At the end of our six-hour bike ride through the Judean Desert, Tal Rozow apologized to my husband and me.
"I'm sorry," he said. "The rest of your vacation won't be as good as today."
He was right. The ride was the highlight of our 10 days in Israel and one of the best mountain bike rides I've ever done.
Rozow is the co-founder of Sababike, a local mountain biking tour operator that offers both daytrips on trails around the country and multiday mountain cycling tours.
As Israel transitions to being more than a Holy Land destination, its Ministry of Tourism (IMOT) has increasingly focused on its adventure travel offerings, and specifically bicycle tourism.
"Getting more tourists to go participate in Israel's adventure activities is one of our goals," said Gal Hana, the director of Canada for IMOT, who was among the architects of a plan to invest $30 million into Israel's cycling infrastructure and develop more than 3,100 miles of bicycle paths.
While much of that plan involves road biking and urban paths, it also includes the Israel Bike Trail, a mountain biking route that crosses the country from north to south. So far, about 190 miles of trail have been developed in the south, from Eilat, Israel's southernmost city, to the Ramon Crater Nature Reserve.
But there are plenty of other great biking trails around the country, and Sababike knows them all. The company works with riders to adjust customized tours based on their interests and skills.
In our case, we wanted the Sugar Trail, an ancient trade route that winds almost entirely through the Judean Desert in the West Bank, starting in Jerusalem and ending on the shores of the Dead Sea if one were to ride the entirety of the trail, which we did not. It offers stunning scenery, especially for people from the East Coast who don't often experience desert landscapes, and is also historically significant.
"It's fun terrain for different levels of riders, and it's interesting as it is sort of a cross section of [the region] including different types of people, politics and terrain," Rozow said. "It's in the middle of quite a few biblical stories that add a nice aspect of history or myth. I'd say the Sugar Trail is now almost a brand of its own."
Rozow picked us up outside Tel Aviv around sunrise, and we drove for about an hour before reaching a West Bank checkpoint just beyond Jerusalem. Rozow knows the ride's West Bank location is controversial, but it's one he wants to bring people to.
"We like riding there as it gives us an opportunity to cooperate with Palestinians and show that below the politics and media, most people just want to live and work together," he said.
For example, he and his friend Abu Fadi, a Palestinian from Jericho, have been working together for five years. Fadi met us at the gas station/cafe/gift shop where Rozow had parked and took us to the trailhead. On the way, we talked a bit about politics, and he shared with us fresh flatbread that he'd gotten in town that morning.
There were other groups of travelers at the trailhead setting out on desert treks in off-road vehicles. They soon overtook us on the steep climb that starts off the ride and hits the trail's highest point, offering views of the Dead Sea, Jerusalem, Bethlehem and miles and miles of rolling desert hills in every direction.
Rozow tailors the tour depending on interest. For us, he talked about the trail's history, which began as a spice trade route from the Dead Sea to Jerusalem. Don't be fooled by the fact that the Sugar Trail ends at the lowest point on Earth: It's not an easy downhill ride and certainly not for beginners. But Rozow will shorten the route and make it easier if someone prefers. There is also no shade along the trail; lots of water and sunblock is necessary, even in March, when I rode. Doing this ride during the summer would necessitate leaving very early in the morning.
The amazing landscape includes steep canyons and valleys. Because there had been some recent rain, we were treated to some lovely desert flowers.
The terrain is remote. Phones do not work out here, and it came as a surprise to suddenly come upon the tents of Bedouin settlements along the way. We stopped to see how an ancient watering hole on a valley floor -- the only body of water in the vast, dry landscape -- is still being used for the Bedouin's livestock today.
One of the best things about riding with Rozow is he's also a technical skills coach, with the Mountain Biking Training Center, and besides being an excellent and informed guide, he took the time to make us better cyclists.
And as the local representatives for YT Industries, a German bicycle company, Sababike offers very high-end, full-suspension bikes that Rozow said offer extra confidence for intermediate riders or full performance for pros.
About a third of Sababike's customers are from the U.S., and all of its guides speak English fluently. The guided Sugar Trail ride is about $150 to $200 per day, per person, depending on pickups, bike rental and whether shuttles are needed. For more information, visit www.sababike.com.