If you get the chance to visit Israel, go. It's worth it.
Yes, it's easy to write the place off as "unsafe." But that's far from reality. The security is intense, and you'll never see so many guns in your life -- military service is mandatory, and IDF soldiers always carry -- but you feel comfortable quickly.
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Over the course of a press trip this spring to explore the country's sporting culture, a rocket attack hit Beersheba and a deadly bomb went off in Jerusalem. Both times, a sense of normalcy returned almost immediately, and we never felt like we were in any kind of danger. That's just how it goes in Israel, it seems: Deal with it, move on, trust the security apparatus.
Which is good, because the country offers an awful lot to visitors -- especially the outdoorsy type.
Israel is hardly "Lawrence of Arabia" land. The north is lush and green. The Mediterranean coast is almost Italian looking. And Eilat, on the Red Sea shore, could be any small beachfront city -- Ocean City, Md., came to mind. Except, you know, you can see Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Jordan.
Plenty of the country, though, is desert. The Negev takes up a little more than half of Israel's land area, and the Judean Desert is just as dry and desolate. Both offer plenty of chances for the first thing you should do if you visit: Hike.
The easiest way to see Israel on foot is to hike part of the Israel National Trail, which crosses the entire country from north to south. Large bits of it, naturally, pass through desert areas, which make for wonderful hiking. Just remember to bring water. You'll need it.
Want something a little faster? Rent a mountain bike. The southern desert is pretty much an ideal riding location. The hills provide for challenging climbing and fun descents, and constant rock cover makes the single- and double-track trails quite technical. The Geofun Desert Cycling Center in Midreshet Ben Gurion can set you up right here. Off the trail, Adam Sela's adventure tours make great use of the rugged beauty of the landscape. He's the guy to call for rappelling and guided tours.
Working north, Masada is well worth a stop. The mountaintop fortress on the shore of the Dead Sea was the site of the last stand of the Sicarii rebels against Roman forces in 72-73 AD. It's a humbling place, as you'd expect, but a beautiful one, too. There's probably no better view in Israel than from Herod's palace on the top. And yes, it's a short drive from about six dozen Dead Sea cosmetics outlets. So there's that.
Jerusalem is northwest of the Dead Sea, which sits on the Jordanian border. It's certainly the most interesting city in the country ... a few thousand years of history will do that. Check out the Old City while you're there, of course, but get out of town, too. The Judean Mountains are awesome for hiking, cycling and -- a personal favorite -- Tomcar tours. They're crosses between ATVs and Jeeps, and absolutely fly on the logging trail-style roads in the Judean pine forests. Really, truly fun. If you do one non-historic thing in this region -- tougher than it sounds, really -- do this.
If you go from the U.S., you'll fly in and out of Tel Aviv. This is the metropolitan center of Israel, with most of the best restaurants and big business (as well as the impressive Olympic Experience Museum). But it's also just a short drive from Caesarea, with its splendid coastal Roman ruins and decidedly un-Roman golf course. The Caesarea Golf Club is the only full-size course in the country (think of the irrigation), and it's a nice one. It reminded us of courses on Long Island.