After a day in Haifa, which was highlights by a visit to the Bahai Gardens, I decided to visit an even holier Bahai sight, the shrine of Baha´u´llah.
Baha´u´llah was the founder of the Bahai faith. For the last years of his life, we was placed under house arrest in a mansion on the outskirts of Acre. After he died, his remains were transferred to a shrine built next to the mansion.
All Bahai pray in the direction of the shrine.
The shrine is open 5 days a week from 9-12. So, I decided to show up right at 9. After wandering the grounds, I discovered the main gate to the shrine was closed. A guard said that I needed to form a group of 10 to proceed.
Unfortunately, there were no other tourists around. 10 minutes later, I met a German guy who also wanted to visit the shrine. Slowly people started to arrive. It ended up taking nearly an hour, but I eventually wrangled my 10.
Together we approached the gate. The guard eyed us and opened the gate. We cheered and then proceeded forward through the surreal garden.
As we reached the house, two volunteers stared ahead eyes smiling and eventually greeted us. They briefly explained the significance of the sight and a few rules such as no speaking or photography inside. We were then allowed into the shrine.
The shrine was a sunny carpeted courtyard surrounded by carpeted rooms for meditation where Bahai pilgrims were meditating. The northwest corner room was roped off. Inside were rose petals and shiny objects. It was here where Baha´u´llah´s remains lie. Just like in the Shrine of the Bab, the objects have no spiritual meaning and are only aesthetic.
I then got in the car and drove 45 minutes north to Rosh HaNikrah, located at the Mediterranean coastal border of Israel and Lebanon. The maritime border is demarcated with a series of white buoys. Interestingly, an agreement regarding maritime oil and gas revenues was just signed making this border a world event at the moment.
Rosh HaNikrah is a series of white cliffs and seaside grottos. To reach the grottos, I took what must be the world´s shortest cable car.
At the bottom of the cliffs, I walked around the sea caves and the old railroad tunnels built by the British. During the Israeli War of Independence, the Israelis secretly blew up the train tracks to stop soldiers and weapons entering from Lebanon.
I also walked to the land border crossing with Lebanon. The crossing has been closed since 1948 but is still very heavily patrolled by Israeli soldiers.
I then drove back south to the town of Acre (pronounced and also spelled Akko). Acre is one of the oldest cities in Israel, having been inhabited since at least 1800 BC. The town is most famous for its Crusader history, where it was the chief port welcoming pilgrims and warriors to the Holy Land from Europe. Much of the city´s UNESCO World Heritage-listed old town was built during this period.
After, it was reconquered by the Mamluks and then the Ottomans, who ruled for about 400 years and rebuilt much of the then-destroyed town.
Today, Acre is one of Israel´s top tourist destinations and is a shining example of a peaceful multi-faith town. 32% of the city is Arab, including almost everybody living in the Old City.
As the town is a popular tourist attraction, I struggled for nearly 30 minutes to find parking, but eventually succeeded. I then entered the old city through the massive walls. This is super embarrassing, but the old city reminded me of a real-life version of the entrance to Universal Studio´s Islands of Adventure theme park in Orlando. The old city is a maze!
My first order of business was to get food. Luckily, I knew just the spot. Hummus Said is considered one of the best hummus shops in all of Israel. After pushing through a small crowd of people, I was able to get my delicious bowl of hummus for just 20 shekels ($6 USD).
With limited time before everything closed, I bought a combo ticket to visit all of the city´s main attractions.
The first attraction visited was the Templars tunnel. This 150-meter secret passageway was built by the Knights Templar, a religious order sanctioned by the pope to aid pilgrims in their visit to the Holy Land. The tunnel was used to connect their main fortress to the port. The tunnel was lost to time and was discovered only in 1994 by a local plumber. The tunnel opened to the public in 1999. While beautifully maintained, I quickly learned that Templars were much shorter than me.
Next, I visited the Crusader fortress. Built in the 1100´s, the fortress was a government center for the Crusaders as well as a hospital and hostel for Christians. The fortress is massive and takes well over an hour to fully tour. Just like the Templar tunnel, the fortress was originally lost to time, but has been painstakingly restored by the Israeli government. The fortress is also a popular place to host events. During my visit, they were setting up for a Fringe Film Festival.
Next, I visited the ancient hammam. Unfortunately, the spa is not operational, but is now a museum. Like all Israeli museums, there is a lengthy video full of reenactors to try to show daily life of the hammam owners and patrons. While cheesy, it is informative.
By this time, the attractions had all closed for the day so I spent time wandering the beautiful town.
At 7, I met up with my friends Michael and Adrienne for dinner. Based on the recommendations of many friends and Lonely Planet, we had a reservation at Uri Buri, a famous seafood restaurant.
The restaurant does a “tasting menu” where they bring you dishes until you are full. They then charge you the total of the ala carte prices.
The food was exquisite – one of the top 10 meals of my life. The most unusual dishes were salmon with wasabi sorbet, a kiwi soup with sorbet and two types of caviar on white fish and cream cheese served on a sliced persimmon.
With that, I drove back to Haifa to my hostel.
Acre is the real deal and is rightfully one of Israel´s top tourist destinations. The old city is just beautiful, enchanting and full of attractions. The food is also superb. Uri Buri was one of the best meals of my life.
On the outskirts, the Bahai shrine was also special, but it certainly not for every tourist.
Rosh HaNikrah was pretty but in my mind overhyped. I get the appeal for Israeli tourists since there is nothing like it elsewhere in the country but the site is small and far from most everything.