Walk down the streets of Tel Aviv and one thing is immediately obvious: the city’s population is fit, active, and youthful. To a visitor, the country’s relatively young population seems overwhelmingly inclined to spend time outdoors — even on a rare, grey day in Tel Aviv, the boardwalk is bustling with runners and cyclists, while a contingent of surfers test their boards against the Mediterannean’s waves. Israel gets just 40 days of precipitation in an average year (which makes sense, considering the country is 60% desert) and Israelis know how to make the most of their sunshiney climate, whether they’re soaking in the Dead Sea, trekking the Negev, or enjoying a vegan meal in Tel Aviv. Here’s why travellers in search of something different from the average wellness retreat should consider a visit to Israel.
The unique health benefits of Dead Sea air
Arriving at the lowest place on Earth, visitors to the Dead Sea are immediately struck by their surroundings: the air is incredibly still and easy on the lungs. That’s due to the high levels of bromine and magnesium (which relax the lungs), the concentrated levels of oxygen (about 15% higher than average), and the almost total nonexistence of allergens.
Sun, sea, and sand — correction: mud
Cleopatra herself is said to have taken advantage of the skin-boosting benefits of Dead Sea mud, said to soothe anything from arthritis to acne. Meanwhile, the saline-rich water (the Dead Sea is 33.7% salt) is good for joint pain and circulation. Finally, there’s the sun — thanks to the area’s low elevation, there’s an extra layer of atmosphere to absorb harmful radiation, allowing beach-goers to soak up the vitamin D.
History and a hike
Yes, travellers can take a cable car from the base of King Herod’s palace in the Judean desert all the way to the top to see the historical ruins — the site of a legendary battle between a small group of Jews and a large contingent of Roman soldiers — but the hiking trail leading up to the UNESCO World Heritage site provides both exercise and a reward unattainable by those who choose to ride up. The cable car begins running at 8 a.m., but hikers can tackle the hour-long walk before dawn to see an incomparable sunrise.
From vegans to omnivores to paleo dieters, eating well-balanced meals (and feeling good about what you eat) is easy to do in Israel. Tel Aviv has emerged as the vegan capital of the world with tons of options for both travellers and the 200,000+ locals who subscribe to a vegan diet. Other options include chef Moshe Basson’s Eucalyptus restaurant, which focuses on “biblical eating” — ancient recipes and locally-grown herbs and spices (no processed food here). Locally caught fish populate every menu, and hummus is an energizing (and delicious) breakfast staple. Just make sure you schedule a cheat day for some chocolate babka.
Landscapes to suit every adventurer
Israel is one of the very few places on Earth where outdoor adventurers can experience the geological phenomenon called the Makhtesh. The Negev desert is home to the Makhtesh Ramon, a massive, crater-like feature that is among only seven in the entire world. Created by erosion, the Makhtesh features craggy cliffs perfect for all types of physical activity; rappelling, challenging trails for hiking and mountain biking, and opportunities to camp and stargaze in a place that feels like you’re on the moon.
Regardless of what you believe, Jerusalem is a place that persuades visitors to consider their spiritual side. It is, of course, a city at the centre of the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians, but it’s also a shared holy site where so many of the world’s religions manage to coexist in peace. A stroll along the Via Dolorosa’s Stations of the Cross winds through the Muslim Quarter and Arab Souk, ending at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, a building precisely divided between rival Greek Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Armenian Apostolic, Coptic Orthodox, Syriac Orthodox and Ethiopian Orthodox denominations — a beautiful and inspiring model for how spiritual space can be shared and respected.
If you subscribe to the idea that wine, in moderation, is a key part of wellness (studies show that a glass here and there can offset high blood pressure, diabetes, weight gain, and reduce the risk of heart disease) then a wine-tasting in the Carmel mountains is a must, especially since Israeli wines are rarely available outside the country. Amphorae Winery, just outside of Haifa, welcomes visitors for tastings on their sunny stone patio with views of the surrounding cactus-dotted hills and vineyards, and offers up a selection of (healthy!) in-house olive oils, too.