Israel and Palestine are among the less well-known destinations in the Middle East, so when six personal travel managers (PTMs) were invited to represent TravelManagers on a Crooked Compass seven-day hiking famil, they were quick to sign up.
For all participants, this was their first visit to this part of the world, but they were all captivated by the chance to step back in time and visit historic sites that are of great significance to millions of people. Karen Doyle, representative for South Yarra in Victoria, likens her experience to stepping back into history, and says she was equally surprised and delighted by the warmth of the Palestinian people everywhere they went.
“They are very warm, friendly and welcoming, wanting to know where we were from and offering us sweet tea and food. They were a generous people, who often had very little in terms of material possessions, but were always very generous to us as their guests,” she says.
Doyle chose to make the most of her time in Palestine by adding on a side trip to neighbouring Jordan, and says it was relatively easy to reach Palestine, flying via Dubai and Amman to Tel Aviv. However, she warns that patience is required when crossing borders as the process can be quite time-consuming.
“Be prepared for lengthy questioning from Israeli officials about your intended visit on entering and leaving Israel after visiting Palestine: it can take a long time to get through immigration on arrival and departure, with multiple checkpoints and a lot of questions asked.”
Personal travel manager Kerstin Rheinlander representative for Sinnamon Park in Queensland, describes herself as a huge fan of the Middle Eastern countries in general, but even so was also amazed by the welcoming kindness of the Palestinian people and their generous hospitality.
“They shared everything they possibly could, even though they had so little for themselves,” she explains. “Strangers walking in the street called out, ‘Welcome to Palestine’ to us, shopkeepers beckoned us to hear their stories. A family with young children even stopped harvesting their olives to chat with us and invited us to join them for tea but unfortunately we had to continue on our path!”
For Theresa Kwong, representative for Hughesdale in Victoria, along with the wonderful hospitality they experienced at every turn, the main highlights included taking a drink from Jacob’s well, floating in the Dead Sea, hiking across mountains and discovering and exploring hidden valleys and ancient secrets.
“This was my first time visiting Israel and Palestine, and there was so much to learn about both countries’ political and religious history,” she says. “But the feeling when we reached the end of our walk to view the cliffside Mar Saba Monastery in Palestine, and visiting Nativity Church in Bethlehem to touch the spot where Jesus was believed to be born, were truly awe inspiring. For me these were two remarkable experiences in a trip packed with highlights.”
For Doyle, the local cuisine was another highlight of the trip.
“I enjoyed Palestinian tea, which is sweet and strong, and also the cardamom-spiced coffee which is by far the best option for coffee in Palestine.”
Doyle adds the food was simple but delicious, with a focus on fresh, locally-produced ingredients, “spiced flat bread with hummus, baba ganosh, tabbuleh, fried chicken, yoghurt and soft cheese with olive oil and zaatar spice – yum.”
TravelManagers’ Executive General Manager Michael Gazal, says although client enquiry for travel to Palestine is not particularly high, it is valuable for PTMs to have first-hand experience of more niche destinations.
“One of the key strengths of our business model is that our PTMs are able to tap into each other’s product knowledge quickly and easily. That means that no matter how obscure the destination a client is looking at, they’re getting the best possible advice and insider tips.”
With a destination like Palestine, which has such a complicated and controversial political status, it seems reasonable that prospective visitors would be concerned about personal safety when visiting an Occupied Territory. However, Doyle says at no time did she feel unsafe during her visit.
“It was interesting to hear the stories from the locals and our guides of life living under Israeli domination. You can only admire and sympathise with these people, who demonstrate amazing resilience and perseverance under difficult conditions.”
The seven-day itinerary, which started and ended in Tel Aviv, took the group through remote but beautiful terrain in the Nablus region, hiking on remote trails shared by shepherds and their flocks, and saw them visit iconic sites in and around Bethlehem. They also visited the ancient city of Jericho and swam in the Dead Sea.
Rheinlander believes the itinerary her group followed would best suit history buffs, but also those with religious interests, too.
“Participants need to have a reasonable level of fitness so I wouldn’t recommend this particular tour to families with younger children, but older teenagers would be able to handle it. If they were simply travelling through Palestine independently, then the region itself would be of great interest for families of all ages.”
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