Published: 00:01, 29 July 2016
Masada and the Dead Sea
Gazing out across miles of gleaming white desert to the thin sliver of blue on the horizon that was my first glimpse of the Dead Sea, it was easy to see why King Herod fell in love with this spot.
It was less easy to imagine the workers who built the great monarch's mountaintop fortress on the edge of the Judaean Desert being so enthusiastic, as the sun beat down on us and the temperature rose to a scorching 42 degrees.
For me, visiting Masada, the site of the last stronghold of the Jewish revolt against the Romans in 73AD, was the highlight of our three-day whistle-stop tour of Israel.
A short cable car ride took us up 300m to the top of the rock plateau where the fortress was cited.
As we walked in the sunshine among ruins of the once great complex, which featured multiple palaces, a swimming pool and fountains, our guide Marion Bleiberg told us about the mass suicide of more than 900 Jewish rebels, who preferred to die by their own hand rather than be sold into Roman slavery or thrown to the lions.
After the heat of the day I was looking forward to a dip in, or a float on, the Dead Sea, a lake 424m below sea level - the lowest place on earth - that is so salty nothing can live in it.
If you want a luxurious Dead Sea experience you can stay at Ein Gedi, a mountainside kibbutz that started out 60 years ago farming dates and vegetables and now has a hotel, lush botanical gardens and a spa offering enticing sounding treatments such as the myrrh and frankincense peeling exfoliation.
But we stayed at the Isrotel Hotel where we were treated to a mud wrap, which I can only describe as hot and slimy, before enjoying drinks in the poolside and lounge bars.
Marion told us if you fill a glass with water from the Dead Sea and leave it to evaporate you will be left with a beaker a third full of salt.
A young French man in our group said he struggled to walk into the sea because his feet were trying to float to the surface, and I read horror stories online about tourists drowning while trying to swim on their fronts because their legs floated up behind them, forcing their faces into the water.
In reality however, it was just like floating in any other sea only a bit easier - and hot.
With the air temperature still a balmy 39 degrees when we walked down the beach for our evening float we were expecting the water to feel cool but it was like stepping into a hot bath.
Not boiling like Iceland's Blue Lagoon or the hot springs at Rotorua in New Zealand but hotter than any non-geothermal pool I've sat in.
And the salt stung my freshly shaved legs and tiny cuts on my hand.
But it was a relaxing end to a hot and tiring day and a different experience from the usual trip to the seaside.
Tel Aviv means 'old new land' and the mix of architectural styles, coupled with the way a refreshing liberal attitude washes over the historic settlement, certainly justifies the name.
Pride, the global festival dedicated to the LGBTQ (lesbian gay bisexual transgender and queer or questioning) community, was held in Tel Aviv in May and although same-sex marriage is still illegal, Marion tells us the city is very tolerant of different sexualities and cultures.
Israel's second most populous city is like everywhere I've been before and nowhere else I've ever been.
The skyscrapers behind the beach could have been in London or Tokyo; bright tropical flowers against whitewashed walls brought back memories of Santorini, Greece; and the hipster vegan cafe selling raw pizza reminded me of Berlin or Brighton.
We visited Sarona Market, the modern, indoor shopping complex where terrorists shot dead four people just weeks before our visit, on June 6.
There was no sign of damage to the pristine building, Tel Aviv's Borough Market, and there was a relaxed atmosphere as we wandered in and out of cheese shops and cafes and sampled Israeli craft beer, which could give some trendy London breweries a run for their money.
Tel Aviv was founded by Jewish immigrants in 1909, incorporating neighbourhoods that had been established previously, and was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2003.
In 1950 Tel Aviv merged with the nearby, and much older, port city Jaffa, the last piece of land prophet Jonah set foot on before being swallowed by a whale, if you believe in Bible stories.
Artists saved Jaffa's beautiful, ancient buildings from demolition more than 30 years ago and today visitors and locals can stroll through the cool, cobbled lanes lined with jewellery shops and galleries.
But the place everyone envisions when you announce you're travelling to Israel is Jerusalem.
The most sacred place in the world for Jews and Christians, and hugely significant for Muslims, The Old City of Jerusalem is a complicated and controversial fusion of religious sites.
The walled city is divided into four quarters, Armenian, Christian, Jewish and Muslim, each with their own landmarks, restaurants, shops and even hotels.
The gold-topped Islamic Dome of the Rock, situated on Temple Mount, is by far the most striking building in the cityscape but non-Muslims can only enter early in the morning so we didn't get to find out whether the inside is as beautiful.
Temple Mount has previously been home to two Jewish temples, both destroyed, and is considered the most sacred Jewish site in the world, which causes much tension between the two religions.
In fact for several days before we visited there was rioting and arrests with Islamic extremists allegedly throwing rocks and other items at Jews and Israeli police.
During our visit we frequently saw armed police stopping and searching young Muslim men and there was a bit of tension in the air, although not enough to spoil our day.
Many believe God gathered dust from Temple Mount to create Adam, the first human being, and that the Ten Commandments, given by God to Moses, are buried under the mount.
Orthodox Jews believe that when the Messiah comes to save Israel and mankind he will build a temple on the exact spot where the Dome of the Rock sits, which will cause even more problems.
The closest the majority of Jews can get to their faith's most important site is the Western Wall, sometimes called the Wailing Wall, and we headed there on our final day.
I was surprised by how non-touristy it was. People there were genuinely praying, and one woman was actually wailing, although she was shushed by quite a few other visitors.
With our shoulders and legs covered we approached the wall, men and women separately, clutching handwritten notes, prayers and good wishes for loved ones to tuck into gaps in the brickwork.
Not being religious I felt like a bit of a fraud posing for the camera with my slip of paper and I have to say I didn't feel moved by the experience, although several atheists and a Muslim in our group did.
The focal point of the Christian quarter is the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, disappointingly dull on the outside when compared with its Muslim cousin, which is supposedly built over the sites where Jesus was both crucified and buried/resurrected.
Inside the church was dark but precious metals, colourful paintings and ornate lanterns illuminated the Altar of the Crucifixion and The Stone of Anointing, where Jesus' body is said to have been anointed before burial.
We also crouched down and clambered into the tiny tomb where Jesus' body was apparently placed, lighting it up with our mobile phones.
It was a strange but not unpleasant feeling being in the set of a story I'd been familiar with since childhood but didn't believe to be real.
Outside the city walls Jerusalem is a modern city with western shops, gourmet restaurants and luxurious hotels.
To really push the boat out, Mamilla Hotel, at more than £200 a night, has several restaurants, a cigar lounge, a wine bar featuring one of the largest selections of kosher Israeli wines in the country, and a rooftop bar and restaurant where we tried arak, a traditional aniseed flavoured spirit, while admiring the twinkling lights of Jerusalem by night.
The food in Israel was an unexpected treat.
Marion told us Israelis grow everything, apart from lemons because it's too hot, including 'amazing' watermelons and eight different types of mango, and they certainly make the most of their cupboard full of ingredients.
Abu Shukri Restaurant claims to make the best hummus in Jerusalem, and their falafels were pretty good too, while in Tel Aviv's Carmel Market, where the boys tucked into meat purporting to be the best kebab in the city, I ate shakshouka, a dish of poached eggs in a spicy tomato sauce.
Aubergine is big in the Middle Eastern country and at The Eucalyptus Restaurant on our final night we had it beautifully smoked with tahini and pomegranate.
Chef and owner Moshe Basson treated us to a feast so big we couldn't finish it all, a delicious banquet of meat, fish, vegetarian and vegan dishes including stuffed vine leaves in almond yoghurt, cumin-glazed figs with chicken inside, and a lamb pie with a flatbread lid that you ripped pieces from to scoop out the filling.
A word of warning though - alcohol in Israel is expensive. On more than one occasion we paid the equivalent of £8 for a glass of wine.
Some Israeli wines are ranked by experts as being among the best in the world but paying more than the UK minimum hourly wage for a glass does not guarantee you will get to sample one.
My brief taster of Israel's culture and cuisine definitely left a good taste in my mouth. I felt safe the whole time, the Israelis were friendly and welcoming and I'm glad I didn't let a small number of isolated terrorist incidents stop me experiencing this beautiful and fascinating country.
Suz travelled with Pegasus Airlines (flypgs.com), which flies into Tel Aviv from Gatwick and Stansted via Istanbul. She got the Stansted Citylink express coach service (stanstedcitylink.com) from Victoria railway station to the airport but the company also picks up from King's Cross St Pancras. She stayed at Herod's Hotel in Tel Aviv (www.herods-hotels.com); Isrotel Hotel at the Dead Sea (www.isrotel.com); and Inbal Hotel in Jerusalem (www.inbalhotel.com). The trip was organised in conjunction with the Israeli Ministry of Tourism (www.goisrael.com).
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More by this authorSuz Elvey