Most tourists in the Galilee region of Israel come for one thing: a religious pilgrimage to the Holy Land. As for Ben and me? We were there for the wine.
Joking aside, there are facets of this beautiful northern region of Israel (fronting Lebanon) that we can’t wait to introduce, and they have nothing to do with holy sites, Middle East conflict, or holy sites that give rise to Middle East conflict. Get ready for pastoral tranquility, cooler temperatures, beautiful vistas, posh resorts, and damn fine wine.
Getting to know Galilee
Galilee is a broad plateau ascending to rolling hills and mountains in the northernmost reaches of Israel. It is home to the Sea of Galilee and Nazareth, Ottoman mosques, Jewish kibbutzes, and many acres of orchards, farmland and vineyards. Safed, one of four Jewish holy cities, is known for the development of Kabbalah. Many Israelis weekend or vacation up here to enjoy cooler temperatures and a greener landscape.
Upper Galilee is arguably Israel’s top wine producing region, so I suppose it’s not surprising that the landscape looks much like other super-producers Tuscany and California. Yet I was surprised! It’s unexpectedly picturesque, and that’s nice to find in an age when so many destinations are oversold, rather than undersold.
Put aside cheesy dramatic reenactments of Jesus’ life that portray the Holy Land as a big sand pit. While the Judean Desert is, in fact, a desert, there’s much more to Israel. When I first arrived in Tel Aviv it felt like I was back in Miami Beach. Later, when somebody told me about the pine forests, fresh breezes, and vineyards of Galilee, I knew we would be returning at some point to see the diversity firsthand. It became an early stop on our Goodbye Europe Tour.
While the Golan countryside thrilled me, the cities were markedly drab and unappealing – even the ones with historic old quarters. Several towns are inhabited primarily by Christians, Arabs and/or Druze, a small religious group living primarily in Syria. There are also kibbutzim – usually farming cooperatives of Jews – surrounded by fencing with heavy iron gates that can quickly be shut in case of emergency (a pragmatic reality in Israel). Add to the mix a town or two filled mostly with vacation properties for wealthy Israeli urbanites and tourist areas for believers from every faith – visiting sites like Capernaum, Mount of Beatitudes, The White Mosque, or Jethro’s Tomb – and you’ve got an interesting mix of cultures and people in a tiny area.
A photo tour
We visited in early April and loved the timing. The weather in Galilee was warm but not hot, and the hills still green and covered in wildflowers.
Wines and wineries of Galilee
What once was nothing but apple trees is currently one of Israel’s premier winegrowing regions, and our favorite.
Varying soil types (volcanic, terra rossa and limestone) and topographies bring character diversity to an area otherwise characterized by rocky terrain, warm summers, cool winters, and high rainfall (for the Middle East). Varietals produced here include Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Semillon, Chenin Blanc, Viognier, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Syrah, Grenache, and Carignan.
Wine Notes: We tried very nice wines of several varietals, but for us the jewel of the crown are the Chardonnays. Now, I know that classic California-style Chardonnays are seriously out of vogue, but in my opinion the pendulum in California has swung much too far in the other direction. It’s getting harder and harder to find examples of what used to make California Chardonnays some of the best in the world, because producers are instead pouring their efforts into mimicking the French Burgundies. It’s group-think at its most frustrating.
Luckily, traditionalists need look no further than Israel (Ahem. Well, that is pretty far. But it’s worth it.) Here, you can still find Chardonnays that are buttery yet balanced, velvety but not over-oaked. In other words, not too hot and not too cold but juuuust right.
Knockouts were the Galil Mountain Winery 2009 Reserve Chardonnay (good luck finding it) and the Recanati 2008 Reserve Chardonnay (we bought the very last bottle from Recanati, but unfortunately it was past its prime). The current vintages, which we tasted and purchased during this spring trip, are still worth it and will probably age nicely over the next year. In fact, El Al Airlines thinks so: the Recanati Reserve is what is offered in their business class.
Only a handful of wineries produce estate bottled wine and have tasting rooms on the premises, so make sure to do your research before setting out. Several have production facilities and tasting rooms in industrial parks, so don’t be surprised if your GPS leads you out of the lovely hills and into an urban warehouse district (click here for a list of Galilee wineries and their addresses). Also, make sure to check websites in advance, since many offer tastings by appointment only.
There are both kosher and non-kosher producers in Galilee. Kosher wines are produced solely by observant Jews under rabbinical supervision, using only kosher and non-dairy products (unlike casein), and entirely in according with Jewish law until the bottle is finally sealed.
After that, the bottle can be handled by people like … like Ben and me, for instance. Which we gladly do. In fact, we made sure to buy up a stash so we could continue handling them.
*Side note: When we told one salesperson that we were purchasing a white wine to enjoy with the warm weather, she became perplexed. “Here, we drink whites when it’s cold out,” she said. Thinking back, we did see Israelis in Tel Aviv laying on beach towels in the mid-day heat and drinking red wine. Hmmm…
That Hezbollah thing
Israel is by and large a safe country to visit, but the terrorific aspect of terrorism means that people will quickly ask if I felt safe during my trips there. The answer is yes, although you have to be vigilant no matter where you travel nowadays (our German landlord was absolutely terrified over her son’s trip to the United States, where she feared he would be shot or abducted by a serial killer).
Despite the fact that most of the best vineyards flank Lebanese borders, fear seems like a distant memory among the peaceful setting of Galilee (low population density also makes it an unlikely target).
At Galil Mountain Winery, located in Yiron directly across from Lebanon, a Hezbollah tower – of which there are several scattered along the border – seemingly overlooks the vineyard itself. “But it is quiet here. We are used to it,” shrugs our guide.
Where to stay
We’ll close with some quick tips on where to stay, because accommodation in Israel is almost always more expensive with less to show for it than you would hope for, and that’s even more true up here. You’ll have to pay some major shekels for a situation you’d likely complain about back home; set realistic expectations beforehand so you can let it roll off you once you’re there.
- Budget – Kibbutzim are still the budget-friendly option here (you can now trade cash rather than manual labor for a room). However, prices have risen (often nearing $100 per night) as more and more people are specifically visiting Galilee for the kibbutz experience. Although some are billed as the equivalent of agriturismos in Italy, they are often merely spare rooms lacking in amenities. Get ready for an adventure, and be sure to comment below if you stay at one so that other readers know what to expect.
- Mid-range – While it doesn’t claim the same category of boutique hotel that we usually review on this site, Emilys Boutique Hotel http://emilyshotel.wix.com/emilys_hotel in Tiberias will provide a clean, air-conditioned, wifi-equipped room within easy driving range of most major attractions for about $150 per night. Our research of hotels in the area turned up poor review after poor review, but Emilys’ were consistent. Plan to rise early: the central open forum design carries noise from the breakfast room on the first floor straight to your sleeping ears.
- Indulge – The two five-star hotels in Galilee are the Bayit Bagalil http://www.bayit-bagalil.co.il/en/ and the Mizpe Hayamim Hotel Galilee http://www.mizpe-hayamim.com/, both in the hills near Rosh Pina. Bayit is more boutique-y, Mizpe more resort-y, but both offer a spa, pool, and restaurant. If you’re set on a view of Lake Kinneret (the Sea of Galilee), choose the latter.