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Carla, is our star blogger/traveler who visited Israel for a lightning three-day trip, visiting Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, Bethlehem, Masada and the Dead Sea.

Friday

About to board and take off to Tel Aviv. The next few days will be an experience of a lifetime. The timing of my trip is obviously a concern for my family with this week’s announcement of Trump’s decision to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. While unfortunate, I am really excited to be there and will be safe with the Belder-Gray team, who coordinated my trip. Let the adventure begin!

The way this came about is a long story. I had an opportunity.

I have a cousin, Marcio, who works for United Airlines. He gave me his companion pass a year ago. It allows you to fly standby and just pay the taxes. I wanted to do at least one international trip per month.

I took a couple of trips with it, and a lot of trips without using it. Now I have one left. I decided on Tel Aviv for a couple of reasons.

One is that I looked at all the direct flights out of SFO airport. There are about a dozen or so, a lot out of Asia and Europe. But I’ve done Europe, and I had done Asia last year.

After further research on solo female travel in Israel I decided that’s where I would go. There was a direct red-eye flight and I only had three days to do it. I have three weeks of vacation per year and I’m totally maxed out.

I happened to mention my plans to my friend Michael Gelber after a Happy Birthday post to him. He said, “Did you know I was born in Israel?” He is Chairman of an international tour operator, IWorld, formerly IsramWorld. I had no idea. When he heard I was going to Israel, he had his company make the arrangements for me.

It was the universe speaking to me, the way it all happened, the way it all worked out. It was very magical.

Saturday

Welcome to Israel! Excited to explore Tel Aviv tonight!

Arrived at hotel.

I slept a little on the plane, a direct flight from SFO. We got in at 9:30 p.m. I flew on United from San Francisco to Tel Aviv direct, and they landed when they said they would. It was a 14-hour trip, not too bad. Unfortunately I got a middle seat. On the way back I will hopefully be in business class. Security was tight with all the checks out of SFO, but it was pretty easy to enter the TLV airport and exit, which I was grateful for.

I only slept four hours last night on the plane. I probably should sleep a little bit, but I’ll be fine. By the time I got to the hotel it was 10:30 p.m. I quickly showered, refreshed and was out the door in 30 minutes with a husband-and-wife tour guide team, Amir and Michelle. They picked me up and took me to a bunch of different little places in Tel Aviv.

We walked passed the Israeli Independence Hall where there were remnants of a protest that happened earlier that night about the recent Trump announcement, before going to the five different places in the Rothschild neighborhood.

First was a little hole-in-the-wall bar, Rothschild 12, where they also served food. Every place we went was really dark for taking videos, so I didn’t get much. The first thing I noticed was that they had a female deejay. That stood out to me. I had a pink specialty cocktail made with gin that tasted somewhat like a Cosmopolitan. I’m not a gin person. But I tried it, and it was tasty.

 

The second place was a club called Jimmy Who, where they played American hip hop and Top 40 music. I had a local beer called Goldstar, and I tried an Israeli alcohol called arak that tastes like licorice. I wasn’t a fan of it. My tour guide Michelle liked it with lemonade. That was kind of different.

The third place was called Drama, a new place that just opened that week. Michelle knew the owner. I met him. His name was Roy. He owned another bar too. This place was low-key and had a ‘70s hotel décor with a large outdoor patio where you could see new high rise condos in the air. I had an Israeli craft beer called Negev Oasis., with a tasty golden/blonde ale flavor.

I took a video of the deejays upstairs. There were three guys behind the deejay booth and us. In the background on one big wall was an old school-looking movie, very racy. It was going the whole time. I was like, “Oh, okay.” 

We walked down some alleyways and stopped at Port Said where a top Israeli celebrity chef, Eyal Shani, has his take on Middle Eastern cuisine and grabbed a table outside. I ordered something I had never seen back home, ratatouille, which was grilled eggplant and tomatoes with chopped hard-boiled egg and tahini. And tried a baked potato served cold with herbs and oil, which was delicious. A deejay was playing inside, surrounded by hundreds of vinyl records. I noticed a record by Aaliyah being displayed.

There was another female deejay at the last place we went, called Buxa. She was also rapping. This was the darkest of places, where they had cool eclectic art and mini figurines everywhere. I tried another local beer there, Maccabee 7.9. Didn’t stay too long as it was getting late.

Stayed out till 3:30 a.m. my first night in Tel Aviv and I can say it was cool to see female DJs/vocalists and try the yummy local beers. I was really impressed by the microbrewery culture. Saturday night is like our Sunday night, so not as much going on… but I enjoyed the vibe, music and food.

Sunday morning in Tel Aviv

Belder-Gray arranged a private day tour of Tel Aviv.

After four hours of sleep, I woke up to start my day. I had a nice breakfast with salads, cheeses and, of course, hummus! One more night at the Sea Executives Suites hotel, located beachside in the Tel Aviv Promenade. I took a moment to sit on the beach, put my feet in the fine sand and listen to the waves (and construction). I arranged for Amir to pick me up again at about 11 a.m. so I could catch some of the sun at the beach beforehand. Then I was off to check out the city.

First stop was to the port of Tel Aviv where we took a stroll down to the water and got a cup of coffee. One thing I noticed was the colorful outdoor playgrounds and fitness areas. There were two different playgrounds that looked like outdoor jungle gyms there by the Port. 

After that, we drove along Dizengoff Street out to a newer downtown-type Tel Aviv where they are building new high rises as well as restructuring some older buildings, while preserving the district’s historical look. I lunched at the Sarona Market where they have fresh produce with restaurants and retail. I found a traditional meal with grains, grape leaf-wrapped rice and green beans and a side of crepe-like bread. Sarona Market is near the old German government center and military base. Lots of young men and women soldiers. In Israel everyone is drafted to the military after high school. Men serve three years, women serve two years.

I had a bit of time to see Old Jaffa and some of the art galleries, paintings, sculptures and jewelry. After I walked around there for an hour, Amir dropped me off to the Carmel Market. There I walked around and did some shopping before walking back to my hotel. It was dark, but lots of people were out. I got menorahs, some trinkets and spices I had never smelled or tasted anywhere else.

By the time I got back to my hotel, I had just over an hour to relax before getting ready to go back out for the night. I tried to lie down for a quick power nap but couldn’t sleep. But I was able to rest a bit when I closed my eyes for about 20 minutes. But now I’m up and getting ready to power through the night.

I went to what I heard was one of the nicest restaurants in town, Social Club. I had an amazing dinner: pan fried sea bream fish served with ratte potato puree, lemon and capers with a local Israeli Chardonnay wine. Good food and good vibes.

After dinner I stopped by a highly recommended craft cocktail bar, Imperial Bar, which was right next to my hotel, and I discovered a very unusual list of cocktails. I ordered the Scottish Girl from Ipanema, a tropical drink with single malt. It was delicious! “Find what you love and let it kill you.”

Before heading back to my room on my last night in Tel Aviv, I was drawn in to a bar by the sound of live music. I stopped in and had an Israeli craft beer and chatted with some local, talented musicians. It happened to be open mic night.

Monday

I left Tel Aviv on a tour bus this morning and made my way to the Holy Land. I started my day in Jerusalem on Mt. Olives, which overlooks Jerusalem, and then went to Mt Zion, where the Bible first started to come alive for me. I touched King David’s Tomb, which was in an area separated by men and women. The men were required to cover their heads with kippahs.  I put my hand on his tomb as a Hebrew-speaking woman was next to me holding one hand up in the air, praying and crying, while another one held a Bible.

Right before we went into the Room of the Last Supper, our tour guide read out of the book of Luke from the New Testament about the night of the Last Supper. At that exact moment, the clock chimed from the belltower. I got chills.

Then we walked over to Dormition Abbey, where Jesus celebrated Passover and washed his disciple’s feet, where the risen Christ appeared to his disciples and the Holy Spirit came down, and where the Virgin Mary died. This space now serves as a church with beautiful art everywhere and a life-size statue of Mary in death downstairs.

I walked through the Zion gate to Old Jerusalem, past the Jewish Quarter, through the Muslim Quarter and the Christian Quarter. I learned there were eight gates into Old Jerusalem, but only seven that are open. It’s believed the Messiah will enter Jerusalem through the Golden (Mercy) Gate in the future, so it was sealed years ago.

I wrote a prayer request to God and prayed at the Western Wall. I don’t think I ever prayed as much as these last few days. And I had one revelation.

 

Church of the Holy Sepulchre.

I continued down the Via Dolorosa and walked the steps that Christ walked during his Crucifixion and then over to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, which had been destroyed various times over the centuries. I had an emotional experience walking into the place where Jesus was supposedly crucified, buried and resurrected. I got to touch what is believed to be his tomb, which was surreal. The tomb was just opened for the first time in October 2016 with recent evidence dating this tomb found by the Romans 1,700 years ago after a significant restoration of the church.

When I entered the Church I walked around, just me and another solo woman American traveler, Luz from Denver. I ended up in front of the shrine that encloses Jesus’s tomb (known as the Edicule), but I didn’t know what it was. There was a line so figured it was something important and special. Once I was I inside the shrine there was a man who was guarding the tomb and directing people in and out of the small space. No photos were allowed. I walked into a dimly lit area where candles were lit next to a small fountain of water. I bowed down into another small room a few steps away, where only two or three people were allowed at a time.


Once I realized where I was, I knelt on the ground, put my hands on Jesus’s white stone tomb and said a prayer. I looked up and felt the heavenly spirit so strong, I almost blacked out. It was the most intense experience of the whole trip. That room too was only candle lit, but brighter than the room next to it. I only had a moment to stay there, so I got up so Luz could then enter. I couldn’t believe what had just happened and where I was. Seeing that and feeling what I felt made the whole trip right there.

The next stop was Bethlehem, about 20 minutes from Jerusalem. I walked with four other women across the border/checkpoint (without our tour guide), while another driver waited for us on the other side of the gates. That part was interesting, and slightly nerve-wracking. But things were calm there.

Church of the Nativity.

Bethlehem, Palestine

Walking over to the Church of the Nativity, we passed the tallest Christmas tree, across from the Bethlehem Peace Center. I noticed the banners hanging on the buildings, two saying “Jerusalem will always be the eternal capital of Palestine.”

At the Church of the Nativity, the place where Jesus was born, our tour guide let us know that all the doors leading into the church were short. The reason is so people would bow down in respect to enter this holy place. What a special place! It’s shared by three churches, Catholic, Greek Orthodox, and Armenian, and is currently undergoing a major restoration. And the different areas look and feel very different. Downstairs is the manger area where Jesus Christ was born. I lay down on my stomach and kissed the star that marks the exact spot. Since tourism has been down the last few days, we got right in. Sometimes we were told it can take hours.

They broadcast worldwide from the Catholic Church at the midnight mass of Christmas; and during Christmas time they move the symbolic baby Jesus from the Catholic Church to the area where they say He was born (marked by the star). We got to go underground to St. Jerome’s Cave where St. Jerome spent 30 years translating the Scriptures from Hebrew and Greek to Latin. This cave was fascinating!

On our way out of Bethlehem, we stopped by a store to do some shopping. There I bought a Bible that is covered in Olive Wood grown in the Galilee region where the Jesus based His ministry. It is engraved and has little capsules of Holy Water, Holy Earth and Holy Oil embedded in the wood. I figured this was a unique treasure I could pass on to my children.

The sun was just going down and we could see the Christmas tree and strings of lights brightening up Bethlehem. As we were leaving, John, our driver, gave me a hot spot internet connection from his phone and I FaceTimed my mom so she could get a live glimpse of what I was experiencing.

American Colony Hotel, Jerusalem, Israel.

In Jerusalem I stayed at the American Colony hotel, which is definitely a gem. I was exhausted from the last few days and took a two-hour nap when I got back from Bethlehem. I freshened up and went downstairs to the hotel restaurant and sat at the bar to have dinner. I met some cool and interesting people, including reporters, camera crew and diplomats. One cameraman from Washington DC, was leaving the next morning. He was in Jerusalem filming the protests in Ramallah over the recent Trump announcement. We hung out with some other reporters, who had just got into town from Turkey and Canada. I heard some fascinating stories, got to shoot with a professional video camera, “Live from Jerusalem,” and listened to Kaskade Christmas on Spotify, my newest favorite Christmas album. After the day visiting the Holy Land, Christmas music had an entirely new meaning and gave me a different feeling.

The entire hotel staff was more than hospitable and welcoming. Thanks to Thomas Brugnatelli, the GM, and Michael Gelber for the connection. Highly recommended for those who come to Jerusalem!

Palestine, Hebron, West Bank.

Last day of my trip, I was lucky to get on the front seat of the tour bus so I could take videos on my iPhone. I got a video of driving through the West Bank.

On the way to Masada in the Judean Desert, our tour guide did a good job of explaining history. We went in a cable car up to the National Park and spent a couple hours walking around while he talked about King Herod, who built the fortress at Masada 2,000 years ago. We could see the Dead Sea from there, and the area that used to have water, but is now dried up.

Our group got back in the tour bus to go to the En Gedi Spa, where we would enter the Dead Sea, the lowest place on earth where there is nothing alive because it consists of 33 percent salt. Not even bacteria can live there. We had lunch there and took a tractor shuttle to the water. I spent about 20 minutes floating in the shallow water, which was probably too long. But the sun peeked out from behind the clouds during the last five minutes and I was just soaking up the sun and the moment. It was cool! I met a few other travelers from the San Francisco Bay Area there.

It was sooo salty!! The longer I was out of the water, the more salt dried up and I could scrape it off of my body.  I could not wait to get back to the hotel for a longer shower and to wash my hair.

My flight wasn’t until 1 a.m. so I made sure to maximize every last minute I was there. That Tuesday, December 12, happened to be the first night of Hanukkah. Although I’m Christian, not Jewish, I was excited to go around Jerusalem and see the Menorahs and Hanukkiahs light up for the first night.

I started on a 20-minute walk from the American Colony towards Old Jerusalem where I stopped for some street food and had a shawarma pit (with hot sauce of course) along the way.

After a wrong turn, a taxi driver pulled over to see if I needed a ride. He told me I was a 20-minute walk from where I wanted to be. So I got in the taxi and had him drive me around for about an hour to various places to see the Menorah candles lit, including the Jewish Quarter and Western Wall. I was grateful that a Jewish man at the Manilla Hotel Menorah lighting offered me a sufganiyah, a traditional jelly doughnut they make in celebration of Hanukkah. Yummy!

After returning to the hotel, I had time for one last glass of wine at the bar downstairs. In that hour I met another cameraman, withVice, the HBO series, who was there shooting a documentary. It was also his first time in Jerusalem.

Just before leaving, I ran into the ambassador from Norway I had met the night before and we finished our conversation. One word of advice from him was to come back and bring my girls. It doesn’t matter if you’re religious or not, he said, there is so much history here.

My lightning exploration to the Holy Land was surreal and so worth only sleeping 10-hours over the last three nights! Special thanks to the team at Belder-Gray, Michael Gelber and Priya Chhabra for arranging all my tours and making this trip extra memorable!