Biblical sites a big part of Israeli tourism

We have a little extra time, and tour guide Yaniv Bar knows exactly how he wants to spend it. Our vehicle follows a paved, curvy road to a stark hilltop where the view feels both plain and profound.
This is it? This is it! Through the morning haze, I am introduced to the largest freshwater lake in Israel.
“What we see from here holds two-thirds of the events in the New Testament,” Yaniv begins.
Below us is the pear-shaped Sea of Galilee, fed by the Jordan River, ordinary in appearance and overwhelming in reputation. Think about walking on water, or feeding 5,000 with two fish and five loaves of bread.
In and near this lake’s 64 square miles is the land of miracles, a part of the bedrock that explains and upholds the tenets and tales of Christianity. It’s treated as hallowed ground, even among skeptics and disbelievers.
Surrounding the sea are fertile orchards of avocados, olives, dates, grapes and more. Before noon, I will have left my tiny mark at Lavie Forest, established by the Jewish National Fund in 1901 to transform barren and rocky hills into thick, healthy woodlands.
“Plant a tree with your own hands to leave your roots in the country,” a greeter implores, and what I do is a global rite of passage for many travelers, especially Jews.
The cypress sapling that I pat into the ground is among 250 million such plantings that dot the countryside here and in the Jerusalem Hills.
Countering such selfless efforts are capitalistic endeavors, like the sign in Cana that peddles “wedding wine,” a reference to the first biblical miracle of Jesus and seen en route to Nazareth, an Arab city about 20 miles southwest of the Galilee shore.
More than one waterfront location offers a “St. Peter’s lunch” of tilapia, served as a compete fish or filleted. It arrives with fries, slaw and other side dishes served family style and in a setting that resembles a busy community dining hall.
The simple stone Mary’s Well, St. Gabriel’s Church and mosaic-filled Basilica of the Annunciation honor the Nazareth home of the Virgin Mary and the reputed place where she learned she would be the Christ child’s mother.
Modern-day miracles emerge, too. Consider the Jesus Boat Museum, at the Sea of Galilee, near Tiberias. Inside is a 33-foot-long wooden fishing boat, discovered in 1986 when lake levels receded. Researchers say the vessel is 2,000 years old, but its origin remains a mystery.
Some think the now-fragile hull was used by Jesus and his 12 disciples. “I have heard just about every question posed about this boat,” says researcher Jerome Hall of the University of San Diego, who for 16 years has studied the baffling structure. He says it did not sink in the sea or during battle.
The Jesus Boat is a patchwork of woods, mainly cedar and oak, and was repaired many times. Jerome’s favorite rib is No. 89, from a sycamore tree, “sawed it right off the tree and just nailed onto the boat – the owner didn’t even sand it.”

For more about Galilee tourism, www.gogalilee.org; Lavie Forest, www.jnf.org; Nazareth tourism, www.nazarethinfo.org; Jesus Boat Museum: www.jesusboatmuseum.com.

Less than 100 miles south of Galilee is the Dead Sea, as in “biblical parting of.” The 50-mile-long lake is 1,200 feet below sea level and in the Judean Desert, where temps in the shade rise to 120 degrees during summer and annual rainfall averages two inches.
“Only in a desert can you feel how small you are and how big all is around you,” asserts tour guide Ron Sinai. “Nothing is like it seems in the desert” because more types of life thrives than you’d expect.
The purported therapeutic value of mineral-rich water draws travelers, especially older adults, into Dead Sea resorts. King Herod’s Masada fortress and palace complex, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, also attracts a crowd, and some hike 760 steps to see it. Others board a cable car that takes 1.5 minutes to reach the same elevation.
One of the area’s significant biblical attractions is Mount Sodom, a monstrous pillar of salt.
How to find it? Look for the sign on Highway 90 that says “Lot’s Wife.”
For more about Dead Sea and other Israel tourism: www.goisrael.com.