Northern Exposure

Israel Correspondent
Thursday, March 19, 2009 - 20:00

Ramot Naftali, Israel — With the Sea of Galilee shimmering just out the passenger door, we turned left onto Highway 90 into the home stretch: the Hula Valley. A weekend cabin at Moshav Ramot Naftali — a mountain community overlooking what Israelis call the “finger of the Galilee” — lay just 20 minutes away.

Coasting northward with wife and two kids napping, it first appeared to be a cloud. Slowly coming focus, the majestic snow-capped Hermon mountain range, the northern extreme of the Golan Heights, looked down at the valley.

As we wound our way up, down and through the cliffs bracketing the Hula, the Hermon range seemed omnipresent. “The Hermon is following us,” volunteered the 3 ½-year-old. Indeed they would, for the entire trip.

The Hula region is a narrow strip of land wedged between Lebanon to the west and the Golan to the east, hence the “finger” image. Even though it has been years since I’ve properly toured the Negev and Arava regions of southern Israel, we always find ourselves drawn back to the Hula. The view of the Hermon peaks alone is enough to make Israelis feel somewhere far away. Definitely not the Middle East.

With no traffic, the Hula Valley can be reached in just over two hours from Tel Aviv. But traveling with two young kids creates different calculations, and luckily the car snoozes ended at a convenient midway point.

Located just north of Afula, Kfar Tavor is a tiny turn-of the- (20th) -century pioneering village alongside the mountain bearing the same name. There is a museum dedicated to the town’s history, but the afternoon-saving attraction proved to be the John Deere tractor museum and play area.

Kids get to tool around a hangar-sized converted warehouse on yellow and green miniature tractors, while parents can inspect mothballed models preserved with loving care along with technical specs for the hardcore agriculturalist. There’s a movie about tractors shown in a separate screening room, as well as a café. If you are looking for something more refined than a café in a John Deere warehouse, you can eat at the Bordeaux Restaurant at the Tabor Winery complex, which overlooks Tabor’s vineyards.

Thanks to the John Deere pit stop, we were able to reach the Ramot Naftali region without any more stops, and we ultimately arranged to meet our friends at the Manara Cliff cable car. Perched just about the town of Kiryat Shmonah and hugging the border with Lebanon, the Manara cable car offers a spectacular bird’s-eye view of the Hula Valley below and Hermon snow caps to the northeast, as well as the western slopes of the Golan Heights. Unfortunately, by 4 p.m. on a Friday the cable cars were done for the day, so we set out to check into our room.

We had planned to stay at the guesthouse of Kibbutz Manara, which a friend recommended for its balcony views of the Hermon. But when we hesitated to finalize, some one snapped the room up and my dream of the watching the Hermon would have to wait.

Luckily we found a last-minute deal at a bed-and-breakfast at the house of Ruth and Nissim Eliya in Moshav Ramot Naftali. The two-night weekend rate of 900 shekels ($225) beat any of the cabin rates offered on kibbutzim (but breakfast was extra). The cabins were cozy and decorated appropriately. With a separate bedroom, and sitting room and a small kitchenette, the cabins can accommodate a family of four or five. In between the seven or so units, the small commons was well groomed with a mini-playground and a pond with exotic fish.

For an extra 50 shekels per adult and 40 shekels for children, the Galilean breakfast by Ruby Rogel offered a range of gourmet spreads, jellies, cheeses, eggs, freshly baked sourdough bread and a frothy chocolate milk.

After getting underway a little late, our first destination was Nimrod’s Castle. From Kiryat Shmonah take Road 99, across the Hula, past the Banias Nature Reserve and just past the Snir waterfall (worth a stop, but not if your kids have been primed to climb in a castle). Turn left onto Road 989, which heads toward the fortress, which has been turned into a national park.

The ruins of crusader-era fortress sit on a bluff looking west, with a commanding view of the Hula Valley. It’s not surprising to see why the spot changed hands between the Crusaders, the forces of Sallah a-Din, and even the Mongol warlords. With steep stone staircases, doorway arches, lookout towers, the castle is the ultimate playground for kids, though the little ones need to be supervised. Walking to the northern ramparts of the castle, you can hear the rush of water from the Guvta stream if the kids are quiet. If you look to the northeast, the Hermon peaks are just visible over the ridgeline.

Just up the road from Nimrod’s castle is Majdal Shams, the unofficial capital of the Druze community of the Golan Heights. Though the Druze leaders formally declare their allegiance to Syria, the town gets Israeli government services and there’s a cottage tourism industry with restaurants and even a few B&Bs.  We stopped to snack on Druze pita wraps with a labeneh cheese and zatar, but, because the kids were falling asleep, we were forced to pass on a sit-down lunch.

About a 20-minute drive south of Majdal Shams on Route 98, there are cherry and apple orchards along the demilitarized buffer zone with Syria. During the fall harvest, you can spend the afternoon cherry and apple picking and then chill out at the orchard cafe. Nearby is Mount Ben-Tal, the site of a defunct bunker complex with a commanding view eastward into Syria. From here you can see the southern face of the Hermon range.

But between the naps of the little children, the necessity for an early bedtime, we couldn’t accomplish much beyond lunch, and headed back to the moshav. The drawback of Ramot Naftali is that there are no restaurants on the moshav. Instead we drove 15 minutes to “Amburger,” a meat restaurant at the Gomeh junction. The service is efficient, the food tasty and there’s a nice family atmosphere (check to see if reservations are necessary).

Our third day began with a debate: do we make the climb to the Hermon ski area to traipse around in the snow with the rest of the country? Do we visit the popular Banias waterfall — a short walk with a small but powerful waterfall at the end? Or do we hit the Gamla nature reserve — like Nimrod’s Fortress it’s a national park with an entrance fee. We chose Gamla.

Gamla was the capital of the ancient Jewish settlement in the Golan, but it was sacked by the Romans. Visitors can explore the ruins of Gamla, but we set out the path toward the Gamla waterfall — the largest anywhere in Israel.  

Though lacking any shade because a dearth of trees, the walk runs through open fields brushed with winter’s wild flowers before descending around the edge of a canyon with the waterfall. Vultures slowly glide overhead, giving the canyon a desolate feeling. To the west the canyon gets wider as it leads back toward the Sea of Galilee.

Back at the parking lot, as the sun started descending in the late-afternoon sky, we said goodbye for now to Gamla, Golan and the Hermon, and headed back to Tel Aviv. n 





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