North of the Sea of Galilee are Israel's northern panhandle and a small area along the Golan border dense with natural beauty and tranquillity -- at least off season when it is not flooded with Israelis on vacation. The region connects naturally into the Golan. If you're overnighting, try to make arrangements in advance. If you don't phone ahead, travel early from Tiberias or Safed and pin down a place to stay as soon as possible. Hwy. 90 will take you right into the heart of this area, passing by the outskirts of Rosh Pina.
From Mishmar Ha-Yarden to Ayelet Ha-Shahar -- Along the main road is the turnoff to Mishmar Ha-Yarden, Galilee's oldest moshav, established around the turn of the 20th century and one of the few Jewish communities overrun and destroyed during the 1948 war. Beyond the moshav, crossing the Jordan into Golan, is the bridge called Benot Yaakov (Daughters of Jacob), believed to be the place where Jacob crossed the river on his return from Mesopotamia. The bridge is also on the ancient caravan route from Damascus to Egypt, which is part of the Via Maris.
On the left (west) side of the road is Tel Hazor, a prehistoric mound that serves as yet another reminder of this land's history. Canaanite Hazor was perhaps the region's most important city by far eclipsing smaller Canaanite towns such as Jerusalem; but after the Israelite conquest (around 1200 B.C.) the city's power declined. As a major city in the northern Kingdom of Israel in the centuries after the death of King Solomon, when Judah and Israel separated, Hazor was fortified in the time of King Ahab and a water system was built to divert the Hazor's water supply inside the walls of the city. After Hazor was destroyed by the Assyrians in 732 B.C., it never became a sizable community again, and fell into oblivion. Hazor is one of the most continuously and intensely excavated sites in the country. Yigal Yadin, one of Israel's greatest archaeologists, felt certain the vast archives of Hazor (potentially rich with extra-biblical material) must lie buried somewhere in the enormous site, but so far, years of digging have not uncovered them. Artifacts from the area are exhibited at the Hazor Museum (tel. 04/6934-855), near the entrance to Kibbutz Ayelet Ha-Shahar. Displays are from 21 different archaeological strata spanning 2,500 years, from the early Bronze Age to the Hellenistic period in the 2nd century B.C. The excavation of Hazor is recorded in the extensively photographed book, Hazor, by Yigael Yadin, whose writing makes archaeology truly accessible and exciting for all readers. Admission to Tel Hazor National Park (tel. 04/693-7290), including the Hazor Museum, is NIS 18 ($4.50/£2.25). It is open daily from 8am to 4pm and until 5pm in summer.
The Hula Valley -- The best view of this beautiful reclaimed swampland is from the Nebi Yusha fortress just off the main road, on the "Hill of the 28." A memorial in front of the British Taggart Fort recalls the time when these Hagana soldiers climbed the hill from Hula in the dead of night and fought to gain this strategic point. The odds were against them as they weathered a rain of machine-gun fire and grenades from the windows of the fort. When efforts to dynamite the building failed, the group's commander strapped the dynamite to his back, ignited it, and threw himself at a weak point in the wall. In all, 28 fighters died in taking this hilltop strong point, and today birds make nests in the many shell holes on the walls of the fort.
Beyond the memorial plaques is an observation point with a magnificent view of the valley below. This breathtaking area, which stretches in both directions as far as the eye can see, was once a vast marshland teeming with wildlife. It was the smallest of the three lakes fed by the Jordan -- the Sea of Galilee and The Dead Sea are the other two. To Israelis who remember the marshland, the Hula was a lovely place -- a home for water buffalo, wild boar, exotic birds, and wildflowers. Species of cranes and storks would migrate here, coming and going from as far away as Russia, Scandinavia, and India. To those who knew its thickets of papyrus, its dragonflies and kingfishers, and its tropical water lilies (some claim it looked a little like the shores of the Nile), the Hula was a bit of paradise. The Arabs had legends about the Hula's charms, where spirits walked in the evening mist luring young people into the mysterious marsh.
After years of wrangling with neighboring governments -- as well as with the French and British -- the Israelis finally drained the marshes after they achieved independence. Because the country needed every drop of water and every square foot of fertile land, only one small section of the valley was left as a wildlife preserve. Control over the Hula's waters was also a necessary phase of the Lowdermilk and other Jordan River diversion plans, which bring water to the barren southern reaches of Israel.
However, the project upset the ecosystem and harmed the region's natural aquifer. The draining of Hula Lake and the marshes also deprived millions of migrating birds of a strategic watering hole on the migration route from Europe and Western Asia down the Jordan Valley to Africa. In 1970, a reconstruction project to re-create the marshes was launched, and the Hula Nature Reserve was created.
Kiryat Shmona -- Kiryat Shmona ("The Town of the Eight") is an especially attractive Israeli town, named for eight early Jewish pioneers who were killed in 1920 defending the area against Arab marauders. The town contains carefully laid-out residential districts, a busy bus station, and a fascinating monument to the turbulent past: three old army tanks, painted in bright basic colors, next to a gas station on the left side of the road as you enter from the south. It's largely populated by Israelis of Middle Eastern descent, with a smattering of new immigrants from the former Soviet Union. The surrounding countryside may be beautiful, but the area has sometimes come under attack by katushya rockets launched from Lebanon.
This is the "big town" in Upper Galilee (pop. 18,000), with a wide main boulevard: You'll find lots of fast, inexpensive falafel and shwarma places here if you're looking for a quick meal. At the junction of Hwy. 90 and Rte. 99 (to Banias and Nimrod's Castle), you'll find a small shopping center with a Burger Ranch (a useful navigation landmark and a place to get a quick bite).
En Route to Metulla -- From Kiryat Shmona, you can head north past Kefar Giladi and Tel Hai to Metulla, then backtrack to Kiryat Shmona before heading east to Golan.
Situated along the Lebanese border, Metulla is as far north as you can go in Israel proper. Founded in 1896 by a Rothschild grant, Metulla is a pretty, pine-scented orderly little community where residents farm and cultivate bees. During the rainy season you can see a waterfall cascading from the Tanur Pass into the Iyon River. Because of its proximity to the border, the town has many soldiers and has experienced a considerable amount of military action.
Metulla became a bustling place during the Israeli invasion of Lebanon, but now that the troops are withdrawn it has settled back into picturesque serenity. With its limestone buildings accented by dark wood, cypress, and evergreen trees, Metulla is reminiscent of a Swiss mountain village, tidy and tranquil.
Metulla has a tiny museum, and the Nahal Ayoun Picnic Ground is by the Lebanese border, shaded by tall eucalyptus trees and furnished with picnic tables and campgrounds. Past the picnic ground, a rough road skirts the Lebanese border, heading east and south to the Nahal Ayoun (or Ha-Tanur) Nature Reserve (tel. 04/695-1519) that runs along the entire east side of Metulla, along the Ayoun Stream, between Metulla and the Lebanese border. You can drive or walk into the reserve from this road; admission is NIS 18 ($4.50/£2.25) for adults and half-price for children. It's open Sunday to Thursday from 8am to 4pm (until 5pm in summer) and Friday 8am to 3pm.
The 27m-high (89-ft.) Ha-Tanur (Oven Waterfall), one of the loveliest spots in Israel, is the nature reserve's big draw. In all but the driest months, the falls tumble into tempting, shaded pools. There are two pathways to the waterfall: The long trail, originating in the upper parking lot, runs downstream and takes about 1 1/2 hours (if you have no transport waiting for you at the lower parking lot, it's an uphill walk back to your car). The short trail begins and ends at the lower parking lot and makes a half-hour walking circuit that takes in some of the nicest parts of the reserve, including the falls.
If you have a car, or if you don't mind a bit of a hike, go to Lookout Mountain, the peak about 1km (1/2 mile) west of Metulla, for a bird's-eye view of the area.
En Route to Mount Hermon & the Golan Heights
East of Kiryat Shmona, along Rte. 99 to Mount Hermon -- that snowcapped peak you've probably already noticed -- is a beautiful national park, hot springs, a Crusader fortress, and a ski center.
The prehistoric settlement at Tel Dan, 9km (5 1/2 miles) east of Kiryat Shmona and then 3km (1 1/2 miles) north, was a thriving Canaanite community when Joshua led the conquering Israelites here more than 3,000 years ago. In fact, Dan was the northern limit of the Promised Land (the southern limit was Beersheva).
The Golan Heights
This wild plateau, with its vistas of the Galilee below, is especially worthy of a visit. Occupied since 1967 by Israel, which captured the Golan from Syria during the Six-Day War, and annexed it for security reasons in 1981, the Golan Heights are lightly populated with Druze villages and Jewish towns constructed by the Israeli government specifically for security purposes. Unlike in Gaza and the West Bank, the period of Israeli control in the Golan has been marked by economic development, prosperity, and relatively tranquil relations between the Druze and the Israeli settlers. The Israeli infrastructure on the Golan now includes a network of orchards, cattle ranches, wineries, nature reserves, and country B&Bs that Israelis and visitors have come to treasure. The future of the Golan is not entirely clear. Prime Ministers Rabin, Barak, and Olmert have been quoted as stating that in exchange for a genuine peace with Syria, most of the Golan may be returned to that country, with the Golan overlooking the Sea of Galilee demilitarized to prevent possible sniping or other attacks on the Galilee. Syrian leaders insist on the return of every inch of land and access to the eastern shore of the Sea of Galilee. Meanwhile, the Golan affords visitors the pleasure of flowing winter springs and waterfalls, and a variety of ancient sites ranging from prehistoric dolmens to the ruins of 1,900-year-old synagogues, as well as Israel's only ski resort and a number of its best wineries. The region's most spectacular ancient site is the ruin of Gamla, a Jewish town destroyed in A.D. 67 during the First Revolt against Rome, located on an especially beautiful and dramatic mountain ridge. The Golan is one of the areas where a rental car is most useful, although with luck, you might find a well-informed cabdriver in Tiberias to take you around the Golan for a special full or half-day deal. In summer, the plateau is blazing hot; in winter it can be bitterly cold and windy.
Visitor information & Touring the Region -- The Golan Tourist Association has set up a fabulous website (www.etour.golan.org.il) that includes detailed information on everything in the Golan, from accommodations, hiking in nature reserves, visiting ancient sites, biking, wineries, restaurants, festivals, special events, history, and politics to kite surfing in the Kinneret and observing the Griffon Vulture nesting season in the Golan's interior. When you get to the Golan's "capital," the village of Qasrin, be sure to visit the state-of-the-art exhibit, Golan Magic, which will give you an incredible preview of what to see and do in the Golan.
Hiking in the Golan Heights must be arranged in advance through an SPNI field school or information station. The SPNI Field School in Qasrin (tel. 04/696-1234) is on Zavitan Street, off Daliyot Street; in the Upper Galilee SPNI is at the Beit Ussishkin Museum at Kibbutz Dan (tel. 04/694-1704).
The Druze Villages -- The Druze villages on the slopes of Mount Hermon are inhabited by the fiercely independent people whose religion is something of a mystery to outsiders. They are farmers for the most part, and don't mind tilling the steep, rocky ground as long as they are left in peace. For the past 1,000 years, the Druze have had considerable autonomy. It just wasn't worth the time and expense to conquer them.
The Druze religion is an offshoot of Islam, but very different from either of the major branches, Sunni and Shiite. The beliefs of the Druze religion are kept secret from outsiders, but the sect reveres the Fatimid caliph Al Hakim (996-1021), the sixth of the Fatimid line, who in the year 1020 proclaimed himself to be an incarnation of God. The Druze also revere Jethro, the Midianite father-in-law of Moses.
In public life the Druze believe in loyalty to the countries in which they reside, and Israeli Druze have served with distinction in the Israeli army. The Druze of the Golan, however, though they have had a tranquil and prosperous existence since the Israeli occupation began in 1967, also feel they must uphold their commitment to Syria, and most publicly support a return of the Golan Heights to Syrian control.
Between the Druze villages of Majdal Shams and Mas'ada is the small lake of Birkhet Ram, now used as a reservoir. Although its round shape hints at a volcanic origin, Birkhet Ram was actually formed by the action of underground springs. Visit the Birkhet Ram Restaurant if you're hungry, because you won't find many restaurants in Golan, and it offers the best view of the lake from its balcony. It's open from 8am to 6pm. There's a good falafel stand and snack shop here as well -- any of the little restaurants in the Druze towns is guaranteed to be good.
En Route to Qasrin -- After the slow, bouncing ride back from Hermon to the main road, the road becomes well paved. Fifteen kilometers (9 miles) south of Mas'ada is an observation point from which you can see across the Israeli-Syrian border, which is patrolled by a UN peacekeeping force. In the distance is the abandoned Syrian border city of Kuneitra; beyond is the wide, barren plain that leads to Damascus.
Kuneitra (or Quneitra, now in Syria) was the chief Syrian city in Golan before the war. It was occupied by Israel from 1967 to 1974. Under terms of a disengagement withdrawal brokered by the United States, Kuneitra was returned to Syria. Israel had hoped that a repopulated Kuneitra would be incentive for Syria to defuse tension on the border, but the city has remained largely deserted, one of many ghost towns created by politics and war.
Nearby, on the Israeli side of the border, is Kibbutz Merom Ha-Golan, a commune of settlers from all over the world initially set up by the Israeli government to help secure the Golan border.
Qasrin is 20km (12 miles) from Merom Ha-Golan; 38km (24 miles) from Tiberias. Situated in the center of Golan, the new (1977) Israeli "capital" of Golan, Qasrin (Kazrin, Katzirin), with a present population of about 3,000, was founded on the site of a 2nd- to 3rd-century Jewish town of the same name. Qasrin is the region's administrative hub, with new apartments, offices, schools, factories, and a few shops. It is a good place to stop for groceries or snacks (there are a few falafel stands and snack bars on the main street) and emergency services. And there are many interesting sights nearby. Bus service is from Kiryat Shmona (bus no. 55).
A few unlikely contrasts serve as strong reminders of the town's strategic locale: a pleasant suburban town surrounded by barbed wire; bomb shelters encircled by rose gardens; and bomb shelters that house recreation centers, clubhouses, and music halls. Qasrin is known for its sweet, natural mineral water, which is bottled and exported to the rest of the country.