Northern Israel: The Grottos and the Gardens
There are innumerable times when road warriors and business people have some five or six hour gaps between meetings and can never quite figure out what to do to kill the time. Half the time is spent unproductively just twiddling the time away in a boozy bar or driving around needlessly wasting gas.
If you’re ever stuck in such a situation in Tel Aviv or Haifa, Israel, there are a couple of places you can visit and I can assure you they’ll help pass the time and even remove some of the unwanted tension that comes with waiting trying to figure out what to do. Both venues, because of their inherent uniqueness and beauty, will predictably provide some relaxation and relief from the job rigors.
Israel is such a smallish country in physical size, but always huge when it comes to emotions and expressions – love, beauty, religion, trust, fear, hate – the gamut of feelings are boundless and endless. The abounding historical and religious sights may make one come to tears whether it’s bowing to the spirituality of the Western (Wailing) Wall or walking the Via Dolorosa in Jerusalem. It’s an emotional adventure and roller coaster ride just as much as a history reality show illustrating the past and present.
On a recent trip to Israel, I traveled well beyond the bounds of the banal history channel sights and sounds and found new bountiful images and sensations along the far northern Israeli coastline where I had never ventured before.
It seems one is always caught up with the “must sees,” – Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, the Dead Sea and Masada. I had done all that – loved it of course, but now was headed in a new direction, north, past the port city of Haifa, up towards the Israel-Lebanon border, and really wasn’t all-together sure what to expect.
The first newly-found treasure at the border was Rosh Hanikra, located about six miles north of the City of Nahariya, or 26 miles north of Haifa. Rosh Hanikra is actually a mini mountain rock-formation which contains a huge labyrinth of natural caves and grottos that were formed by the sea pummeling and bashing the chalk rock. Over thousands of years, the cavernous grottos, totaling some 656 feet, were formed. Some are just single caves while others interconnect with many forming funnel or tube-like connections to each other as well as to the sea below.
Visitors to the grottos access the caverns via cable car which descends from the roadway above down to the cave’s entrance – and this particular cable ride claims to be the steepest cable car in the world, although by no means the longest or highest; it claims a downward angle of some 60 degrees.
There’s plenty of head room in the grottos to gape at the picturesque views, and in fact, for photographers, there’s even enough natural light to record some fantastic photos or video. There are some stairs and ramps, and whilst the floors and walls may be a bit damp or wet from the humidity and the seawater below spraying upwards, these grottos are well worth the visit.
Entrance to the grottos for adults via cable car is 43 Israeli shekels or about $11; for children or seniors, the admission is 35 shekels or about $9. The grottos are open everyday from 9 am to 6 pm.
For the more adventurous sea-faring tourists (with more time), the grottos also are accessible by kayak which are available for rent at nearby locations on the coast just south of Rosh Hanikra. The water is usually fairly calm (rough weather notwithstanding) and from the water’s surface in the caves, the grottos are incredibly impressive.
A half day’s kayak adventure into the grottos runs about 290 Israeli Shekels (about $74) for three people. An instruction session is provided prior to embarking into the water, and the instructor usually accompanies the group into the caves. It’s definitely worth time and effort.
Israel’s third largest city is Haifa, just over 50 miles north from Tel Aviv, about a 45 to 60 minute easy drive north of Tel Aviv, also along the coast. The city, which serves as Israel’s most important seaport, as well as the Mediterranean’s deepest port, stretches in from the coast and up and down the sides of Mount Carmel. And it is on the northeast-facing slope of Mount Carmel where the second beautiful sight – the incredible and extraordinary Baha’i Gardens are located, what some people have called “the eighth wonder of the world.”
The Baha’i Gardens have to be one of the most pristine and manicured gardens on this planet. And what makes them so unique is that they seems more vertical as well as long and kind of narrow, as they cover 62 acres comprised of some 19 terraced individual gardens – kind of a horticultural staircase connecting Mt. Carmel and heaven. Looking down at the Gardens viewing a satellite Googlemap shows exactly that.
The gardens, which stretch a little over half a mile up or down the mountain are some 437 yards wide from bottom to top. The actual vertical elevation of the gardens is 738 feet.
There are literally thousands of beautifully trimmed trees and hedges, bushes, and rows and beds of glorious, colorful blooming flowers, not to mention the green and lush expansive lawns. In actual fact, there are 450 plant species, many of which are native to the region, and have been chosen for the color, height, hardiness and ability to sustain themselves with a minimum of water.
One walks through the gardens via an elaborate array of sculptured pathways and steps. An army of dedicated gardeners look after this splendor each and every day – there seems not to be one branch, twig, leaf, flower or blade of grass out of place.
Looking down on the panorama of the gardens with the port of Haifa and the Mediterranean Sea in the background is one astounding visual and calming experience, even more so when one takes in the hum and faint noise from the port.
Halfway up, or down, in the middle of the gardens is the Baha’i Shrine of the Bab with its golden dome of 14,000 gold-coated bricks, Italian marble walls and granite pillars. Begun in 1909 and completed in 1953, the nine-sided structure, said to represent the nine religions of the world, is the resting place of the Prophet-Herald of the Baha’i faith. Adjacent to the gardens are several other unique buildings, two of which house the Baha’i International Archives and the other is the Seat of the Universal House of Justice.
Construction of the terraced Baha’i Gardens began in 1987, and actually was completed in 2001. In 2008, the Gardens were declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO observing “its outstanding universal value.” Over half a million people from all over the world visit the Baha’i Gardens each year.
The Baha’i Gardens are open everyday (except for inclement weather and a few religious holidays) from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Walking through the gardens, it is suggested that one begins the tour at the uppermost balcony, 61 Yefe Nof Street, and slowly work yourself down to the Shrine, and then down to the bottom at Ben Gurion Street. Taking in all the 19 garden terraces at a leisurely pace should run about two hours. Admission is free of charge.
There are also tours offered at special hours during the day in English, Hebrew and Russian. The web site, http://www.ganbahai.org.il/en/, should be consulted for additional inquiries regarding opening times and frequently asked questions.
Entrances to the Baha’i Gardens from both ends are accessible by car or bus. There are numerous tour and bus companies which operate tours to the gardens.
Both attractions – the grottos and the gardens – are perfect destinations for tourists that are traveling on cruise ships docked in Haifa for a day or two. Since Haifa is such an international port, numerous cruise lines stop there enabling their passengers a day or two to regain their land legs. The cruise ships also take-on and disembark passengers at Haifa so one way or another, the attractions are close by and very accessible.
So Rosh Hanikra and the Baha’i Gardens are but two slightly different diversions – and both in the same direction. If you have a few hours to spend for sightseeing in Israel, try it – you’ll actually like it!