From the snow covered 6,000-foot heights of Mt. Hermon to the Kinneret (Sea of Galilee), which lies 200 feet below sea level, the Golan encompasses about 600 square miles.Imagine starting a five-day day vacation hiking through the fluffy powder of snow-capped mountain peaks. Later, you head down to lush green valleys ripe with cow-grazing and grape- growing. Finally, you end up on the palm-lined shores of a tranquil lake, the winter water warm enough to dive into. Each evening you’re treated to the remarkable cuisine of the area – homemade cheeses, giant fresh steaks and sparkling prize-winning wines. And then you retire to luxurious accommodations in wood-paneled chalets.

It sounds as if it is a trip that combines the best of the Swiss Alps, Napa Valley and Tuscany. But a hearty group of Californians recently found all the elements in one of international tourism’s best-kept secrets – the Golan Heights.

From the snow covered 6,000-foot heights of Mt. Hermon to the Kinneret (Sea of Galilee), which lies 200 feet below sea level, the Golan encompasses about 600 square miles. According to the California hiking group Friends of the Golan who traversed the terrain earlier this month, the Golan region is one of unparalleled beauty – both physically and spiritually.

“We went on a wonderful hiking trip – stayed in amazing places and ate wonderful food,” group leader Bennett Zimmerman told ISRAEl21c while relaxing from the journey days later in a Jerusalem hotel. “We went wine tasting – met incredibly friendly people. I can’t think of a better vacation spot.”

The Golan came under Israeli control as a result of the 1967 Six Day War. The kibbutz of Merom Golan was founded shortly after in July 1967, and by 1970, there were 12 Jewish communities on the Golan. Since the Yom Kippur War in October 1973 when Syrian forces attacked before being pushed back beyond the 1967 line by the main Israeli counterattack, the Golan has been one of Israel’s most peaceful borders Israel.

“When I mentioned that was planning a trip to the Golan to people back in LA, I heard things like, ‘ Wow it’s really heating up over there.’ But what people don’t realize is that the Golan has been nearly without incident for 30 years,” said Zimmerman, an investment banker. “It’s really an unknown aspect. When you say Golan Heights, people think politics and borders – we just say it’s an amazing piece of land to walk through.”

For the other members of the California delegation, the hike offered an eye-opening experience and an affordable vacation option that many Americans are unaware even exists. Dr. Roberta Seid, who walked with her husband Arnold, was impressed by the wide variety of landscapes and textures in such a relatively small area.

“I was taken aback by the breathtaking view – It’s like Montana or Wyoming, all rolling green fields with wild flowers sprouting up, and the wide open gorgeous spaces with cows grazing,” she said.

“It’s like a postcard,” chimed in Moti Gur, “When we started going down the last day to the valley between the Golan and the Galilee, there was such a dark vibrant green, it was like the volcanic slopes of Hawaii.”

While the Mt. Hermon range is mostly limestone, the Golan Heights proper are mostly basalt and other types of volcanic rock. The Heights are a plateau that drops off to the west, to the Jordan River and Lake Kinneret and to the south, to the Yarmuk River.

Today, there are approximately 14,300 Jewish residents in 31 communities on the Golan Heights and the slopes of Mt. Hermon. These include kibbutzim, moshavim, and the town of Katzrin.

There are approximately 17,700 Druze and Muslim inhabitants on the Golan Heights today who reap the benefits of Israel’s welfare and social security systems. Israel has built or refurbished schools and classrooms and extended compulsory education from seven years to ten and has made secondary education available to girls for the first time.

The origins of the California trip to the Golan began back in 1999 when Zimmerman founded Friends of the Golan, an activist pro-Israel organization.

“What we noticed was unique about the group was that we brought in all kinds of people – who despite their political affiliations felt some connection to the Golan,” said Zimmerman.

In addition to lobby efforts and petition drives on behalf of Israel, the organization also looked to do things in a more positive and fun way, thus the idea of walking across the Golan. Zimmerman worked with the American Jewish Congress in LA, as well as organizations like Stand With US and Physicians for Israel, and soon the trip became a reality.

“It was more of a reward trip for activists who have been working for Israel,” said Zimmerman. And rewards there were plenty for the group.

Whether staying in the Alpine village of Neve Ativ at the foot of Mount Hermon or dining in the cowboy restaurant of Kibbutz Merom Golan, or visiting the ancient historical site of Gamla, the group gained new insight and varied views of the Golan.

But one thing they all agreed on was the wine. During the past 15 years, the Golan has been transformed into the Napa Valley of the Middle East with award winning wines being produced by the Golan Heights Winery and Chateau Golan. Ancient history tells of grapes being cultivated in Israel for thousands of years, in the Golan Heights region in particular. And today thanks to the Golan, Israel is on the map of the selected wines of the world.

“The Golan Wineries has done in a few years what it took France 400 years to do,” said orthodontist Don Salem. “They’re already getting gold medals.”

“And then you go to Chateau Golan and see what they’re building there and you go ‘my God, the Napa Valley is arising here,” he added.

“It’s an unspoiled Napa Valley,” chimed in Roberta Seid.

But, ultimately, beyond the wine, or the history or the snow, the hikers were taken in by a feeling of tranquility on the Golan that is missing from most parts of the world.

Ari Salem, Don’s recently marriedson, said that the greatest attribute of the Golan was the peacefulness.

“For me it was a stress-relieving experience – to leave the city and walk – the roads are basically empty, and you can feel like you’re alone with your thoughts in natures. It’s very therapeutic,” he said. “Plus you still have all the spoils of an incredibly hospitable surroundings at night. There’s a tremendous tourist appeal in that you can work up a sweat during the day and come back to a luxurious setting for a nice shower, an amazing meal and some incredible Golan wine.”

The Friends of the Golan are not only trying to tell their fellow Americans about the appeal of the Golan. They feel that Israelis sometimes overlook the enticing beauty of their own country.

“It’s there for the taking,” said Zimmerman. “We invite the Israeli people to get to know what’s in their own backyard.”