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Religion isn't the only reason to go to Israel

It's an adventure just trying to find an open space to slip your piece of paper (with a wish or prayer written on it) at the Western Wall in Jerusalem. The wall is divided so that men pray on one side, women on the other. | Lina Broydo~For the Sun-Times

EILAT, Israel – Of the 3 million-plus tourists who visit Israel each year, many make the trek for religious reasons.

Makes sense, given the Holy Land’s history. Jerusalem, after all, is a sacred city for Jews, Christians and Muslims alike.

But you don’t need to be on a pilgrimage to savor this fascinating sliver of the Middle East. Tourism officials increasingly are touting the country’s secular pursuits in hopes of seducing a different set of travelers, too. The tourism ministry’s recently revamped website (goisrael.com) makes it easier for visitors to tailor a trip based on a wide range of interests: wine, art, medical tourism, adventure.

That last category – adventure – was the theme of a week I spent in Israel last month rappelling into a crater, trekking to waterfalls and riding a camel, a mountain bike and a Segway (not at the same time).

Granted, this adrenaline-junkie stuff can be found in other places that are closer than 6,000 miles from Chicago. But there’s something about the history and the lore of Israel that makes adventures here seem, well, a little more adventurous. (And I’m not talking about the preponderance of people you see carrying big guns, from the fresh-faced recruits in the Israel Defense Forces to the rifle-carrying chaperones required on some school field trips.)

Take parasailing, for example. I’ve done it several times before but never over the Red Sea. As the speedboat pulled me through the air, I looked down from my lofty perch and imagined the water parting for Moses as he led the Israelites out of Egypt and the Queen of Sheba arriving on her way to see King Solomon.

Whether you think this is the stuff of fact or fiction, it still enriches the experience. At least it did for me.

The city of Eilat on the far southern tip of Israel is a hot spot for water sports like parasailing, windsurfing and scuba diving in the coral-rich Red Sea. Eilat also is home to a dolphin reef where you can snorkel or dive among a bunch of these marine mammals that were bought from a shuttered research facility in Russia.

The dolphin reef complex has a trio of adult relaxation pools that have nothing to do with the Bible, the Torah or the Koran, but they sure made for a memorable way to spend an evening. Propped up by a couple of foam noodles, I floated by candlelight in one of the reef’s pools, my ears dipped just below the surface to hear the trippy, New Age underwater music. A water massage therapist had me close my eyes as she gently stretched my arms and legs, lulling me into an almost coma-like state of relaxation. Definitely an adventure.

There was more surreal floating to be done further north in the Dead Sea, the lowest spot on Earth at roughly 1,300 feet below sea level.

Sandwiched between Israel and Jordan, the Dead Sea has long attracted visitors looking to treat psoriasis and other skin conditions or simply to slather themselves in the nearby sulfur pools’ mineral-rich mud.

I was content just to bob on the salty surface – about 10 times saltier than the nearby Mediterranean – since it’s not every day you can read the newspaper while floating on water. (Tip: Don’t shave your legs until after you’ve taken a dip.)

It’s also not every day you run into a three-time Tour de France champion in your hotel lobby, but there was the Spandex-clad Spaniard Alberto Contador, along with his Saxo Bank team of riders, loitering around the reception desk at Isrotel Hotel.

Earlier that week, Contador had won the first-ever Tour de Jerusalem criterium race through the Old City. He and his team were spending a week in Israel to train, and this particular day’s route had them taking a hilly spin in the Dead Sea region.

This area near the Dead Sea was the site of my favorite hike in Israel: the serpentine Snake Path up the mountainous stronghold of Masada. (Those who’d rather not hoof it to the top of this remote plateau on the eastern fringe of the Judean Desert can take a cable car, but that’ll cost you some adventure points.)

Masada, once a palatial fortress of King Herod’s, became a haven for Jewish rebels after the Second Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed nearly 2,000 years ago. Roman soldiers were determined to seize Masada. When it became clear they were going to win, the Jewish freedom fighters – nearly 1,000 men, women and children – committed collective suicide rather than surrender.

The hike up Masada’s Snake Path is equally challenging and beautiful, especially at sunrise, and the ancient fortress at the summit is well preserved. But like so many adventures in Israel, it’s the story of what happened here two millennia ago that makes Masada so memorable.

Information for this article was gathered on a research trip sponsored by the Israel Ministry of Tourism.