Federation, Botanical Garden sponsor Israel trip

In my 44 years as a columnist, I have never been at a loss for words. There’s always a first time and this is it. I am about to tell you of an indescribably wonderful trip to Israel planned by the Missouri Botanical Garden and the Jewish Federation of St. Louis, a 12-day adventure focusing on the diverse plant life and eco-systems of Israel, at the same time offering a comprehensive visit to the major tourist sites. It is not a fundraiser for either organization, though looking at the price one might think otherwise. But more of that later.

“Discovering the Land of Israel,” the name given to this unique tour, departs for Israel on Monday, March 10 and for starters, on Tuesday the group will tour the Rothschild Memorial Gardens/Nature Park in Haifa. The leader, like all those who will lead on subsequent days, is an outstanding professor at the University of Haifa’s Institute of Evolution. Following lunch in a converted winery, they will head to Kibbutz Ein Hashofet to see the private postage-stamp gardens and to hear a panel discussion by landscape architects, urban planners and preservationists. Then on to Mitzpe Hayamin Hotel, a spa with gorgeous gardens overlooking the Sea of Galilee and the Golan Heights where you can have health and cosmetic treatments using ethereal oils and herbs. Think jasmine and lavender blossoms. Dinner will be at Muscat, a charming, elegant restaurant that has gained widespread acclaim for its gourmet dishes.

I tell you about the first day in some detail (but not completely) as the days that follow are just as jam packed with gardens, gourmet meals, fine wines, archeological digs and the most important sites of Israel. Thus this is a trip for both the experienced Israeli visitor and the neophytes who have never been there. Among the traditional sites to be visited during the 12-day stay in Israel are Caesarea and its extensive ruins; the Jewish Quarter of the Old City in Jerusalem; the Israel Museum with the great Billy Rose Sculpture Garden; Masada and a tour of King Herod’s historic hilltop fortress; Shabbat services at the Western Wall; the Holocaust Memorial, Yad Vashem and on and on.

From the moment these travelers set foot in the Holy Land until the parting dinner at the Tel Aviv University Faculty Club, they will be bombarded with information about the flora and fauna of this fascinating country and will be enjoying meal after meal prepared by the finest chefs in Israel. As an example, on Day Six the group will tour the Hebrew University Botanical Gardens founded in 1962. A guided tour on the Bible Path will meander across several sections of the gardens (Mediterranean, herb etc.) where spring bulbs, both wild and cultivated will be in full bloom. Then a ride on the “flower train” will take visitors further to areas of particular botanical interest, such as the Australian section.

Chef-and-botanist Moshe Basson is to give a short lecture on vegetable and fruit-based Middle Eastern food and there will be a food tasting. Basson is the proprietor of Jerusalem’s Eucalyptus Restaurant where only native plant material is used in his kitchen.

I feel like a kid in a candy shop who can’t decide which chocolate to select. There are so many wonderfully planned days on the “Discovering the Land of Israel” trip that it is almost impossible for me to choose which part of it to describe. Like Day Seven, whose early departure leads to the Dead Sea and Ein Gedi Nature Reserve. The gardens of Kibbutz Ein Gedi are a true oasis, planted with more than 800 species of trees, shrubs, and flowers ranging from myrrh and frankincense to the Sodom apple. Or days later a visit to Ganei Yehosua in the heart of metropolitan Tel Aviv, a green oasis with a tropical garden, a unique orchid greenhouse, a rock garden containing an impressive geological collection from Mt. Hermon in the north to Eilat in the south and a cactus garden with 50,000 plants and 3,500 species.

Lunch that day will be a “tasting meal” at the Goetz Tripolitan Restaurant followed by sampling of traditional home cooking at the Abulabed Arab family restaurant.

Since there is more information than I could possibly squeeze into this column, I do recommend that you call Aliyah Schneider of the Jewish Federation at 314-442-3832, learn more. The price, which I mentioned as high but obviously for this special adventure is a bargain, is $5,850 per person based on double occupancy, or $7,590 for single occupancy plus airfare.

OV VEY! I goofed and gave you the wrong date in last week’s column for the NCJW production of The Vagina Monologues. The correct date is Saturday night, Feb. 23.

Published Jan. 23, 2008