my mystery date assured me he’d booked an English speaking tour, when we arrived at Dalton Winery, the guide froze — so I was treated to a private whispered translation on the Hebrew group tour, instead. This particular winery was founded in 1995, by a family who “made Aliyah” to Israel — Aliyah is the immigration of Jews from the diaspora to Israel. It’s a term I’ve come to know well as I meet people from all over the world who have come home here.
Wine has become the subject of multiple comical moments in my international dating adventures over the years, including the time many years ago I was casually seeing an Israeli guy and brought non-kosher wine to dinner at a rabbi’s house. Whoops! And then the day of our departure for this trip, my date’s request for me to pick up wine — specifically non-settlement wine — sent me in a flurry of research and running around wine stores in Tel Aviv.
It turns out, wine is complicated in Israel — no surprise for this complex destination. Many progressive Israelis boycott products produced in the settlements, where religious zionists set up controversial communities that push the borders of Israel further into the territory of the West Bank. (Can someone in startup nation make an app for that?)
And the kosher wine thing is a tough one, too — we learned on our winery tour that there was an enormous outcry a few years ago when a kosher winery pulled their employees of Ethiopian descent from the production line, ostensibly questioning the authenticity of their Judaism. This is just one tiny blip in a long, fascinating history of the Ethiopian Jews’ struggle to assimilate in Israel. (And if you haven’t watched The Red Sea Diving Resort on Netflix yet, this is your moment to learn about one of the Mossad’s most impressive operations while also looking at Chris Evans.)
Back at the zimmer, we tucked into a beautiful brunch that had been delivered to our doorstep while we drank. While I have never been a hugely food-motivated traveler, Israel is an exception for me. I come here to eat.
It is obscenely easy to eat fresh, healthy, gorgeous food in this country. Somehow every meal feels indulgent, even when it’s perfect body fuel. Israel is also the most vegan country in the world per capita, so there is so much creativity here when it comes to plant-forward food. Yup, Israelis even eat salad for breakfast — and I am here for it.
After brunch, the next surprise arrived in the form of a couples’ massage in the cabin, followed by more wine, and another gorgeous sunset walk around the quiet village.
On our final morning in Galilee, it was time to connect with nature. We kicked things off with a walk through Goren Park, site of a peaceful tangle of trails, before heading to Keshet Cave in Adamit Park, a site that left me awe-struck.
I mean, can you believe this place?
From the top of the arch, we could see as far as the Mediterranean Sea in one direction, and the plains of Lebanon in another. How was this not a darling of Instagram, I wondered aloud. Maybe it’s the guardrails, I mused.
Railings or not, it was something special. Isn’t that magical, these days, to stumble upon something so beautiful, that you didn’t know existed? It’s easy to get jaded, as someone lucky enough to travel extensively, and think well, the whole world’s been figured out. There’s nothing left to see that hasn’t been printed on a billion postcards and featured in a million photo shoots.
Then you step half a mile off the tourist trail, and you realize how ridiculous that is. The world is vast and wonderful and there is so much of it just waiting to leave us in awe, if we are willing to let it.
Don’t get me wrong. I love planning and over-researching a trip, and checking off those tour-group-filled world wonders. But I also love the simple delight of a weekend spent in a place I keep meaning to ask the name of (I figured it out in time for this post, clearly.)
We had one last stop on our way back to Tel Aviv. A friend of a friend had sent a recommendation for Baladna, a hip Arabic restaurant in Jish, a town of 3,000 predominately Christians and Catholics in the Galilee. We feasted, the perfect send-off to a weekend of quiet, special adventure.
How lucky am I? This weekend was beautiful — not just because of the parts, but the sum of the whole. I was uniquely aware that I was in towns that weren’t in my guidebook, getting insights that normally don’t get translated to English, having a weekend full of the kind of simple, authentic experiences that people travel the world hoping to have a glimpse of.
I was grateful.
Have you been lucky enough to take a local’s trip in a foreign land?
Want to explore Israel with me? Be sure to nab one of the last few spots to our Wander Women Israel: A Yoga, Diving, + Adventure Retreat for May 27-June 3, 2021 or High Flying Israel: An Aerial Arts + Yoga Retreat for June 5-10, 2021. Shoot us an email at firstname.lastname@example.org to stay in the loop on either of these trip!