Israel is full of romantic potential. Marcus J Freed and Natalie Marx explore the excitement of the holy land via the new ISSTA service, and travels to the Dead Sea for some natural vitality.
The words Ďbudget airlineí usually plunge me into a flashback of the fluorescent orange hell, with a plane full of unhappy-looking underpaid staff who are trying to flog you plastic flotsam at every available opportunity. With some budget providers, the flight feels like being trapped in a flying supermarket.
Travelling with ISSTA is a pleasure and the experience is smooth from start to finish. The service is professional, efficient and does what it says on the tin; gets you to Israel for a great price.
Their online booking is an easy process, the check-in staff are helpful and the only real problem came from the passengers in the queue who decided to start making a fuss when they werenít allowed to exceed the baggage allowance by 35%. They didnít read the clearly worded e-ticket and if you want excess baggage, you have to pay for it. Itís a budget flight, so fairís fair.
The ISSTA flight was a good budget service. There werenít any kosher meals on the plane that meant that it was necessary to do a little more preparation than usual (such as eating before leaving the house) and the cabin is clean and new. We were flying on an XL Airways charter flight that had all the comfort of a schedule flight, with larger seats than the old Monarch sardine cans that used to do the run to Tel Aviv. Best of all, ISSTAís website allows you to reserve seats in advance, which is a definite benefit for a five hour flight.
The refurbishment of Ben Gurion airport never fails to impress me, even though itís been open for a few years. The huge walls of Jerusalem stone, hanging tapestries, even the shamelessly commercial flowerbed with the massive Nokia letters written in azaleas Ė itís just so much better than the old routine where you had to squeeze into a sweaty bus across the tarmac and queue for what seemed like hours. Itís not that visiting the airport is a total holiday in itself, but David Ben Gurion himself would be impressed. Especially if he liked azaleas.
Israel never fails to deliver new experiences, even for the most seasoned of visitors. Just when I though I was bored of going to Jerusalem, I ended up renting an apartment which had a clear, unobstructed view of the Old City. The addition of a large balcony and comfortable living space meant that although we werenít enjoying the benefits of a plush hotel, my girlfriend and I did enjoy some living space that was fit for a king. In fact, it was those kind of top-floor balcony views that got King David into serious trouble when he spotted someone elseís wife sunbathing naked on the roof, but the current religious temperature in Jerusalem, not to mention the well-publicised dangers of too much sun exposure, meant that the only thing I saw from the balcony was a few hairy builders who were gradually expanding the Jerusalem skyline.
The last five years have seen some considerable changes for visitors, with the re-opening of Yad Vashem and the apparent tortology of a brand new ancient tourist site in the City of David. Yad Vashem has pulled up its educational socks to provide an educational experience that even surpasses the Holocaust museum in Washington, with endless video testimonies of survivors and a powerfully-designed centre that evokes the machinistic oppression of Nazi Germany through its imposing steel structure.
The City of David national park is a short walk from the Western Wall and the most exciting part of the visit is the underground tunnel walk.
The area is the location of King Davidís original palace and there is the freshwater spring of Gihon that provided for the residents of original Jerusalem and was also used to irrigate their fields. The water gently streams through half-mile passage that is hewn through the centre of the rock and historians have speculated that this is the tunnel that David used to conquer Jerusalem, and it provided an invaluable water source during times of siege. The water is at ankle-depth and although the 40-minute walk isnít one for claustrophobics, it is flowing with history.
The Dead Sea is a short journey from the centre of the capital and there are good hotel deals to be found even in the height of summer. We chose a two-night break at Prima Hotelsí Spa Club in Ein Bokek, which consists of 98 well designed rooms. The main selling point of the Spa Club is the VIP spa - hence the name Ė which has been meticulously designed and is a welcome change from the boiling temperatures of the Dead Sea shore.
The deluxe spa is complete with a saltwater pool that gives you all of the benefits of the Dead Sea without getting sand in your towels, while the sulphur baths, sauna and Turkish-style Hamam allow complete relaxation. The hotel is reserved for over 18ís, and although the swimming pool is shared with the adjoining Oasis hotel, there is a sophisticated atmosphere that is enhanced by the boutique restaurant.
Treatments at the spa include special suites for couples massage, ayurvedic treatments and hot stones therapy, and my girlfriend Natalie road-tested one of the deep-tissue massages (see review below).
When you feel like leaving the hotel, there is a fabulous nature hike in Wadi Bokek which is immediately behind the complex, leading you into superb desert greenery with freshwater pools that make for terrific swimming. The Book of Kings talks about when the uncrowned David was on the run from a paranoid King Saul, and how he camped in the nearby Ein Gedi. The combination of beautiful dessert, flowing rock pools and concentrated greenery mean that the lowest spot on earth is also one of the most special.
Itís great to be back in Israel.
Natalie Marx relaxed into the deep-tissue ayurvedic massage at the Oasis Spa club:
The ambient lighting, the sweet smelling aroma of the incense, the soft transient meditation music; all within the dome of one of the most beautiful spa settings to be found in the dead sea. My masseuse was Tania, who was to perform an Ayurvedic masterpiece.
The mosaic-designed room had the real sound of trickling Dead Sea water, providing the perfect setting for the treatment.
Using warm heated sesame oil, Tania began by using a light touch to stimulate the nerve endings on my back. Using sweeping effleurage movements she managed to locate those crunchy areas of tension right within my shoulder blades and proceeded to dissolve this build up of lactic acid deposits.
There are points on the hand that correspond to the rest of the body Ė hand reflexology Ė and through a series of massage techniques, the Ayurvedic massage balances both the mind and body. As Tania continued with a kneading technique along my legs, it stimulated the blood flow around the body.
The full body Ayurvedic massage continues along to my feet. Holistically this brings about a revitalising effect upon the rest of the body as energy is pushed up through the channels of the feet (using Chinese reflexology meridian points).
Sadly, all good massages come to an end and I was reluctantly brought back from my short visit to paradise.
The Ayurvedic massage serves to bring both the body and mind into a state of equilibrium. Although the massage uses a significantly lighter touch, let this not deter you from choosing this option. The wonderful diversity of massage techniques and the heated sesame oil succeed in both detoxifying and relaxing you Ė leaving you ready to soak and savour the Dead Sea bath downstairs.
Marcus flew with ISSTA Direct http://www.issta.co.uk . Flights to Israel start at £20.99 plus taxes.
The Oasis Resort at the shore of the Dead Sea can be found at http://prima.co.il/eng/ and 00972-8-6688000.