Green once again

The Mount Carmel National Park offers visitors a plethora of sport and leisure activities, ancient sites, breathtaking vistas and great food

Ram 88 224 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Ram 88 224
(photo credit: Courtesy)
It never ceases to amaze just how many shades of green can be spotted while rambling through nature's color palette, especially if wanderlust points one in the direction of the Mount Carmel National Park. The little rain that has fallen during this unusually dry winter has been soaked up on the Carmel, turning the landscape awash with verdure. For visitors arriving by car, the sweeping cliffs first appear as almost one consecutive forest, comprising not only infinite verdant shades, but also an extensive variety of trees, bushes, and wildflowers. Steep, winding roads leave drivers and passengers breathless as fantastic vistas flash by. Whether chugging up the ascent or taking the road's twists and turns with care on the descent, it's quite a ride. No wonder the region is often referred to as Little Switzerland. The Carmel Mountain range also boasts a wide range of animal life and a number of archeological sites. There is no shortage of places to picnic in the shade of old oak or olive trees - some of which are already bagged by early morning as local Druse families set out a range of olive products, pita, and labaneh for sale, all of which can satisfy - or whet - visitors' rapidly growing appetites. Picnickers can watch more than a few mountain bikers tackling the Carmel's slopes and climbers rappelling down the faces of its cliffs. Their bright clothing appears and disappears as they clear trees and pass behind them again. Reaching the bottom of the cliff, broad smiles across their faces and tackle in tow, the rock climbers make their way through the undergrowth to a well-trodden path to begin their ascent to the top - and rappel down again! In addition to its Druse, Jewish, Christian and Muslim holy sites, the Carmel boasts two large Druse villages. Druse began to settle in several parts of the region in the 17th century, but only the communities of Daliat al-Carmel and Usfiya remain extant. These days, it's difficult to tell where one village ends and the other starts, as they seem to meet in the middle, but on weekends and holidays both attract crowds of Israeli and foreign tourists. But weekdays are the best time to amble through the many shops selling carpets, baskets, cane furniture and trinkets - to mention just a small selection of what's offered - or to sit quietly in one of the many eateries and enjoy some excellent humous. On a clear day, one of the most amazing views in the country is that afforded from the roof of the Mukraka Carmelite monastery on the southeastern side of the mountain range near Daliat al-Carmel. Here, belief has it,the prophet Elijah confronted the prophets of Ba'al. A large and rather frightening stone sculpture of Elijah - a large dagger clasped in his raised right hand, about to slay a fallen Ba'al prophet at his feet - stands in the monastery's courtyard, surrounded by a small, well-tended garden. For a few shekels, one can climb up to an observation point that causes jaws to drop. The observation platform offers a bird's-eye view of the Jezreel Valley's kibbutz and moshav farms far below, which create a natural patchwork quilt of brown, yellow and green. Perched on the mountain range across the valley sits Nazareth, and a little to the right the pudding-shaped Mt. Tabor. The view from the other side of the monastery rooftop extends over miles and miles of forest and coastline. Gazing seaward during the day, visitors can watch the sun glisten on the Mediterranean. In the late afternoon or early evening, the roof is one of the best spots in the area from which to watch the sun set. But keep in mind that the monastery usually closes before night drops its curtain over the beauty of Mt. Carmel. Descending the Carmel coastward on Route 721, the first site visitors pass is the Damun Prison, probably one of the few such institutions in the world situated in the middle of a national park, with day-trippers driving by in a steady stream. This route down the Carmel also passes Kibbutz Beit Oren, which appears somewhat precariously perched on a high hill to the right of the road. The highway then makes a sweeping curve toward an ancient quarry. The site dates to the Roman and Byzantine periods, and rocks from the quarry were apparently used to construct nearby settlements as well as coastal cities. Mount Carmel National Park is the largest one in Israel. One-third of its 84,000 dunams (21,000 acres) is designated a nature reserve and can be accessed from any one of four directions: from Atlit to the west, Elyakim to the south, Haifa to the north (passing by Haifa University), and Nesher in the east. The Mount Carmel Hai-Bar (Wildlife Sanctuary) breeds animals that were fast disappearing - or were already extinct - from Israel's Mediterranean forests. Rangers are saving something of the past for the future, and have been working to restore the area's vultures, wild goats and sheep, fallow deer and Carmel rams. Some of the species were imported, and after acclimatizing, were released onto Mt. Carmel to thrive in the wild. Another site worthy of a visit is the Ancient Oak Forest Reserve, known as Horshat HaArbaim, which features the country's largest concentration of ancient trees, as well as a stalactite cave. Near the Nesher entrance, a National Parks Authority information booth offers detailed maps of the park's roads, trails, walking routes, picnic areas and sites of interests for sale, and knowledgeable staff members are available to provide advice. The National Parks Authority offices on Mt. Carmel can be contacted at (04) 822-8983.