TEL AVIV, Israel Suspended from Tel Aviv's airport-terminal ceiling, a lighted blue and white sign advertised snorkeling tripsin the Red Sea. I couldn't stroll across on dry ground like the Israelites traipsing after Moses, but I could be convinced to do a little underwater sightseeing.
The itinerary of this trip for journalistscourtesy of Israel's Ministry of Tourismcovered common biblical sites. No time to explore on our own, but newly hooked on snorkeling, I knew I'd have to come back.
Our tour guide moved quickly, and the joke kept recycling: "You make us run where Jesus walked." But everywhere we went and everything I researched convinced me that, in addition to the biblical sites, almost anything a person dreams of doing on vacation can be enjoyed in Israel.
Sailing across the silver-sequined Sea of Galilee (Lake Kinneret) in a first-century-style fishing boat, thinking about Jesus' walk on stormy waters here, I heard a nearby motor. A jet ski with two squealing occupants whizzed past: Antiquity meets present day.
The Sea of Galilee offers swimming, waterskiing, windsurfing and even fishing.
Elisa Moed of Travelujah.com cautions: "Fish swim at different water levels, and the fish that swim closer to the surface are small. Therefore it is quite difficult to catch anything in the Sea."
Rentals for water sports are available in Tiberias, the largest city in the Galilee region, on the west shore.
A convenient home base for the area, Tiberias provides good lodging choices. We stayed at the Rimonim Galei Kinnereth Hotel, directly on the lake's shore. In case you overdo your recreation, the hotel's spa offers luxurious massages and a whirlpool with a modernistic waterfall.
A breakfast buffet of local and American-friendly food included cereals, egg dishes, cheeses, salmon, fruit, pancakes, sugar-free items and yummy cheesecake served warm. We breakfasted on the sunny deck, gazing over the lake and chatting before heading out for more adventures.
In December foodies may enjoy the Taste of Kinneret, which is like American food festivals, on two weekends around Christmastimea fun addition to a trip including Bethlehem. Resorts and kibbutzes serve such items as goat cheese, Golan Heights beef, pralines, and local vegetables and fruits.
Biking and hiking
You can bike where Jesus walked, whether mountain biking through the Galilee hills or circumnavigating the 40,000-acre Sea of Galilee, in a matter of hours or even days; several beaches offer camping sites should you want to camp overnight.
The current path includes highway biking and some placid sections. Moed says the highway is busy, so "any biking on this road should be done with a company and bike guide that have special insurance for 'adventure sports,'" as it's categorized. The Ministry of Tourism is currently upgrading the entire path.
While biking around the lake, you can make rest stops at popular historical sites.
Capernaum, on the north shore, was a home base for Jesus during His ministry. It was also the hometown of Peter and others.
At Tabgha, where Jesus stretched a child's lunch to feed more than 5,000 people, you can walk down to the water for a time of solitude, shutting out of your mind everything manmade. Enjoy the lake view the hungry people saw that day as the Bread of Life fed their bodies and offered them true life in Him.
Nearby, if you're ready for some excitement, go rock climbing at the Cliffs of Arbel.
On the Mount of Beatitudes, walk your bike through the lush gardens. Stones lining the path bear quotations such as "Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness" and other truths from Jesus' Sermon on the Mount. Take a moment in the clump of trees and rocks nearby to imagine listening to Jesus with resident birds singing overhead.
In 1986, when drought left Galilee's lake level low, two fishermen discovered a surprisingly preserved ancient fishing boat embedded in the mud near Kibbutz Ginosar. Dubbed the "Jesus Boat" because tests date it to the time of Christ, the meticulously extricated frail boat is now safeguarded in a climate-controlled room here.
Would you rather hike than bike? Get some good walking shoes and head out on the 40-mile Jesus Trail through these sites and others, such as Cana, site of Jesus' first miracle.
Another popular hike is the 40-minute trek up the winding Snake Path leading to the 1300-foot-high summit of Masada, the private fortress of Herod the Great during the first century B.C. Just make sure it is early morning for this arduous journey since the heat from the blazing sun in the Dead Sea desert south of Jerusalem is relentless.
Diving and floating
Snorkel and scuba dive at Eilat, the southernmost city on the Red Sea, deemed some of the best snorkeling in the world. Or take to the air for a breathtaking parasail adventure.
In Caesarea on the Mediterranean coast, explore the ruins of Herod's seaport: Roman aqueduct, hippodrome, restored amphitheater and a first-century stone with the name Pontius Pilate inscribed on it.
Skin/scuba divers can explore the magnificent now sunken Mediterranean harbor that the megalomaniac Herod built, complete with storerooms, loading docks and a walkway to an ancient lighthouse.
Golfers can enjoy the links at the Caesarea Golf Club.
If diving is not your thing, try floating in the Dead Sea. But before doing so, slather yourself with the black mud known for its skin care benefits. Afterward, shop at the Ahava factory nearby for products made from the sea's rich minerals.
During the day, visit the West Wall (Wailing Wall) of the temple, archaeological discoveries such as the Pool of Siloam, and the City of David's Hezekiah Tunnel and lesser-known Canaanite "dry" Tunnel. Experience the Garden of Gethsemane and the solitude of the empty tomb.
In the evening relax and enjoy the sound-and-light "Night Spectacular" at the Tower of David. Brightly colored multimedia images projected in panorama on the inner walls of the citadel tell Israel's story from ancient times to today, accompanied by hauntingly beautiful music. Stunning!
And so much more
Enjoy snow skiing on Mount Hermon.
Visit the quaint arts community and sculpture of "Jonah's" whale in Jaffa, the biblical village of Joppa.
Go kayaking or rafting on the Jordan River. Or head to the shore and grab an ATV for an exhilarating trip through the mud, water and fruit orchards.
Make a day trip to or stay overnight in Kfar Kedem, a recreated village like Nazareth, where Jesus grew up. Visitors don typical period clothing, ride donkeys, spin wool, milk a goat and make cheese, and enjoy a typical lunch.
Is Israel travel safe?
Work through a reputable travel agency, and you shouldn't have problems. Israel's economy depends heavily on tourism, so tour guides make safety a top priority. According to the Israel Ministry of Tourism, 3.4 million tourists visited Israel in 2011.
Maximizing your journey
Slowing the pace or adding an extra few days for recreation can help you process what you're experiencing. After making the long flight to Israel, you and your family might as well get the most out of your trip.
And imagine! Snorkeling in the Red Sea!
• www.goisrael.com (Israel Ministry of Tourism)
• www.travelujah.com (Christian social networking site and tour guides)