Israel has long been a destination characterized by its religious, historical and cultural attractions, all of which it has in abundance. Yet Israel has a very different side to it, one that may come as a surprise to travelers. Extreme and adrenaline sports are becoming huge business in the country and Israel has endless opportunities for thrill-seekers. Combined with its varied and dramatic scenery it makes for the perfect combination for an active, outdoor vacation with a taste of the Middle East.
On the water
With four main bodies of water – the Mediterranean Sea, the Red Sea, the Sea of Galilee and the Dead Sea – the little country of Israel isn’t short of water-based activities. The Mediterranean has ideal conditions for wind-surfers, and Israel has even hosted the International Windsurfing Championships. In fact, the country’s first ever Olympic gold medal was won by Gal Fridman for wind-surfing.
Kit-surfing has become very popular as well, and come weekends the coastal skyline is decorated by colorful, whizzing kites. The Biblical Sea of Galilee, famed throughout Christianity as the site where Jesus walked on water, is another top spot for kite-surfing fans, popular both for the breeze that whizzes over the Galilean hills and across the surface of the lake, and its rural beauty.
Beneath the gentle, warm waters of the Israel’s narrow stretch of Red Sea, scuba divers enjoy the rainbow-colored marine life and corals. Despite being only 6.8 miles (11 kilometers) long, the resort town of Eilat is home to dozens of scuba diving centers. The waters here remain at an almost constant water temperature of 75ºF (about 24ºC), and while its marine life doesn’t always compare with that of Egypt further south along the coast, it is a hugely popular destination. In addition to Eilat, scuba diving centers can be found along the Mediterranean Coast, where historic wrecks form the main interest: the Dead Sea has a single outfit, Dead Sea Divers offering carefully planned dives beneath the salty surface of the lowest place in the World.
Head back up to the Galilee for kayaking and rafting on the Jordan River. There are also a few kayaking centers in the area, such as HaGoshrim Kayaks whose trips do a great job of getting rafters close to the nature and wildlife of the Galilee.
Read about swimming in Israel
In the air
Perhaps fueled by the number of current and ex-paratroopers in the country, sky-diving, para-gliding and even hang-gliding are some of the most popular adrenaline activities in Israel. The vastly varied landscape below may be another reason to take to the skies.
Israel has ideal weather conditions for airborne activities, with warm air currents favorable for soaring through the blue skies. Para-gliders and hang-gliders can take their pick of impressive cliffs from which to launch; the Manara Cliff, hugging the northern border with Lebanon; Mount Gilboa, known both for its Biblical connections and purple iris blooms; or Mount Tabor, located in the heart of the Jezreel Valley which sweeps across the Lower Galilee.
The scenery doesn’t get any less impressive for sky diving either. Skykef based out of Beer Sheva in Israel’s Negev Desert even boast that skydivers can see ‘the blue of the sea, the green of the center, and the yellow of the desert’ in one jump.
On the ground
While the lakes, rivers, seas and skies might be buzzing with all manner of seemingly dangerous activities, at ground level there is still a lot going on. Mountain biking across the green, wooded hills of the north, skiing on Mount Hermon in the Golan Heights, or hiking through the desert terrain, merely scratches the surface of opportunities. And while you may be thinking that hiking isn’t an extreme sport, try hiking the Israel National Trail, a 584 miles (940 kilometer) long trail that sweeps the entire length of the country. It takes seasoned hikers 30 to 45 days to complete, and has been so popular since its creation in 1991 that a new bike trail is currently being created alongside it.
All Terrain Vehicles (ATV’s) are another big hit in Israel, in particular the Tomcar, which was — as all Israelis will proudly tell you — created in Israel (originally for the Israel Defense Forces). Whether it’s on a small, nifty quad-bike, or a more substantial (and substantially faster) Tomcar, there are so many different landscapes to explore and it is a great way to get off the beaten track. In the far Upper Galilee, hugging the border with Lebanon, Dishon ATV runs out of a small kibbutz and takes riders on memorable trip through fruit orchards, across fields and splashing in valley streams.
Known as rappelling or abseiling in most parts of the World, Israelis call the practice of lowering yourself down the vertical side of a cliff as snappling. Of course, what goes down must have once gone up, and rock climbing is also widely enjoyed. There are dozens of suitable spots which — for those predisposed to leaving the ground attached by only some rigging — have great appeal. In the north, the Dalton Cliff, the extremely challenging Black Canyon Trail, the Alma Cave, and Yehudiya Nature Reserve are just some of the top spots, while down south the great Ramon Crater is a spectacular (and spectacularly heart-pounding) spot for rappelling.
Read more about hiking in Israel
Under the ground
As if there aren’t already enough dare devil activities on offer, Israelis are now venturing underground. Caving, or spelunking, involves lowering yourself into a dark subterranean abyss by a piece of rope. OK, so the rope is actually a reinforced safety harness, but it’s pretty scary none-the-less. Once down inside the cave, there is a lot of scrambling, wriggling, hiking and climbing involved too.
Caving is undertaken in a few areas in Israel; the hills around Jerusalem, Peki’in in the Upper Galilee and most famously, Mount Sodom on the shores of the Dead Sea. Mount Sodom is in fact a huge 754 feet (230 meters) high tower of salt through which weaves a labyrinth of tunnels, holes and caves. It is considered one of the world’s top caving destinations and attracts die-hard cavers, amateur enthusiasts and newbies alike.
Israel is a small country with huge appeal for travelers. Its ancient historic cities, magnificent archaeological sites, beautiful landscapes and varied culture (not to mention the food!) are worth a visit in their own right. Yet Israel’s appeal as an outdoor destination, where nature and extreme sports can be enjoyed at the same time, is just starting to be recognized by travelers. So take a deep breath, dive in head first, don’t look down and take the plunge in Israel – the extreme sport capital of the Middle East.
- Samantha Wilson