Silver Wind Arrives in the Holy Land, Part II
Friday, April 17, 2015
Aaron Saunders, Live Voyage Reports
Today, our adventures continued aboard Silversea’s Silver Wind with our early-morning arrival into Haifa, Israel; an attractive port city with a population of nearly 300,000. It’s Israel’s third-largest city, and for those of us on the Silver Wind, an important jumping-off point for seven separate shore excursion options to the nearby cities of Acre, Nazareth and Tel Aviv.
I chose to take the 10.5-hour long Nazareth and the Sea of Galilee (HFA-B, $199 per person), which promised to pack a ton of the Israeli countryside into a single day. I’d also had a keen interest in visiting the Sea of Galilee, which is actually a lake. At 21 kilometres in length, it’s actually the lowest freshwater lake on Earth (686 feet below sea level), and the second-lowest lake after the Dead Sea.
Once again, passports and immigration cards had to be carried ashore with us at all times. Be prepared for a delay in reaching the coaches for your excursions; passports are checked and re-checked, questions are asked, hand baggage and backpacks are run through the X-Ray scanner sometimes two and three times. If your excursions are to meet pierside at 8:00 a.m., you’ll want to be off the ship and on your way at least twenty minutes beforehand.
Interestingly, security in Israel seems to be the exclusive domain of dark-haired, twenty-something Israeli women. But don’t think you’re going to get off easy because of it – these women study each and every person and passport in a way that is completely missing from the lax and lazy attitudes of most North American airport screeners. The word “security” here isn’t just a buzzword put out to make people feel safer; it’s the real deal.
In the vein of security, our coach slowed to a crawl on a hill overlooking all of Haifa. It’s just shy of our first photo-stop, which offered a panoramic view of Haifa, the inner harbour, and the Silver Wind. As the bus slowed, our guide – whom we’d had the day before in Ashdod and Jerusalem – excitedly told us what we were looking at: missile launchers. Dozens of them, all lined up in a row, barrels pointed skyward, their green paint barely camouflaging them with their suburban surroundings. “These are for Iran,” he stated. “If they try to hit us…”
The discord between Israel and Iran is long and involved, having been on the downward spiral since the Gulf War. Suspicion and mistrust exists on both sides of the border, and scarcely a conversation on Israel’s history can manage to escape mention of their unpopular neighbour to the north. The rift runs so deeply that in 1998, the Seattle Times reported that pistachio makers all the way over in California were unhappy with the fact that Israel gets most of their pistachios from Iran. The fight over the nutty treats dragged on for over a decade for both sides of the Atlantic.
I have to be honest: writing the reports for the past two days has been difficult, simply because the subject matter is so dear to so many people – and because there’s a significant amount of debate, controversy, and differing opinions on even the most basic details.
Take, for example, the city’s name: Nazareth. Nobody can agree on exactly where it came from. Some say it derives from the Hebrew word for “branch.” Others believe it has origins in the Greek word Nazara. That vague nothingness continues when it comes to other basic facts: some researchers think Nazareth held 2,000 people during biblical times, while others believe the town would have barely broke the 500 inhabitant mark.
Either way, Nazareth today exists as an important site of Christian pilgrimage, and our time here on-tour with Silversea did not disappoint. Contrary to what you might think, most people in Nazareth today are actually Muslim, with over 69 percent of the local population. Christians make up just 30 percent, while those of the Jewish faith don’t factor in here at all.
Our first stops: the Basilica of the Annunciation and the Church of Joseph. A beautiful but oddly modern structure, the Basilica of the Annunciation was constructed in 1969 to replace the former building that had stood on the site since 1730. The lower level of the church contains the Grotto of the Annunciation, which is believed by Christians to be the original childhood home of the Virgin Mary.
Afterwards, we took a stroll through the local Bazaar in Nazareth. If you think that religion is immune to commercialism, think again: the vendors that line the street of Nazareth are totally dialed-in to their market. You can get fridge magnets, t-shirts, bumper stickers, keychains, totebags, and even your own pair of authentic “Jesus Sandals” to complete your journey as He would have. Have you ever seen a man in a robe and bare feet walking down the street listening to his iPod? I have – and I wondered what was on his playlist.
Lunch was taken in the town of Tiberius, on the Sea of Galilee, at a surprisingly modern and trendy restaurant called Magdalena. Run by Yousef Hanna, the restaurant serves upscale Galilee-style Arabic food in a setting that wouldn’t look out of place in Miami or London. Plenty of guests noticed the clever comments written on the glass mirror at the end of the corridor leading to the bathrooms that stated, “Men to the left – because women are always right.” Tip: try the local Israeli wines; they’re better than you might expect.
After lunch, we ventured off to the Yardenit Baptismal Site on the Jordan River. Over 400,000 people each year come here to bathe in the waters that are carried along the river from the nearby Sea of Galilee. This is, as the sign says, “near to” where Jesus is thought to have been baptized.
It’s rather beautiful here, and the 1981-built complex is comprehensive and caters to the spiritual needs of visitors. But I was surprised how brackish the water looked – and how many catfish were cruising around in it. Once again, large groups of folks on pilgrimage could be seen, with two entire busses filled with tourists from Nigeria pulling into the parking lot as we walked back to our coach.
My favorite stop of the day was the one that we spent the least amount of time at, partially due to our enjoyable lunch running over. The Mount of Beatitudes is a hill in Northern Israel where Jesus is said to have delivered the Sermon on the Mount. It’s a peaceful site, with a church on the site that was constructed in the 1930’s and a series of gorgeous gardens. Off in the distance, a group of tourists from Brazil could be heard singing hymns in Portuguese.
Before long, we were back on the coach to Haifa and the Silver Wind. Most guests slept on the way back – including yours truly. But as with the other full day tours I’ve done on this trip, I was not disappointed in all that we saw and did. Nor should you let the length of the tour frighten you: at 10.5 hours, pacing is good enough to allow for a leisurely lunch and plenty of breaks. It’s also a good value: your entire day of touring basically only cost you $19 dollars per hour when you break it down.
Of course, Silversea once again revealed why it’s so great to sail with them: after another rigorous document check, I walked out of the cruise terminal to see, off in the distance, all the ship’s butlers lined up in a row, sporting the now-familiar “Welcome Home” banner. It’s such a simple touch – but one that doesn’t lose its touching quality.
As we got near, they all enthusiastically shouted, “Welcome Back!”
Up the gangway, a cold towel was waiting for each of us, along with a refreshing drink or a glass of champagne.
Before long, Silver Wind began to move again, leaving Haifa – and Israel –behind. We’re now headed towards our final port of call on this thorough journey: Kusadasi, Turkey. With only two days left, it leaves me to wonder: where did all the time go?
Silver Wind Middle East Adventure
|April 5, 2015||Muscat, Oman||Embark Silver Wind||19:00|
|April 6||Day at Sea|
|April 7||Salalah, Oman||13:00||23:00|
|April 8||At Sea|
|April 9||At Sea|
|April 10||At Sea|
|April 11||At Sea|
|April 12||Safaga, Egypt||07:00||21:00|
|April 13||Aqaba, Jordan||09:30||21:00|
|April 14||Transiting the Suez Canal|
|April 15||Port Said, Egypt||08:00||17:00|
|April 16||Ashdod, Israel||08:00||23:00|
|April 17||Haifa, Israel||07:00||18:00|
|April 18||At Sea|
|April 19||Kusadasi, Turkey||08:00||17:00|
|April 20||Piraeus (Athens), Greece||07:00||Disembark; Live Voyage Recap|
Our Live Voyage Report aboard Silversea’s elegant Silver Wind continues tomorrow as spend a day at sea en-route to our final port of call of Kusadasi, Turkey! Be sure to follow along on twitter by following @deckchairblog or the hashtag #LiveVoyageReport.