Stands of tawny green olive trees and a verdant patchwork of freshly farmed fields studded with the occasional gas station are a traveler’s first peeks into the western Galilee, the small region in Israel’s northwestern corner that encompasses the Mediterranean coast north of Haifa, heading inland toward the upper Galilee.
Some of Israel’s earliest pioneers settled in this area, including the Strauss family, who started their dairy business with a cow and cart in the coast town of Nahariya; down the road, in Kibbutz Lohamei Hagetaot, Holocaust survivors found financial security in Tivall, their factory that turns out the oh-so popular soy patties eaten by one and all.
But large food groups aside, it’s in the hills and villages of the region where some enticing tourist spots are being developed, along the lines of the tzimmers, cheesemakers, wineries, and other artisanal artists of the Galilee and Golan, Negev, and just about everywhere in-between. Sure, this kind of tourism development is par for the course these days, but it’s taken longer to develop here, even though this western coast offers the added benefit of access to the sea and cliffside views of the green hills beyond. Get there now, while the moshavim, kibbutzim, and residential communities are still getting their tourism sea-legs.
DAY ONE, 12 pm, check in: There’s a host of room and board options in this neck of the woods, from more formal hotels in Nahariya to a host of moshav and kibbutz-based tzimmers and b&bs in the area. But if you want something more pastoral, and you want to be sure that you’ll be sleeping on high thread-count sheets surrounded by a plethora of peace and quiet, head up into the hills, to the tzimmers in one of the so-called Galilee Lookout towns.
Established by Ariel Sharon back when he was agriculture minister, in order to bolster the border and establish a more Jewish presence among the Arab villages, there are some 30 miniature communities in the region, many of them interconnected and closely intertwined with the nearby Christian towns. One of them is Mizpe Hila, located near the Lebanese border and perhaps best known as the family home of Gilad Shalit, the soldier captured by Hamas, and was finally freed last year.
The community is also the home of Tamar and Yaron Cohen, of Tamar v’Gefen, gefen being the wine that Yaron, a professional carpenter, bottles in the wine cellar he built for himself, in the same manner that he constructed — per Tami’s designs — the three, breathtakingly lovely suites of their hilltop retreat. From the repeating theme of framed corkscrews, echoing Yaron’s extensive collection, and the French country cum Mediterranean touches throughout the space, to the lovingly maintained private gardens, each with a Jacuzzi, and the well-stocked kitchenette that includes a fridge full of drinks, and Tami’s homemade chocolate truffles, cheese crackers, and nut cookies, there is nothing that would possibly make you want to leave, except perhaps for the complimentary bikes, helmets, and a list of possible bike rides — and walks — easily accessed from the house. For now, enjoy exploring the nooks and crannies of this charming space.
4 pm, get moving: The body does have to be moved at some point, and what better option than to head out to the nearby hillls, where a short drive and walk will take you to Eagle Cliff. This isn’t Rosh Hanikra, the fantastic grottoes just a short way up the coast, but perhaps better, since it lacks any lines or entrance fees. The view is wonderful, but the structure of the cliff is worth noting as well, jutting out and creating a natural balcony overlooking the Mediterranean and Kziv River. There are supposedly eagles in the area, but it’s not always easy to spot them, and we didn’t see any on our jaunt. One more thing — tread carefully, especially if you are with the kids.
From Kfar Mailiya, the Christian village abutting Mizpe Hila, drive out onto Route 89 and turn left (east) toward Ma’alot. At the first intersection, turn left (north) into the Ma’aliya industrial zone. The road will take you through the industrial area, and the eastern neighborhood of the town, to a dirt road. Continue on the dirt road, between stands of olive trees, until the road climbs again. When you reach Elias’ farm, a group of red buildings, park the car and walk about 15 minutes toward the cliff. The route is somewhat marked with red signs, and you can also ask Elias for directions.
7 pm, hungry again? There are more than a few options in this neck of the woods, with some choices dependent upon one’s particular kosher demands and the day you’re in town. If it’s a Thursday and you want something light and easy, head to the Malka Brewery in Kibbutz Yehiam, just a short ride from Mizpe Hila. Home to the romantic ruins of a 12th century Crusader castle (which is hosting three dance performances on three Fridays in July-August), you can cop a squat at one of the picnic tables with an al fresco dinner (Tamar will happily pack a picnic, just give her plenty of notice). There’s also the option for a light dinner at the brewery, where there’s goulash in the winter, and lighter, meat sandwiches and hot dogs in the summer. The Malka Brewery is now open on Thursday evenings and Fridays (the brewery itself is kosher and closed on Shabbat) and the main focus, of course, is on the beer, which currently includes a stout, pale ale, wheat ale, and blond ale, always served with freshly roasted peanuts.
DAY TWO, 8 am, rise and shine: This is the kind of vacation where it’s easy to head to bed early (particularly after a nighttime dip in the back-garden Jacuzzi), and bound out of bed for an early morning bike ride. Grab a bike and helmet for a ride toward Monfort, another nearby Crusader Castle. The point of this particular ride isn’t necessarily distance and reaching the castle, but rather, the route, which is downhill all the way (great for coasting, but admittedly tougher on the way back uphill), offering breathtaking views of the hills and coast beyond, riding through orchards of olive trees as the road winds its way toward Moshav Manot.
On the way back, once you’ve huffed and puffed up the hills back into Mizpe Hila, stop off at Michal Keren Gelman, a local ceramicist and former silversmith whose sturdy vases, mugs, and bowls are fashioned from slabs of clay, textured with waffled-imprints and geometric swirls, offering a certain metallic look in their milky white color. Michal Keren Gelman, call 052-470-3071 for an appointment.
10 am, break the fast: Once you eaten your morning repast, which may be shakshuka, fresh bread, and scallion muffins served wtih cheeses and jams, dining al fresco to the gently tinkling sounds of the nearby fish pond, all you’ll want to do is relax with a book and some music piped out to the garden, swinging gently in the double hammock, hung in the shade of Yaron’s carefully pruned carob tree, staring out to the sea beyond. Go for it, that’s what vacation’s for.
12:30 pm, back in the car: There’s been enough time to recover from the bike ride, but the appetite threatens to lurk again, so head into the car for another culinary outing. There’s a wide array of cheesemakers (and winemakers) honing their craft in the nearby moshav and kibbutz environs, from Portobella, a roadside cafe at Moshav Ben Ami (some of their cheeses are sold to supermarket purveyor Gad Dairy) to Edna’s Cheeses at Meshek Hefer, and the Alto Dairy Farm in Kibbutz Shimrat. With the added incentive of goat’s milk ice cream, a recent addition at Alto, we lunched there, choosing bruschetta topped with five different cheeses and ravioli — not homemade, nor goat cheese-filled — but still tasty.
With 30 different cheeses made in the light-filled renovated space that was once the kibbutz kitchen, this family-run outfit is “a little fanatic” about offering goat-only products, said Yonat Mazan, who is married to Ariel, the goat master and former kibbutz dairy farmer. Be sure to try the ice creams, which include cherry vanilla, chocolate hazelnut and vanilla, and are available to take home in 1/2 liter containers. Alto, Kibbutz Shomrat, 04-985-4802. (In the market for some new furniture? Check out the local outlet of furniture factory Shomrat Hazorea, for some good deals on tables and chairs.)
3 pm, grab some culture: Be sure to stop in at Kibbutz Gaaton, where the renowned Kibbutz Contemporary Dance Company makes its permanent home and offers tours of their space, which can include looking in on a dance class or rehearsal of this theatrical, cutting-edge dance troupe, known for their technically strong and physically eclectic dances choreographed by Rami Be’er, as well as their ongoing cooperation with Israeli-American dancer Barack Marshall, who often performs with the troupe. They are always ‘home’ for the summer, as they host a summer dance program for promising young dancers. Call ahead for an appointment to catch a glimpse of the Kibbutz Contemporary Dance Company, 04-985-9730, Kibbutz Gaaton.
Before heading back ‘home,’ stop in at Ga’aton Fruit Wines, also on the kibbutz, to pick up a bottle of Love Liquor, the cottage industry product of kibbutznik, Gidon Adar, who filters the juice of passionfruit, lychees, pomegranates, kiwis, dates, and almonds grown in nearby fields, for a potently sweet, but pleasant after-dinner drink. Ga’aton Fruit Wines, 04-985-9873, call ahead for an appointment.
7 pm, dinner time again? There’s actually a wide range of dining options in this neck of the woods, from French-style cafes in Nahariya (Cafe Briosh, the siblings of Tamar, our tzimmer hostess) to vegan Indian fare in the wooded climes of Klil, (Cafe Klil), as well as chummous at Chummous Alhayat in Maalot Tarshiha. For the kosher folk, it’s a good thing that chef Uri Arnon decided to settle in on Moshav Netiv Hashayara, just next to Nahariya, where he’s been serving steaks and some really wonderful beef ceviche and beef enchiladas for the last five years. The atmosphere lacks a certain sense of style, with somewhat stuffy seating inside or on the porch of a Swiss-style wooden cabin, enhanced by polyester napkins and table clothes. But the earnest young waiters, perfectly rare steaks, and home-brewed beer are well worth the trip. Arnold’s, call 057-944-3399 for a reservation, especially on Sunday nights, when it’s one of the few restaurants open in the area.
10 pm, bedtime at last: Now it’s time to head back to the homestead again, checking in for that last night of full rest before returning to life’s routines. If you’re at Tamar v’Gefen, and haven’t had that chocolate truffle yet, this could be the moment. Or, chocolate aside, pop open the bottle of Cabernet that Yaron bequeathed to you. Click on some tunes from the extensive music library, piped through the speakers throughout the suite, or mellow out to the sounds of the frogs croaking in the nearby lily pads. Life should always be this good.
Other places to stay in the western Galilee:
1) One particularly enticing new option in the coastal town of Nahariya is the charming Shtarkman Erna Hotel Nahariya, a refurbished family-run hotel with furnishings and touches that echo the German roots of this 1959 establishment, as well as easy access to the nearby beach.
2) Looking for luxe, private accommodations with kosher certification? Check out the spacious suites of Hamakom in Netoa, each with its own garden, pool, and Jacuzzi, as well as massage chair, Nespresso coffee machine, Tami bar, and an array of deserts, drinks, and fruit for easy snacking. This is also a b&b, but guests can easily order meals in from local, kosher restaurants.
3) Get a little closer to the beach and stay at Dolphin Village, based in Moshav Shavei Tzion, between Acre and Nahariya. With 22 garden rooms, all with a view of the nearby beach, this is perfect for couples, families, or larger gatherings, as each unit has its own kitchenette, barbecue equipment and ample lawn space for running around.