Freedom and thrills in Upper Galilee

Celebrating its 15th anniversary, Manara Cliff offers several attractions for those who like living on the edge – or at least visiting.

Manara Cliff, run by Kibbutz Manara (photo credit: Tal Glick)
Manara Cliff, run by Kibbutz Manara
(photo credit: Tal Glick)
I had a revelation on the road to Armageddon. As I headed up north from Jerusalem for a short break last week, at the point when I passed the road sign to the archeological site at Megiddo, the thought popped into my mind that the words for freedom and vacation in Hebrew are the same: hofesh.
The farther north I traveled, the more in the holiday mood I became. Thus, by the time I arrived at Kfar Blum’s Pastoral Hotel, on the kibbutz about a 15-minute drive from Kiryat Shmona, I was more than ready to relax and enjoy myself.
And I did both during the three-day trip, but I also found myself mixing extreme pleasure with fear – until they were at points inseparable.
The 192-room hotel made a good impression from the start. The check-in was fast, efficient and pleasant. The change of pace, coming from one of the most intense cities in the world, was immediate. True to its name, the Pastoral Hotel is set in the sprawling green kibbutz grounds, a tranquil setting.
As my son and I stepped out of the reception area on the way to our room, the first thing we saw – and smelled – was a herb garden with signs inviting the guests to pick what they needed.
We were non-paying guests of the hotel, invited to try out the new 45-room boutique wing, which has the Tourism Ministry’s highest rating. Each of the boutique rooms is named after a filmmaker whose picture and biography adorns the wall, in our case: Alfred Hitchcock. My nearly 12-year-old son noted that there was something slightly unnerving about going to take a shower with Hitchcock’s eyes seemingly following you.
But the huge bathroom was “to die for,” something out of the movies. It held the most enormous freestanding classic-style bath I have ever seen and a separate, elliptical-shaped, spacious shower unit. The greatest danger became the temptation to spend hours in the bath without getting to see what other comforts were available.
The room – large, country-style and squeaky clean – had French doors leading out to its own patio area, with an incredible view of the mountains. It was the perfect place to sip a cup of coffee or glass of fresh herbal tea (the room was equipped with a coffeemaker as well as a selection of teas, to which you could add whatever you had picked).
The hotel’s various sections are separated by beautifully maintained lawns and graced with bright yellow mimosa trees, offering what seemed to be a combination of a private flowery sun and a personal shaded area. Birds, many belonging to species that bring ornithologists flocking to the area – rather than the sort Hitchcock relied upon to evoke horror – also add to the pleasant rural environment.
Since I wasn’t paying, I wanted to find out what the other guests thought. The hotel was full but didn’t feel crowded. The guests ranged from a group of teachers and hi-tech employees, to visitors who had come for the annual Kfar Blum music festival, to a Canadian Maccabiah participant who was taking his family to see more of the country after he’d finished competing, to American tourists and a large number of French-speakers.
One of the Canadian guests said she had feared the rooms might be motel-like, “until I stepped inside.” All the guests I spoke to reported being made to feel pampered and special.
Helping me resist the temptation to simply relax in the bath (or rush to the well-appointed spa) for the rest of the day was my discovery of the Olympic-size pool, set against the backdrop of imposing mountains, a few minutes walk from my room.
Having worked up that special appetite that comes with being at the pool on vacation, we headed for the hotel restaurant for supper – plentiful, delicious kosher food to suit a range of tastes. The various evening entertainment options also aimed to appeal to different age ranges and types: a children’s music show, South American songs and, a hit with me and my son, a reptile exhibition.
Not every night brings with it the chance of carrying a Burmese python wrapped around your neck or studying a blue-tongued lizard close up.
BUT THE real thrills were to begin the next morning.
Kfar Blum’s name has become virtually synonymous with its kayaking and rafting facilities, also a short walk from our room.
The Jordan River of the spirituals is deep and wide. In real life it is narrow and shallow, but is green and cool and has a special feel to it. I didn’t sing spirituals, but I said a silent prayer of thanks as our “kayak” (actually more like a rubber dinghy) floated down the river – sometimes needing only little help from us, once needing a push from other rafters as we got caught in the dense foliage along the river banks. The closer we got to the mini-waterfall, the less silent and more heartfelt my prayers. Nonetheless, the rapid descent was exhilarating.
Back on dry land, I felt I had had my particular dose of danger for the day, but my son was more than happy to try out another popular attraction at the site – the Omega zipline that zooms down from a tower on the river bank right into the Jordan’s waters.
The facilities were crowded but well-run, and the staff had a reassuring, professional approach. There are changing rooms and individual lockers for bags and valuables. Keep in mind that whatever goes in the kayaks is going to get wet, including all clothing from the waist down. A land-based photographer snaps the boats as they go over the rocky rapid drop, and the photos can be purchased a few minutes after you finish the course. Taking phones or cameras on the boats is not recommended.
There are several other options at the site – archery, artificial rock climbing and rope slides among them – but they couldn’t compete with the rafting and Omega as far as my son and I were concerned.
Even with special deals, the attractions can be expensive for larger families. My advice: Take a deep breath, remember you’re on vacation, and don’t miss out on the experience.
THE SECOND full day of our trip was more extreme than the first, dedicated to a visit to the nearby Manara Cliff, on Route 90 between Rosh Pina and Kiryat Shmona, close to the Lebanese border. Celebrating its 15th anniversary, the site, run by Kibbutz Manara, is offering several attractions for those who like living on the edge – or at least visiting.
Built at three separate levels, the only form of transportation between the different stages is Israel’s longest cable car route at 1,940 meters.
There was a slightly European feel to the ascent, suspended above the pine woods. At the top level, the hills were alive with the sound of music – but it was an Israeli experience indeed. Musician Shlomo Mor from Pardess Hanna was taking a break from his regular gigs and recording work to offer (free) guided tours of the woods atop the Naftali Mountains, stopping now and again for an explanation and a song.
Only in Israel can you find yourself with a group of strangers learning about the flora and fauna and singing Naomi Shemer’s Shirat Ha’asavim (Song of the Grasses), based on the words by Rabbi Nahman of Breslov: “You should know That each and every wild grass Has its own special poem And from the poem of the wild grasses The tune of the shepherd is made.”
Incidentally, although I have often come across protected species of flowers and animals, this was the first time I was looking out for a protected rock – unprepossessing stone orbs that are bursting with quartz crystals on the inside, known in Hebrew as avatiah Eliyahu, Elijah’s watermelon.
Personally, I could have spent much longer wandering quietly among the wonders of nature, looking across to the Hermon and Golan Heights with the Hula Valley spread out below and Kiryat Shmona looking like a tiny model village, but my son was eager for something more adventurous.
The middle section at Manara offers a 200-meter Omega zipline from the steep cliff, rappelling and Game of Thrones-style archery. At the lowest level, there’s bungee jumping, trampolines and the Alpine roller-coaster that my son had set his eyes and heart on.
As someone who is scared of heights and firmly believes that speed kills, my heart was beating fast and my mouth felt dry even as we approached the coaster cars. What followed was an almost out-of-body experience. As if I was in a Hitchcock movie, I heard someone screaming with fear but was only vaguely aware it was me. Careening around corners on the country’s steepest cliff seemed very out of character. But I suppose that is part of what vacations are for – doing things you wouldn’t usually do.
Having been warned that stopping, or even slowing down, is dangerous, I found myself strapped in behind my son, putting all my strength into holding the gear stick down and fighting the natural urge to take the curves at a more reasonable pace.
Far from the songs and music I had so enjoyed at the top level, here the air was full of the order to “Push, push” and the sounds of women and children screaming, as if we were collectively going through some kind of rebirth. And perhaps we were, in a way.
In my case, at least, I had not only gone way beyond my comfort zone, I had done it at top speed.
All good things, of course, come to an end, and summer getaways seem to come to an end more quickly than most breaks.
There are many other places and attractions worth seeing in the area (some of my favorites include the Hula, Tel Dan and Gamla nature reserves). Families with younger children enjoy the dairy farms and petting zoos. Others recommend jeep rides and cycling routes (there’s also extreme bike riding at Manara Cliff for those who love living more dangerously than I do).
Arriving back home in Jerusalem, I unpacked our bags and realized that freedom comes at a price – a load of dirty washing. I shoved it into the laundry basket and decided to deal with it the next morning.
Something about the northern trip had been very liberating, and I didn’t want to lose that holiday feeling just yet.
The writer was a guest of Kfar Blum Pastoral Hotel.