Coastal wanderings

Israel’s northern coast offers unique opportunities for exploring, camping and hiking.

BIRDS GATHER at Ma’agan Michael. (photo credit: Seth J. Frantzman)
BIRDS GATHER at Ma’agan Michael.
(photo credit: Seth J. Frantzman)
Fording the Tananim stream north of Caesarea necessitates removing one’s shoes because it is three meters wide and the water goes up to the ankles. Seth Levi Getto came upon the stream after two weeks of hiking the Israel National Trail. Sporting a giant walking stick he had carved and decorated, he looked like a wild hippie.
When we spoke a day earlier near Ein Hod, Getto raved about how this was the first time the trail would meet up with the sea. I decided to join him for 48 hours of strenuous hiking. Now he gingerly removed his socks, which clung to his blistered feet like a second skin. After we forded the little stream I gave him some bandages, he wrapped up his feet and he was back on the way, heading south toward Caesarea.
Israel’s coast offers many unique opportunities for exploring, camping and hiking. For a country whose western border is formed by a long coastline, it is surprising how inaccessible much of it is. This is a legacy of Israel’s economy and planning, which set up a series of kibbutzim along the coast and never bothered to develop most of it as a tourist treasure. It is also a legacy of the 19th century when the coast was seen as an impassable wilderness of malaria-infested swamps and undulating dunes. The upside is that with the exception of several towns and cities, much the coast remains untrammeled.
The 20 kilometers from Caesarea to Habonim are an excellent example of this phenomenon. Starting at Caesarea, the famous Roman town that King Herod built, there are a series of beautiful beaches and rocky promontories as one moves north. Part of this section can be traversed by following the National Trail, and another section from Dor Habonim beach (overnight camping is available on the beach) to Kibbutz Dor is connected by a footpath.
Dor-Habonim beach is full of people on the holidays, many of whom set up sprawling camps.
To imagine the Coastal Plain here one should think of it as three pieces. Inland in the north are the foothills of Mount Carmel which decrease in size until they reach Zichron Ya’acov and then disappear entirely. Along this line of hills, which run parallel with the coast, one finds the artists village of Ein Hod, the Amphorae Winery, the valley of the caves, and the Rothschild gardens.
Between the foothills and the coast are two main roads, Highways 2 and 4, which also run parallel to the sea. Along both roads are a series of small moshavim and kibbutzim and one Arab village.
The best way to see the area is to start in the foothills and venture out.
Getto recalls when he first arrived in Ein Hod after a day of hiking. “The first thing I did was find the local watering hole, called Art Bar. And can you believe there is a guy there named Danny Bira? Yes, that really is what people call him, and he brews his own beer,” he says.
Bira maintains a small bar in the artists village. The village itself is a warren of small streets and stone houses intermixed with more modern eclectic homes. The odd mixture owes to the fact that it was an Arab village before 1948 and after the Independence War it became an artists colony. Today it also boasts a pricey Argentine steak house named Dona Rosa. Danny “Bira,” the US-born Danny Schlyfestone, maintains his bar, which is worth a visit.
Several kilometers south of Ein Hod is a site referred to as the “Cave River.” A national park (entrance fee), it consists of striking cliffs and caves. In 2012, to little fanfare, it was inscribed as a UNESCO world heritage site.
“The site contains cultural deposits representing half a million years of human evolution from the Lower Palaeolithic to the present,” UNESCO noted at the time. “It is recognized as providing a definitive chronological framework at a key period of human development. Archeological research over 90 years has established the authenticity of the Nahal Me’arot/Wadi el-Mughara [Cave River] site as a crucial record of human, biological, behavioral and cultural origins.”
Visitors to the site can walk up to the caves and also along the wadi. A detour to the relatively new Amphorae Winery near Kerem Maharel is a pleasant chance to spoil oneself. Although the vineyard has been making wine since 1998, in 2003 the owners built a visitors center in the style of an old Italian villa which gives it the image of having been there for many years.
Noga, one of the employees, explains that “the building was built with the local ecology in mind, so it incorporates natural stones from the environment and we are eco-conscious. We recycled the water for our plants, etc.
We harvest the grapes by hand and they are individually cleaned. ” A tour reveals a pretty wine cellar and visitors are invited (starting at 50 NIS), to taste a flight of wine with cheese.
Another interesting site along the row of hills is the Rothschild gardens just south of Zichron Ya’acov. Here lies the grave of the great benefactor Baron Edmund de Rothschild and his wife, Adelaide. The exquisite gardens (entrance is free) include a variety of trees and plants, all laid out pleasantly for a stroll on several hectares of land. A map illustrates the Jewish communities that Rothschild helped establish in the 19th century. From a lookout on Ramat Hanadiv one can see the lands that Rothschild purchased, which stretch down to the coast around Caesarea.
Leaving behind the Baron’s gardens and traveling from the hill country to the coast is a journey that reveals some idosyncrisies of Israel’s landscape. Nestled on a low hill overlooking Atlit and Highway 2 are two fresh white gravestones with the names Michael Katrian and Trabenda Minogian. The graves are all that remains of an Armenian village that existed until 1981. The village was named Sheikh Breik and consisted of a few dozen people who lived there beginning in 1920. Because the residents were tenants of a wealthy Christian Arab who fled the country in the Independence War, the land was appropriated by the state in 1948 and then given to the neighboring kibbutzim.
In an interview with Haaretz in 2008, the Armenian residents described how the kibbutzim were happy to employ them for low wages.
“We worked just for bread, we never managed to make any money,” said Yosef Katrian.
Although neighboring Atlit was hooked up to electricity, the state never bothered to provide the Armenian village with any. The same was the case with water, which was only begrudgingly provided by Kibbutz Neveh Yam.
The discrimination dealt out to Sheikh Breik is also evident at Jisr al-Zarqa. A large Arab village, it is one of the poorest and most crowded in Israel. Its crowding is entirely due to the fact that all the lands around it belong to the neighboring communities or the wealthy Caesarea, which has less than half the residents but 20 times the land area. The national trail passes through the village and winds its way down to the coast.
An aqueduct which fed Roman Caesarea runs underneath the village, stretching to the east in one direction and in the other emerging in the dunes in the direction of Caesarea. The residents of Jisr al-Zarqa were formerly inhabitants of the drained Kabara swamps. David Grossman, the historian not the celebrated novelist, explains that “their presence probably predated the Ottomans.” Rothschild acquired the land on which the people lived in the 19th century and turned it over to his Palestine Jewish Colonization Association. Of some 30,000 dunams, 2,500 were given to the villagers, who constructed the foundations of the present village in the 1940s.
The village has a picturesque little harbor with antiquated fishing boats. Men throw nets in the water to catch fish. When I met some of the fishermen their catch was paltry, consisting mostly of large minnows. Although there is ample room for the development of tourist facilities, such as those at Dor beach, no resources have been allocated toward developing tourism of the village. Although various plans have been proposed for expanding the village and investing resources in it, to date nothing has been done and it remains one of the poorest communities in Israel surrounded by some of the wealthiest.
Outside of the modern plight of Jisr al-Zarqa, an enjoyable afternoon can alternatively be spent exploring the beaches and inlets around Dor Habonim beach, often referred to as one of the best beaches in the country. This beautiful stretch of coastline from Atlit to Dor consists of a dozen white sandy beaches separated by archeological mounds (tel) and Crusader forts.
The first of these forts, Chateau Pelerin, literally the“pilgrims castle” is located at Atlit. Oliver of Paderborn, a contemporary chronicler recalled that “the Templar [Knights] with the aid of companies of pilgrims and of the Teutonic Order began to build Pilgrim’s Castle… two towers were built at the front of the castle, their stones being squared and cut to such a size that one stone could be hauled with difficulty by a yoke of oxen.”
Precariously perched on a narrow strip of land that extends out to sea, the Crusaders knew an impregnable position when they saw it. At Atlit they simply barred the narrow part of the land facing inland and built a castle on the promontory. In 1218 and 1265 when Muslim forces attempted to attack it, the castle proved impregnable. When it was abandoned without a fight in 1291, it became the last Crusader stronghold in the Holy Land. Until 1839 when a massive earthquake caused part of it to collapse, it remained relatively intact. When it became part of a training base for Israel’s elite naval commandos, its fate as a tourist attraction was sealed. Visitors can approach within several hundred meters of it by entering Atlit, but visits are forbidden.
The history buff has a better opportunity to explore a Crusader ruin at Habonim. The castle abuts Highway 2 but can only be accessed by detouring to Highway 4 and taking the turnoff to Habonim. Enter the kibbutz and look to the left, eventually the ruins and a parking lot will come into view.
The castle is an exact square with rounded towers at each end.
When the Crusaders came along they found an existing castle and renamed it Cafarlet. Although not much is known about it, the place is well preserved and beautiful. It has no tourist infrastructure and has never been excavated, which means the visitor can fell like a pioneer.
After a visit to the Caferlet Castle one should drive out of the kibbutz and take an immediate left. The road winds around, crosses the railroad tracks and then comes to a parking lot marked “free parking.” One can park here and walk half a kilometer to Dor Habonim beach or pay and park closer and camping is permitted.
A short kilometer walk to the north toward Atlit, or south along the red trail toward Dor leads one to secluded beaches.
An eerie rusted Turkish ship rests on the beach and another shipwreck is visible just off shore. A beautiful natural cave called the “Blue Cave” forms a pool. Signs indicate that swimming is not permitted, however fishing seems to be a common activity for visitors. Children can play in some of the natural wading pools.
The fascinating sites along Israel’s coast are not the most well known, but they provide endless opportunities that those with a variety of tastes can enjoy.