Pursuits

Visa-Free Travel From the Philippines: Where to Go in Israel

There is so much more to see and do aside from completing a pilgrimage to the Holy Land.
IMAGE Ian Santos
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In the 1930s, Jewish refugees fleeing from Europe sought a safe haven wherever they could find one. However, many nations preferred to keep their borders shut, turning a deaf ear toward the pleas of a desperate population.

When Philippine President Manuel Quezon heard of their plight, he worked hard to get as many as he could to the Philippines. Ignoring criticism from his detractors, he eventually managed to provide 10,000 visas to embattled German and Austrian refugees. Out of that number, 1,200 Jews finally made it to the Philippines.  

Till today, as a result of Quezon’s act of kindness, Israelis warmly welcome Filipino travelers and tourists to their homeland, where they can stay without a visa for up to three months.

Travel requirements to Israel:

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  • Philippine Passport valid for six months
  • Confirmed round-trip ticket with onward flight to next destination
  • Confirmed hotel booking
  • Travel itinerary
  • Pocket money or credit card, to show proof of funds during your stay in Israel

Esquire Philippines was recently invited by Israel’s Ministry of Tourism for an introduction to the Middle East state, and we discovered there is so much more to do aside from completing a pilgrimage to the Holy Land. Israel is only 22,000 square kilometers large, about one-fifth the size of the island Luzon, so we managed to cover a significant part of it in just five days.

Tel Aviv

Straight from the airport, our guide Daniel whisked us off to Jaffa, an ancient port in Israel, and the oldest part of the city. It was a lovely day to gaze at the sailboats dotting the marina ready for an afternoon voyage in the clear blue Mediterranean.

Photo by Ian Santos.
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From Jaffa, one can also admire the skyline of the White City of Tel Aviv, well-known for its Bauhaus architecture and design.

Photo by Ian Santos.
Photo by Ian Santos.
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We walked through the cobblestone streets and peeked into various jewelry ateliers and design studios.  We stopped at the workshop of Ben-Zion David, an eighth-generation Yemenite craftsman creating traditional gold and silver filigree jewelry, and Maskit, the first fashion house in Israel, founded in 1954 by Ruth Dayan.

Photo by Ian Santos.
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We then visited the Ilana Goor Museum, an eclectic collection of art by the artist and designer herself, as well as different works from around the world that have caught her fancy throughout her life. 

Photo by Ian Santos.
Photo by Ian Santos.
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The museum has over 500 works, including paintings, drawings, sculptures, videos, books, and objets d’art.

Photo by Ian Santos.

The boardwalk in Jaffa is also best explored via Segway. Take a spin down the beachfront on a clear day where one can choose the best spot to sunbathe or set up your beach umbrella. Head toward the shopping mall where one can get everything from Adidas sneakers to zippered hoodies. Pop into the marketplace for some baklava or whatever nuts and sweets catch your fancy.

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Photo by Ian Santos.
Photo by Ian Santos.
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Photo by Ian Santos.

Dining is excellent in Tel Aviv.

From the traditional lunch of shakshuka, hummus, tabbouleh, shawarma, mafrum, and other good things at Dr. Shakshuka, with branches around the city, to dinner at chic Oasis in the center of town helmed by Chef Rima Olvera, originally from California. She creates innovative dishes around ingredients currently in season, including vegetables she raises in her rooftop garden.

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Photo by Ian Santos.
Photo by Ian Santos.
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Another local favorite is Man Ray, overlooking the Mediterranean, a seafood restaurant featuring the catch of the day, as well as lamb and local specialties.

Photo by Ian Santos.
Photo by Ian Santos.
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Nightlife starts late in Tel Aviv, with people walking the tree-lined streets way past midnight. It’s a big walking town, with special central lanes for bicycles and the ubiquitous motorized scooters, which can be picked up and dropped off practically anywhere.

Photo by Ian Santos.

We started out at Sputnik, accessible through an unmarked dimly lit alley that ends in an open-air space with a bar at one end and ridiculously good looking people languidly lounging about, beers in hand.

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Photo by Ian Santos.
Photo by Ian Santos.
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Step inside a graffiti-encrusted door which leads to a warren of rooms, where you can be as private or as public as you wish. Different types of music play in the different rooms. “No mobiles on the dancefloor, please. It kills the vibe and makes you look like a boring bastard.”

So instead of mobiles, we held shot glasses of Russian vodka.

Photo by Ian Santos.
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Next stop, a building that used to be a bank. We headed upstairs to wood-paneled GOAT, with oil paintings and plush velvet banquettes illuminated with wax candles that dripped onto their holders. A bride-to-be danced with her friends while corporate types in suits dined on sushi nearby.

Photo by Ian Santos.
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Photo by Ian Santos.

Down in the basement is the more industrial Jimmy Who? with lines that snaked around the block. Inside, exposed beams and pipes give a raunchier vibe, with another bachelorette party downing shots and gyrating to louder music. “Adults Only” said one neon sign, while on the way out, “Be Naked When I Get Home,” is bright and clear.

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Photo by Ian Santos.
Photo by Ian Santos.
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Caesarea

The next day we headed to Caesarea, an ancient port city built by King Herod on the coast of Israel in honor of the Roman emperor Augustus Caesar. In the summertime, the restored amphitheater is the site of many concerts. 

Photo by Ian Santos.

The archaeological site is a national park, and its ruins are a sight to behold.  One of the city’s main attraction for Christians is a marker with the name Pontius Pilate. Some critics have questioned whether the ruler ever existed. A marker shows he likely did.  

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Photo by Ian Santos.
Photo by Ian Santos.
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Akko

On the way to the UNESCO heritage site of Akko, we made a pitstop at Amphorae winery for some wine and cheese. We walked down a path lined with herbs and olive trees to the Tuscan-style winery which uses grapes from Galilee and the mountains of Jerusalem. Israelis are very proud of their wine, and there are hundreds of wineries in the country—from small boutiques to large-scale producers. Wine has been woven into Israel’s history, and there are many references to grapes and wine in the Bible.

Photo by Ian Santos.
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Photo by Ian Santos.

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Then we were off to Akko, one of the oldest ports in the world. Akko was a Crusader town, upon which an Ottoman town was built. Sites across the Old City have been excavated in the last decade. These include an old Knights Hall and a hospital. In 1994, an old underground tunnel was discovered that the Templars—a Catholic military order—used to get from the fortress in the western part of the city to the open port in the east.

Photo by Ian Santos.
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Photo by Ian Santos.
Photo by Ian Santos.
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Above ground, Jews, Christians, and Muslims, live together in Akko. We walked through an old bazaar with art galleries, curio shops, and restaurants, where we were offered more wine, this time, sparkling, from pomegranates.

Photo by Ian Santos.
Photo by Ian Santos.
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We were lured into a hammam with Turkish delight and the promise of ultimate relaxation in the steam bath and foam massage.

Photo by Ian Santos.

Haifa

We ended the day in Haifa, on the slopes of Mount Carmel, where we dined on the street of the German colony, with an illuminated view of the spectacular Baha’I Gardens with the golden-domed Shine of the Bab as its centerpiece. Such a sight to behold.

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Photo by Ian Santos.

It was at Haifa that we saw our first pilgrims at the Stella Maris monastery, dedicated to the Star of the Sea, overlooking the Mediterranean. The monastery is the sacred site of the Cave of Elijah, where, in the Book of Kings, it is written that the prophet took refuge as he journeyed through the wilderness, fleeing King Ahab.

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Photo by Ian Santos.
Photo by Ian Santos.
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Jerusalem

We spent the evening in the outskirts of Jerusalem, in the solace of the Cramim hotel nestled Jerusalem hills outside the city. From our hotel terraces, we had a view of vineyards and mountains, which one can tour during the day. 

Photo by Ian Santos.

The hotel is known for its spa, with its indoor and outdoor pools, hammam, and luxurious treatment rooms, and special treatments such as a facial using antioxidants extracted from wine and fresh grapes that smoothen the skin and make it glow.

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Photo by Ian Santos.
Photo by Ian Santos.
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The next day, was for me, as a Catholic, the highlight of our trip. We made our way down to Jerusalem, the center of our faith. Interestingly enough, it is also the holiest site in Judaism, and one of the holy sites in the Muslim faith as well.

After visiting the room where Jesus is said to have dined with his apostles the night before he died, we were off to the Via Dolorosa, or the stations of the cross marking the Passion of Christ. Some were obscure markers in the middle of a bazaar, another was the site of a kindergarten.

Photo by Ian Santos.
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Photo by Ian Santos.

We ended in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, believed to be the site of the Resurrection. We lined up in a long queue to touch the rock of Calvary, the site of Jesus' crucifixion.

Photo by Ian Santos.
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Photo by Ian Santos.

It was a solemn, moving experience to touch what is said to be the marble slab where Jesus Christ lay as he was prepared for burial, after being taken down from the cross.

Photo by Ian Santos.
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Not too far from the center of our Catholic faith is the center of the Jewish faith, the Western Wall. Beyond the wall, the most sacred temple in the Jewish faith, the Holy of Holies, used to exist, and it was at the ancient wall where the faithful were allowed to pray. Till today, Jewish pilgrims from all over make the trip to Jerusalem to insert their written petitions into crevices in the walls.

Photo by Ian Santos.
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Photo by Ian Santos.

For Muslims, the ancient site is believed to be the place where the prophet Mohammed ascended to paradise.

Photo by Ian Santos.
Make sure to book tickets for the light and sound show at the Tower of David, that tells the story of Jerusalem with giant images being projected on the archaeological ruins. It's definitely a show you must not miss.
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Photo by Ian Santos.

Masada

In the middle of the Judean desert lies the ruins of another ancient fortress, Masada, where King Herod built two palaces on a mesa amidst steep cliffs.  It is the site of the last stand of the Jews against the Romans at the end of the First Jewish-Roman War. It is said that when the Romans battered down the fortress walls, they found close to a thousand people dead, having chosen death over a life over potential slavery.

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Photo by Ian Santos.
Photo by Ian Santos.
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Camel Ride

What is a trip to the Middle East without a ride on a camel? We were thrilled to see some camels parked next to buses at a rest stop, and our guide managed to finagle a ride for us. Or perhaps we were the ones finagled? Either way, it was a joyful experience.

Photo by Ian Santos .
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Dead Sea

The last part of our journey was a trip to the Dead Sea, which is actually a lake of salt, almost ten times saltier than the ocean. 

Photo by Ian Santos.

It has the lowest elevation of any body of water on earth, which is why it has become the receptacle of many minerals, including magnesium, phosphates, and sodium, in higher concentration than elsewhere due to evaporation.

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Photo by Ian Santos.

It is so salty and no living creature can survive in it, hence its name. However, due to the mineral content of the lake, the mud from the Dead Sea reportedly has beauty and health benefits, purging the skin of toxins and making it glow. We spent a night at the Herods Dead Sea hotel and were treated to a mud wrap where we were literally slathered in the hot, brown mud and wrapped like mummies for the minerals to seep in, and then we were hosed down in hot water till our bodies tingled.

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Photo by Ian Santos.

Afterward, we went for a dip in the Dead Sea. Due to its high salinity, we could not immerse ourselves completely in the water. Instead, we slowly bobbed about the serene lake, as if we had floaters on, but we didn’t. A relaxing way to end our lovely trip to Israel. Shalom.

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Photo by Ian Santos.

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