The shortest route between Jerusalem and Sea of Galilee is up the Jordan valley, but if you take the time to detour, you’ll learn plenty about the area’s history, its thriving present and its blossoming flora and fauna.|
Your first stop out of Jerusalem, especially if you have children on board, should be Fetzael crocodile farm. Here you will find out all there is to know about crocodiles, see a film about how they are bred and, if you (or the kids) are feeling brave, you can even stroke a small crocodile, and feed them as well.
Further north, you can take a tour around Kibbutz Maoz Haim. The kibbutzniks will show you how they work the fields right up to the Jordanian border, and the “peace bridge” which has been built between the two countries.
You will get a chance to see the variety of water life in and around their fish ponds and the multitude of birds which fly overhead as they pass along the African Rift Valley making their temporary home here.
The area is a bird-watchers’ paradise and attracts groups all the year round. In 1970 an ancient synagogue dating from between the fourth and seventh century was discovered in the grounds of the kibbutz, and a beautiful mosaic floor was unearthed during the excavations.
If you have never stopped off at Beit Shean, then do yourself a favour and visit this fascinating archaeological park. One of the oldest cities of the ancient Middle East, Beit Shean has had 20 layers of settlement uncovered, revealing important finds dating back to Egyptian and Canaanite times.
The town reached its peak in terms of population during the Roman and Byzantine era, but was destroyed by an earthquake in 749 CE. However, recent excavations have unearthed an unprecedented amount of findings from Roman times, including a theatre and amphitheatre, bathhouses, shops and a pottery workshop, as well as many other signs of teeming life.
Many of the discoveries from Beit Shean are housed in the Museum of Regional and Mediterranean Archaeology in Gan Hashlosha (also known as Sachne), together with a Museum of Greek Art and an exhibit of an Israelite village showing ancient weaving techniques.
Gan Hashlosha is also famous for its splendid park with swimming pools and waterfalls. Time magazine named Gan Hashlosha as one of the 20 “most intriguing nooks and crannies” in the world. It has always attracted many locals and visitors, and is a great place for a picnic and swimming stop on your journey northwards.
Next door, in Kibbutz Nir David, is a unique attraction called the Australian Park or “Gan Guru” ( a play on the Hebrew word “gan,” meaning “park,” combined with the word kangaroo). It describes itself as the only place outside Australia where you can wander around freely among kangaroos, play with them, stroke them and feed them.
The kangaroos are not the only Australian attractions here. Other animals and exotic rare plants and birds have been specially brought over from Oz, and you can also have a go at throwing a boomerang and find out why it always comes back.
“If I was religious, I’d say that our survival during the War of Independence was a miracle,” is how a member of Kibbutz Gesher finished off our tour round of old Gesher, the site of the kibbutz during the first years of the state’s existence.
Situated right on the bank of the Jordan River, this little kibbutz, with just a few members, was the focus of an invasion by the Iraqi and Jordanian armies.
After evacuating the children in a covert night-time operation, the remaining adults, with an incredible combination of chutzpah, luck and miracles, withstood the attack with almost no loss of life until the invaders inexplicably decided to retreat. The kibbutzniks even captured a strategic British police fort from under the noses of the Jordanian Army.
These incredible stories can be heard from those who participated in the events, or from their children who have grown up hearing them, and also through a well-designed multi-media presentation. There is also a battle museum situated in the former underground shelter, which gives a taste of the conditions under which they lived.
Belvoir fortress (also known as Kochav Hayarden) is one of the many sites in Israel which has maintained its strategic importance from the 11th to the 20th century.
This impressive Crusader fortress, situated close to the ancient Jewish town of Kochav, was captured from the Iraqi forces by the Golani Brigade in 1948.
The spectacular view from this hilltop makes it obvious why it held such military importance. From here you can see the Sea of Galilee and beyond to the Golan Heights and Mount Hermon, and also the eastern Jordan Valley and southern hills.
Reminiscent of ancient castles found in Britain, Belvoir consists of two concentric forts for extra protection, a moat (but unlike British moats, this rarely contained any water), drawbridges, courtyards, and a fascinating combination of secret passageways, entrances and stairways to confound and confuse the attacking enemy.
Like so many of Israel’s archaeological treasures, the ancient synagogue of Beit Alpha was stumbled across by chance, this time while digging irrigation ditches in Kibbutz Hephzibah at the foot of Mount Gilboa in 1928.
What was uncovered is every archaeologist’s dream — an almost intact elaborate mosaic floor spreading over most of the ground floor of the synagogue.
It was presumably destroyed in the same earthquake which devastated the entire Beit Shean area around 1,200 years ago, and it is believed that because the ladies’ gallery on the second floor collapsed straight onto the lower floor, it covered and protected the mosaic.
A small pit covered by stone slabs found beneath the Ark is thought to be an ancient safe — coins were found inside it.
Huga Gardens is a water park situated on the Israel-Jordan border, and offers three delightful, enormous pools of varying depths for the whole family’s enjoyment, with plenty of shady areas and grass for relaxation.
The park is built specifically to let you see all the pools at once, so that it’s easy to keep an eye out for the kids.
As well as rest rooms and showers, a café and an area for barbecuing (no self-respecting Israeli family goes out for the day without his mangal [barbecuing grill]), there’s also an adventure playground for the kids, and a Bedouin hospitality tent.
On your travels, if you are driving yourself, it’s always best to equip yourself with a map (available free from most hotel lobbies and tourist information centres), and be aware of the various different names of each site.
As you travel up the valley, you will frequently see signs which imply that you are heading straight for Jordan. Don’t worry — the signs just mean that you are near the various bridges spanning the River Jordan between Israel and the Hashemite kingdom.
El Al (0171-957 4100 or 0645 125 725) offers direct flights to Tel Aviv from £179 return (bookable before January 14). There are 10 flights each week from Heathrow and three from Stansted; Longwood Holidays (0181-551 4494) offers one-week kibbutz fly-drive packages staying at kibbutzim conveniently located for the Jordan Valley, from £470, including seven nights’ accommodation with breakfast (staying at a minimum of two kibbutz hotels), flights and car hire; Peltours (0181- 343 0590) offers one-week packages at the luxury Radisson Moriah Tiberias from £598, including breakfast and return flights.