A honeymoon in the Holy Land anchors marriage in tradition

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Long considered an ideal place to have a bar or bat mitzvah or a family vacation, Israel is becoming increasingly popular as a honeymoon destination.

Each year, thousands of young couples, many of them newlyweds, come to Israel to explore its history and culture and to lounge on its beaches.

For Jewish couples, it is often the perfect way to embark on a marriage grounded in Jewish tradition and values.

"I've spent a lot of time in Israel and I was starting a new life with my wife," says Neil Rubin, managing editor of the Atlanta Jewish Times, who honeymooned in Israel last year wit his wife, Ronit.

"It was important to me to make Israel part of that new life."

Most Israel-bound honeymooners opt for a relaxing beach vacation says Isaac Neger, owner of Sabra Tours International, wholesaler of trips to Israel. "Now that the border of Jordan has opened up, couples go to Eilat and Aqaba [on the Jordanian border] and will spend a day or two touring Jerusalem."

History buffs will favor Jerusalem and the numerous archeological sites scattered around the country. "I love Jewish history and culture, and Jerusalem is like a story a minute," says Rubin.

If you're into hiking, climbing or Jeep adventures, there are hundreds of pristine, tranquil spots to choose from. The nice thing about Israel is that you can combine leisure, history and nature, often in a single afternoon.

You can even combine your wedding and honeymoon into one trip. Sabra offers a wedding package, complete with an ancient Israeli ceremony featuring footmen dressed in ancient robes who carry the couple on their shoulders from the Jaffa Gate to the Western Wall.

Judith El Hasid, president of Miracle Travel & Tours in San Francisco, said an Israel trip provides special significance for Jewish honeymooners.

"It's a big inspiration for them to make together a connection to Judaism," she said. "It gives more of a deeper connection to Israel, more spiritual and inspirational, than, let's say, a trip to Hawaii."

Favorite jaunts for her clients include horseback riding in the Galilee and soaking in the hot springs of Tiberias.

"They consider Israel a part of their identity. Plus they can take extensions to Eilat and Petra."

No matter how you plan your trip, Jerusalem is the must-see stop for all visitors. The holiest and most exotic of Israel's cities, it is a unique blend of the old and the new, the sacred and the secular.

Ultramodern hotels stand watch over historical sites dating back to biblical times, while female soldiers stand alongside side-curled Chassidic Jews at bus stops.

Jerusalem's winding streets, with their hard-to-pronounce names, can seem a little overwhelming. But armed with a good map and the comforting thought that most Israelis speak at least a fair English, you'll get the hang of it in no time.

Enter through the Jaffa Gate and take a couple of hours to visit the new Tower of David Museum, which is housed in the ancient Citadel. From there, ask directions to the Western Wall (the Kotel). You can either walk through the colorful, aromatic Arab market and haggle for bargains, or follow the Old City's ancient outer walls and reach the Kotel that way.

Jerusalem's museums are among the best in the world. The Israel Museum on Ruppin Street, just south of the Knesset, contains numerous collections: Judaica, pre-Columbian American art, Impressionist and Post-Impressionist art. The museum's most famous display is the Shrine of the Book, which exhibits the Dead Sea Scrolls. If possible, set aside an entire day to visit the museum.

Amble through the city's winding streets. Stroll past the King David Hotel to Montefiore's Windmill at Yemin Moshe. The view of the Old City walls and the Arab village of Silwan are breathtaking and romantic.

Dine at an outdoor cafe on Ben-Yehuda Street in the center of town or at a sidewalk restaurant on trendy Yoel Solomon Street. For an ethnic feast, check out Sima's, a crowded restaurant on Agrippas Street. It offers authentic Middle Eastern delicacies like kebabs, shwarma and kuba. For a more private, romantic dinner, try the elegant Valentino's (dairy Italian food) at the Hyatt Regency Hotel or Kohinoor (Indian) at the Holiday Inn (there's also one in Tiberias).

Like most big cities, Jerusalem has too many cars and too little wildlife. For a glimpse of nature in all of its splendor, take a day trip (rent a car or take an organized tour) to Masada and the Dead Sea and then hike through the Ein Gedi oasis. For real pampering, try an overnight stay at a Dead Sea hotel-spa and ask for a massage and a mud treatment.

Tiberias, founded in the year 18 C.E., is a fascinating blend of the ancient and modern. Named after the Roman Emperor Tiberias, it became the center of Jewish life after the Romans destroyed Jerusalem. One of the four Holy Cities, it is known as the place where the Mishnah was codified and the Talmud was edited.

Located on Lake Kinneret (the Sea of Galilee), the city is a popular year-round resort, catering to both Israelis and foreign visitors. It's also the perfect launching point for day trips to the beautiful city of Safad.

Take an hour or two to visit Hammat, the remains of an ancient city built about 2,000 years ago. The reconstructed synagogue of Hammat, dating to 300 C.E., has an outstanding mosaic floor.

The region is blessed with a mild climate (which turns very hot and humid in the summer), so most leisure-time activities revolve around hotel swimming pools and the lake. There's also a water park and lots of gravelly beach.

Famous for its natural hot springs, the Tiberias Hot Springs Spa offers luxuriant soaks, with the option of a massage or mineral bath.

After a day in the sun, stroll by the waterfront, where fishermen moor their boats for the night. There, a dozen open-air restaurants offer delicious fresh fish dinners.

If the evening is mild, take a boat trip — some provide meals and dance music — across the lake.

Some of Israel's most beautiful, unspoiled areas are located within an hour or two of Tiberias. If possible, rent a car and visit some of the surrounding national parks and nature reserves.

The Gamla Reserve on the Golan Heights features waterfalls and excellent bird watching. The Hula Nature Reserve offers a nature center, swamp lands brimming with wildlife and superb bird watching. Up north, visit the Tel Dan reserve, with its wonderful nature trails and the Banias (near Kiryat Shemona), which is famous for its archeological excavations and ice-cold streams.

When Israelis want to get away from it all, they come to Eilat, at the southernmost tip of the country. Situated on the sparkling Red Sea, it is an international haven for divers who explore Eilat's magnificent coral reefs.

Three thousand years ago, King David established Eilat as a defense outpost. Soon afterward, King Solomon transformed Eilat from a tiny oasis to an important port on the Far East trade route.

Today, Eilat is a small but growing resort with a wealth of luxury hotels, restaurants and night spots. It's a free-trade zone, meaning that visitors are exempt from paying Israel's Value Added Tax.

Pleasantly warm in the winter (in the 60s and 70s), it becomes progressively hotter as summer nears. Spring and fall are the best times to visit, since temperatures exceed 100 degrees in July and August.