Captivating Golan Heights, Israel

Look past the politics in a disputed territory

By Adam Roy

Much like Kashmir or Iran, the Golan Heights have the dubious honor of appearing more often on newspapers' front Fallspages than in their travel sections. Since Israel captured the Golan during the Six Day War in 1967, this region, which stretches from the Sea of Galilee in the south to Mount Hermon in the north, has been one of the world's most contested pieces of political real estate.

It's also one of the Earth's hidden gems. The Golan's 1,200 square kilometers harbor a treasure trove of lush farmland and sky-scraping volcanic terrain, the fate of which forms the crux of one of the world's most notorious geopolitical disputes. A visit to the Golan Heights grants travelers access to the natural and human worlds behind the headlines, challenging minds with a ground-level perspective of the machinery of conflict and resolution.

The Golan Heights, which take their name from one of the six biblical cities of refuge, boast some of the most versatile and fertile farmland in the Middle East. The Golan's collection of microclimates and multiple rivers provide Israel with almost 16% of its fresh water and allow farmers to grow a wide array of crops. In particular, the plateau is famous as Israel's exceptional wine country, producing prize-winning Cabernet Sauvignons and Merlots in a land of proverbially bad vintages.

The Golan's northern extreme is more rugged, as the farm fields of the south give way to the volcanic highlands of the Anti-Lebanon range. For those outdoor aficionados who can get past the region's notoriety, the northern Golan offers year-round opportunities for recreation. The Avital-Bental Nature Reserve, a national park located between the slopes of two dormant volcanoes just miles from the border, are a hotspot for hikers.

HikingDuring the warmer months, visitors to the reserve have the option of taking a water hike along the Gilabun River, a seasonal stream and tributary of the Jordan River that flows through mountainside forests, beneath thick canopies of underbrush and along sheer basalt and limestone cliffs before finally plunging over the side of a ravine in a spectacular 120-foot-high waterfall. The pool at the bottom of the falls is a popular swimming spot and, though almost uncomfortably frigid, is a refreshing distraction after a long hike through the heat.

On Mt. Bental's peak, the Golan Regional Council's visitor center offers an Israeli perspective on the Golan's history, complete with a reconstructed Israeli Defense Forces bunker, the requisite signpost listing the distances to various capital cities and a mountaintop cafe dubbed Coffee Annan. From the mountaintop lookout, visitors can absorb a panoramic view of the Israeli border, where the greenery of nearby vineyards suddenly and starkly gives way to the UN-administered demilitarized zone.

In winter, tourists flock to the northern Golan to visit Mt. Hermon, the region's highest peak. Located at the intersection of the Israeli, Syrian and Lebanese borders, Mt. Hermon's southern slopes are home to Israel's only ski resort. In terms of difficulty, Mt. Hermon's slopes are often compared to those in New England: with eight lifts and a dozen or so runs, the skiing is entertaining, but not too much of a challenge for experienced riders.

In terms of lodging, visitors can choose between a number of on-site and nearby guest houses, which run the gamut from cottages to well-appointed luxury suites, complete with in-room jacuzzis. Beginners can take lessons at Mt. Hermon's ski school, and the resort offers equipment rental for those who would rather crossroadsnot lug around their own.

A trek through the Golan does involve some unique safety considerations, the most obvious of which are landmines. The Israel-Syria border is one of the most heavily-mined on planet earth, and with Israel and Syria still not officially at peace, disposal efforts have been minimal at most. Minefields, both marked and unmarked, line many roads and paths, making it exceedingly important for visitors to stay on established trails.

Other reminders of the Golan Heights' tenuous grip on peace confront visitors at every turn. Trails wind past the crumbling foundations of Syrian bunkers and gun emplacements destroyed during the Six-Days War. Today, the region is heavily militarized, even by Israeli standards; the IDF has active bases and firing ranges throughout the region, and maintains reconnaissance stations on many of the high peaks on the border. Tours and school groups departing for the northern Golan often hire one or more armed guards to hike along with them.

What's surprising is how easy it is to get used to it all. At first, the parades of military transports and ominous warning signs are more than a bit distracting, and may leave visitors from less heavily-armed countries nervous. A day or two is generally all it takes to fall into the Golan rhythm and let the conspicuous military buildup fade into the background.

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