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Family adventures in Israel

Looking for a fun destination for her teenagers - and hoping to sneak in a hit of culture - Hong Kong-based mum Kim Bongiorno booked a trip to the desert.

Jerusalem's Old City at the Western Wall and Temple Mount.

We’d never been to the Middle East but we’d heard such positive things about it. Everyone we knew who’d been had such fabulous stories to tell.

Tel Aviv has a bit of a party reputation and we thought it might lend some fun to a family holiday with two older teens. Our two girls, like most adolescents, aren’t madly keen on traipsing around endless museums and historical buildings. And so the rich history and culture of Jerusalem that I was so looking forward to diving into had to be balanced with some beach time. My eldest daughter also had major exams approaching and we wanted her to be able to relax after a tough year.

And of course the food was also a motivator for booking. Israeli cuisine has an amazing reputation and I’m happy to report that it exceeded all our expectations.

And so the history of Jerusalem coupled with the dynamism and beach life of Tel Aviv seemed to make for a well-rounded trip.

We travelled in July to take advantage of the girls’ mid-year break (they study at Hong Kong’s Australian International School) and I have to admit, it was very hot. However, so is Hong Kong at that time of year and at least Israel has none of Asia’s humidity. The temperatures hovered around 30 degrees throughout our trip.

We flew Cathay Pacific to Tel Aviv and spent the first three days in Jerusalem.

To be honest, arriving at Tel Aviv airport with guards toting machine guards was a bit of a shock, but we were soon in the car we had organised to pick us up and heading to Jerusalem. We’d booked a fairly basic hotel close to the Old City and the food markets which was a perfectly adequate base from which to explore.

On the first day we spent some time at the Yad Vashem Houlocaust History Museum, which was hauntingly quiet in contrast to the bustling streets outside.

Views over the desert from Masada Fort.

Jerusalem felt like taking a step back in time and the markets were a kaleidoscope of colours, smells and tastes. We spent three days taking in the Old City and on the fourth day we headed to Masada and the Dead Sea.

The following day, we rose at 3am to climb up to the ancient fortress of Masada. It’s located on the eastern edge of the Judean Desert, overlooking the Dead Sea, and is best climbed before sunrise. There were a few moans and groans about getting out of bed so early and it was a little off-putting starting the climb in the dark - although it did mean the girls couldn’t see just how much of a hike was ahead of us. It turned out to be an hour-and-a-half of walking in total (there are lifts which open later in the morning if you’re not an early riser) but it was completely worth all the effort. Watching the sun rise over the desert was breathtaking.

At the top it was a little confronting to find a group of army cadets in full kit carrying out sniper training, however the girls took it all in their stride (excuse the pun).

From Masada, we travelled on to the Dead Sea. Opinions diverge about this experience. The girls absolutely loved it, however I think my hopes for rejuvenation were maybe a little optimistic. I was anticipating that, with the healing powers of the mud and the salt, I would come out looking several years younger - well, a couple at least. Let’s just say that’s not what happened! I did end up bitterly regretting shaving my legs the day before in anticipation of wearing a swimsuit - the tiniest of scratches can sting like crazy and the high salt content also ruined my swimmers. But don’t let that put you off; as I say, the rest of the family thought floating around in a lake nine times as salty as the ocean was one of the high points of the whole trip.

The holiday concluded with four days on the beach and exploring Tel Aviv. Arriving in Tel Aviv felt like flying into a different world. There’s a huge beach club scene here - lots of beautiful people in tiny swimwear - and a real ‘Miami’ vibe about it. The complete antithesis to the culture and history of Jerusalem.

The beach and promenade proved to be a great location for people watching and the girls enjoyed hiring electric scooters and whizzing up and down the seafront.

We joined a walking tour around the city and I can honestly say I would fly back in a heartbeat if I could to graze my way through those delicious dishes again. You do need to like hummus though, it’s everywhere and is exceptionally good. We didn’t have a bad meal, from the endless variety of appetisers, to the dips, the shakshuka and the tender charcoal grilled skewers, it was all mouth-watering.

Beach life at Tel Aviv.

The food in the alleyways of Jaffa was particularly good and with a more Arab influence.

While in Tel Aviv, we spent some time wandering Jaffa and discovering the ancient buildings. It’s a very cool neighbourhood and again boasted fantastic restaurants.

As the trip came to an end, I think the highlights for me were stepping into Old Jerusalem and soaking up the history; I particularly enjoyed seeing the Wailing Wall, although it isn’t nearly as big as you imagine it to be. The sunrise at Masada was also very special.

If I were lucky enough to go back, I’d like to travel north to Acre and to Petra in Jordan. We were constrained by school term dates this time around and unfortunately only had two weeks, so we kept the trip to just the two cities.

What’s next on our bucket list? As soon as Covid restrictions lift we’ll be heading down to Australia to see family and then I think I’d like to try and forget the last eighteen months on a sun-soaked island somewhere.

Pandemic-related border restrictions for international travel to Israel currently apply. Always check the latest travel regulations before booking a trip.

This story was first published in the Autumn 2021 print edition of Asia Family Traveller magazine. Never miss an issue by subscribing here.

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