Israel. That holy land that people have been fighting over for….well, pretty much since as long as a man could hold a sword. More often than not, news surrounding Israel is political. Suicide bombs, missile attacks, retaliations, religious tensions, conflict etc etc are words that are the most common….Yet from my weeklong visit there this May, I have seen a much brighter, beautiful side of this small nation. Somewhere fascinating, filled with wonder and frankly some of the best food and wine found on God’s green earth.
BUT Before I take you on this wonderful journey through a country that should definitely be on your hit list of places to visit at least once in your life.
Is Israel safe? Yes, very. Ok, let’s face it, once you step outside of Singapore, practically every other place in the world seems dangerous. However, violent crime and the threat of terrorism is very low..actually a lot less than most of Western Europe. Just don’t do anything stupid like try and drive overland into Syria or Gaza.
Once you have an Israeli stamp, can you go to Malaysia and Indonesia? Yes. I don’t know where this came from. Once you have an Israeli stamp, the only countries you won’t be able to visit on that passport are Lebanon, Syria, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Iraq and and Iran..nowhere that’s nearby Singapore in any case.
I don’t speak the language…will I be ok getting around? Yes and yes. For a start, pretty much all the signs are in English in addition to Hebrew and Arabic, as are restaurant menus..And literally 90% of people speak at least basic English so you’d be just fine! It’s also very economical to rent a car (this is what I did, only $20 SGD per day) and it will give you the freedom to explore at your leisure, especially if you’re headed into wine country.
Israel is all about religious pilgrimage, right? Wrong. Ok, it’s true that Israel is a major centre for Jews, Christians, Muslims and the Bahai Faith, but this small strip of land has much more to offer. Beautiful mountains in the North, golden dessert in the south, scuba diving, lakes, awesome nightlife in Tel Aviv and a history as old and rich as can be. It’s no wonder than so many races are fighting over their right be there.
However, one thing I love about this small area of land in the Middle East is its food. The food culture here is so important that is can even rival Singapore. Replace ‘Chili Crab’ with ‘Hummus’ or ‘Rendang’ with ‘Falafel’ in a discussion and you can be arguing for hours on where to get the best. And just like Singaporeans, Israeli’s will travel miles just to get the perfect bite.
This article could span an entire book so I’ll keep in brief. If you’re a mega-foodie and headed to Israel, you’re in for a treat. As much as I’d like recommend individual places, it would take far too long. Israel is only one of the many countries I’ve visited and I’ve never had a bad meal so just go out and explore. Expect meat restaurants, breakfast/salad cafés, great burger joints of course some sensational Middle Eastern dishes like hummus, baba ghanoush, pita bread, stuffed vine leaves.
Some of the best and freshest food will be found at the local markets so be sure to check out the Carmel and the Port Market in Tel Aviv, the Machane Yehuda market in Jerusalem (http://www.machne.co.il/en/) and the Arab Souk in Akko.
Some essentials to try are the Jerusalem bagels (and pretty much any fresh baked bread). Seriously amazing here…everywhere. It doesn’t even make sense.
Spices! Pick up a few bags and take them back to Singapore. I know I did. Super fresh and amazing quality.
Sweets! Particularly in Arab markets, this will be some of the best sugary, pistachio, sesame-filled treats you will ever eat.
As for wine, here is a rundown of my personal pick of wineries to visit (or at least try their wine):
If you’re headed north, first port of call is Zichron Yaakov. A charming European-looking town with cobbled streets and old cafés. There lies the famous Carmel Winery, as one of Israel’s biggest wine-producers their range is massive…Most of the wines are ok, but please please try the Yatir wines, a boutique vineyard acquired by Carmel a number of years ago. They are superb… Perhaps my favourite wines in Israel. In fact, their special reserve ‘Forest/Ya’ar’ was given a healthy 93 pts by Mr. Robert Parker himself. Be sure also to try their ‘Meshek’ (Blend of Cab, Merlot and Shiraz).
Heading further up, check out Recanati Vineyards near Hadera. There’s also a superb dairy farm next door which they pair with the wines during tasting. Recanati have a huge range of wines in all price categories. Across the board are all decent, but make sure you try 1) Shiraz , 2) Sauvignon Blanc Reserve and 3 (and most importantly) The Special Reserve – predominantly Cabernet Sauvignon.
Once you head past Hadera, go all the way to the Galiliee and Golan Heights. Beautiful landscape with rolling hills and lakes.
Golan Height Winery, Odem Mountain, Dalton, Adir are well worth visiting and in reasonably close proximity to each other.
They each have welcoming and beautiful villa/cabin style tasting houses. Perfect for whiling away the afternoon over a few glasses. Particular favourites are the Odem Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, Dalton’s Syrah/Viognier blend and Adir’s Cabernet. Golan Height’s top reserve wines are absolutely sensational but they’ll set you back about $100 per bottle even at the winery.
It’s also worth mentioned the Judean Hills (The Mountains Southwest of Jerusalem) for great wineries:
As much as I love the landscape of the north, it seems that the highest concentration of incredible wines are West of Jerusalem. Domain du Castel, Yatir, Margalit and Clos du Gat are all well, well worth trying. Having tried pretty much their entire ranges, I am pleased to report that they are all at least quite good. The speciality is Bordeaux red blends made with a new world twist. These wines are so good that from these vineyards, even the likes of Robert Parker have been giving ratings of over 90 points.
This is not my first visit to Israel, and I doubt my last. Every time I go it seems new boutique wineries are opening up, and each year the standard gets better and better. Let’s just hope some distributors in Singapore take notice and start importing some here so we can all enjoy!
There are no direct flights to Israel from Singapore (thanks Malaysia)…. So, best ways to go are via Bangkok (THAI/El Al), Hong Kong (El Al), Mumbai (El Al) or Istanbul (Turkish Airlines). Ticket prices usually range between $1200-1600 SGD all in.
Top Image Credit: Emmanuel DYAN