The last time we took our son to Israel it was the day after his first birthday. He’ll be 15 next October.
If ferrying a soon-to-be toddler — whose dearest wish was to crawl up and down the aeroplane aisles — had its challenges, dragging a now 14-year-old Barney and his 12-year-old sister Kitty away from their friends for two weeks in the Holy Land seemed to be Mission Impossible.
After the sunny post-nappy/pre-puberty years when all they needed was to be with us and serviced with sufficient snacks, travelling with teenagers is a whole new world. One of eye-rolling, sullen stares, and inaudible mumbling and that would need careful management if they were to enjoy our family trip as much as we wanted them to.
I’d spent days planning tours and outings — hoping to find a way to drag the screen-addicted pair’s eyes upwards from their phones and towards the sights and sounds of one of our favourite places.
We landed at Ben Gurion on a high — ridiculously proud even of the interrogation at the passport desk. Would they love the country as much as we do? What would they think of the Kotel, of Tel Aviv’s beaches, and of the infamous Israeli breakfasts?
There were successes and learnings on this trip (and some failures too, but we won’t dwell on those) — here are a few of the sights and activities that worked for our young adults:
Surfing at Gordon Beach
In the top spot for my son was this beachside activity. When we booked, we had the choice of stand up paddle boarding (SUP) or surfing. I’d secretly been hoping for a spot of middle-aged mum-friendly SUP, but Inbar, of Galim Surf School, informed me the wind meant it would be better to surf. Admittedly not top of my life goal list, it was perfect for my son, and one of his favourite activities during our fortnight. We were joined by one of his school friends who was also out for the Pesach holidays.
Clad in wetsuits, Yam (whose name means sea) showed us the right way to lie on our beginner-friendly surf boards and how to leap up to the correct standing position. I managed that — albeit less nimbly than the boys — but on water was a whole new challenge. After two wipe-outs I was done, but happy to float on my board and watch as the boys both managed to stand on their boards and catch waves into the shore under Yam’s expert tuition. The 20-something — who has recently finished his army service — helpfully told me (about 40 years too late) that surfing is a skill best learned as a younger person. At least my son got to benefit.
We had only time for one lesson, but I’d advise planning a few, to bring your teen up to speed. A real hit and highly recommended.
Food tour of Carmel Market and Jaffa
Tour guides abound in Israel. Shai Shvalb was sent our way by Tours by Locals and turned to be the perfect — and very patient — chaperone to guide us around Carmel Market and Jaffa.
Kicking off with a frosty-cold cup of freshly squeezed ruby-coloured pomegranate juice, former businessman Shai led us to a Druze pita stand, where we watched an elderly lady smoothing thin sheets of dough on a hot plate before filling the baked bread with spinach and cheese, rolling it and presenting it in steaming hot slices to taste. During the morning we sampled sticky sweet Medjool dates; crunchy kosher schnitzel sandwiched in soft challah smeared with rich tomato sauce and layered with rich, grilled aubergine.
Deeper in the market, Yemenite malawach was cooked on hot plates, stuffed with egg and fresh, grated tomatoes while our chef danced to booming Middle Eastern music bringing a smile to our faces. At Chickpea Art we tasted smooth, creamy hummus that has been made there since 1937 — scooping it up on soft pita — and later still, my daughter tucked into kosher Lotus biscuit ice cream from Glida Gedalia.
Although they enjoyed (most of) the food and did try new flavours, the teens were most enthralled with the shopping opportunity — patterned trousers they called ‘Israelis’; fake designer clothes and a range of necklaces and bracelets. Shai gave them as much time as they wanted at this teen retail haven.
A short taxi ride away in Jaffa, after hearing about the clock tower installed in 1901 by Sultan Abdülhamid II, we tasted warm-from-the-oven sesame bread from Abouelafia bakery before finishing our feast with creamy malabi, scattered with peanuts, coconut and rose syrup. A must — but give them plenty of rest breaks.
Tour of Jerusalem’s Old City
It’s not as sexy as Tel Aviv, but Jerusalem was a must on our schedule. Previous walking tours of historical cities hadn’t been huge successes so we were nervous of how this would play out, especially in an unseasonably warm 30 degrees. We hit the jackpot, however, with the double header tour from Dana Haftsadi and Avi [Avidov] Bernstein. Together, they led us around the various quarters, sharing tasty morsels; introducing us to interesting locals and giving us snippets of the city’s tumultuous history. One fact that stuck in my mind was that over the centuries, the longest period Jerusalem has been under Jewish control is 75 years — which is about to be equalled.
After a train ride on the high-speed rail link from Tel Aviv, we were all starving and fell upon the sesame seed-smothered Jerusalem bagel and za’atar they pushed into our hands. Equally successful was an early pit stop at Ramzi’s hummus restaurant, where a plate of the creamy dip, sitting under sizzling oil, was presented with salty pickles, crunchy falafel and soft, puffy pita. They took us to Patisserie Jack— the only European bakery in the Jewish quarter — where we pepped up our flagging daughter with creamy cheesecake and gooey brownies. Between fressing we met George Kahvedjian, the grandson of a survivor of the Armenian holocaust, who shared the history of his grandfather, Elia — the photography shop he founded — and how the huge collection of beautiful photos survived.
My son particularly enjoyed Avi’s tour of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, but he and his sister were definitely done with walking by the time we pushed our notes into the Western Wall. Mixing food with history sweetens the knowledge pill.
Another destination we hoped would be spectacular enough to inspire our offspring to take phone pictures of something other than their own faces was the huge Ramon crater. Midway between Tel Aviv and Eilat, it’s a good stop when heading south. It didn’t disappoint. As we drove, green vegetation was gradually replaced with desert scrub and finally, bare sandy rock — the views from our hire car were amazing. It’s a small settlement with a transient feel where we’d booked a motel that turned out to be above a series of fast-food outlets and shops. Huge horned ibex trotted round the car park outside peering into the bins, oblivious to the tourists clamouring to pose with them for photos.
The vibe’s entirely different from the energy of Tel Aviv or Jerusalem — the reggae soundtrack from the cafés more Thai island than central Negev. Eating dinner at Zarqa restaurant on top of the visitors’ centre, we watched the colours on the rocks change as the sun set.
At 5.45am the next morning, we dragged one child out to see the sunrise — quite an achievement — while the other opted for extra shut-eye. The expedition was worth it to see Mitzpe sans crowds and noise. At the Ramon Crater Visitors’ Centre, we walked through a series of audio-visual exhibits about the formation of the crater itself; Ilan Ramon, Israel’s first astronaut who died on the Columbia Space Shuttle in 2003 — a film that moved David and me to tears; and finally, my son’s favourite part, about the wildlife of the crater. You have to attend particular time slots (get there on time) so it’s worth booking yours before you arrive in town.
We broke our drive to Eilat there overnight, but the journey is do-able in one go even with a visit to Mitzpe if you prefer not to stop and don’t want to stargaze or watch the sun rise.
Yad Vashem bar/bat mitzvah tour
Visitors seen at the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial museum in Jerusalem on April 16, 2023, ahead of Israeli Holocaust Remembrance Day (Photo by Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Standing in the Hall of Names at Jerusalem’s Yad Vashem, my husband and I fought to contain our emotions as our guide, Mindy Ribner, handed our daughter Kitty a folder with details of her bat mitzvah twin, Kati Kovacs. We were at the closing stages of a two-hour tour of the museum, during which Mindy had done her best to engage our teens while also staying sensitive to their tender years. Both are familiar with the Holocaust but at a non-Jewish secondary school; my daughter’s knowledge is less detailed than her brother’s.
In between his bar- and her bat mitzvah felt perfect timing for this visit. For Barney’s coming of age, we’d joined Yad Vashem’s twinning programme, remembering Boris Mauber, who had not lived to celebrate his. That had been arranged by their UK office. It felt even more special for Kitty to receive her twin at the memorial museum. Kati had been murdered in Auschwitz at the age of 12.
It’s a lot more expensive than the regular tour, but as part of our payment was a donation and the money is going to an amazing cause, well worth it.
Walking down the triangular tunnel-like building from the darkness of the Nazi reign of terror towards the bright views of the Jerusalem hillside at the other end felt immensely emotional for David and me. I’m not sure the children ‘got it’ but I’m not sure I did when I visited with my father when I was 16 years old. He’s now gone but I still recall standing with him in the Hall of Names. Hopefully memories of this tour — and the importance of what they have seen — will stay with our children.
Other successes: parks and seaside stop-offs
Eilat’s is not for everyone, but it did provide some teen-friendly treats that made it a worthwhile stopover. Firstly, there was the chance to chill — my daughter’s dream. She took up residence by the pool at the Brown Eilat — a boutique hotel of only 200 or so rooms so no daily sunbed tussles nor aircraft hanger-sized dining rooms.
When I did get her out the hotel, there was the obvious draw of tax-free shopping — they can hunt for the latest trainers and browse a range of fashion chain stores including Zara; H&M and Pull & Bear. A cloudy day was an opportunity to visit the Aquarium, which offers a giant tank of sharks, rays, tropical fish and coral among other interesting sights — which my son loved. At the slightly underwhelming Dolphin Reef beach we saw peacocks, cats, and the eponymous dolphins before tucking into lunch on the stony beach. You can pay more to swim with the dolphins, but we were happy to watch them from a floating walkway in the bay.
By night Eilat has fairground rides and fast food which will make many teens happy. Like I said, it’s not for everyone.
If you find yourself in Hayarkon Park in North Tel Aviv, there are a series of child-friendly attractions, from a climbing wall and rope climbing experience — think Go Ape in the sun. They were closed when we visited, but we did watch a (very) short film about stratospheric skydiver Felix Baumgartner in an eight-metre-wide dome. The ‘7-D’ experience involved seats that jolted us around as he fell, water sprays and gusts of air rushing past our faces as he flew. There are snack bars, golf buggies to hire and a boating lake to keep everyone busy for an afternoon.
An early supper - before heading to the fantastic Tower of David light show — at Happy Fish restaurant on a roof terrace above Jerusalem's Mamilla Mall was high point. It was so close to Pesach, the restaurant kitchen had been kashered so the menu was flour free. This in itself was a source of fascination as there was still 'bread rolls' and pizza on offer. The rolls — made from potato flour were tender and with a bread-like crumb and came with a rainbow of dips. My son's veggie pizza — smothered in peppers and olives — did a good enough impersonation of the real deal for him to clear his plate. Sea bass and salmon were bright colourful and full of flavour and my daughter's halloumi salad was generously covered in golden cubes of the squeaky, salty Greek cheese.
Pesach puddings were crowd pleasers. Hot chocolate fondant oozed richly delicious, dark chocolate; apple pie topped with crunchy, crumble and a scoop of treacley-tasting maple syrup-flavoured mousse studded with crunchy biscuit nuggets.
Fun staff and mocktails made the meal - to which we'd been invited — one we'd have repeated had we not been on my boot camp 'see-all-Jerusalem's-sights-in-two-days' itinerary.
Admittedly, there were eye-rolling moments during our fortnight, but we took home some fabulous memories and hope we've given our teens an introduction to Israel that they’ll always remember.