SEA OF GALILEE — I’d never spent a night in a motor home. Camping? Sure, there was that one night in a tent on a ridge overlooking the Ramon Crater, and a long-ago slumber party in the Sinai. But me and the family in one cramped vehicle, where the table folds into a bed and I get to empty the toilet? Not exactly my idea of a vacation.
This particular RV, however, looked a little different. In fact, it appeared to signal the arrival of glamping – glamorous camping — in Israel.
It began with Israelis who had experienced caravan camping abroad and wanted to do the same back home. At the same time, the Tourism Ministry wanted to offer less expensive and more nature-oriented tourism options, and decided to push the caravan camping concept.
Now the ministry is working to better equip the country’s camping grounds, offering grants to entrepreneurs looking to establish camping and caravan sites.
LaOfek, founded by Anat and Asaf Efraim, was one of the first companies to get into the caravan business. The Efraims had camped and traveled by caravan throughout Europe and out of their car in Israel, and ended up leaving their jobs — he worked in the Prime Minister’s Office, she was an attorney — to set up their dream company.
They first worked with the Tourism Ministry to lower the taxes on RVs — “we worked hard,” said Anat Efraim — and by 2011 had begun purchasing their imported fleet of Adria caravans.
Israelis didn’t get it right away, said Efraim. “Some people said it won’t work for Israel, and others immediately understood,” she said.
Caravans are better known to the Israeli public as extra classrooms, makeshift synagogues, or temporary homes for those living in new hilltop settlements over the Green Line.
But that didn’t stop the Efraims. Their plan was to slowly roll out a series of well-equipped RVs ranging from high-end to medium and thus offer the vacation-hungry Israeli public an alternative to the popular tzimmers, or guestrooms. They weren’t alone; Nofey Moledet and Holivan are two other companies in the same space, but Efraim said LaOfek was the first to work with the ministry to lay the groundwork.
“Now it’s a consensus that it’s an amazing way to take a vacation,” she said.
They’re renting and selling the caravans — priced at NIS 75,000 ($22,000) and up — to those who want to hit the road whenever they choose. They do have a few motor homes, RVs that include engines and steering wheels and can be driven, but most of the RVs are separate caravans, meant to be latched onto a vehicle for driving on the road.
They’ve also figured out that some people, tourists in particular, want to have the RV ready to roll, stocked with all the necessary equipment and either brought to the airport — with the appropriate rental car — or waiting for them at a campground.
They’re now working on providing the proper kind of campgrounds with groomed lawns; clean, functioning bathrooms; and electricity.
“The image is a campground at a high level, like in Europe,” said Tomer Behren.
Behren is a kibbutznik, hired by LaOfek as the caretaker of their Jordan-Kinneret campground, where we spent the night (more on that later). Right now, he’s spending most of his time building canopies and taking care of the caravans. But he’s hoping that LaOfek will succeed at this site.
It is, frankly, a dreamy location. Situated on the banks of the Sea of Galilee, at the point where the country’s largest lake meets the Jordan River, the caravans are parked at an internal cul de sac, each with its own spot on the lake. Every caravan has a six-square-meter (seven square yards) outdoor area with a wooden picnic table, a small but serviceable grill, a canopy (currently being assembled by Behren) and an individual electric box that keeps the caravan going, including the all-important air conditioning — a must during the hot, humid, spring, summer and fall in this area.
There is a public bathroom on the site, and while it’s fairly decrepit, it is clean and functional and includes toilets and showers, making it easier for families who would rather avoid frequently emptying the toilet container located under the RV.
LaOfek’s caravans aren’t the only ones in the campground; there are other RVs, as well as the adjacent grassy areas used by tent dwellers most weekends and holidays. In fact, the designated swimming spot, located about 500 meters away, can get crowded, said Behren.
This popular tract of land is owned by Kvutzat Kinneret, one of the first kibbutz cooperatives to be established in Israel, and located just across the road on Route 90, the highway that snakes up the Jordan Valley and past Tiberias.
The kibbutz, which has just over 800 members today, was founded in 1913, and used to make money from beekeeping and the sale of honey.
Now it earns money from its valuable real estate. At the Jordan River camping ground, each tent or caravan dweller pays several hundred shekels to set up their temporary home.
The Jordan-Kinneret campgrounds aren’t LaOfek’s only option. The company has others and is prepping still more, with plans to offer full-service campgrounds throughout the country, said Efraim.
For now, though, it’s clearly one of its better spots. LaOfek keeps eight caravans at the Yarden campsite, so that customers can drive their own car there and move into one of four types of caravans. The RVs range in size from two to seven sleepers, and the Aviva Space six-sleeper, ranging in price from NIS 600 (per night for 10 nights) to NIS 750 (for 2-4 nights), is one of the most popular choices, said Efraim.
We slept in the Aviva Space, a six-sleeper with a bunk bed, “master” bedroom with a double-size bed, and a dining room area that doubles as the third bedroom with another double-size bed (the table folds down, while the bench seating pillows are laid flat to form the mattress). The beds, with still-new mattresses, are pretty comfortable, with reading lights provided for each sleeper, as well as a full window — with screens and shades — above each bed and a guard rail and ladder for the upper bunk.
Over in the bathroom, the stall shower offers plenty of elbow room, and the toilet swivels, avoiding getting knees bumped by the sink unit. There are also two deep shelves for tucking in toiletry bags, more than are usually found in some hotels. The kitchen has a mid-size fridge and internal freezer that takes some time to cool your food down, as well a microwave and four burners — three on one side of the counter and the fourth under a metal tray to the side of the sink. Not bad for close quarters.
There’s plenty of storage as well, with closed cabinets all along the top of the RV, as well as cupboards and drawers under and above the kitchen counter.
With wood paneling and floors, the Aviva is probably a four-star in the world of RVs. But it’s the VIP option, such as the Adora Premium, also a six-sleeper, that pushes LaOfek into the glamping circuit. It’s actually a tighter squeeze — unless you rent the seven-sleeper — but there are more luxurious touches, like the ultrasuede fabrics on the beds and higher-end light fixtures throughout the cabin.
The Aviva suited our family of five just fine. The younger kids were thrilled with the bunk beds (as well as the touch-dimmer lights and personal windows overlooking the water); we liked the amount of storage space and were satisfied with the mattresses (although it’s a tight squeeze when one of the kids comes down with an ear infection and crawls into your bed for most of the night).
Glamping, Sabra style
Can LaOfek’s RVs be considered glamping? Probably not. The Adora — at NIS 650 to NIS 850 per night — is a touch more glamorous than the Aviva, with a sleeker look (except for the bathroom, which doesn’t have a separate toilet and shower space). If you packed thick towels and 500-thread-count sheets, along with a Nespresso machine and top-notch toiletries, then it could count as a luxury stay.
Still, the entire RV experience is much more comfortable than standard camping. Sure, there’s plenty of inconvenience, from shlepping a household of equipment (though LaOfek can provide everything for a rental fee, from plates and utensils to wine glasses, lawn chairs and pots for brewing Turkish coffee) to the cramped quarters.
But there’s also the ease of the tidy cupboards, the small but efficient kitchen, and a private bathroom that’s a nice break from public campground showers.
And once you’ve unpacked, and settled in a lawn chair with a drink, looking out on the Kinneret, your choice is validated. There are few hotels with this kind of magical location, where kids can scramble down the rocks to search for crabs and snails while watching the kayakers paddle across the lake, as the sun sets and stars slowly spread across the sky.
Not glamorous, definitely glorious.