Luxury and learning with Nat Geo

The skyline above the Old City at the Western Wall in Jerusalem.
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A trip to Israel can involve just sightseeing to ancient sites such as Old Jerusalem, Masada and Caesarea. Or it can include an in-depth experience to get a better understanding of the whats, whys and hows of current issues.

I did the latter via an organized tour conducted by National Geographic Expeditions. It was a wide-ranging combination of sightseeing plus events on the agenda designed to give 23 of us on the Holy Land: Past, Present and Future tour insight into the issues at hand while also providing the opportunities to understand the culture of the land. And enough time to explore on our own.

The entrance and patio of the American Colony Hotel, an 86-room property in Jerusalem with lush gardens.
The entrance and patio of the American Colony Hotel, an 86-room property in Jerusalem with lush gardens.

We arrived at Ben Gurion Airport, just outside Tel Aviv, and spent five nights at the outstanding American Colony Hotel in Jerusalem, on the east side of this ancient city. The hotel, which began as a mansion for an Arab landowner in the 1860s, has 86 rooms in three buildings, with lush gardens and everything a true luxury hotel should have.

All of the rooms have been remodeled and modernized, but they're traditional in style, very charming and have an old-time feel.

In addition to complimentary WiFi, they offer each guestroom 20 minutes of free international and/or local phone calls a day. The hotel itself is an easy 10-minute walk to the must-see Old City. 

At the end of the trip, there were three nights at the Dan Tel Aviv. Part of the 12-hotel Dan chain in Israel, it's a completely up-to-date and renovated hotel right next to the beach at the gorgeous eastern edge of the Mediterranean, with 280 rooms and all the features business and leisure travelers would need.

Around Tel Aviv, and also north and south of the hotel, are historical and modern sites that are easily reached by cars and buses.

The Church of All Nations, a Roman Catholic church next to the Garden of Gethsemane in Jerusalem.
The Church of All Nations, a Roman Catholic church next to the Garden of Gethsemane in Jerusalem.

What made the National Geographic Expedition trip work for me was the opportunity to mix historical sightseeing (Masada, City of David, Old Jerusalem, the Dead Sea, Bethlehem and Nazareth) with meetings with Israeli and Palestinian diplomats and visits to Israeli settlements in disputed territories and Palestinian refugee camps to meet local residents and religious figures and hear about the rancor between Palestinians and Israelis from participants in the issue.

We had two guides on the trip, one a Palestinian Muslim, the other an Israeli Jew; they worked well together and gave us tremendous insight, while the military checkpoints and the high walls and barbed-wire fences gave us perspective. I certainly came back home with a better understanding of the current conflict and also a great history lesson.

Rates at the two hotels start at $250 for the American Colony and $380 for the Dan Tel Aviv.

The cost for the 10-night Holy Land: Past, Present and Future tour is $5,995. For more information about National Geographic Expedition tours, go to www.nationalgeographicexpeditions.com.

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