When you do it perhaps for the first time, schlepping the entire family to Israel is easy. For children, Israel is chock-full of interesting things to do – there''s climbing Masada, walking the hilly streets of Haifa, exploring the museums and major attractions of Jerusalem, or just plain romping on the beaches of Tel Aviv or Eilat.
But what do you do on second visit – or even a third? Once you''ve seen all the obvious main attractions, what''s next? How can you find some place or activity that''s uniquely Israeli, that won''t use up all your vacation shekels and, most importantly, will be something the kids will really relish?
Israel is actually top-heavy with interesting, off-the-beaten-path activities for the younger set. One of the best ways to find them is to see what the locals do. Where do they go?
Horseback-riding, for example, is becoming a favorite activity. For obvious reasons, maybe: One of the things the Torah commands a father to teach his child is how to ride a horse (another is swimming, and there''s plenty of that). So what better place to ride than Eretz Israel?
Before it''s too late, don''t miss the chance to visit Tekoa, an exquisite community just 17 minutes from Jerusalem. Tekoa is the heart of Israel – Amos the Prophet was born here, and it was here, in these caves, that Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai composed the Zohar. No one knows what the Israeli government will do with West Bank settlements like Tekoa, which lies outside the security fence, but while it''s still possible, don''t miss the opportunity to see it, especially from horseback.
Esther and Ilan Levy-Noimand own and operate the Tekoa Stables, and offer horseback tours and riding lessons suitable for all ages. Children ride ponies, and for adults, horses suitable for every level of ability are available. To ride the land where Amos walked, to see for yourself where the olive oil for the Temple lamps was produced, is an experience that shouldn''t be missed.
You could easily spend an entire day in Tekoa – there''s a great swimming pool for a dip after your ride, and hiking trails are unmatched; the four-hour hike to Yam Hamelach, the Dead Sea, is especially memorable.
Jerusalem can be hot in the summer, so finding cool or watery places is always a great idea. Local families have two favorite spots they go to cool off: First, Lifta, an ancient city mentioned in the book of Joshua. The wadi – or stream bed – plus a day''s worth of caves and ruins offers cool exploring even preschoolers will enjoy.
Lifta lies right at the entrance to Jerusalem from the Tel Aviv Highway. There''s public parking, and from there, you walk down a spiraling walkway into the wadi – it''s steep, but the path leads right to the stream bed, where a natural spring flows out of a cave and spills into an ancient pool.
In Temple times, the mayim shelanu water was drawn from here. Today, bring flashlights, and you can wade through ankle-deep water to explore the cave.
Lifta has also the ruins of an ancient Arab village, old olive presses and fruit-laden fig trees – from August to October, there''s fruit to pick. Lifta is safe, and kids love exploring the ancient grounds, hunting for millstones, wine presses and columns, as well as relaxing or cooling off in the water.
Sataf is another locally popular place. Sataf offers cool natural springs, hidden gardens, green hills and magnificent views from terraced walkways. From the Sataf Junction (off Highway 395) turn south and drive down as far as possible – if you park in the first parking lot, you''ll have an awesome number of steps to negotiate.
On the other hand, if you walk down, you''ll wander through an ancient olive grove, and pass by the Ofer Outlook, one of the most splendid views in the City.
Don''t tell the kids, but Sataf is educational, as well as fun. Among the garden greenery is a large restored biblical garden, displaying the kinds of fruit trees that grew here during Torah times, as well as 26 different kinds of vines that produced wine.
Sataf Springs lies at the very bottom, a bubbling stream that flows from an ancient tunnel. Walk through the tunnel, if you wish, and inspect a small room in the back where women once laundered their clothing in the stream.
In the early 1980s, Sataf was taken over by the Jewish National Fund, and it''s now in the process of being restored and expanded. But even today, the winding mountain trails, the hanging staircases, irrigated garden plots and the lush green terraces are wonderful to visit.
Another change of pace is a trip down Israel''s "Silk Road," via Dvorat Hatabor. Silk was an important commodity in the ancient Middle East, and the trade route dates back to about 200 BCE. Later, in the 1890s, Baron Edmond de Rothschild tried (unsuccessfully) to introduce silk-making into Israel. Rothschild financed the planting of 20,000 mulberry bushes, and, at one time, about 50 men from Tzfat worked making silk.
Today, privately run Dvorat Hatabor, located close to Mount Tabor, offers a peek into the wonder of silk. In a 90-minute tour, Jigal Ben Zeev, an Israeli who learned how to grow silkworms during a sojourn in Iran, explains the whole process by which worms turn Mulberry leaves into the gossamer fabric. When you''re done, relax at a scenic picnic area, and let the kids enjoy the small petting zoo.
None of these activities will break the bank. Lifta and Sataf are both free.
For more information, visit: www.goisrael.com.