I imagine most couples, when called upon to pick a honeymoon destination, probably wouldn't put Israel at the top of their list. Especially not broke, atheist, millennial newlyweds, like my husband and me. Though we've never been ones to stick to the beaten track -- we decided to forge a new path, all the way to the Holy Land, to celebrate our marriage.
When you choose an unusual destination for your honeymoon, you accept the risk of encountering everything from a mild case of the hiccups to an outright life-or-death disaster, without much guidance. Them's the breaks. Still, we're philanthropic sorts, so we put together the type of list that we wish we'd had beforehand...
Here's what first-timers need to know about travelling in Israel:
1. There are no pharmacies.
Okay, perhaps that's a slight exaggeration -- there are pharmacies, but they are needles in the proverbial haystack. If you don't pack an adequate stash of toiletries you will likely end up trading all of your shekels and your first born for a deodorant stick at the 'am:pm' (which is kind of like the bastard child of Woolworths and 711). Be sure to take everything you need with you -- ladies, this goes triple for sanitary items -- you have zero chance of finding your preferred brand of tampons.
2. The sunrise hike at Masada is NOT 'all fitness levels'.
Masada is a rugged-natural fortress of majestic beauty in the Southern District of Israel, overlooking the Dead Sea. We were lured there by panoramic photographs of stunning views, and the relics dating back two millennia.
Here's the thing though, the dodgy tourist website that told us the pre-sunrise hike was "suitable for all fitness levels'", it lied. We found out the hard way; scaling a treacherous cliff-face in our jeans and sneakers, armed with only a 200mL bottle of water and half a bunch of grapes for sustenance. It's do-able, but for the love of all that is holy, outfit yourself properly and make sure you have the requisite lung capacity before you set out.
3. Shabbat is a very serious thing.
"Sure", say those of us from young countries with relatively little religious influence, "day of rest... the shops will close a little early and all that. I'm sure it'll be fine!".
Shabbat is serious business. Public transport shuts down, tourist attractions close, the streets are deserted. Tel Aviv -- the cosmopolitan hub -- remains relatively active, corner stores are still open and they will still sell you beer, but that does not hold true for other more conservative/religious areas such as Jerusalem. We very nearly found ourselves stranded on a couple of occasions, as we failed to plan around the day of rest.
So, avoid looking like a philistine tourist and minimise your need to travel or explore on Saturdays.
4. English is not (necessarily) the lingua franca.
As it turns out, the Israeli Government's concerted effort to revive Hebrew has been incredibly effective, and most locals will assume that you speak it. We were relatively lucky in that we could usually find someone who spoke enough English to get us by... in Tel Aviv.
In the more remote areas, it was tricky -- and, beware, there are some spots where (politically) Hebrew is a no-no and Arabic is your only option.
I would strongly recommend locking down the basics in both languages, 'please', 'thank you', 'bathroom', 'sorry' and 'beer'... And maybe even downloading one of those fancy translator apps, the way my mother told us we should.
5. Visa isn't accepted everywhere, bartering is different, and well... Money stuff needs to be sorted before you go.
Managing your money in Israel really deserves its own 'For Dummies' book, but the most essential tips are:
Visa is accepted at a lot of merchants, even if they don't have a sticker or a sign. Be sure to ask if you're looking to use your card.
However, Visa is not accepted at all ATMs. In a particularly desperate moment, one of the ubiquitous Bank Hapoalim machines spat my card out and refused to dispense cash. It's best to withdraw and exchange all of the currency you think you'll need before you leave home.
Bartering in Israel is distinctly different from that which you may have experienced elsewhere (in South East Asia or similar). The usual friendly banter and good-natured "come on, buddy!" hokum is not tolerated. Only the most deferential and respectful attempts to negotiate have any effect -- and even then, our most successful effort saved us the princely sum of 40 cents. So, practice your genuflectional bargaining before you leave, and don't expect too much.
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6. Everybody has a gun.
Well, maybe not everyone, but there's certainly more folks openly carrying assault rifles than you'd see in Sydney's inner west (silent prayer of gratitude for Australia's gun control laws). We assumed, in large part, that these were Israeli Defence Force conscripts, given that a couple years' military service is mandatory for all Israelis over the age of 18.
The automatic weapons are only truly disconcerting when you see them slung across the shoulders of otherwise normal-looking people in street-wear, but even then you get used to it after a day or two.
7. Navigating to and from Ben Gurion airport is fraught with peril.
Israel is a wonderful, warm and welcoming country, but they test your worthiness with a trial by fire in the passage from the airport to the city. We had to go back and forth a couple of times, so we tried every means possible. We got horrendously ripped off by a chain-smoking cab driver, we nearly died from being crushed on a train platform, we had a disastrous attempt at navigating the roads to return a hire car... We can safely say that the only stress-free option is a high-end airport transfer arranged by the trustworthy concierge at your hotel.
8. Road trips are absolutely the best way to experience Israel.
It turns out, Israel is tiny: about 196km from North to South on the Western side, and 490km on the Eastern side, so you can basically circumnavigate it in a day. For a couple of Aussies that usually endure a two-hour bus ride to get from one side of the city to the other, this was a revelation!
Yes, you need to be prepared for inspections at a few military check-points, and Israelis are notorious for their terrible driving (every Israeli you speak to will mention it), but it's the best way to experience the country. You will drive through deserts, orchards, cities, country towns, mountains, plateaus, and sites of major religious and historical significance, all literally within minutes of one another. Take advantage of their comparatively cheap hire cars, and revel in the freedom.
9. You must allow rest for the jet-lag.
Our first day of our honeymoon, we slept for 14 hours straight. Our first day back at home, it was 16 hours. It doesn't matter if you 'sleep on the plane', it doesn't matter if you'll 'sleep when you're dead', venturing into this part of the world will screw with your circadian rhythm in all kinds of ways. So, book a hotel with a comfy bed, and allow at least a few day's recovery upon your return before expecting to reintegrate into normal life.
And, most importantly, don't forget to enjoy yourself!
See more from Sheree here.
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