What makes a trip to Israel special?

I have not yet met anyone who has regretted visiting Israel. The fact is, it’s an amazing destination and it would be hard not to love touring there. However, although most tours list many of the same sites in their itineraries, each tour actually varies considerably.

Knowing the reason for your visit is critical to figuring out the best tour group. I just returned from a small group, custom-designed trip (my specialty) to Israel for 12 days. While there, my husband and I ate breakfast at one of our hotel buffets with several German travelers who happened to be Catholic. When we asked them what they had seen and done, they said, “Oh, you know, everything.” And then they proffered a list of churches. This demonstrated the vast differences in preferences groups or individuals can have when visiting. Some love to see the churches. Some love museums. Some want lots of free time. Some want full tours. Some want to do a lot of hiking and walking, whereas others prefer to make stops that only require a bit of walking. Some want a Jewish or historical focus; some want an orthodox focus, etc. etc. The list can go on.

Our small group wanted to focus on experiencing the land, culture, people, and history of Jesus as a Jew while integrating New Testament teachings at the sites we visited. We did a lot of sweating, but also a lot of learning, spiritual growth, and laughing together. We connected as a small group, even giving each other trail names for our hikes and walks. My daughter, Adri, and her husband, Josh, went on this trip, which was led by my husband (Reverend David Wachter).  Adri put together a little video with some of her highlights. She’s agreed to let me share that here. I hope you enjoy it! And if you’re ever seeking a trip to Israel that will fit your particular needs, please let me know!

The Inside Passage and Vancouver

Inside Passage

We had a full day of cruising through the Inside Passage as we left Ketchikan and returned to Vancouver. Steering a huge ship through this narrow passage must be daunting. Everyone onboard commented on not just the beauty surrounding us on all sides, but also on the proximity of so many treacherous outcroppings of rocks and winding bends. We lucked out again this day with mild and beautiful weather. Whether sitting on our balcony, enjoying a coffee in the Exploration’s Cafe at the front of the ship, having lunch along the back windows in the dining room, or walking around the promenade deck, our focus was constantly on the scenery. Natural, rugged beauty unfolded like a movie along the entire route.

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View from the front
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View off the rear

Vancouver

After 15 nights at sea, it was time to leave all our new acquaintances and friendly, hard-working crew. It never ceases to amaze me how hard most of these crews work and how pleasant they make the voyage. Although the Westerdam is not flashy and has a pretty subdued crowd, Hannah and I loved the experience. The main dining area provided truly quality meals. We only ate several times in the buffet, since that’s not as much to our taste, but the options were plentiful. I usually had a huge salad with all kinds of vegetables and nuts mixed into it, with a bit of sushi or roasted vegetables on the side. Hannah was still in Asian mode and opted for the Japanese or Chinese meals most of the time. By far our favorite part of the day was going to dinner and continuing our jokes and conversations with our same waiters each night.

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Cabin Steward’s towel animals

We debated taking the Sky Train, which conveniently runs from just outside the cruise terminal, to the airport. However, since Hannah was traveling with all her belongings from 2 years in China (less “stuff” than most of us could ever manage, but still enough to fill a few suitcases), and we had already lugged them around Tokyo, we decided having porters and a transfer directly from the ship would be so much more pleasant! It was also a nice option because as we drove through much of the city and its outer neighborhoods, our driver acted a bit as a guide and gave us interesting information while pointing out some sites of interest I hadn’t seen during my last several visits to Vancouver.  In the end, it was well worth about $30 pp.

Vancouver airport is really well done. I love that it’s a pre-clearance airport, so as Americans, we could clear customs at the front end of the trip and check our luggage straight through to our final destination.

This almost felt like three different trips: from the Asian flavor of Japan, to the laid-back 6-night cruising experience across the Pacific, to the Alaskan coast, we were treated to so many different types of foods, sights, tempos and styles of touring.  We’d do it again in a heartbeat! If you’d like me to help you find an experience like this, just reach out to me at noelle@insightsintravel.com!

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Ketchikan

After 2 somewhat isolated ports of call, I wasn’t sure how to feel about one that’s much more commercialized and sometimes filled to capacity with cruisers on shore. We were lucky. There were only 4 ships, including ours, visiting that day, and they were somewhat staggered. We were never overwhelmed with crowds. The ships dock right in town, so it’s a very accessible and easy-to-walk port town.

Hannah and I started our morning by heading out on foot away from the main town area. We took a left turn and followed our GPS to the University of Alaska’s campus bookstore, where there’s a trailhead for the well-known Rainbird Trail. We were actually approaching it from the opposite side that most people do. That portion is still pretty rugged and undeveloped, making it a little tricky at times to find the path. But we managed and loved the wildness of the Tongass rainforest in this section. As we progressed to the other half of the trail, it became much more maintained, with rocks and steps and a well-developed path. There were also more people, though we only passed fewer than a dozen in all, and 3 were locals.  The trail (when hiked in this direction) ends near the gorgeous library, a popular sanctuary for cruisers seeking good wi-fi for a few hours. From there, it’s just about half a mile into town, where we did the self-guided tour of the famous sites like the fish ladder, “married man’s trail,” Creek street, etc.

Starving after the hike and walk, we found an old restaurant called the New York Café for lunch. Originally established in 1903 by a Japanese-American couple as a café on Front Street, the café was moved south of Creek Street during the Roaring 20’s. The Shimizu family was no longer welcome in the northern side of town, which was now officially segregated, so they opened the New York Hotel and Café in 1925 with 18 tiny rooms and only 1 shared bath. During WWII, they were struck with another blow when the family was moved to an internment camp for Japanese-Americans. However, their neighbors continued to run the hotel, collecting the profits, and returned everything to the family upon their return. Although no longer run by the same family, we kind of wanted to eat there just for the history. Lunch was good and filling with common options for the area (fish and chips, burger and fries, salmon, and some salads and vegan meals).

There is no lack of shopping available in Ketchikan. Some of the prices are cheaper than we saw elsewhere and there seemed to be a few unique shops. We’re not shoppers, so we mostly just looked in passing.

Even with the tourist element of Ketchikan, it’s hard not to be charmed by Creek Street. It’s a quaint area and I think it deserves its reputation as a great place to visit. We were happy we weren’t there during a day filled with ships. I imagine it could get overwhelming at peak capacity, but even then, I’d want to at least walk through the town once. Then I’d get out to the trails or on an excursion!  Next time we’re there (thinking positively that there will be a next time!), Hannah and I hope to hike up the White Deer Trail. Friends on our ship who have done that one said it takes about 5 hours roundtrip and goes up to the top of the mountain with great views.

Icy Strait Point

After another full day at sea, we arrived in Icy Strait Point. This port is fully owned and run by the Hoonah community (specifically the Huna Totem Corporation made up of approximately 1,350 Alasakan Natives). It’s small and very easy to navigate, with great signage, beautiful buildings, and some wonderful walking areas along the bay.  The seafood restaurants looked wonderful, but they are pricey, and we had already spent over $300 for our UTV shore excursion. Prices in Alaska are high!

We strolled over to the cannery museum, which is part museum, part shopping area. The museum has some of the old machinery with old photos from when they were in use as well as descriptions and explanations, so a self-guided tour is easy to do. There’s also a guided tour available and the guide demonstrates one of the packing machines. Numerous gift stores line the old cannery floor, including shops selling anything from the usual souvenirs to some with locally made artwork, foods, prints, and crafts.

All excursions begin in the same building, just off the pier. There’s a convenient coffee shop right there, where we grabbed some lattes to go and took them out to sit on the benches that line the walkway overlooking the calm bay. We had a beautiful and mild day (60’s – very nice for early May). While looking out over the bay, we were able to watch a Humpback whale bubble-net fishing and some sea otters swimming around. That was a highlight! Pictures can’t do justice to the beauty and serenity of this bay.

Our UTV excursion started with a bus ride up the mountain a bit. This took us through the small town of Hoonah, where we learned about life there from our guide, a native Tlingit who grew up in the community. Throughout our bus ride and then during stops along the trail on our UTV’s, the guide regaled us with facts, stories, and myths. His wealth of information was the best part of the tour. Although the UTV’s were in great shape and it was fun to get out into the forest area, the driving is pretty tame. The forest area there is so thick, wet, and treacherous, I’m not sure if there could be an option for riding on the real forest ground. Many of us were shocked at the denseness of trees, moss, and other growth in this rainforest. Some areas are so thick with layers of water and natural forest debris that it’s like quick-sand. Our guide told us about entire tractors disappearing overnight because they sank.

Returning to the port, our bus stopped as our driver pointed out a coastal brown bear making its way across the road. Although there’s a huge concentration of coastal brown bears in the area, and some are beginning to venture into town, it’s still not all that common to see them casually crossing the road. We were all thrilled – and most were glad it was while we were on the bus and not the UTV’s!

Kodiak, Alaska

As much as we enjoyed our relaxed rhythm and pace on our days at sea, we were all pretty excited to get out on land and see some new sites. Hannah and I planned a hike. It sounded really easy from the directions online, but as another cruiser from San Jose discovered, it was a bit harder to navigate. We had to clear U.S. customs on the ship before disembarking, so we were a little late getting off. As we were walking on the road to the trail head, another cruiser approached us from the opposite direction. He had been seeking the same trail head and couldn’t find it. I used Google Maps to keep track of our location and that’s how we found the trail. It wasn’t marked anywhere and would have been really hard to find otherwise!  But we were successful and climbed to the top of Pillar Mountain Trail, making it a roundtrip by ending in town on the opposite side from where we climbed up. We had wonderful views in all directions, so we could really appreciate some of Kodiak’s beauty.

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There isn’t a lot in town. We did find a cute gift shop with a good selection, called Norman’s. Food was very pricey, but we were hungry after hiking 8 miles and were ready to sit down and relax! Cold wind was almost always present as well, and we were tired of being blown! We had a full and enjoyable day visiting this Alaskan island and a great appreciation for those who can live there year-round!

Six Days Crossing the Pacific Ocean

As a pretty active person, I really wondered how well I’d tolerate 6 full days at sea. Would I get stir-crazy? Turns out that even partaking in only a few of the ship’s activities, Hannah and I both had plenty to do every day and thoroughly enjoyed the pace of that week.

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Photo courtesy of Holland America

I still had to keep up with work, which is the one down-side to a job like mine. So I spent 4-6 hours each day on my laptop, either in the Exploration’s Cafe with some coffee or on our couch, looking at the ocean. During this time, Hannah caught up on extra sleep, read novels, watched movies, and edited photos from the trip. In addition to that, we did our work-outs, attended some great lectures that coincided with our location, did some line-dancing, watched some shows at the theater, and enjoyed conversation with numerous new friends at “Sip and Savor” or “Tea Time.” The selection of movies on the cruise tv was excellent and was refreshed often, so we enjoyed catching up on some we hadn’t been able to see previously.

Seas were a bit rough for the first 2 days as we raced away from Japan to stay ahead of a storm. It was never uncomfortable or worrisome, but some of those onboard more sensitive to motion sickness did have some difficulties those days.

Crossing the International Date Line was intriguing. Practically speaking, we experienced living the same day twice, and then had to change our clocks every day to get to the right date and time when we got to Alaska. However, we also learned the historical and scientific background to the establishment of the International Date Line. That was one of our fascinating lectures accompanied by lots of slides that our special guest speaker onboard presented. Others included Magellan and exploration, constellations, Humpback whales, and history of the Alaskan and Canadian west coast. We also had some cultural lessons, such as understanding the reason and proper etiquette for traditional tea ceremonies in Japan.

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Cruising Japan and Alaska on the Westerdam

Our first day was an at-sea day. I paid for the wi-fi to try to keep up with work. But it was weak and slow, so it was hard to do too much. We both quickly began to relax and let the rhythm of the ship on the ocean and the sound of the waves off our balcony slow down our tempo. In addition to a work-out in the gym, we laid on the sundeck soaking in a bit of warmth and sunshine, took a too-short line dancing class, walked the promenade deck for a few rounds, shopped in the onboard store, enjoyed tea time in the dining room in the afternoon and read or worked in the lounge chairs on our balcony. All of that followed by a formal, delicious dinner in the main dining room and a show in the theater, made for a great and much-needed day of rejuvenation.

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Authentic Japanese food on board
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View from the Ship

Muroran

Leaving the southern side of Japan, we made our way north along the coast to the small port city of Muroran. Some passengers took an excursion to Mt. Usu and Lake Toya, about an hour and a half away. We took the $10 coach Muroran provides specifically for guests arriving by cruise ship. It has numerous stops in town, allowing passengers to get off at any point. Buses were very regular, coming about every 5 minutes.

Muroran doesn’t have a lot to offer in the town itself. The climate is windy and was still pretty cold (high 40’s before wind chill) at the very end of April. It has a very industrial atmosphere, with some simple, but pleasant streets and some areas for shopping. Other areas were very poor. While we were visiting, everything was closed for a holiday and the coronation of a new emperor, though volunteers still worked along the coach tour stops to answer questions. Hannah and I walked to a beach and around local streets and got a feel for life in this area. We shopped in a local department store and found some inexpensive chopsticks in the household department. Our coach tour also took us up to Cape Chikyu observatory, which was very impressive. There’s a picturesque lighthouse and the views from high atop the hill are gorgeous. Although nothing was particularly spectacular within the town, it was a pleasant visit to a normal community which extended gracious hospitality to us.

Kushiro

I awoke confused because we were still sailing at 7:00 am and we were supposed to be in port before that. Shortly thereafter, I heard the captain over the PA system explaining that winds were too high to navigate into port earlier, so we turned and sailed for a bit and were making a second attempt since winds had died down a bit. The second attempt was successful, and we pulled in to dock only a couple of hours late.

Kushiro lived up to its reputation as “the town of mist” as skies were gray and there was a light rain. We took a free shuttle bus from our port straight to Fisherman’s Wharf MOO and EGG, the tourist points in Kushiro. MOO stands for Marine-Our-Oasis and EGG stands for Ever-Green-Garden. The former has shops and restaurants on the first floor with some crafts people selling their creations or offering to dress you in a traditional kimono and take pictures for a fee on the second floor. The latter had students and other volunteers on hand to teach different skills such as: archery, origami, and cloth-wrapping items. They also had entertainment and some karaoke. This area was lots of fun because the volunteers were so sweet and gave us the opportunity to share friendship and cultural appreciation even on a superficial level.

Kushiro is known for its seafood specialties (which we didn’t have the drive to try that day), its chocolate by Royce (which we absolutely did try and bring home), its crane reserve (with the first successful artificial breeding of the almost-extinct tancho cranes), marshlands, clear lakes and hot springs. It’s a really lovely port city with elegant lamps lining streets, the beautiful Nusamai Bridge spanning the Old Kushiro River, a river walk, several museums and the Washco (meaning “friendly business”) Market. Definitely worth a visit…