The best way to get away! Driving around a new country really shows you it all!
I love to drive. Some of my earliest memories involve piling our large family in the VW van and heading out on a trip to the beach, the lake, the mountains, Grandma’s house, wherever. Of course, I love the destination, but even from those earliest days I remember more the time being in the car, driving down the open road. I could get lost in the scenery, make up stories about the people I’d see in other cars on the road, or spend hours following our progress on the map-checking off stops along the route, estimating arrival times, or calculating our average speed. I love driving. And as an adult with full control over my own destiny, that love has continued. For me, getting out on the road and the driving are some of the best parts of the trip. So it should come as no surprise that whenever we go somewhere, anywhere, we drive; and our recent trip to Israel was no exception.
I’ve avoided driving in very few places around the world either for logistical reasons or out of a concern for safety and security. But generally, if we can self drive, we do. Israel proved to be a very easy country to drive in and the car rental rates are cheap (as opposed to almost everything else in the country). The rental agency at the airport got us checked in and gave us the basic rules of the road. Number one: watch where you park. Seriously, about the only thing they did tell us was about parking and when and where to park. They did also tell us not to leave Israeli territory, then gave us a map with the “green line” clearly marked. The only problem being that the green line isn’t a real border or line that can’t be crossed in the rental car. This was a little piece of information that could have saved us some time and backtracking. According to our host in Jerusalem, halfway through the trip, we could drive practically anywhere. Of course, Gaza, Bethlehem and a few other Palestinian Authority controlled areas were off limits but these were easily avoided and and not on any major routes. That same map the guy at the counter gave me turned out to be the only map we really needed. It included the city maps for Haifa, Tiberius, Tel Aviv, and Jerusalem and when we stopped to check the map we invariably found our way. But wandering around “off the map” is part of the fun and where you find some of the best travel. Driving around the unmarked side roads in the Golan Heights provided some of the most amazingly beautiful landscapes we found on the trip. And the country is small enough that you can’t get too lost, although it wouldn’t be a good idea to wander off into any of the “Danger -Do Not Enter – Live Firing” areas. Oh yeah, when the sign says “Tank Crossing” it does mean tank crossing.
We drove the length and width of the country, from Nimrod Fortress near Lebanon, all the way down to Sde Boker in the Negev; and from Tel Aviv on the Med to Masada on the Dead; we covered a lot of distance in this small country. The other drivers we encountered on the road were mostly indifferent to foreigners travelling the roads with them, not overly courteous but no real road rage. Most drivers speed, as they do everywhere, but none took offense to our slower pace. Gas stations were everywhere but be warned, gas is expensive (7.75 Shekel/liter or $8/gallon) so go for a smaller, economy car (ours got excellent mileage-averaging about 50 shekel per day of driving!). There is plenty of parking along curbs, and they are color-coded to guide you. Blue and white zones mean you have to pay, but on Shabbat it’s free. Red and gray zones are free all the time, and don’t ever park near the red and white curbs. Don’t be afraid to ask for directions or clarification, just be ready to ask several different people until you find someone who has or will give you answer.
The best parts of self-driving through Israel were being able to drive right past the crowds of organized tours; stop where we wanted for food, pictures, bathrooms, or whatever; explore areas off the map; and settle into the rhythm of the road and letting it take us where it would. I would recommend driving Israel to anyone with a license and the knowledge to drive a stick shift.
How do you like to see a new country? Is it all public transportation? Would you consider driving? Let us know what you think in the comments!