Jewish National Fund - We Only Have ONE ISRAEL

SOCIETY FOR THE PROTECTION OF NATURE IN ISRAEL OFFERS TOURISTS HISTORY, HIKING AND NATURE

Visitors to Israel who want to learn about the flora, fauna, history and Biblical traditions of their special land, while they see the sights and sites, frequently by foot, have but one choice: the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel (SPNI).

"SPNI is the only organization that brings together in one sightseeing experience the entire story of the Biblical history and traditions of Israel and also presents the travelers our amazing plant and animal life," said Stephanie Glickman, director of the New York office of SPNI. "Moreover, SPNI enables the visitor to see the land the way our forefathers did, on foot."

This unique organization, born in 1953 from a desire to involve both tourists and Israelis in learning about and preserving the nation's numerous natural features and to fight for legislation to protect the environment, features more than 20 hiking tours.

The tours range in difficulty from easy, such as strolling the streets of Jerusalem, to moderate, perhaps hiking among the streams in the Banias Nature Reserve, to difficult, crawling through man-made caves. They encompass a varied landscape comprising modern, bustling cities, forest-covered mountain ranges, arid deserts and lushly landscaped valleys with rivers running through them or dotted by lambent lakes.

The tours, led by highly trained professionals, fluent in English and schooled by two years rigorous study in the Biblical past, history, geography, culture, traditions and the natural life of Israel, range from one day tours to excursions of 15 days. The former include day tours of Jerusalem, Masada and the Judean Desert. "SPNI guides are the best trained of any tour guides in Israel, if not the world," said Ms. Glickman.

A full-day walking archaeological tour of Jerusalem's historical Old City takes the visitor to such historic sites as the Western Wall, the City of David and the Herodian Quarter ($44). For the one-day tour of Masada, Ein Gedi and the Dead Sea, tourists travel by bus from Jerusalem through the hills of the Judean Desert. Then it's by cable car to the top of Masada where, in the year 70 AD, 967 brave Israelites withstood the onslaught of 10,000 Roman soldiers before committing suicide rather than surrender. In the lush, green oasis of the Ein Gedi Nature Reserve, the visitor will view hyrax and ibex in their native surroundings. Before returning to Jerusalem, there is a swim, or more accurately, a float, in the Dead Sea, lowest point and the saltiest body or water on earth ($59).

There are three one-day visits to the Judean Desert, one featuring the Absalom stalactite caves ($52) and the other two including visits to the Monastery of St. George, dating from the 5th century, situated on the side of a cliff and still occupied by Monks ($48 and $55). Two popular tours are the three-day excursion to the Galilee and the Golan in the north ($284) and the five-day camel tour in the south's Eilat Mountains ($292).

The first visits, the three-day excursion, for moderate to good hikers, includes three to four hours of hiking on the first and last day. Among the tour's attractions are a visit to a Druze village, hiking along the streams in the Banias Nature Reserve-- the Banias River is one of the three sources of the Jordan River and views of the dramatic Banias Waterfall and Mount Hermon, where Israelis ski in winter.

The second tour takes the traveler by camel along the African-Syrian rift valley in the south, into basins and gorges and to the top of Mr. Berech for beautiful views of Israel's Timna Valley. Two nights are spent sleeping al fresco under the desert stars. "After traveling by camel all day, there is no difficulty sleeping at night," said Ms. Glickman, "and the stars make it even more restful.

"Many of the 4,000 or so foreign tourists who go on SPNI tours each year do so as part of their visit to Israel," said Ms. Glickman, "but we are getting more and more of those who are coming specifically and only for the SPNI experience. And for those the longer tours are very popular." Ms. Glickman said that with the addition of the New York office she could see the number of Americans going on SPNI tours doubling within the next two years.

One of the favorite tours, according Ms. Glickman, is the appropriately named "Perfect Tour." (*98 youth hostel, $1290 tourist class, $1595 deluxe hotel). The 12-day tour includes some days with four to six hours of hiking. They take the visitor the entire length of the country, from the Golan and the Galilee on the north, to Eilat and the Red Sea on the south.

The tour includes snorkeling and swimming among the Red Sea's coral reefs, a two-hour camel ride in the vicinity of the Ramon Crater, a three-four hour hike through canyons containing fossil remains, a drive to Neot Kedumim, the world's only Biblical landscape reserve, a tour of the world's oldest copper mines, crawling through man- made tunnels and much more.

An even more extensive 15- day tour, also appropriately named, "The Complete Active Tour of Israel," ($1094 youth hostel, $1628 tourist class, $2025 deluxe hotel) includes both the length and the breadth of the land, from the urban bustle of Tel Aviv on the west coast to the salty solitude of the Dead Sea on the eastern border with Jordan.

Until recently most visitors from the U.S. booked their SPNI tours after their arrival in Israel. With the advent of the New York office this past summer, American tourists may book their tours prior to departing the U.S. "It makes things much more convenient and manageable for the traveler if they book through our office," advises Ms. Glickman, who also counsels booking tours four to six weeks in advance. "We will also customize tours for groups if there is interest among a sufficient number of travelers."

The non-profit, non- governmental SPNI is Israel's largest such group working to preserve the environment and the nation's historical legacies. The hiking tours, for foreign visitors and natives alike, are the best known aspect of its work.

"Our tours represent a wide selection of interests and physical abilities," said Ms. Glickman, who emphasized such officially designated categories of interest as archaeology, bird watching, butterflies, flora and fauna, flowers in bloom and geology. "There are also such things as adventure tours for ages 15-8, bicycle tours, Bible tours for Jews and for Christians, Negev, Sinai, Jordan and Red Sea tours. We even have special one night tours and special tours for each month. It's all rather fitting for a country with so many attractions for tourists with so many varied interests."


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