The Sunday Telegraph - Sunday
Relax at the world’s most underrated spa destination
A trip to the Sea of Galilee is the wellness holiday you never knew you needed, says Angela Epstein
A leisurely walk had seemed an obvious way to start our first day beside the Sea of Galilee, as – wreathed in gauzy clouds – the sun rose to reveal the lustrous calm of the world’s lowest freshwater lake.
The tips of the surrounding palm trees were lifting on a light breeze, and the spring temperatures had not yet begun their daily climb, so it seemed the perfect time to take in the soft, sweet air at a leisurely pace. But not everyone was planning such an unhurried start to the day – not least a lively group of Texan pilgrims, bustling on to a nearby tour bus, lanyards swinging, the air abuzz with excited chatter of Nazareth and Capernaum as we coasted by.
The Sea of Galilee is many things – the spot where Jesus is said to have walked on water; a pivotal point for an Islamic prophecy; and the final resting place of great Jewish sages – but we had been drawn here by more earthly needs: namely, to experience the world’s most overlooked wellness destination.
Massages and mud baths might seem incongruous with a place defined by its ancient spirituality, but on closer inspection, the two are a natural fit. With peaceful hillside forests, gently lapped shorelines and ancient thermal springs, this pear-shaped, landlocked lake is a place to rest and reset both body and soul – and reset we did.
Arriving from Manchester late in the evening, we’d elected to spend our first night just outside Tel Aviv – at Sitopia Living, a four-bedroom B&B in the Judean Hills – before making the two-hour drive north to the Sea of Galilee.
Here, we checked into the Galei Kinneret – a hotel built in 1946 by entrepreneur Lotte Eisenberg (inspired by a trip she made to the Villa d’Este Hotel on Lake Como), and which has recently undergone a facelift by designer Saar Zafrir.
The hotel itself is located in the old part of Tiberias, on the western shores of the water. It’s a strange jumble of a place, where neglected black basalt remnants of the holy city’s past mix with gift stalls. Yet with the inscrutable waters of the lake – known locally as the Kinneret – framing the horizon, all is still and unhurried.
The Sea of Galilee is not, largely, a place of sweeping sands – it’s a stony walk to reach the water, but worth the prickly sprint for the uplifting slap of the ice-cold lake – but it’s overwhelmingly peaceful, with little traffic, save for the odd tourist boat chugging away, and no crashing waves, or sandy beaches to lure holidaymakers. Here, serenity is all.
It’s a delicious place to walk, not least in the improbably named Switzerland Forest in the hills above Tiberias – but, of course, the main draw is the waters. At the 3,000-year-old Tiberias Hot Springs – one of the world’s oldest bath houses still in use – water rich in salts and minerals emerges from the ground at around 60C (a little cooler by the time you hit the pool, but don’t spend more than 15 minutes submerged). At the sprawling ancient “spa village” at Hamat Gader, pools are filled with water from hot springs, while at Hamat Tiberias National Park, an open-air site speckled with ancient mosaics and buildings, there’s a beautifully preserved 18th-century Turkish hammam. There are three pools of varying temperature, and it was here that I dawdled, looking out over the ancient ruins and the lake beyond, thinking how silly and artificial even the most upmarket metropolitan spa seemed by comparison.
Truly, the Sea of Galilee is a place where nature conspires to gift regeneration, inside and out. We left feeling utterly recharged and uplifted. Perhaps the Texan pilgrims felt the same – though we pulled it off without setting foot on a tour bus. Amen to that.