Once the flights were booked, I felt great excitement. "Finally I'm going to experience this land for real!"
The anticipation of actually walking in this place, that for so long I had read about and wondered about, was consuming me. I wanted to see the well know landmarks and visit the sites of biblical significance but, more than that, I wanted to be absorbed into the vibe of the culture. To taste it, smell it and let it penetrate my senses.
Landing in Tel Aviv on a bright sunny May afternoon, the first new experience was justifying my visit to the passport official. I was prepared for airport security but, the few extra questions about why I was visiting and where I'd be staying felt intrusive.
I am a friend of Israel not a threat: why quiz me after my long flight? My attitude was so wrong. The questions are a part of standard security which I should be thankful for. The directness of the official was only part of her job and not a personal affront towards me.
Something I quickly learnt was that the Israelis are a people who say what they mean and are often direct and to the point. I tried to see it as a quality and something to admire them for.
Tel Aviv is bright, cosmopolitan, bustling and yet has a relaxed attitude. I was taken with the boulevard along the water front, joggers, amblers holding hands, youngsters enjoying volleyball and families eating in the beachside restaurants. The beaches are as stunning as the pictures, with clear, clean waves and white sand. What a treat!
The short stroll into Yaffo marked a noticeable change from the western beach culture of the boulevard to a Middle Eastern delight of smaller roads and tiny shops selling everything from spices, richly coloured rugs and ornate Judaica to washing machines and fresh fruit.
The venue for my introduction to Israeli cuisine was Dr Shakshouka, a delightfuly simple, no frills restaurant sandwiched between two buildings and topped with a partial corrugated tin roof. It has a charm like no other.
Being partially open-air we enjoyed eating al fresco in dappled sunlight. The Shakshouka is a tomato based dish with egg, onion and olives. It is served in a small pan and accompanied with the best pitta and humous.
Israeli salads are also a treat, drizzled in quality olive oil and lemon juice. So colourful and fresh, a stimuli to the senses.
I enjoyed many exquisite meals during my stay. The breakfasts are beyond wonderful. Honeycomb with local natural yoghurt, fruits and salads to tempt even the most carb loving carnivore. The sweet treats are exceptional. My favourite breakfast treat was Jerusalem cheesecake. Yes at breakfast!!
Yaffo is a charming port, one of the oldest in the world. The town of Jaffa has been almost absorbed into Tel Aviv but, the old part is distinct and retains it's identity. The streets buzz with life even in the midday heat. The buildings in the side streets have colourful balconies decked with plants along their wrought iron balustrades.
Having enjoyed a lazy day soaking up the sun at the main beach in Tel Aviv the next destination was the City of Zion, Jerusalem. As the taxi climbed the long road running up to the city my excitement grew.
The taxi driver, a secular Jew, had a wide knowledge of the culture, history and Jewish faith. Even secular Jews speak of the Bible and seem well versed in their own history. It makes for some wonderful conversations.
Ascending to Jerusalem passing ancient Olive groves, new buildings and fast roads, I could see that the old and new entwined to make a diverse city. The city exudes a beauty that transcends the noise of cars, mopeds and rush hour horns. The mellow stone buildings in the centre lead towards the old city and its imposing walls.
My first steps into the old city were through the Jaffa Gate. I felt privileged to enter into this place of global significance where history had made its marks. Some of them deep and scaring. I felt as though I was stepping on to a timeline of events and I was at a certain point where I could look back and see the well documented past, stand in the present and witness the colour, sounds and vibrancy of modern living.
But I was also aware that a glance towards the future that is to happen here, would show things of huge importance and life changing, world changing events, that make this centrepiece of the globe unique and special.
The cobbled streets of the Armenian and Christian Quarters are filled with many small shops all keen to entice the passer by. The smell of leather goods, spices, and the sight of jewellery, rugs, trinkets and wood carved furniture filled each little avenue. The atmosphere was one of activity and general business of life.
In one of the open courtyards of the area is the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. This place appeared to be to be full of those seeking an 'experience'. To me, it is overtly religious and missing the intimacy of the relationship which as Christians we have with our Father in heaven, by grace, through His Son Jesus.
A highlight was visiting the Western Wall. The splendour of the whole scene of worshippers at the Wall was very moving and inspiring.
This is a piece of history that I wanted to connect with spiritually and physically. I took time out to stand at the Wall and pray. The section for women was full of individuals praying alone but, united by their corporate seeking of communion with the Father.
The whole area was strangely impersonal but, filled with an air of intimacy, familiarity and friendliness between the pilgrims, tourists and onlookers.
There are many places in Jerusalem that must be not just be seen but, embraced. It is essential to allow these places to touch your heart and not just impact your intellect.
Yad Vashem is such a place. This memorial to the memory of more than six million Jews who were killed in the Holocaust is a beautiful, solemn and moving account of real lives and unimaginable suffering.
It is sited on Mount Herzl, named after Theodore Herzl, the father of Zionism. The personal effects of many of those who went to the death camps are a visual reminder that these facts of history involved mothers, fathers, sons and daughters not just statistics and lessons to be drawn.
The past is brought into the present here to display how easily wrong attitudes and popular opinion can seep poison into society and lead to immense tragedy and hideous crimes.
Jerusalem has many serene areas in amongst an otherwise hectic and bustling centre of activity. The tranquility of Yemen Moshe with its windmill and unimposing but, dignified and quietly magnificent houses was like being lulled by harmonious music.
It contrasts effectively with the hum of traffic in the business districts and the babble of voices and children playing in the other residential areas.
On what was one of the hottest days for many years, we walked through Yemen Moshe and down to the Hinnom Valley.
Today, this valley is a lush place with attractive gardens. Children played in a water fountain at a park, their laughter and innocent practicality in coping with the heat was delightful.
The Hinnom ravine or valley is historically the place where the city's rubbish was tipped and burnt.
The valley on the other side of Jerusalem is the Kidron. This is where the prophet Joel saw a vision where the nations of the world would be summoned for judgement. Indeed, this place is where the end of our present age will culminate with the glorious return of Jesus to reign.
This city is a strongly emotive and fervently contested religious ground. The three major religious groups of Jews, Christians and Muslims all venerate this spot on the globe.
The Bible tells us that it is the place where Jesus our Messiah will return to for His earthly reign. This time, He will come - not as the sacrificial lamb but, the Ruler and King. What a wondrous time that will be!
This city is important to me because it is part of my future. The events that befall Israel have been prophesied in the Bible and the things yet to come are also foretold.
We know that this land of Israel even now faces many enemies and yet survives against the odds. God is bringing the scattered Jewish people back to their land. At a point in time, they will then be made aware of the Messiah they've been waiting for and turn to Him with repentance. See Zechariah 12:10.
The return is beginning already. It is from the city of Jerusalem that Jesus Christ will reign over His millennium kingdom.
No trip to Israel would be complete without experiencing something that many put on their bucket list. The Dead Sea.
For me, this was even more exotic and fascinating than I'd anticipated. The lake is 411m below sea level, the lowest point on earth.
The water is a dazzling blue green due to its mineral content. It has therapeutic qualities and does wonders for the skin. The sand or silt is smooth and white, almost clay like.
As nothing lives in the water, it is a joy to a water-creature phobe like me, to be able to wade in neck deep and know nothing will nibble or sting. To swim is impossible but, floating either laying flat or sitting is the most relaxing and bizarre experience I've had.
The temperature on this day touched 46c, the water was at bath temperature and for me was perfect. Shade was provided by large umbrella structures near the waters edge, should it be desired.
The backdrop to this most stunning of seaside experiences is the desert landscape of the Judean Wilderness. The stark beauty interspersed with palm trees is captivating.
In this wilderness, David camped while fleeing from King Saul. The oasis of Ein Gedi is mentioned in the book of Samuel. It is also in this region that the Dead Sea Scrolls were found.
The site of the cave where they were discovered is at Qumran. The Scrolls are among some of the oldest manuscripts and contain the script of Isaiah and Habakkuk among other writings. These ancient scrolls are now housed in the Israel Museum. It is well worth visiting to view them and have a privileged glimpse at the past.
Having visited Israel, I now eagerly look forward to my return trip and to seeing other regions like the Galilee and Golan Heights, Caesarea Philipi and maybe one day Eliat.
To visit this diverse land and the city of Jerusalem is to set foot into the future while peeking into the considerable past. At the same time enjoying it's current verve and vitality, peace and beauty.
It is a unique place that cannot be discovered and unwrapped in one or even many visits!