During the holidays, thoughts turn to the Holy Land as the center of Christian and Judaic history. With so many preserved relics of Jesus, Mary, Joseph and the apostles and sites dating back to the Old Testament, traveling to the Holy Land this time of year is a wonderful way to recapture the meaning and spirit of the season.
While there are many companies and tours available for seeing the traditional sites, we found several that offer a perspective different from the standard journey to Israel. Here are some distinctive Holy Land tours that let you do everything from biking to bird watching to traveling with a celebrity.
1. Israel with a Twist
Ya’lla Tours USA offers the standard trip to key sites in Israel, including the Mount of Olives, Bethlehem and the Dead Sea, but it also provides a twist for travelers looking for an out-of-the-ordinary experience. Guests on their 9-day Journey of Faith tour can add excursions that focus on the arts, food, active pursuits and more.
Those interested in the arts can take a behind-the-scenes tour of the Israeli Opera, enjoy a concert by a pianist atop Mt. Meron and watch a performance of the Musicians of Tomorrow, a group of underprivileged young Israeli children.
Foodies can visit a kibbutz chocolate factory, complete with a tasting, experience firsthand the life of a biblical farmer, including a feast in a shepherd’s tent, and visit one of the most prosperous markets in Israel.
2. Biking Through Bible Territory
The adventure travel company Backroads offers an eight-day Israel Biking trip through the Holy Land, departing from Tel Aviv and taking riders through the Golan Heights to Jerusalem. Biking through the region allows travelers to get up close and personal with the culture and the region’s people, stopping for lunch and dinner along the way and chatting up the local restaurant owners and storekeepers.
Bikers pedal through vineyards, kibbutz orchards and villages, head downhill to the Sea of Galilee and arrive in Jerusalem just in time to see the sun set. Backroads also provides plenty of local food experiences along the way, including Israeli, Lebanese and Druze cuisine, along with wine tastings.
3. Side-by-Side with a Celebrity
Love music? Israel Theme Tours offers a chance to see the Holy Land alongside well-known musicians and celebrities. Their tours offer visits to all the important sites and also provide interaction with a featured celebrity who joins the group.
Their upcoming Tyrone Wells Holy Land Tour lets fans travel with the Washington-based singer-guitarist known for his songs in many movies and TV shows. He recently released a Christmas album featuring traditional tunes like Jingle Bells, Away in a Manger and Come All Ye Faithful.
The tour lets travelers snorkel in the Mediterranean, experience a village that simulates life during the time of Jesus, take in a concert by Wells while sailing the Sea of Galilee, kayak on the Jordan River, see Israel’s largest archaeological excavation, take an off-road adventure along the original Roman Road and more.
4. Natural Israel
Designed just for women only, this tour from Adventure Women focuses on the natural side of Israel, with opportunities to go bird watching, visit Jerusalem’s Biblical Zoo and see the Bahai Gardens and Tel Dan Nature Preserve.
During the Nature of Israel tour, women meet with acclaimed artist Ilana Goor and Dr. Yosef Leshem, the founder of a birding center outside Tel Aviv. They’ll join in an archaeological dig of an ancient subterranean complex that housed burial grounds, hideouts and storerooms, and meet one of the world’s leaders in protecting endangered species, Dr. Sigalit Dvir, at the Jerusalem Zoo. At the Red Sea, travelers swim, sail and go birding, as well as enjoy a nature trek at Ein Gedi.
5. Holy Land Part 2
For those who’ve already traveled to the Holy Land, Footprints of God Pilgrimages has a 10-day trip designed to give travelers a different experience the second time around. With Catholic tour guides Steve Ray, nicknamed “Jerusalem Jones” and producer of the “Footprints of God” DVD series, and his wife Janet, who’ve been to the Holy Land more than 100 times, travelers on the Holy Land Part 2 Tour see sites different from those featured on the couple’s traditional Holy Land tour.
There are more Old Testament sites on the Part 2 journey, as well as many related to the life of Jesus. Highlights include learning to sling a stone where David slew Goliath, climbing Mt. Muhraka, where Elijah called down fire, drinking water from the well in Samaria, as Jesus did, a beer tasting at a Christian brewery and a visit to the authentic baptismal site of Jesus, which was previously closed to the public. Ray likes to focus on getting to know the locals on this trip. “You are visiting the ancient stones, but you should go back and see the ‘living’ stones, too,” he says.
6. The Land of the Bible by Book
For those who can’t physically go to the Holy Land, a new book from Father Mitch Pacwa, S.J., offers an armchair visit. In “The Holy Land: An Armchair Pilgrimage” (Servant Books, 2013), Pacwa, a biblical scholar who’s led more than 50 trips to the area, takes readers geographically step by step through each key Christian site, all of which are accompanied by photos, his insights, prayers and Biblical readings.
Lyn Mettler is a freelance travel writer based in Indianapolis, Ind.