What a combo, right? The amount of history and cultural in just one of these destinations is enough but both Israel & Istanbul together – jackpot!
Sunday, 29 October
We boarded Turkish Airlines after waiting in the ‘community’ lounge in Terminal 5.
Business class on Turkish Airlines did not disappoint. Friendly staff, good food, nice selection of wine, spirits and entertainment. The lie-flat seats allowed me to sleep 3 -4 hours of the 10 ½ hour journey to Istanbul.
Upon arrival in Istanbul, we went to a nice lounge with many food options, comfortable seating, clean and bright with natural light. Next stop, Tel Aviv.
Monday, 30 October
In Tel Aviv we were greeted by our guide, Omer Eshel – the former Israel Consul in Chicago (who I met several years ago at an event). We were escorted to our hotel for the next two nights, The King David, where we recieved a very warm welcome with some drinks, snacks and brief history of the hotel. It’s worth a visit to the lobby when in Jerusalem, if you do not stay at the hotel.
The King David is the iconic, Grand Dame hotel in Jerusalem and maybe all of Israel. We all had deluxe rooms facing the Old City. The bathroom was smallish with a single sink but, plenty of counter space and well-appointed. There is a separate dressing room and the bedroom area was spacious with wood floors.
The view was perfect to witness sunrise over the hills and the old city each morning.
Because we only had 3 nights in Jerusalem, we packed a week of highlights into 4 days! Not uncommon on a quick trip. Omer is a true expert and historian – both in the secular and religious worlds. His company is The Bible Comes to Life…http://www.tbctl.com/, a faith based tourism company.
TBCTL is all about the Experience. They have the best connections throughout the country which provides the clients with experiences that other tour companies cannot. Yes, their focus is the Bible but, they are very diverse and can offer non-religious touring, too. However, that’s a bit of a contradiction because Jerusalem and all of Israel is the bible!
Jerusalem’s history is more than 5,000 years old. The city itself is one of the oldest and holiest in the world. We started with a visit to the Mt. of Olives (one of the most sacred places in Judaism) for a complete overview of Jerusalem. Then on to an active dig sight of the Temple Emek Tzurim. They moved the dirt from the temple location to a separate area where the archeologist sift through the dirt looking for artifacts. This is very interesting hands-on experience for clients, kids and adults alike.
Next was a visit to a private home in the Old City that was built on top of 3,000 years of history. The homeowner is in her 80’s and it was her husband, now deceased, that insisted under the foundation of their home was a story to be told, and he was correct!
Since our host was Leading Hotelsof the World, we only visited 3 hotels in Jerusalem – the King David, the American Colony and Mamilla.
The American Colony, located in East Jerusalem. The neighborhood is not conducive to being on your own. The hotel is charming and the rooms nice and clean.
Later that day we visited the Holy Sepulcher and the Israel Museum to view the Dead Sea Scrolls. Both are not to be missed but, again, Omer used his connections to give us a very special experience at each stop. This is of course what Virtuoso advisors and our clients are used to and expect.
Dinner was hosted by the King David Hotel. We were in a private room with a set menu. I prefer to be in the main dining room with the other guest and/or locals. I like to feel like I belong and not isolated.
Wednesday, 01 November
We were scheduled to visit the Temple Mount but, the group decided to skip it and start with the Kotel tunnels under the western wall. If you go to the Temple Mount – the line begins at 6am. By the time we arrived at 8:30 am – the line was vast. If you have 4 or more days, then I think you would want to include it in your itinerary.
The Kotel Tunnels did not disappoint. Recently discovered and because of Omer, we had a private tour and went all the way down to meet the archeologist as the work is on-going. Also, we placed a note/prayer in a section of the Western Wall (wailing wall) that is not open to the public. Another bonus of being with Omer is the opportunity to experience a Virtual Reality tour of the site.
We then took a drive out of Jerusalem to the Elah Valley. The Elah Valley has wineries and agricultural facilities and a community– suburb. Omer and his young family live in the Elah Valley. The area has developed substantially in the past 20 years. Also, the wine and breweries have exploded as well. We visited The Castel Winery and had a sampling of red, white and a rose. Everyone was impressed – the wine was very good and is sold in the US but, apparently not in Chicago.
From there we had a lovely lunch by a local chef at his private home. The chef and his wife are a team and the food was fabulous. The meat is imported from Argentina and the chef does most of his grilling over fire. Again, another “experience” that a lot of tour companies overlook.
Our last night in Jerusalem we stayed at Mamilla. I must say The Mamilla is my favorite. The King David has a fabulous pedigree of guest and events. But, I love the location of Mamilla, next to an outdoor shopping and dining section of Jerusalem and connected to the Tower of David Museum/The David Citadel. The hotel is modern and new but, built with Jerusalem stone; a perfect juxtaposition to the ancient history of Jerusalem. We had dinner at the rooftop restaurant on Thursday night, which is interesting in of itself. Remember Israel celebrates Shabbat (the Sabbath) beginning at sunset on Friday until sunset on Saturday. This means most people have Friday and Saturday off. Friday during the day, is the time to prepare for Shabbat dinner which means Thursday is the beginning of the “weekend”. Keep this in mind when booking, because Thursday and Friday are the busiest nights at hotels and restaurants.
Back to the Mamilla – the hotel was buzzing with guest and locals. I felt like I was part of the city and not just a tourist. Oh, and the food on the rooftop was delicious. Another thing to keep in mind, the hotels’ kitchens are kosher. In fact, most of the food venues throughout the country is Kosher. This is not a bad thing and you would only notice it if you wanted BBQ ribs or a ham sandwich or maybe some shrimp and lobster. Trust me, there is no shortage of good food, fresh food and variety. After dinner a couple of us walked to the David Citadel for a Sound & Light show about the history of Jerusalem. Very well done and it was a beautiful evening to sit outside under the stars.
The hotel was at full capacity but, we each had a deluxe room or Junior suite. The colors are warm and comforting while being minimalist. The fitness center is open to the public as a membership and the spa was very welcoming. I enjoyed a swim the next morning in the indoor pool. The pool is not huge but, nice to get some exercise aside from walking.
Thursday, 02 November
Our last day was packed with a lot of driving and fascinating sights. It’s amazing that you can drive most of the country in one day! We started with a quick stop at the Dead Sea and then on to Beit She‘an National Park located where the Jordan River Valley and Jezreel Valley meet. Beit She‘an is the Pompeii of Israel. Instead of a volcanic eruption, Bet She‘an suffered an earthquake in 749 that destroyed the city. The excavation of the ruins is fascinating including mosaics.
We continued to the Galilee – Nazareth – The Church of Annunciation, Capernaum – ancient fishing village and very significant to Jesus Christ’s ministry, Caesarea – located between Tel Aviv and Haifa. The traffic was horrendous. They are working on a commuter train line and that day; the trains were shut down. After dinner at a local restaurant – again, great food, we continued to Tel Aviv.
We arrived at 10pm to the Dan Tel Aviv. Very good location – walking distance to the sea and boardwalk. We dropped off our bags in our rooms and walked to the sea. The weather was pleasant and the locals were milling about. We even ventured in the Mediterranean – just because!
The Dan Tel Aviv is a four-star property. We did not have time for a site inspection but, my room was very nice, large window, sitting area, and nice bathroom.
After an early breakfast we were off to the airport – Shalom to Israel
Getting out of Israel is not easy. The airport “interview” is not to be taken lightly. Fortunately, Rahsan from Turkish Airlines was the spokeswoman for our group. I understand if you are traveling on your own, the exit process can be intimidating.
But, we still had one hurdle ahead of us. Getting into Istanbul – our group had the misfortune of bad timing. The US government and the Turkish government are not cooperating with each other and we were unable to secure a VISA prior to our departure. The plan was to obtain a Turkish Visa in Israel but, that fell through. We had to complete a VISA application on-line and present it with our passport and USD ($30) upon arrival. We were met at the jetway by Turkish Airlines reps’ and thankfully, the Turkish government granted us a VISA. Otherwise, they would have deported us to Israel! Talk about working remotely, right?!
Once we left the airport, we headed into Istanbul. The weather was cool but, pleasant so, we met our tour guides at a dock on the Bosphorus and boarded a yacht for a tour of the city from the water. Our guides for the next day and a half were Ziya Gokmen and Derya Butun from TravelRefinery – www.travelrefinery.com. Ziya in Turkey is the equivalent of Omer in Israel – they are walking encyclopedias. They both have great patience and love their country. They deliver the history with compassion and make learning a lot of fun.
We were treated to Turkish hospitality on the yacht and enjoyed snacks and drinks while learning about Istanbul.
After the tour, we arrived at our hotel for the next two nights. The Ciragan Palace Kempinski is located on the Bosphorus and we made a grand entrance from the yacht. This is the only Ottoman Imperial Palace in Turkey.
Our rooms, deluxe Bosphorus view rooms, were facing the water and had a beautiful balcony to enjoy the crisp autumn air. We were hosted to a lovely cocktail party in the Sultan’s Suite in the Imperial Palace section of the hotel. This is a 2-bedroom suite with 20’ ceilings and beautiful furnishings.
After breakfast we were off for a full day of touring, despite the weather. It rained (poured) off and on so, we scrambled to stay dry. Before lunch – Dolmabahce Palace – spectacular chandelier, Blue Mosque, Hagia Sophia, and Cisterna Basilica – upside down head of Medusa. See Sarah’s report for a more in-depth report on Istanbul.
Lunch was at a local restaurant in the old town – I have not mentioned this yet but, I loved the food of Turkey. There was plenty of meat options but, Istanbul is a vegetarian’s dream come true!
After lunch we visited a rug merchant and then had free time to scour the Grand Bazaar. I could easily spend several hours in the Grand Bazaar but, we had 45 mins.
From there we sat in traffic for 45 minutes, due to the weather. We arrived at the Spice Market, again, not enough time to explore but, I was more focused and had fun shopping.
We did not take the time to go back to our hotel – which is too bad – the Ciragan Palace deserves attention. We went directly to dinner – because it had been at least 4 hours since our last meal!
I loved that Ziya and Derya allowed us to dine in local restaurants. I feel it is important to experience the local cultural and food is a central part of every destination. Again, the food was amazing. We had sampling of all the local specialties and then some!
Finally, a day to sleep in and not rush. I went for a swim in the beautiful outdoor pool that sits closest to the Bosphorus. The weather was beautiful and the pool inviting. After a swim I stopped by the spa and sat in the steam room. I really wanted to try a Turkish Hamam but, time ran out.
We said good-bye to our Palace and went to the airport.
Again, Turkish Airlines did not disappoint. The flight was uneventful and the business class cabin is a Turkish delight!
In closing, I would love to go back to both Israel and Turkey. I never felt unsafe or at risk in any of the cities we visited or just traveling around the country in Israel. I would either split my time between the two countries or focus on one at a time. However, it would be a waste to fly on Turkish Airlines and NOT include a stopover in Turkey. It’s free!