Hello from Israel - we’ve made it! Our morning started super early with a 6:30am alarm, which gave us an hour to get ready, have breakfast and meet in the Royal Theatre for our excursion.
Today, we had a 10 hour excursion that would visit Jerusalem and Bethlehem.
Angie and I made our way to the Windjammer to meet mom and dad for breakfast. We ate quickly and got ready just in time for us to go to the Royal Theatre.
By 8am, the ship had docked in Ashdod and they were clearing immigration. Along with the rest of our tour, we were escorted off the ship and into the terminal for face to face immigration.
As I mentioned yesterday, everyone onboard has to do immigration in Israel - even if you’re not getting off the ship in the port. Everyone on a Royal Caribbean excursion has priority, so most people on independent tours weren’t able to go through immigration until later in the morning.
Most were scrambling to get on a Royal Caribbean excursion or to move their independent tours to later in the day.
I’d highly recommend if you’re in a port that requires immigration to book an excursion for priority disembarkation. We also had this same mentality for Santorini, where we have to tender and will have priority on an excursion.
Immigration was quick and painless. From our research, we were prepared to pack our patience for going through immigration; it was a breeze for us on our excursion!! We were given a gate pass to keep in our passport throughout our stay in Israel.
In leu of a stamp, the gate pass acts as our entrance into the country. An Israeli stamp could prohibit future travel to Arab countries, so the gate pass is a way around that.
We were on the tour bus by 8:30 and on our way into Jerusalem from the port. The drive is about an hour into town and the port is very industrial.
Our guide, Ronen, gave us the low down on Israel. Our first stop in Jerusalem was a lookout spot that overlooked the entire city. We could see the Dome of the Rock with its gold dome off in the distance - this is one of the most photographed buildings in the world!
Also within view was the Mount of Olives, which Christians believe to be the mountain where Jesus the Messiah ascended into heaven.
This was a beautiful stop with panoramic views of the mountainous and hilly Jerusalem.
After the photo-op, we made our way into the old town to see the Western Wall. We had to go through a basic security check-point. There was a side for men and a side for women, but this was not being followed by anyone.
Once inside, there was a large square surrounded by the Western Wall with many people praying.
This is made of ancient limestone in the Old City of Jerusalem. The ancient wall, a small segment still standing off a once-larger surrounding wall, is a sacred place for Jews. It’s common practice to write your prayers/wishes on a piece of paper and place the paper in the wall.
There were 2 sections of the wall, one for men and one for women. Interestingly, the men’s side is probably three times bigger than the women’s side. The men’s side has tables with purple cloths overhanging while the women’s side had no such thing.
There was also a barricade between the two sides. The women’s side had stools that we could step on to see the men’s side.
I read that women needed to wear head coverings at the Western Wall, but this did not appear to be true. If it was, no one was enforcing the head coverings.
We didn’t have too much time at the Western Wall, just enough to take some pictures and place our prayer wish in the wall. Some were complaining about the lack of time at the Western Wall; however, I thought it was enough time.
Following our time at the Western Wall, we walked through a series of markets. These remind me of the medians in Morocco with lots of trinkets and hagglers.
As we made our way through the alleyways, we learned about a few Stations of the Cross along the way. Quite the juxtaposition to hear about Jesus walking these same steps to seeing Mickey Mouse on a bunch of t-shirts.
The alleyways were narrow with many shops, but it was fascinating to see and learn about the different stations of the cross that led us to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. This church has 2 grey domes that can be seen from across Israel and it’s considered one of Christianity’s most holy site.
At this point, the guide said we would be climbing steep, slippery stairs inside the church. Some of the others in our group stated they weren’t able to do the stairs. As we went inside, we saw one lady crawling up the stairs because she was so determined to get to the top.
This is why I’m so vocal to others, and especially to my parents, about the importance of traveling while you are (relatively) young and able. These kinds of trips are exhausting for able-bodied people, but we had some struggle to keep up all day.
The excursion stated we would be walking on uneven surfaces for 3 miles - and we definitely did. Some were grumbling that the tour was too fast-paced for them, although we found it to be appropriate given all the things we were seeing in one day.
Inside the church, we made our way up the stairs to see multiple sacred spaces, which include the spots where Christians believe Jesus was nailed to the cross and crucified. Many were waiting in line to kiss and bow to these sacred spots, although our tour didn’t allow time for this.
We also touched the Stone of Anointing, which is known as the spot where Jesus was laid before he was buried. Many were taking personally items, like veils and souvenirs. and rubbing them on the stone as well.
Last, we were able to see the Tomb of Jesus inside the church. According to traditions dating back to the 4th century, Christians believe this to be the spot where Jesus was resurrected after his death. There was a long line to enter the tomb with only one person able to go inside at a time, and our tour didn’t include this.
We weaved quickly through the markets and I snagged a magnet, which is my favorite souvenir for my fridge. I haggled down from $7 to $3, which is about what I expected.
Back on the bus, we stopped for a lunch buffet with all the other tours from the ship. There was a wide selection of food served in a buffet style.
We finished eating and the bus started heading towards Bethlehem. Those familiar with the area will know that Bethlehem is under Palestinian rule in the West Bank, so we had to enter their territory. We drove right through the border check but could see barbed wire and police guarding the entrance.
Upon entering the West Bank, we also got another tour guide who would cover the Palestinian locations.
I could immediately tell Bethlehem was not as nice as Jerusalem- there were many run down buildings and the streets were filled with trash.
While I’ve always envisioned Bethlehem as being some sort of nativity with donkeys, I was shocked by the KFC right in the city center. It was nothing like I envisioned.
Our new guide took us into the Church of the Nativity, which is where Christians believe to be the birthplace of Jesus. We didn’t have time to wait in the 2 hour line to see the actual manger spot, but those in line were showing signs of frustrating and angst as they stood in the heat.
At one point, someone in line pushed and yelled at our tour guide as he maneuvered our group around the line to talk about the church’s restoration.
Throughout this tour, we lost 2 separate groups that would rejoin us during a later part of the tour. I thought the guide was joking when he said it’s normal for at least a few people to get lost or left behind! Luckily, our ship is docked overnight and they gave out the locations to share with taxi drivers to meet up.
I had always pictured some sort of farm on the prairie with a cute little nativity scene in a barn - and this was nothing like what I expected. Travel can surprise us, that’s for sure.
We had a quick shopping stop at a store that was almost certainly sponsored by Royal Caribbean. They put Jesus’ face on everything you can imagine in this store - even fingernail clippers.
This was the last stop on our tour, and I used the hour drive back to the ship to go through photos and get started on this blog.
The weather today was perfect and about as good as we could have hoped for! It was warm but not super humid with a slight breeze.
We are so grateful that we booked this excursion instead of doing a third-party excursion as we had planned. We had a full day and got everything on our agenda before sunset. We certainly wouldn’t have seen everything we wanted to without getting off the ship so early with the priority immigration through the RCL excursion we booked.
Before entering the port, we had to go through an immigration check where a local immigration officer had our tour guide sign a form. Almost every tour was getting back at the same time and it took us 30 minutes by the time we entered the port to the time we actually got to the ship.
We were back onboard by 8:00pm, so we weren’t able to dine in the dining room. We went up to the Windjammer for dinner, which might be a first for me as well! I can't remember the last time I had Windjammer for dinner, but I was pleasantly surprised with how tasty it was. By this point, we were pretty hungry.
Dinner tonight was BBQ themed in the Windjammer! Crazy to think we wandered some of the oldest religious sites in the world and then came back to the ship to have corn dogs, ribs, mac and cheese and funnel cakes.
Tomorrow, we have an even earlier wake-up time with a 5:45am alarm. We will be heading to the Dead Sea and Masada for a full-day tour! It takes 2 hours to get to the Dead Sea from Ashdod, so we are anticipating another long day of exploring this beautiful country.
Until then, good night everyone!