Travel: Go Galilee

Spa hotels, kosher dining, historical sites – boutique weekend breaks aim to reinvent Upper Galilee as tourist destination.

Galilee 521 (photo credit: Roi Katlan)
Galilee 521
(photo credit: Roi Katlan)
As the winter sun sets over the Hula Valley Park and Nature Reserve in the Upper Galilee, the evening air fills with the sound of thousands of cranes calling out to each other. The sky teems with the long-necked birds, whirling and spinning in effortlessly choreographed spirals toward Agamon Lake.
Inbar Rom, our Keren Kayemeth Le’Israel-Jewish National Fund guide, can look up into the sky and tell you how many cranes are flying overhead. On the day we visit, Rom has been out in the nature reserve since 4:30 a.m.
counting the cranes. As she talks, she looks upward, pointing out rare birds of prey and a flock of migrating pelicans flying high above the park.
The guided tour to the Hula Valley is just one of many options on offer for Israelis and foreign visitors who want to spend a weekend off the beaten tourist track.
For Israelis, a typical weekend break in the north of the country might bring to mind small wooden cabins, local food and pot-luck entertainment, while international tourists rarely visit the North, preferring to spend time in Jerusalem or Tel Aviv. However, the Upper Galilee region is reinventing itself as a luxury holiday destination with a difference.
KKL-JNF has partnered with Galilee tourist agencies, hoteliers and attractions to offer individually tailored short breaks that incorporate stays at five-star boutique hotels with visits to local KKL-JNF run beauty spots, nature reserves and historical sites.
To complete the package, KKL-JNF has teamed up with several other local tourist spots and some of the Upper Galilee’s best five-star boutique hotels, a growing trend in northern Israel.
Anat Nissim, CEO of tourism association Land of the Galilee, says the boutique tours should give Israeli and foreign visitors to the Galilee a different picture of the region, as well as bringing more tourist trade to local businesses.
Tourists visiting the Hula Valley in winter, for example, can have a special KKL-JNF guided tour of the Hula Crane Project, which gives the migrating birds a safe haven in the Galilee while preventing them from damaging local agriculture.
The Hula Nature Reserve’s attitude to human-nature coexistence can also be seen in its treatment of another inhabitant of the Hula Valley – the nutria, also known as the coypu or the river rat.
Though in many countries nutria are considered a pest and have been eradicated, in the Hula Valley they are affectionately tolerated.
Jewish immigrants brought the nutrias from Russia to farm them for fur, overlooking the extreme differences in climate between Siberia and the Hula Valley. The entire business model collapsed, however, when the nutrias refused to grow any fur. Resembling a cross between a large, overfed mouse and a beaver, Hula’s nutrias waddle around, gorging themselves on grass and ignoring human visitors.
Another local beauty spot that is well worth spending a day exploring is the Biriya Forest near Safed, home to some 50 million trees covering around 2,000 hectares.
KKL-JNF, which planted the forest in the 1950s, is now developing several tourist sites, including a walking trail to the Biriya Fortress, a major city in talmudic times and the spot where Rabbi Joseph Caro wrote part of the Shulhan Aruch.
Mountain bike enthusiasts can enjoy a 22-km. biking route through the forest, and there is a shorter trail for families.
For those less inclined to walk or cycle, KKL-JNF is developing a 12-km. scenic route that can be completed by car with stops for picnics or strolls. Dubbed the Path of the Righteous, the route incorporates several important Jewish sites, such as the ruins of one of the Galilee’s most ancient synagogues at Naburiya, says Aviram Zuck, who heads KKl-JNF’s operations in the Upper Galilee.
Visitors to the forest can also stop off at the tomb of Rabbi Yonatan Ben-Uziel, a popular pilgrimage site for those wishing to pray for a good marriage partner. Those already married can pray for children.
After a hard day exploring nature, tourists can enjoy a leisurely wine-and-cheese tasting session at the small family-run Adir Winery in Dalton near Rosh Pina. On offer are Merlot, Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon wines made from hand-picked grapes.
Those who want to spend the night in the region can choose from an increasing number of boutique hotels. A growing trend in the area, these hotels combine five-star accommodation, kosher dining and spa treatments with beautiful views of the scenic surrounding area.
Among the best of the hotels is Bayit Bagalil, a stone chateau-style house perched high on a forested hilltop above Hatzor Haglilit. Owned by New York businessman Richard Cohen, the hotel is an elegant 26-room kosher oasis, complete with spa, outdoor pool and breathtaking views.
Children under 16 are not allowed to stay in the hotel (except on Jewish holidays), though Cohen allows guests to book the entire hotel for special occasions lsuch as birthdays and bat mitzvas.
Another boutique hotel, Amirey Hagalil, is situated between Karmiel and Safed and welcomes children aged 12 and over. Small and cozy with just 17 rooms, the hotel is in a Turkish khan-style building, with an ancient olive tree growing in the lobby. The hotel also offers spa treatments, and its kosher chef’s restaurant serves a hearty meatbased menu.
For those who prefer to be slightly closer to nature, the Vered Hagalil Guest Farm offers accommodation in wooden cabins or stone cottages designed especially for couples, with views overlooking Lake Kinneret (the Sea of Galilee) and an opportunity to partake in daytime or moonlight American ranch-style horseback rides. The ranch also hosts Christian guests keen to walk the Jesus Trail. In keeping with its ranch theme, the kosher restaurant serves hearty American-style fare, such as Southern fried chicken and apple pie. 
The writer was a guest of KKL-JNF.