Following is the second installment of a travel diary by Kelly Hyatt, who traveled to Israel in February of 2018 with a group of American travel agents. Thank you Kelly!
Read part 1 here.
ISRAEL 2018 – WITH YA’LLA TOURS, BY KELLY HYATT
Let me say a little bit about my host Ya’lla Tours USA. What an amazing group of people both on the US side and inside Israel. Participants of the familiarization tour were met at the Tel Aviv Airport by Ya’lla Tours representatives and transferred to the hotel. The people who work for this company in-country are some of the most knowledgeable, kind, interesting, compassionate and funny people I have met on my travels. Our tour guide and driver were really top notch. This being a travel agent FAM we were also inspecting other hotel properties and the best way to do that is to have dinner! Ya’lla arraigned some amazing dinners and always comped the wine and drinks, which was an added surprise and appreciated by all. All of the hoteliers were gracious and the properties were quite stunning. Each time we stopped at an archaeological spot or church or anything else, all our entries and transfers were seamless and we never ever had to wait, so very VIP!! And there were 14 of us, can you imagine if it was just a small group, I can say with certainty even a larger group will experience a totally seamless trip with this company.
Now back to my experience. I won’t tell you all the amazing and wonderful things I saw and did because YOU need to GO there yourself and you can always look at the Ya’lla Facebook page as we were all posting photos from the bus Wi-Fi (free) every day.
I am not what I would call an “overly” religious person, but I have studied the Bible and have a pretty good grasp of the Gospels and some Old Testament scriptures. This being a Christian tour, I was excited to see those places I had learned about. It was an extreme honor for me to volunteer to read the first scripture at one of our first church stops on Mt. Carmel at the Carmelite Monastery of El Muhraqa. This is a tiny church on top of a very high mountain overlooking an amazing valley. This is the place where God caused Elijah to defeat the priests of Baal. The scripture I read took on a very special and renewed meaning to me that day.
Certainly, how could one not be moved when you visit the town of Jesus, Capernaum, and visit the church at Tabgha, with its Byzantine era mosaic showing two fish and a basket filled with loaves depicting the Miracle of the Multiplication? And then to take a boat-ride on the Sea of Galilee, it was so quiet and serene and you could almost feel the presence of the ancients on the calm waters.
Our group did not have a pastor with us so when we visited Mt Tabor to visit the Church of the Transfiguration, we were treated to a special mass being done by a group that arrived before us. I have never been to a mass and they were singing in Latin and the small church was filled with joy and amazing light and love. It was so spiritual for all of us.
After this we went to the Mount of the Beatitudes the site of the Sermon on the Mount, and then on to Nazareth and Cana. We visited a place called Nazareth Village, a recreation of how life was during the time of Jesus. We were impressed by volunteers from all over the world, young people and old people working in Israel to help keep alive the Bible and the Gospels.
Our final stop this day was much-anticipated, a place called Yardenit on the Jordan River. We were given the opportunity to rededicate our faith with a renewal of baptism, but since we did not have a pastor or priest, Ya’lla provided a wonderful stand in, a young Messianic Jew, who was so filled with the love of the Lord that his excitement took over the whole group and 7 of us took the dip!!! It was truly a special time for me as even though it is symbolic, it was my own moment with my Savior before I entered into the city where HE died for my sins.
The following day we visited one of the most amazing archaeological sites in the world, Megiddo, the Hill of Battles, where 20 civilizations, built one upon another have been uncovered, this is the place of King Solomon’s stables, and is also the place called Armageddon. Here we learned how very smart the ancient Israelites were in how they figured out how to move water from springs outside the city and up into their mountain fortresses. We got to go down in to VERY impressive tunnels.
One of the most popular experiences included in our Christian tours of Israel is the boat ride on the Sea of Galilee.
The Sea of Galilee is actually a large freshwater lake, 13 miles long and 8 miles across, better known in Israel as Kinneret, Gennesaret or Lake Tiberias. The lake feeds the Dead Sea, via the Jordan River, and, at roughly 700 feet below sea level, it’s the 2nd lowest lake on the planet, after the Dead Sea. It’s located in the Galilee region in northern Israel.
During a period of severe drought in 1986, the lake receded significantly, revealing the remains of an ancient boat buried in the sediment. The boat was excavated and dated to the 1st century, the time of Jesus. The boat is now housed in a small museum at Kibbutz Ginosar on the western shore of the lake. Close replicas of the boat take passengers on the lake past Christian sites, such as Tabgha (site of the multiplication of the loaves and fishes) and Capernaum (the headquarters of Jesus’ ministry), and stop to visit the remains of the ancient boat.
For Christians, the lake and its surroundings are significant as the area where much of Jesus’ ministry and many of his miracles took place. Four of Jesus’ disciples were fishermen on the Sea of Galilee, the brothers Simon Peter and Andrew and the brothers James and John.
One day, after hours of pulling up empty nets, the four fishermen had just pulled into shore. (Andrew was already a disciple of Jesus, the first, but he hadn’t yet convinced the others.) Jesus approached and asked Peter to take him out on the lake a little way so that he could better address the crowd that had gathered to hear his teaching. Later, after the crowd had dispersed, Jesus asked Peter to move into deep water and cast out his nets. Peter thought this would be a waste of time, based on his experience earlier in the day, but out of respect, he did as Jesus asked. When the nets were pulled in, they were so heavy with fish the boat couldn’t hold them all. James and John came to help and their boat was also filled to the brim with fish. Jesus gained three more disciples that day.
Later in his ministry, Jesus had spent a long day preaching to a large crowd near the lake and needed to rest. While he and his disciples sailed to a quiet spot on the opposite shore, Jesus took a nap. When they reached the middle of the lake, a nasty squall rose up, bad enough to terrify the experienced fishermen on board. Jesus slept peacefully through the waves crashing on the deck and the pitching and rolling of the boat, until the disciples woke him, certain they were about to die. He told the storm to simmer down, which it promptly did, expressed his disappointment in his disciples’ lack of faith, and resumed his nap.
I could go on and on about Jesus and the Sea of Galilee, but I’ll save some stories for future posts.
The city of Tiberias on the western shore of the lake makes a good hub for visiting the area. For privately escorted Christian tours that include a boat ride on the Sea of Galilee and a visit to the ancient boat at Ginosar look here and here.
The advantages of a private tour may seem obvious to some, but we get quite a few questions about the distinction between our tours labeled “private” and those labeled “motor coach.” With Ya’lla Tours, and in general, a private tour means that the travel party travels with a guide in a private vehicle. The guide and vehicle are not shared with other travelers. Scheduled motor coach tours in Israel average about 20 passengers in a bus but could have anywhere from 2 to 50 passengers.
The biggest advantage of a private tour is the lower guide to traveler ratio. With a small travel party, there’s the opportunity for much more interaction and conversation between the guide and the travelers. It really becomes like a family unit. Rather than lecturing to a crowd, the guide has the time and proximity to speak directly to and with all of her/his travelers. With large groups at site visits, it can be hard to get close enough to the guide to hear what is being said, much less have a one-on-one discussion. (Don’t get me wrong, even guides of large groups strive to connect with everyone in their flock. I’ve been in groups of over thirty, where every traveler felt personally bonded with the guide. In addition to encyclopedic knowledge about their country, good tour guides possess infinite patience, humor, kindness and energy.)
Moving from place to place is also much easier with a small party. Vans can zip through traffic and maneuver ancient, narrow streets. Despite excellent drivers, motor coaches are far less nimble; it’s just a fact. Also, stops and site visits take considerably less time with a small party, meaning you see more and experience more of the destination. Imagine 2-5 travelers arriving in a van at Capernaum, for example. From the moment they park to the moment they are all gathered around their guide at the site should take five minutes. Now imagine a motor coach group of 20 – 50. Just getting everyone off the bus takes 5 minutes or more, plus another 10-15 minutes before the entire group is standing at attention, ready to learn about the site.
Finally, with a private tour, you have much more flexibility. From the outset, your itinerary is customized to your personal interests and needs. In Israel, this is especially important because, for so many, it is a religious destination. Scheduled motor coach tours are general interest tours designed for broad appeal. While they visit religious sites, the guide’s explanations are academic rather than religious in tone.
With a private tour, you can modify your itinerary as you go to suit your experience on the ground. If you fall in love with Jerusalem’s Old City and want to spend the whole day there, you can do it. Maybe you sacrifice another visit or have a longer day tomorrow to make up what you missed today; but you have options, the private itinerary is fluid. With a motor coach tour, such changes are impossible.
Now, all of this is not to say that we are totally down on motor coach touring. We are not. It’s a good value and can be a fun social experience, meeting and touring with people from all over.
Check out tour private and motor coach tours to Israel at www.yallatours.com/israel/