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Friday, December 23, 2016

North Central Sri Lankan Holiday: An Itinerary full of culture, history, wildlife, adventure and lots of local connections!

It is that time of the year when we are all busy planning our holidays. Winter has been pretty harsh this year and tropical island destinations have never seemed more appealing. While India is surrounded by a lot of tropical paradise destinations (Thailand, Maldives, Malaysia, Andaman and Nicobar Islands, Lakshadweep Islands), I prefer Sri Lanka for its proximity, cheaper flight options, diverse holiday itinerary that can be covered with minimal travel  and the fact that it caters to travelers with all kinds of budgets.

While each part of Sri Lanka offers a unique experience (West – the capital, cities and beaches, South – wildlife and beaches, Central – culture, rainforests, tea estates and wildlife, East – off beat beaches, quieter part of the country, North – lots of cultural trails, wildlife and a rich Buddhist heritage), I have a special place in my heart for the North-Central region. This north-central part of Sri Lanka offers a heady mix of UNESCO World heritage sites, ancient roots of Buddhism, innumerable cultural trails, rich wildlife and a true countryside experience.

Anuradhapura's Jetavana - third largest structure of the ancient world after the Great Pyramids at Giza

If you are planning on exploring this North-Central cultural corridor of Sri Lanka or need some inspiring holiday ideas for your tropical holiday this winter, you might be interested in these seven special Srilankan experiences.

The Ancient City of Sigriya

The lion's rock of Sigriya, Srilanka

This million year rock is famous for its ancient civilization with water gardens, reservoirs and ancient paintings. A UNESCO World Heritage site, Sigriya is that kind of place that will appeal to all kinds of travelers. Whether you are climbing to the top to catch a glimpse of sunrise, whether you love prehistoric art, whether you love history or whether you simply wish to stand on the top of a million year rock, soak in the views and feel the wind in your hair, this excellent example of ancient urban planning will definitely blow your mind away. Do remember that the steep flight of narrow stairs are sure to send your heart racing.

Cave Temple, Cricket Stadium and Elephants of Dambulla

Beautiful Cave Murals and the maze of Buddha statues inside Dambulla Rock Temple, Srilanka

Home to the largest and the best preserved cave temple complex in Sri Lanka, Dambulla’s history can be traced to as early as the 7th century BC. The cave temple with its frescoes, statues and deep Buddhist connection is definitely the highlight and will make for a great experience along with a knowledgeable guide. If there is an international cricket match taking place in this town, do head to the Rangiri Dambulla International Stadium even if only for a brief bit. And whenever you are driving in and around Dambulla, do keep an eye out for elephant herds. The elephant has right of way here.

Sunset at Pidurangala Rock
A Sigriya sunset view as seen from the top of Pidirangala Rock, Srilanka

A little bit of adventure and trekking and you will be treated to a spectacular sunrise or sunset view of the Sigriya Rock. That is the speciality of Pidurangala, a rock that overlooks Sigriya and one that has a small Buddhist temple, some ruins and frescoes of its own. The Pidurangala rock offers a more off-beat trail for someone who wishes for some hiking and has keen interest in photographing the Sigriya rock from a different vantage point.

Massive Elephant Congregations at Minneriya National Park

An elephant crossing at Minneriya National Park, Srilanka

Too much of culture, heritage and history can sometimes get to you and that is where I absolutely love an option like Minneriya National Park, which offers you the opportunity to get in close quarters with Srilanka’s wild side. A jeep safari into Minneriya National Park might allow you to see the largest group of wild elephants in Sri Lanka. While this happens mostly during the dry season, a wild elephant sighting is almost guaranteed during each jeep safari. In addition to the wild pachyderms, this part of Sri Lanka is home to a lot of migratory and terrestrial birds and many other wildlife species.

Mihintale – Anuradhapura’s Best Sunset Point

Even the lady monk can't resist to capture the gorgeous Mihinthale sunset shot

Considered as the cradle of Buddhism in Sri Lanka, Mihinthale is all about peace and tranquillity right from the time you start climbing the broad flight of stairs surrounded by flowering trees. Whether you are standing on the Maha Stupa or the Aradhana Gala rock, you will definitely connect with the spiritual realm here. And personally, I think Mihintale is Anuradhapura’s best sunset point. If you are interested in ruins and history, there are a lot of archaeological sites and ruins spread all across this region.

Anuradhapura – Cultural Highlight of Sri Lanka

Lush green Srilankan landscape seen from the top of Isurumuniya Vihara, Anuradhapura

Definitely, one of the top attractions of North-Central Sri Lanka, this ancient capital is full of mighty pagodas and well preserved ruins. As per wikipedia, it is one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world and one of the eight world heritage sites of Sri Lanka. But, the way I see it, this laidback part of Sri Lanka has some of the largest structures of the ancient world, is deeply rooted to the belief systems of Theravada Buddhism and is a historian and archaeologist’s delight. The Bodhi Tree Temple, Isurumuniya Vihara, Jetavana, Ruwanwelisaya and the citadel are some places that you should not miss. The best way to experience the charms of Anuradhapura is on a bicycle as you slowly pedal from attraction to attraction and from ruin to ruin while connecting with the extremely friendly local people.

Habarana Lake – Rustic Sri Lankan Experience

Birding at Habarana Lake, Sri Lanka

A pristine lake with lotus, water lilies and rich birdlife, a true Sri Lankan rustic experience, a walk through the paddy fields and riding a tractor through the red dirt tracks, the Habarana lake and village experience holds a special place in my heart. In fact, such was my local connection at this place that I would love to experience all of this again and again. Be it grating fresh coconuts and cooking with them, working in the farm with them or simply enjoying the rustic life, Habarana village has it all.

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Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Madaba: Jordan’s City of Mosaics

Are you a traveller who is interested in history, beautiful art work and/or the Holy Land? Well, if you are, you will be pretty interested in exploring Madaba, a city that is lovingly referred to as the ‘City of Mosaics’ in Jordan.

Mosaic artist creating the tree of life mosaic at Madaba, Jordan

Madaba is home to many Byzantine and Umayyad era mosaics and its call to fame is its 6th century Byzantine-era Mosaic map that depicts Jerusalem and other parts of the Holy Land. Etched on the floor of the Greek Orthodox Basilica of Saint George, this mosaic art is made up of more than two million pieces of colored stone and it depicts the earliest representation of Byzantine Jerusalem, the ‘Holy city’. It depicts hills and valleys, villages and towns in Palestine and the Nile Delta.

A Madaba Local Moment, Jordan

In addition to the holy map, one can see hundreds of other mosaics dated from the 5th through the 7th centuries. These mosaic art depict common themes such as plants, flowers, animals, birds and everyday pursuit such as hunting, fishing and farming. One can see the masterpieces at the Church of the Virgin and the Apostles and the Archaeological Museum. Most of the others are still under various stages of digging and under the control of various archaeological associations.

Mosaic on the walls of St George's Church, Madaba, Jordan

While these mosaic ruins are definitely a top attraction of Madaba’s historical riches, I personally loved the fact that today’s people of Madaba are still practicing this ancient art form and are re-creating it based on an interesting combination of yesteryear’s and today’s art forms.

Mosaic wall offers rich shopping avenues at Madaba, Jordan

Whether you are walking through the tiny by lanes of Madaba town, exploring the small mosaic art studios spread all over the vicinity or at the institute of mosaic art and restoration, you will be able to see this delightful art form creation in full flow. It is absolutely amazing to see how different colored rocks and stones and other natural ingredients morph themselves into a quality work of art.

Memorial of Moses, Mount Nebo, Madaba, Jordan

If you wish, you can take home some of these as souvenirs or gifts or even better get one custom designed, made and shipped for that room in your new house. If you have the moolah, there is no better architectural delight than to have a floor or a wall in your room with this ancient art from the Byzantine era.

Dry Jordanian landscape as seen from the top of Mount Nebu, Madaba, Jordan

To get a solid idea of the range of these mosaics, do see the Hippolytus hall in the archaeological park of Madaba, the mosaics at the archaeological site of Umm-ar-Rasas and the ones at the ruins of the Church of the apostles. The St.George’s Church would be a great place to get your bearings and basic information about the region, its history and its archaeological finds.

Wall of Mosaics in a shop at Madaba, Jordan

And if you feel like seeing spectacular views of this dry barren landscape, do pay a visit to Mount Nebo nearby and if you feel like getting away from history and want to relax, do visit the Ma’in hot springs located an hour away.

Sculpture at the entrance of Madaba Archaeological park, Madaba, Jordan

Whatever you do in Madaba, there is no way you are leaving without making a solid connection with its rich mosaic culture. After all, this is Jordan’s city of Mosaics and one of the hubs of an ancient art form. Do make sure that you have this place in your itinerary on your next holiday to Jordan.

Painstaking work that goes behind the making of Mosaic Art in Jordan

How to get to Madaba:
Madaba is located just 30 minutes out of the capital Amman on the King’s highway. It is also not too far away from other Jordan tourist attractions such as Bethany, Ma’in Hot Springs and the Dead Sea. It is best to have your own mode of transport if you are keen on exploring the ruins. For Madaba town, you can comfortably walk and soak in all the sights and treasures of this town.

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Tuesday, December 13, 2016

Srilanka’s Minneriya National Park: Go here for big elephant gatherings!

No holiday to Srilanka is complete without a glimpse of its wild side! After all, one of the highlights of a visit to this tropical island nation is its rich and diverse wildlife. Yala National Park on the south east corner is famous for its leopards, Horton Plains near Nuwara Eliya is popular for its waterfalls and views, Sinharaja in the heart is known for its rare rainforest species and birds of paradise and Minneriya in the north central region, is known for its massive elephant gatherings.

An elephant portrait from Minneriya National Park, Srilanka
If you are exploring the cultural trails of North Central Srilanka, then you should pay a visit to Minneriya National Park. And if you wish to see massive congregations of wild elephants, you should definitely have Minneriya National Park in your Srilanka itinerary.

The thrill of getting real close to the wild elephant at Minneriya National Park, Srilanka
After all, this is the place that attracts herds in numbers of 100 to 200 during the dry season. And provides a definite elephant sighting during all seasons. And that is not all! Minneriya is one of the more important bird sanctuaries of Sri Lanka that is home to a lot of waterfowl and endemic species. So whether you like big mammals or birds, this place is ideal for you.

An elephant crossing at Minneriya National Park, Srilanka
Surrounding the catchment area of Minneriya tank, this national park is made up of diverse vegetation that includes montane forests, secondary forests, bamboo, scrublands, grasslands, rocky outcrops and wetlands. The best part about this park is that it is nicely tucked amidst all of North Central Srilanka’s cultural gems.

An aerial view of a wild safari experience at Minneriya National Park, Srilanka
So, whether you are exploring Dambulla’s Rock temple, Sigriya’s ancient city and ruins, the ruins of Anuradhapura, the countryside of Habarana or trekking upto Pidurangala to catch the sunrise over Sigriya, you are not too far away from a rich experience in Srilanka’s wild. Such a wild experience in the laps of mother nature, would give you a welcome break from ruins, history and culture. And may be it will help to charge your batteries to explore more ruins and more cultural attractions.

Baby elephant spotted during a jeep safari in Minneriya National Park, Srilanka
This wild experience would entail you taking a landrover jeep with a forest guide and criss-crossing the brown jungle trails in search of that massive elephant herd. While you are on your jeep safari, you might come across sambar deer, sloth bears, the Srilankan junglefowl, the Srilankan Grey Hornbill, the Saltwater crocodile, the Asian Elephant and many other animal and bird species. And you can consider yourself mighty lucky if you see more than 100 elephants in one gorgeous view. After all, this is the specialty of this national park.

A Minneriya National Park special safari moment when you get close to the wild elephant
All you would need is a good pair of binoculars, a camera and an urge to be one with Srilanka’s wild. If you are going for elephants, the dry season would be the best time. For birdwatchers, winter months would be your best bet.

Watching a young herd of elephants graze in the grasslands of Minneriya National Park, Srilanka
Even though Polonnaruwa is your nearest city, I feel Habarana offers a more laidback retreat option. Whether you are planning a weekend getaway from Colombo or a more relaxed holiday in this North Central corridor of Srilanka, Minneriya, along with the cultural gems of this region should keep you captivated all along!

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Thursday, December 08, 2016

Spiti (The Grace of the Sublime): A Great Coffee Table Book

Do you love to read? One of the biggest perks of traveling is the rich avenues it provides to book lovers. These could be at airports, in flights or trains, on beaches, relaxing next to the hotel swimming pool and at many other places. I am not a voracious reader, but I do read from time to time. Don’t have any specific genre preferences, but I like graphic novels, coffee table books, books on human evolution and (auto)biographies.

I definitely read more than the reviews I write here on the blog. May be, I have been plain lazy! But, there was something about this coffee table book on Spiti that wanted me to write this review. May be, I liked the concept. May be, I liked the rich colorful photographs of this mountain region. Or may be, I liked the author’s honest story.

Interiors and Exteriors of Life in Spiti

Like most mountain lovers, I dig the Himalayas and Spiti happens to be one of the mountain regions that is closest to my heart. I guess there is something about its remoteness, tranquillity and surreal nature that talks to me and makes me find my peace. I guess that is what made me pick up the book ‘Spiti – The Grace of the Sublime’ by Pratik Sharma and Kshitij Bader. And when I put it down an hour later, I could completely relate to the author’s experience exploring this beautiful mountain region of Himachal Pradesh.

Monk's Life in Spiti Valley through a coffee table book

This book, ‘Spiti – The Grace of the Sublime’, published through the self publishing platform Notion Press, falls into many categories. You could call it a coffee table book, a photo book or a travel diary. It is that kind of book that helps you learn about a destination in rapid time through a personal story and great photographs. In this book, Pratik, the author and a professional photographer, has been dreaming of a trip to Spiti valley for many years, but due to personal and professional commitments, he never could quite make it. I am pretty sure that in this regard, Pratik wasn’t any different than the millions of us dreaming about a special destination. When he finally found his moment of glory, he was worried about his sleep apnea condition, and this trip to Spiti, helped him overcome his medical condition and take him closer to the divine.

The author constructs his story using flowery sentences, which I don’t like, but I could definitely connect with that feeling of peace that the author was feeling when he was in Spiti. That feeling of emptiness where there is absolute no thought floating in your head and one that enriches your senses is what I personally love about the high mountains. This book is not just about the destination, but the connection that the author made with these high mountain villages and landscapes. Pratik covered the usual trail of Spiti that includes Kaza, Ki, Kibber, Langza, Komic, Dhankar, Tabo before ending the trip with a visit to Chandra Taal Lake. He went as part of an organized tour group, but I liked the fact that he connected with the place like he was all alone.

The rich colors of Spiti Valley

While this book is perfect company for a travel lover, mountain lover and one who like to scroll pages quickly, I felt the ending was kind of abrupt. May be, I connected with the story and wanted to read and know more. But, for some reason, the story suddenly dies and out comes the end. I hope that isn’t the case in his future books.

While I relished the 60 minutes I spent with this book, I have been thinking about the overall concept of this self publishing platform ever since. So many of us travelers have our own sweet stories that we want to publish, but don’t know where to start. God knows, how many such stories and experiences I have in me. These days, all of us carry good cameras or good mobile phones that allows you to take decent photographs. And a lot of us want to do and experience something different. And we end up experiencing that. These I think form the strong roots of a coffee table book. A coffee table book that we can publish on our own with some guidance. Or may be, a full fledged book!

Vibrant Coffee Table Book on Spiti

After reading this book, I looked up Notion Press’s online book publishing platform and store and found out that they help with almost everything that goes with publishing. Stuff, that regular people, do not have exposure to! They help with editing, book design, creating your e-book, marketing, distribution, calculating royalties and so much more. They pretty much work with all the publishing houses in India and cover all the e-book channels such as Amazon Kindle, Kobo, Google Play and Rockstand. I am definitely planning to look them up in detail. May be, you should too. If you just wish to read, their online store packs quite a rich and diverse collection.

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Sunday, December 04, 2016

5 Unique Ways to Experience Iceland

Iceland as a destination has been buzzing all through 2016 and I am pretty sure that it will continue to remain a hot destination even in the year 2017. After all, no one can stay away from the charms of the glaciers, volcanoes, waterfalls and overall rugged geography of this Nordic country.

Iceland is all about its rugged geography. Be it mighty big waterfalls, mind blowing volcanic and geo thermal areas, lava forests, amazing glaciers and icebergs, hot springs, steam vents, rhyolite mountain ranges or picture perfect fishing villages, you are never too far away from a WOW moment or a postcard view. Wherever you go in Iceland and whatever you decide to do, you will not be too far away from these natural wonders.

Chasing Northern Lights in Iceland

Personally, I have always been smitten by this country. Right from the time I wrote this article titled ‘Why I want to visit Iceland?’ in late 2015, I have made 3 different trips to this sensational geologically active country. All these three visits were for volunteering programs, but each one took me deep into a different part of the country. The best part of each of these trips was that it took me much closer to the Icelandic culture and the local way of life while revealing hidden sights and attractions that only the locals knew.

Spectacular Icelandic Nature

These 3 volunteering holidays to Iceland (all in different seasons – from summer through Christmas) allowed me to explore a lot many places in this country. Some of these places were part of my volunteering projects while some were explored either on my own or with friends from volunteering camp. And it is based on these personal experiences that I recommend you these 5 unique ways to experience Iceland on your next holiday. I hope that this helps you experience and enjoy Iceland like I did and you keep returning for more. 

1) Drive through Iceland in a 4WD

The beauty of Gulfoss

Iceland is a big country with tough terrain and limited public transportation and connectivity. To go places you either need to spend a lot of money or invest in a lot of time and which is why I I think that Iceland is best explored on a self drive holiday. If you are a decent driver and hire a good four wheel drive vehicle, not only can you explore the remote corners of this volcanic country, but you can also save a lot of time and money. If you wish to truly rough it out and stay in the wild, you can opt to camp out in the open. If not, you can always find a warm bed to spend the night. Whether you wish to see the mighty Gulfoss, the mesmerizing Blue Lagoon, experience the famous Golden circle or travel into the far away bowels of Iceland’s remote hinterland, a self drive holiday is ideal. If you want to up the ante in terms of adventure, but still wish for some local guidance, you can choose guided self-drive tours that give you a tour of the arctic region like no other.

2) Opt for a Volunteering Program

Glacier Hiking in Iceland

Even though Iceland is a fairly well to do country, there are a lot of places where it can do with some external help and assistance. These could be areas like volcanic research, geothermal research, work in hydroelectric projects or construction and cleaning projects in the remote stretches of the country. The reason I dig volunteering projects is because it gives me access to a totally untouched region (from a traveler’s perspective) with lots of local interaction while allowing me to contribute my skills to the betterment of humanity. It was through such volunteering camps that I found access to some stunning active volcanoes (I love volcanoes), to climb the remote glaciers in the interior regions of Central Iceland, the fjords of the East coast and to some really cool ice caves where the experts were doing some research.

3) Go on a Photography Tour

Snow covered white Reykjavik

If there is one country in the world that is photogenic, it has to be Iceland. Every photo taken here seems to be fit the postcard tag. Even though more or less every photo taken here looks fabulous, I still recommend going on a photography tour as it will help you find that perfect combination of color, timing, attraction and location. For example, do you know the site where you can pitch your tent to capture the northern lights along with the dramatic lava fields and geysers. Or do you know the best time and location to capture sunrise at the Snaefellsjokull National park. Photography tours in Iceland give you that perfect local guidance to see and experience Iceland like never before. And the best part of these photography tours is that you don’t need to be a photographer!

4) A White Holiday

Snowmobiling in Iceland

Most people visiting Iceland seem to prefer the summer months, but I think Iceland is a magical winter destination. In fact, it offers a white holiday like no other. From experiencing the northern lights in Reykjavik to losing yourself in the deep sapphire blue ice caves underneath the 1000 year old Vatnajohull glacier and from a thrilling snowmobile ride in the remote and wild Landmannalaugar islands to the seeing the beauty of the lava caves in the Snaefellsnes peninsula, there is no better time to experience Icelandic nature than the cold winter months. A winter holiday in Iceland would need some special preparations and hence it is very much advised to go through a reliable iceland travel guide to gather all the local tips and guidance. After all, you can’t leave everything to your super jeep with mammoth tires!

5) Up the Adventure Ante

Kayaking in Iceland

In all my trips to Iceland, I have learnt that there is no place in the world that offers a much wider and richer spectrum when it comes to true adventure. After all what can beat glacier hiking, ice climbing, ice caving, climbing into volcanoes or climbing down lava caves for a sensational adrenaline rush. Add to it, kayaking and river-rafting, snowmobiling, skiing, snorkeling with whales, off-roading and many more and you are truly spoilt when it comes to adventure. Hence, when you visit Iceland, don’t just go see the tourist attractions, but be prepared to taste some of its best adventure experiences.

So go on and see the raw beauty of Iceland with your own eyes and find out why it is a top trending holiday destination in 2016 and one of the top unlikely holiday destinations in Europe.

Note: The photographs in this article are courtesy of Iceland Tourism.

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Thursday, December 01, 2016

Israel: Offbeat Romantic Destination for Indians

Are you looking to plan your offbeat luxury honeymoon? Are you looking for that off beat destination where you can go with your partner on a romantic holiday? Well, if you are, then this article is just for you.

Ever thought of romancing in a Middle East that is vastly different than the one we know. A Middle East that offers an amazing concoction of luxury, vibrant nightlife, complete freedom to women, lip smacking food, amazing natural wonders and a cultural experience that is second to none. I am talking about Israel, the country that I like to refer to as the different Middle East.

Trending worldwide as a hot destination in 2016, Israel is slowly catching the attention of us Indians too. After all with amazing attractions like Jerusalem, Dead Sea, Red Sea, Akko and other natural and cultural gems, I am not surprised that the world is awakening to this sensational destination.

If you delve deeper, Israel has all the secret ingredients for that special romantic holiday. Below are some of the top ticket items based on my personal experience.

Dead Sea: Mother Nature’s Very Own Mud Spa

Floating in the Dead Sea, Israel

One of the top 7 natural wonders of the world and the world’s lowest point, I like to refer to the Dead Sea as Mother Nature’s very own mud spa. Straddled with luxury properties, the Dead Sea is perfect for that couple spa, that rich experience of floating and reading a book while feeling the sting in your eyes and skin due to the extreme saline nature of the water and that special experience that a natural wonder offers you.

Woman Empowerment like no other

Unlike the rest of the Middle East where the men call the shots and the women feel restricted, Israel offers total freedom to women. Be it respect, dress code or empowerment, women enjoy total freedom here. I am sure my lady friends will concur with me here.

Jerusalem: Where it all began

Sunset over Jerusalem, Israel

One of the oldest cities in the world, this holy land is the birthplace of three of our modern day religions - Judaism, Christianity and Islam. It is an absolute pleasure to walk through the lanes and by lanes of this city of gold where the quaint neighborhood rubs shoulders with the modern city. The old city, the monasteries, the temples, the archaeological sites and the markets are absolute must visits.

Tel Aviv: Vibrancy, Nightlife and Beaches

Vibrant Nightlife of Tel Aviv, Israel

It is at Tel Aviv that you discover that Israel is not just about culture, history and religion. It is here that you discover the young souls of this country who love their beaches, their parties, their shopping and their vibrant lifestyle. Tel Aviv is ideal for you if you love dazzling nightlife, local markets and shopping malls, festivals and beach action. Azriely lookout for a stunning view of Tel Aviv and the flea market of Old Jaffna are my personal favorites.

Delicious Local Food that is Perfect for Vegetarians

Delicious Israeli Food

The sheer thought of Falafels, Moutabel, Tabouleh, Baba Ghanoush, Hummus, pita bread and the traditional Kosher food makes my mouth water. While the meat lovers would take an instant liking to Chamin, the traditional Shabbat stew and the ubiquitous shawarma, the vegetarians should not feel left behind. Israel is possibly the only country in the entire Middle East where the vegetarians enjoy a lot of delicious local options, due to kashrut (the rules of keeping kosher, one of the Jewish religious laws concerning food).

Oodles of Luxury

Luxury Beach holiday in Israel

No romantic holiday is complete without some pampering. Israel offers a lot of such pampering through its luxury hotel properties, five star hotels and traditional luxury setups. Most of the top international hospitality chains have their presence in hotspots such as Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, Dead Sea and the other locations.

Tons of Adventure

Trekking and Climbing Adventure in the Deserts of Israel

These days couples crave adrenaline rushes and adventure as much as they crave romance. If you fit this bill, you will find solace while indulging in some scuba diving in the Red Sea, camping bedouin style in the middle of the Judean desert and hiking in the Ein Avdat Canyon or the Ein Gedi Nature Reserve.



Go discover this different Middle East and see for yourself why I rate Israel as a top off beat destination for all Indian travelers, especially for their romantic holidays.

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