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Legendary Locations: Israel

Bar Refaeli in 2008 :: Raphael Mazzucco/SI

Bar Refaeli in 2008 :: Raphael Mazzucco/SI

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Day 8: Israel

IN ROMAN times Caesarea was Las Vegas, a hedonistic resort for generals, royalty and the very rich. The Mediterranean port had palaces, spas, a 30,000-seat hippodrome for fast and furious chariot races—think Ben-Hur—and an amphitheater whose stage could be flooded with water for mock sea battles in which the Romans, of course, always won. Even the Crusaders, who later stormed the Holy Land, chilled a bit when they hit Caesarea and discovered the port’s taverns and racy Eastern delights.

Today, Caesarea, 25 miles north of Tel Aviv, continues to attract the pleasure-seeking elite and lives up to Roman traditions of opulence, particularly when the shores of the Mediterranean are in sight, a shimmering band of indigo ideal for contemplating all the history blowing in to its shores.

Caesarea is a delight for history buffs. At the ancient harbor with its Roman, Byzantine and Crusader ruins you can rent gear to scuba or snorkel around the harbor, now a national park, where centuries ago part of the town collapsed into the sea. Now you find swarms of fish glittering in an underwater forest of broken stone columns.

Head north along the rocky coast for a mile, and you’ll see an unspoiled beach with an arched stone aqueduct that the Romans built for Caesarea’s fun and games, drawing freshwater (and hopefully nothing else) from the nearby Crocodile River. Tides of conquerors, from Romans to Ottoman Turks, all left their marks on Caesarea, and that ancient grandeur remains.

Head south, too, for the lowest place on Earth, the Dead Sea. Seek refuge from the scorching landscapes at the Hotel Daniel Dead Sea in Ein Bobek. It’s like a nine-story hawk’s aerie set in the cliffs where you can watch the shifting colors of the Dead Sea, changing from turquoise at high noon to swirling opalescence at sunset, like a chemical brew.

–Tim McGirk