Joys of the Jordan Valley

Crusader castles and public parks attract visitors to this scenic part of the country.

Sometimes it pays to go the longer route when there's so much to see - and that's certainly the case when traveling to the Galilee. Gan Guroo park is said to be the only place outside Australia where kangaroos run around freely, and you can run with them. This Australian oasis in the middle of Israel is a special treat for children, as they can stroke the kangaroos and be photographed with them - but be careful to keep away from any with a baby in her pocket or she may fear you are about to steal her offspring and react defensively. You'll also see those delightful cuddly koala bears, emus, cockatoos, flying foxes, and an abundance of Australian vegetation, including more than 38 types of eucalyptus trees. This park is operated by members of nearby Kibbutz Nir David, which also houses the Museum of Regional and Mediterranean Archaeology, situated on an ancient mound dating back to the Canaanite period. You'll find here items discovered in Iran and Egypt, as well as from the nearby Beit She'an excavations. Another major attraction is Gan Hashlosha. This delightful park has all the elements for a picnic stop, with a river flowing through it and three large swimming pools complete with waterfalls and slides, and a children's play area. There is also an abundance of beautiful trees and plants and well-tended lawns. There is also a replica of Tel Amal, the first tower and stockade settlement put together overnight in 1936. It was the forerunner of a further 57 such settlements that helped provide the beginnings of the state. You can see the dining room and the tiny rooms in which the pioneers lived. Another delightful place for a break is nearby Ganei Huga. If you want to bring along your tent, you can rent space here and stay awhile. The whole family will enjoy the large pools, one of which has all that a toddler could wish for, including kiddie-sized slides in the pools (they still, of course, need adult supervision) and toddler-sized pedal boats to rent. The larger pool has overhead sprinklers to keep you cool in even the hottest weather. Beit She'an has yielded some of the most spectacular archaeological finds that even this country has seen. An enormous 7,000-seat amphitheater, streets, and ritual baths are among the many finds unearthed here. Belvoir, aka Kochav Hayarden, is the most complete Crusader castle in Israel. With a spectacular view overlooking the Jordan Valley, the Golan Heights, Gilboa, and Shomron, this fort within a fort was of the utmost strategic importance to the Crusaders. It withstood all of Saladin's attacks. Even when the rest of the first Crusader kingdom had fallen to the Muslims, Belvoir withstood its attackers; but eventually the knights surrendered after a long siege. There is plenty left to see here, such as the moat, the main and inner gates, a network of corridors that form the outer vault, and an observation point that shows clearly its strategic importance. In unusual contrast to this ancient fortress, as you leave the site there is a sculpture garden with pieces inspired by the castle, sculpted by Ygael Tumarkin. Farther north, Kibbutz Gesher stands close to the old kibbutz, which was the first settlement to withstand an attack by Arabs in April 1948. This small 120-strong settlement was also the focal point of an Iraqi invasion just one month later. This area, now known as Old Gesher, tells the story of the settlement's miraculous victory over the enemy. There are people from the kibbutz who'll tell you tales of the countless miracles they witnessed. They'll also tell you about the stealthy middle-of-the-night evacuation, from under the noses of the surrounding Arabs, of all the children, who had to walk silently for several hours to the next settlement. The Battle Museum is in an underground shelter where you can see a film about the kibbutz's extraordinary exploits during the War of Independence and about three nearby bridges for which Kibbutz Gesher is named - parts of which are still visible. There are also the remains of a 2000-year-old Roman bridge, a Turkish train bridge built for the Haifa-Damascus line, and a British bridge dating from 1925. As well, there is a reconstruction of the hydro-electric power station on the nearby island of Naharayim, which is under Jordanian sovereignty but has Israeli land rights. While you're in the area, take a drive along the scenic Mount Gilboa route - you'll see the signs on the main road. At different times of the year there is a multitude of colorful wildflowers that attracts visitors from all over the country. Park your car from time to time along the route and take a scenic walk upon one of the most beautiful mountains in the country.