It’s a mild Mediterranean night on hopelessly hip Shenkin Street. A young couple sip cappuccinos and chomp croissants outside the Angel café, engrossed in the antics of a teenage girl throwing a temper tantrum into her mobile phone. Her colourful Hebrew echoes down the road, to the obvious annoyance of nearby dog walkers, pram pushers and pensioners playing boules in sandpits by the side of the road.
Only the presence of pistol-packing security guards in navy puffer jackets prevents this looking like any other cosmopolitan city scene. But this is Tel Aviv, in April 2010, and the night owls nesting inside the city’s jam-packed bars, clubs and cafes are only too happy to stump up the six-shekel security charge to pay these stone-faced men and women to help make the night feel normal.
A menacing doorman hasn’t stopped punters piling into the Brewhouse on nearby Rothschild Boulevard. They’ve come to knock back the bar’s famous array of homemade moonshine and watch two big screen televisions showing a Maccabi Haifa football match.
The media has long depicted Israelis nervously holding their bated breath waiting for the next tragedy, but on this typical night out in Tel Aviv the only people out and about are passionately pursuing normality.
There are of course signs of scarring, and the solitary Israeli flag flickering in the wind where assassinated Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin was gunned down serves as a poignant reminder of what might have been.
While the volatile status quo hasn’t discouraged the natives, it has deterred fair-weather tourists who once flocked to the county in their millions. From Timna to Tiberias, not so long ago you couldn’t even buy a falafel without earning a walk-on part in a Japanese family video.
With metal detectors outside shopping malls and cars stopped for random spot checks, visitor numbers nose-dived by a dismal 80 percent in the middle of the decade, before slowly climbing back up.
Of course the upside of such a downturn is that tourists who don’t believe the hype and decide to tour get the sites to themselves. Places like the 5,000-year-old port of Jaffa, with its winding stone streets and idyllic arts and craft stalls, the biblical mountain of Masada, with its new visitors’ centre and cable car and Jerusalem’s Arab market, where you can buy Palestinian flags and shabbat candles at the same stall.
Forty miles south of the capital, under the shadow of Masada, lies Kibbutz Ein Gedi. There’s no plucking kosher chickens or milking cows at dawn for these kibbutzniks. In keeping with most businesses on the banks of the Dead Sea, it makes its living from mud, mud, glorious mud. And while there’s clearly nothing quite like it for cooling the blood, visitors also flock to the kibbutz’s spa to improve their health.
The magical mix of mud and local climate make this the most effective place on earth to treat skin disease and rheumatic pain, sooth muscle joints and stimulate circulation.
An emerald oasis in the arid wilderness of the Negev, the kibbutz’s lush lawns are framed by two, 40-foot African baobab trees, shipped over as seedlings from Kenya 30 years ago. Monkeys love to seek sanctuary in the branches of these towering trees, so the kibbutz decided to import two baby monkeys hoping they would proudly adopt the imposing tree as their new home.
Sadly, as soon as the mischievous little primates got off the plane and out of their cage they wandered off into the desert and remain missing to this day.
However tragic the tail, the AWOL monkeys’ whereabouts is of less concern to kibbutzniks that the sorry state of the Dead Sea, which is now drying out at the rate of a metre each year. If fresh water cannot be pumped from the Red Sea or Mediterranean by 2060, the world’s largest cruit set will have evaporated beyond repair.
A further hour’s drive south through the dusty Paran desert, cited in travel brochures and the Bible as were the Israelites wandered for 40 years, and past nomads herding shabby sheep from shrub to shrub, lies the Hyatt Regency – one of 15 spanking new hotels lining the Ein Bokek strip of the Dead Sea.
And in keeping with the locals, this five star hotel also dabbles in the black market, with mud wraps a speciality at its Mineralia spa club. They require guests to wear nothing but a pair of perishable paper pants and two glorious gallons of warm, gooey sludge.
Lying in the dark like a human fajita wrapped in plastic sheets and blankets, you’ll squelch out the other end one-hour later looking like the monster from the black lagoon but sporting a killer complexion. And if your smooth-as-a-baby’s-bottom skin can’t stretch to a five-minute stroll to the shore to wash off the mess, the hotel also offers its own salt-water swimming, or rather floating, pool, to stretch out and read your soggy three-day old copy of The Sun in style.
Eilat’s sun-splashed shore is a further two-hour drive through the desert. New hotels sprout up on the Israeli Riviera each year and there are now moret than 50 standing shoulder to shoulder along the chaotic coastline.
Visitors are drawn to the area by the typical trappings of a tranquil beach holiday – sun, sea, shopping, cafes, bars, the underwater marine observatory and glass-bottomed boat rides. But Eilat’s secret ingredient is persuading package holidaymakers to abandon their beach towel in favour of an hour or two of adventure, such as swimming with dolphins in the region’s serene dolphin reef and snuba diving (a cross between scuba diving and snorkelling) through coral reefs six-metres beneath the waves. And then there’s the legendary half-day camel ride through the negev, offering amazing views of Israel, Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia.
My camel was a docile young lady called Batya, given to the occasional involuntary discharge and all-to frequent detours to nosh on overhanging branches. The trip’s tranquillity was only breached by a charming German couple who proudly sung Beatles songs in irreparably-broken English.
One hour and 24 renditions of the first verse of Yellow Submarine later, even Batya was getting the hump.
• First published in the Jewish News