4 Ways to Travel in Israel Free

beaches, hilton, israel, jennifer aniston, tel aviv, Uncategorized

For almost as long as I’ve been traveling to Israel, and certainly when I lived there, prospective visitors have asked me the same question: where should I go? The answer to that question depends of course on what your chief interests are, but is often followed by whether you should travel independently or book a tour. To which I respond, Would you book a tour to New York City? If you crave structure and the patina of supervision, or are easily daunted by tall buildings or whatever or have another acceptable excuse, well fine. Otherwise, come on: If you’re old enough to swallow a craft beer, you’re old enough to take on pretty much any place on your own (except Florida, of course.)

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Israel is a small country, it’s a friendly country, it’s an expensive country. But between flying a low-cost airline into Tel Aviv, doing hotel research in advance and perhaps using AirBnb, you will do just fine and you will also take off from Ben Gurion International Airport with a fatter wallet. Forking over a small fortune to a tour company to take you places you can just as easily get to yourself, and on your own terms and pace, is just silly. Beyond that, travel is about stories and discoveries, not scripted experiences. Right?

With the above in mind, here are four ways and reasons to travel in Israel if not for free, then at least pretty freely.

1. Are you some kind of Heeb? Can ‘ya prove it?

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If you are kind of young and demonstrably Jewish, it’s likely you are eligible to travel to Israel for free on a so-called Birthright Israel trip. These free 10-day trips are brought to you by the selectively munificent and devilishly handsome casino magnate Sheldon Adelson. So if you meet the basic qualifications, yay! You’re in! And yes, I realize it’s an organized tour, but it really is free so like, hey now.

2. Are you Kim Kardashian, Conan O’Brien or some dumbass basketball player with a Coke endorsement?

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If you are Kim Kardashian, Conan O’Brien or some dumbass basketball player with a Coke endorsement, you may actually be able to travel to and in Israel mainly for free because Israelis, not unlike the French, are impressed by culturally bankrupt American celebrities with small IQs and large Twitter followings. They tend to believe having them peck the Western Wall and pose by the beach in Tel Aviv is tantamount to free advertising (forget that it costs Israel’s taxpayers a bundle) and it’s well-known that the richer and dumber you are in America, the more free stuff you get.

3. Are you L/G/B/T/Q?

If you are a member of the LGBTQ community, you have probably read about gay friendly Tel Aviv somewhere–maybe even the failing New York Times! The Middle East as a whole is hostile to homosexuality and there are sizeable pockets of Jerusalem where all things gay are still largely taboo, but Tel Aviv is one big badass rainbow exception.

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Now, that brings me back to the question of New York City. I don’t know of many LGBTs who would trade a week of galavanting around the Big Apple for the rigidity of an organized tour. Between online guides and apps and social media anybody can put together a fly itinerary of their own within hours, if not seconds. Tel Aviv is the Middle Eastern answer to New York City. Easy to get around. The gay beach? Smack in front of the Hilton hotel, easy to find. You can book a day trip to the Dead Sea or Jerusalem from virtually any hotel reception desk and frankly why wouldn’t you? So easy and cheap, too.

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Friends, unless you have a very specialized interest in archaeology or the Bible a day in the religiously overcooked Israeli capital is enough. In fact, the Jaffa section of Tel Aviv is older than Jerusalem, and it comes with a sea breeze, too. Just like most guidebooks get Israel wrong (even one I wrote, though it’s otherwise almost perfect, I cannot philosophically recommend because the publisher predictably refused to put Tel Aviv, the commercial capital of Israel, on the cover. Sad!)

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In other words people of the pink, you don’t need no guidebook and y’all don’t need no organized tour neither: Tel Aviv should be the locus and focus of your Israel trip. After you book your flights and hotel there, the rest is just hocus-pocus. Save your money.

4. Volunteer, bitch.

There may be ways to travel and stay in Israel for less by volunteering. For example, you could work at an archaeological dig. Or spend a week volunteering for the IDF.

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Now you can either kneel before Zod, or get lost.

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24 Hours at Caramel Grecotel Boutique Resort in Rethymno, Crete

aegean, beaches, crete, europe, food, grecotel, greece, ryanair, travel in Greece
Crete is an island as unnerving and necessary as love. Tough though it can be come summertime to dodge the heat-seeking hordes from the north, it’s still a worthwhile place to while a way a week or more to get a feel for Greece beyond its wonderful but cramped capital and the by-now cliche Greek islands like Santorini and whatever flavor-of-the-month isle as anointed by the glossy travel mags your Aunt Selma still swears by. Crete doesn’t have time for what’s trending because it is timeless. It’s mountains, sea, kri-kris and gods, and once in a while it’s a great hotel too. One in particular, the five-star Caramel Grecotel Boutique Resort, will make you sweet on Crete, says Anthony Grant.
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Caramel Grecotel lobby: Image Courtesy Grecotel

There are regular flights between Athens and the two Cretan cities of Heraklion and Chania, and they are typically take just a half hour or so. On my most recent visit, I flew to Chania on the island’s north coast, then took a very clean and modern bus forty miles east to the historic seaside town of Rethymno. If you want to rent a car, go with the best, Voyager. Without much luggage, I could have explored Rethymno’s old Venetian harbor and twisting lanes right away but the mood board called for something breezy, beachy and sweet: so I took a short taxi ride to the Caramel Grecotel Boutique Resort. Comfortably ensconced on a curvilinear green velvet canapé, I was offered a Cretan iced tea and caramel pop. More, parakalo!

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One of the best places to stay anywhere in Crete, the resort is designed like an island village in characteristic Mediterranean white, with individually decorated rooms, suites and villas, many with mesmerizing sea views.

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And some eclectic touches…

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Breakfast at Grecotel Caramel is not just a meal, it’s an event. Above, fresh baked cookies and other gourmet Greek nibbles. There’s a hot buffet and other foods stations as well.

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Yogurt anyone? Greek yogurt with homemade jams and honey, maximizing your yum.

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Regarding those sea views…take a look:

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The sea-sweet view from Suite 326

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Grecotel pioneered five-star service in Greece. Personalized service is second nature.

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Did somebody say raki? Agreco Farms is Grecotel’s premium line of gourmet products from its own farm. Actually my favorite item from the range is the Extra Virgin Olive Oil.

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Speaking of stuff that’s intoxicating, did you know that when you book a villa at Caramel  you can have it fragranced just for you? I’d suggest the signature Caramel scent.

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We’ll get back to the farm in sec. Crete is about emotion, not chronological order. While a room in the main building suited me just fine (it looked similar to what you see in the photo below), note that if you take a villa you can have a beachside gazebo set up for you at no extra charge (otherwise it’s 50 euros extra). Villa guests get comp beach bags too.

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I met a lovely donkey, who I called Christos, at Agreco Farm. He looked happier to me than most Democrats I know. I wanted to take him home with me…who wouldn’t?  But with these new TSA regulations our rendezvous was destined to be but a fleeting one.

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Agreco Farm has animals, fruit trees, open fields with views to the Mediterranean Sea…

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“When you come to a pitchfork in the field, pick an artichoke. Then eat it.” — Anthony Grant     (photo courtesy Nikos Lyronis)

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Fresh cut Cretan artichoke with olive oil and sea salt.

Yes, so, unlike any other hotel or resort in Crete (unless you can prove otherwise), this one has its own farm – you can’t get any more locally sourced than that. Agreco Farm, set on 100 ocean-view acres in the lush hills above Rethymno. Up there under the sybaritic Cretan sun, manager Nikos Lyronis showed me how to pick a wild artichoke right from the field and eat it. He also introduced me to a kri-kri, the wild goat of Crete. I fed the goat before sitting down for a six-course organic Cretan feast with Charalabos Gialtakis, the Grecotel Caramel hotel manager. It was the perfect opportunity to sample Agreco’s delicious olive oil, wines and cheeses along with more full-bodied Cretan fare. This kind of farm-to-table dining experience, at the farm itself, is a rarity in travel today and gives you a new perspective on the Greek palate.

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Some of that amazing olive oil I mentioned. And it appears that Christos the Donkey’s modeling career is moving ahead at a faster clip than yours truly’s. My #sad!

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Delicious olives and artisanal Cretan cheese are even more delicious savored al fresco.

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Stuffed peppers, stuffed zucchini and my favourite, stuffed Cretan tomatoes.

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“We want to to switch on the holiday mood right at check-in,” says rooms divisions manager Yiannis Katsogridakis (left). That mission is accomplished daily at Grecotel Caramel.

Grecotel was one of the pioneers of Greek tourism in the post-war era so it’s no surprise that standards here are high, and nothing feels like formula. With its mix of beachfront villas and family-friendly junior suites, you will get that personalized, five-star feeling whether you are Brad Pitt or a family of four. (Did I mention free kids’ dining in the Tasty Corner?) I could go on but will direct readers instead to the fine website…in a minute.

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During my too-brief stay in May, I had as my neighbor Greek pop singer Natasha Theodoridou (pictured above left) – and as usual, the place where the “locals” check in too is most assuredly where you want to be.

I missed Theodoridou’s concert in Rethymno because by the time I had dashed into town to take some photos of the old Venetian architecture (the whole of Crete once belonged to Venice) and savor some chocolate-dipped baklava, I barely had time to make it back to

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There isn’t a heatwave in Rethymo a little ice cream cone can’t fix. Photo: AG

the property for my revitalizing facial treatment in the excellent spa, the Caramel Wellness Centre (bye bye airport grime!) followed by a swim at the nice, clean beach.

So: Are you there yet? 

 

A few parting shots from delightful Rethymno:

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Rethymno: less touristy than (in our view) overhyped, congested Chania

 

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Walls of the 16th century Fortezza, built by the Venetians

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