Family vacationing in Israel: To see it is to love it

Looking for something to do in Israel is like picking up a rock in a forest and searching for bugs underneath. You can hardly turn around in the Holy Land without being hit with an abundance of history, nature and Jewish lore.

But wandering around ruined fortresses and gazing up at gorgeous cliffs doesn’t always hold the little ones’ attention. Fortunately, there is plenty to do in Israel with kids that will keep them interested and give the entire family a true Israeli experience.

Native Israeli Michal Ron Reihanian, a “Middle East expert” travel agent at Tamalpais Travel in Corte Madera, has been putting together tours to Israel for more than a decade. “I want to be the ambassador of my country,” Reihanian says. “I do it because I want people to go to Israel and see it the way I see it, love it the way I love it.”

And with four kids of her own, Reihanian knows a lot about keeping the younger set from getting bored on vacation.

So, she was asked, where are the best places in Israel to take your children and teenagers?

Starting in the Jerusalem area, kids of all ages, especially the little ones, will love the Tisch Family Zoological Gardens, known informally as the “biblical zoo,” near the Malcha Mall in Jerusalem. The zoo’s unusual collection focuses on animals mentioned in the Bible — many of which are no longer found in Israel, like bears, cheetahs and the Nile crocodile — and endangered animals from around the world, like ibises and elephants.

For children 14 and under, Kiftzuba, Israel’s largest family entertainment center, will be a fun stop. It’s not much different than American amusement parks, so if you’re looking for a unique activity this won’t be it. But kids might enjoy getting a taste of home away from home. Kiftzuba includes kid-friendly motorcycle rides, train rides, moonbounces, an arcade and a petting zoo.

Museums abound in Jerusalem, but for families, Reihanian recommends the Time Elevator Jerusalem, which uses film, moving seats and special effects to recreate 3,000 years of Israeli history. “You really experience how people lived — they really take you back in time,” Reihanian says. “It’s a great place for an 8- or 9-year-old.” The interactive and high tech aspects of the tour will engage today’s technologically-minded kids while teaching them history.

Heading north from Jerusalem, Mini Israel in Latrun (a few minutes from Ben Gurion Airport) is a great experience for families, from toddlers on up. It features hundreds of scale models of sites, buildings and landscapes around Israel, and would be a good place to go at the beginning (for a taste of what’s to come) or end (to see where you’ve been) of a trip. “My kids loved it — they strolled around the streets and had a great experience there,” Reihanian recalls.

Artistic-minded teens will enjoy the Nachalat Binyamin Arts & Crafts Fair, held on Tuesdays and Fridays on Tel Aviv’s Nachalat Binyamin Street. The fair has strict rules for vendors, who must be approved before they are allowed to sell, so the work on sale is of the highest quality. One of the rules is that each artist has to be present at their stalls, so artsy teens will have the opportunity to talk to the artists in person about their craft.

On a more serious note, there’s the Nahum Goldmann Museum of the Jewish Diaspora, where “I always try to end or start a tour,” says Reihanian. The Tel Aviv museum “is a must thing for every teenager and Jewish person that goes even for the first time to Israel. You can really find your roots there — you can really see who you are and where you come from.”

Outside Hadera, Kibbutz Talmei Elazar is ground zero for kids interested in “weird science.” Here you’ll find a nursery for carnivorous plants run by agronomist Ada Barak, who puts on a “show” with the plants. The show is in Hebrew only, but the sight of spiders and frogs jumping out of plants needs no translation. Kids will adore it.

For older children and teens, Kibbutz Merom Golan in the Golan Heights offers the chance to become a cowboy for a day. Visitors can work in the fields herding cattle, riding horses, picking fruit and eating outdoors.

Kfar Blum Kayaks offers more than its name implies — though it does offer several different kayak adventures, which it claims are appropriate for ages 5 and up (though water conditions might change that). Kfar Blum also features a rock-climbing wall and what’s sure to become a favorite for older children and teens, an Omega zipline. For kids who aren’t fond of water or heights, Kfar Blum also has children’s Jeep trips and ropes courses.

Though it might scare younger kids and toddlers, the crocodile farm at Hamat Gader, just north of Tzemah Junction near the Sea of Galilee, will be a treat for children age 7 and up. The farm currently holds over 200 crocodiles of various species, including one, according to the Hamat Gader Web site, “known for its extremely violent nature and notoriety for attacking humans.” But Hamat Gader also offers activities perfect for all ages — including performing parrots and a petting zoo with rabbits, goats, deer and other animals.

One of the most famous, and arguably the most beautiful, places in Israel is Gan Hashlosha National Park, also known as Sachne, about 15 minutes from Beit She’an. Perfect for the whole family, Gan Hashlosha features hot springs, pools and waterfalls that you can swim in summer and winter (the water stays at about 82 degrees year-round). Nearby is Gan Garoo, a park featuring animals and plants native to Australia, where kids can see kangaroos, wallabies, koalas and other animals from Down Under.

It’s not quite Napa or Sonoma, but older teens will enjoy taking advantage of the lower drinking age (18 is the legal age in Israel) at Ramat Hagolan wineries like Maor and Chateau Golan, where they can get tours and tastings.

“The north is really full of activities for teenagers,” Reihanian notes. Almost all of the kibbutzes and moshavs in the north offer activities like tours on mini-tractors, parachuting, kayaking, rafting and “snappling” (rappelling).

South of Jerusalem lies the Negev desert, which in spite of its arid climate is teeming with life — and activities kids will enjoy. Field schools, run by the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel, are a great place to take the whole family. In particular, Reihanian recommends the Har Ha’Negev Field School, near the breathtaking Ramon Crater (Machtesh Ramon). Har Ha’Negev features an alpaca ranch where kids can pet and feed alpacas, see how alpaca wool is made and take a tour on a camel or llama.

Experiencing Bedouin culture is a must-do in Israel, so the Joe Alon Center in the northern Negev is a perfect place to visit, Reihanian says. Families can visit a Bedouin tent, hear folktales and drink strong Bedouin coffee and sweet tea. The kids will enjoy the Family Tent, where they can bake pita the way the desert-dwellers do and take a donkey ride on the Bedouin farm.

For older kids looking for a thrill, Metzoke Dragot, overlooking the Dead Sea, provides plenty. There are Jeep tours through the desert, rappelling and other “extreme activities.” And, says Reihanian, “it’s beautiful — beautiful!”

A delicious desert treat comes in the form of honey from Kibbutz Yad Mordechai, just south of Ashkelon. The kibbutz has a lot of history — it’s named for a leader of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising and the kibbutz itself came under attack from Egypt in 1948 — but it’s also a terrific place for kids to learn about the honey-making process at its honey farm. “It’s a good experience for the whole family,” Reihanian says. “You get a demonstration of how they make the honey, they show you how they take the hive out, the whole thing.” And, of course, you can try some of the honey yourself.

Like sampling the honey, these stops provide just a taste of the many family activities Israel has to offer — probably too many for one vacation. For that, though, you have a handy remedy — go back again and again.

For more information on sites to visit:

Time Elevator Jerusalem

Mini Israel

Nachalat Binyamin Arts & Crafts Fair

The Nahum Goldmann Museum of the Jewish Diaspora

Carnivorous Plants Nursery, Moshav Talmei Elazar (Hebrew only)

Kibbutz Merom Golan

Joe Alon Center

Metzoke Dragot

Chateau Golan

Note: For a tour, advance reservations are required.

Gan Hashlosha National Park

Gan Garoo (Hebrew only)

Maor Winery

Note: For a tour, advance reservations are required.

Har Ha’Negev Field School

Kibbutz Yad Mordechai (Hebrew only)