Speedboats, mudbaths, bodywork, fine cuisine: The side of Israel that many Americans dont get to se

I used to believe in the existence of two Israels.

One was the Israel I read about in the newspapers and watched on CNN. That was the Israel choking on danger, division and anger.

The other was the Israel I knew from living on a kibbutz in 1990 after college graduation. That was the Israel bursting with normalcy, history and spirituality.

Last month, I discovered a third Israel.

It's romping with play and pleasure. And much of it isn't terribly expensive.

I jumped aboard a speedboat on the Mediterranean. I soaked in a Jacuzzi on a mountain overlooking the Sea of Galilee. I melted into a cocoon of hot mud.

I gritted my teeth during an off-road tour of the rocky Negev Desert. I traipsed through Tel Aviv's ubiquitous nightspots. I sipped chardonnay at a winery in the Galilee. I lounged in luxury resorts. And I downed excessive amounts of fine food.

As part of an American Jewish press trip sponsored by Israel's Tourism Ministry and El Al Airlines, I was expecting the usual: Tours of the Diaspora Museum, the Israel Museum and Masada. Pilgrimages to the Western Wall, Yad Vashem and Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin's grave.

We did all that. But we also experienced a facet of Israel that's unknown to many tourists — its playful side.


On the Mediterranean coast sit the ruins of the ancient Roman port of Caesarea. Typically, visitors explore the northern Israeli city on foot.

But aboard what is billed as the "fastest speedboat in Israel," I find it almost impossible to take in the ruins. I am too busy experiencing the maritime equivalent of a roller-coaster ride.

With sea water occasionally whacking my life-jacket and the taste of salt on my tongue, we reach 55 mph on the water. The boat's driver, a kibbutznik who is taking a break from surfing, purposely jumps 10- to 15-foot waves. For several seconds, the small, bullet-shaped boat hangs in the air, then drops straight down onto the water.

When the waves die down, or when we pass the breakers, the driver takes hair-pin turns that leave the boat almost perpendicular to the turquoise waters.

I find myself involuntarily screaming, "Holy s—! Holy s—!" But no one hears my screeches of joy and terror. The other nine passengers are too busy screaming themselves.

The boat ride is one of several activities offered at Kef Yam, which is Hebrew for "Fun Sea."

Kef Yam isn't a Disney subsidiary. It's part of Kibbutz S'dot Yam, where the famed Zionist Hannah Senesh lived before she died fighting the Nazis in Europe.

In search of new income several years back, the kibbutz decided to transform itself into a playland with a youth hostel and guest house.

In addition to the speedboat run, the kibbutz offers an easier-on-the-heart tour of the area from a yacht or a glass-bottom boat.

We also join Kef Yam's Jeep tour of the sand dunes north of Caesarea.

As an eco-aware Californian, however, I don't exactly enjoy the Jeep tour. I look out the window, and all I can focus on are the plastic bags, beer cans, plastic crates and the car door that have washed up on shore. Apparently no one scours that stretch of coastline.

Despite the downer, I will never forget the high of Kef Yam's speedboat ride. I will definitely offer myself up to Poseidon again someday.

A few days later I find myself in a completely different mode as I enter Mizpe Hayamim, a resort spa near Safed that rivals anything I've experienced in Northern California.

Built into a mountain overlooking the Kinneret, which is also known as the Sea of Galilee, the resort was founded three decades ago by a German-Jewish homeopathic doctor.

New Age, veggie and organic, Mizpe Hayamim offers a kind of peace I didn't know existed in Israel.

In the lobby, Israelis wrapped in white robes curl up on sofas and sip teas of organic herbs grown on site.

Two of the rules that immediately place the resort outside the realm of normal Israeli culture: No smoking inside, and no cell phones in the dining room.

Downstairs from the lobby is an indoor, heated pool, a Jacuzzi, and wet and dry saunas. Outdoors, another Jacuzzi sits on a patio overlooking Israel's freshwater sea.

Upstairs are rooms that offer body treatments. These include a dozen types of massage, as well as reflexology, aromatherapy, craniosacral balancing and Reiki healing. (Yes, I'm sure I'm not in the Bay Area.) Yoga and Feldenkrais classes are offered as well.

Outside are 30 wooded acres of nature walks and the resort's farm and fields. Today, 60 percent of the resort's vegetarian food is organic and home-grown.

Free-range chickens on the spa's farm provide eggs. Cows provide fresh milk for homemade cheeses, yogurts and butter. Breads are baked on the premises as well. Organic jams, olives and olive oils round out the homemade fare.

In-house artists sell jewelry, ceramics, sculptures and paintings in another building.

Until recently, Mizpe Hayamim was the first and only resort of its kind in Israel. Now a competitor operates in the Carmel Mountains.

Down south at the Dead Sea, a bevy of resorts near Masada offers luxury and views — as well as expense — that can match any premier hotel in the United States.

Walking into a multiple-story lobby of glass, marble, sunlight and palm trees in Israel is a mind-boggling experience for someone who once spent four months on a kibbutz living in a cement hut.

After experiencing the mandatory float in the mineral-laden Dead Sea, I am whisked into a small, dark room with candlelight, scented oils and classical music.

Mud therapy is an interesting study in hedonism.

I lie down. A body worker lightly loofahs my limbs before my entire body is slathered with a thick layer of hot, black mud from the Dead Sea. I'm swaddled in plastic wrap and warm towels. My face is gently massaged before I'm left to meditate for about 20 minutes.

I wash off the mud in a shower. The body worker then finishes with a massage of lightly scented cream. An intense New York journalist who underwent the same treatment tells me he has never felt so relaxed in his life.

The next day the mud treatment's soothing effects are lost as I climb aboard a 4×4 sport utility vehicle and head out for a teeth-knashing, off-road tour of the eastern Negev Desert.

This ride is more than thrilling. Most of the time, I am wondering why we aren't tipping over — or I am experiencing a deep awareness of why so many Israelis die in car accidents.

"My parents were worried about Saddam Hussein," I half-joke aloud. "But they didn't know about Izzat Abu-Rabia."

Our friendly guide and driver, Abu-Rabia, is believed to be the only Bedouin tour guide in Israel. Despite constant prodding, he will not strap on his seatbelt.

After we drive past mountains of salt that were once at the bottom of the Dead Sea, we enter the Negev.

A few minutes later, we leave the narrow road. The 4×4 starts climbing rocks, bumping over deep holes, inching along sheer cliffs, dropping down sharp hills and crossing serious ditches.

When we finally reach our destination, I decide the torture is worth it. Abu-Rabia has brought us to the Pool of Marble in the Zin Wadi. It's a large freshwater spring in the middle of this vast, treacherous desert. Truly isolated, the pool is accessible only with a 4×4.

Rushing streams have polished and smoothed the white rock that holds the water. We are there too early in the day to meet the throngs of animals that rely on this year-round water supply. But Abu-Rabia takes us on a tour of the dozen or so small, sparse plants that manage to survive the harsh conditions outside the pool.

The way back to the road is just as nerve-racking. I grip the doorhandle and occasionally grab the leg of the woman next to me. When it's over, I promise to never do this again. But I am thrilled I did it once.

Israel is fun — and not just one type of fun. It can be as relaxing as a long, hot soak in a large bathtub. It can be as edge-of-your seat as a Schwarzenegger flick.

The "third" Israel should not be underestimated.